§ Madam Speaker
For the guidance of Members, the topics of debate on the Queen's Speech over the next few days are as follows: Wednesday 25 November—trade and industry, education and employment; Thursday 26 November—health and welfare; Friday 26 November—foreign affairs and defence; Monday 29 November—the constitution and Parliament; Tuesday 30 November—the economy.
I shall call Mr. Joe Ashton to move, and Dr. Lynda Clark to second, the Address.
§ Mr. Joe Ashton (Bassetlaw)
I beg to move,That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, as follows:Most Gracious Sovereign,We, Your Majesty's most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, in Parliament assembled, beg leave to offer our humble thanks to Your Majesty for the Gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament.Most people in the House know that I am the MP for Bassetlaw; but, unfortunately, no one knows where it is. It is actually the whole of north Nottinghamshire, with two towns called Worksop and Warsop—I have not found towns with a similar name anywhere else in "The Gazetteer". It covers 300 square miles, 38 parish councils and 40-odd towns and villages. It covers a huge rural area, with much farming, but now only two pits—and there is fox hunting on one side of the constituency.
This month, I shall have been in the House 30 years; I entered it on Guy Fawkes day, 1968. Last Friday, the Bassetlaw Labour party celebrated its 80th birthday. It was formed a week after Armistice day, at the end of the first world war. The Tories last won the seat in 1924. In the past 63 years, only two MPs—I and my predecessor, Fred Bellinger—have represented the constituency. Many visitors to the constituency are surprised to hear that, having expected that huge rural area to be a Conservative seat, but it is an area noted for dissent.
The mythical Robin Hood is supposed to have come from just south of the constituency, and John Wesley, who provided all the chapels, came from just north of it, but, in the middle of the constituency, is the birthplace of the pilgrim fathers, Brewster and Bradford. It is a tragedy that the national heritage memorial fund will not advance cash to build a replica of the Mayflower because it has a policy against building replicas of any sort, although I am certain that, if it would allow a replica of that little ship to be built and stationed near the dome, it would be of massive interest to the 22 million Americans who are descended from the pilgrim fathers.
Obviously, the constituents are awkward and stubborn—as we saw in the miners' strike, when half the constituency's miners went on strike with the National Union of Mineworkers and the other half went to work with the Nottinghamshire miners—which is probably why I have been here for 30 years.
In 1968, the situation was very similar to the present one. Two years earlier, a Labour Government had come to power, with a majority of 99. Unfortunately, after a year, Harold Wilson devalued the pound, and Britain was in a terrible financial crisis. That year, there was a local 10 election disaster. The Tories might be interested to know that, in 1968, they had a majority of 50 seats in Liverpool and 63 in Leeds. They had a majority of 60 in Birmingham, where Labour did not win one council seat. They had a majority of 30 in Manchester. That year, Labour lost Sheffield for the first time in 37 years, and it lost Islington and Lambeth by a landslide. In Bassetlaw, the council had doubled the rents, and it was announced that the biggest pit would close. In short, everything in politics for Labour was a total disaster.
It was then, at the Blackpool conference, that Harold Wilson, the Prime Minister, sent for me. In his private room, he said, "It's all down to you now, Joe, lad." I am happy to say that we held Bassetlaw on a recount; those obstinate, contrary, obstreperous, lovely loyal Labour voters of Bassetlaw had stood firm. When I reached the House, it was like the relief of Mafeking, with Harold Wilson shaking my hand in Downing street.
I nearly did not get here at all, because there was a furious row in the media, and the Conservatives were arguing that I should not be allowed to take the oath. Two days before polling day, Barbara Castle had addressed a meeting of 500 people in Bassetlaw, at which she strongly denied that the Government would resort to the panic measures of introducing a freeze on spending and a mini-Budget or take further action to protect the pound. On Thursday, the Leader of the House echoed that denial to the now right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath)—who may remember it. The recount finished at 1 o'clock in the morning; at 11.15 am, Tony Crosland walked into the Chamber, announced the measures and implemented them.
There was absolute uproar even on the Government Benches because unemployment was touching 600,000 and people were very worried. Barbara Castle denied before the election that the Government intended to take panic measures and afterwards, when she was challenged, simply smiled sweetly and said that she had merely done what Harold Macmillan did when he was Chancellor in three previous by-elections at Gainsborough, Hereford and Taunton. So I was allowed to come in here and take my seat. It was old Labour at its finest.
The difference between then and today is that then old Labour was 27 per cent. behind in the polls whereas today new Labour is 27 per cent. in front. Yet there are some similarities between the Queen's Speech in 1968 and the Queen's Speech today. My by-election happened a couple of days after the Queen's Speech, but in that Queen's Speech there was of course reform of the House of Lords, exactly as there is in today's. Harold Wilson and the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup, the Leader of the Opposition at that time, had come to a deal and were fully agreed on how the House of Lords should be reformed. Unfortunately, they forgot to consult Michael Foot and Enoch Powell. Michael Foot led the Back Benchers on the Government side who wanted to blow up the House of Lords and demolish the place, and Enoch Powell led the Back Benchers on the Opposition side who did not want to alter a stick or a stone. They got together and simply talked for ever.
I remember that my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon), who has been in Parliament for longer than I have and perhaps does not like to be reminded about it, spoke on the first amendment to clause 1 for three hours. Then he came back three weeks later to talk on clause 1 stand part. He used a very 11 famous saying—that the place is mythology based on a mediaeval society. Absolutely right then; absolutely right today. Amendments were put down such as one that said that no more than 25 lawyers should be allowed to sit in any second chamber. They were brilliant, but there was no guillotine and the debate went on for ever.
We had a character on our side then who used to do the same job as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) does now. It was just before my hon. Friend came into Parliament. That character was Willie Hamilton. He got fed up of all the debates and he had a bright idea of how to tame the House of Lords. He simply outed all the noble families. He took all the nobles, read through their family trees and said what a bunch of villains and rogues they were. He told us who had made money from the slave trade and from sending kids down the pit and whose great granny was a bimbo at the Brighton pavilion. It got to the stage inside a week where the Lords were queueing up to say to Willie that they would vote for anything, provided he did not mention that Lloyd George not only knew their father but knew their mother and sisters as well. It was the time when Rupert Murdoch had just bought the News of the World. He never had to print any sleaze on Sunday; he just printed Willie Hamilton's speeches until the Lords were begging for mercy.
We have a limbo down there with the EC elections, just as we did then. It is absolute chaos now, with candidates not knowing whether they are in or out or whatever. If hon. Members remember, the proposal then was whether to join the EC. Big chunks on the Opposition side were against it and big chunks were for it. It was the same on this side. Willie Hamilton, in exasperation, stood up and said, "This is crazy. This is absolute chaos. This is not the politics of Europe. It is the politics of coitus interruptus." A little voice shouted, "Withdraw!". If they know what is good for them, some Members of the House of Lords down the Corridor will withdraw to their rolling acres for good.
There are many other things in the Queen's Speech. One of the things that I am particularly pleased about is the new age of consent. The House will remember that, in July, I put down an amendment to the proposal to lower the age of homosexual consent from 18 to 16. It said that the age should be 18 for both boys and girls and that it should be a criminal offence for an adult in a position of supervision, authority or trust to have that sort of relationship. I am very glad to understand from my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary that there will be a criminal offence, that adults covered by the offence will be those in a position of authority or trust and that the behaviour prohibited will be all sexual activity.
Harold Wilson brought in a different age of consent in 1968. He allowed all teenagers to have votes at 18. The Tories strongly opposed that. Harold was the only Prime Minister to win the world cup. He thought that, if he gave votes to all the kids at 18, he could not fail to be re-elected. If England had held on to the world cup in 1970, he would have been re-elected, but they lost it four days before.
The first speech that I heard in the House was by Gerry Fitt, who was unknown at the time. Three weeks earlier, he had been in the first Northern Ireland riots in Derry. Gerry had been hit over the head with a police truncheon. He told the House of the situation in Northern Ireland, 12 where one man in Derry had 24 votes because he was a business man and another 8,000 people—Catholic and Protestant—did not have a vote. He warned that we would have problems similar to those in the southern states of the USA unless we brought in viable democracy. It is wonderful to know that 30 years later—it has taken a long time—it looks as though we shall eventually achieve that.
The number of women Members of Parliament is also new. It not only looks better; it smells sweeter round here. It is 88 years this week since the suffragettes stormed the opening of Parliament, demanding votes for women. We are understandably pleased that there are now 140 women in the House. For many Parliaments when I first came here, the percentage of women in Parliament was the same as the percentage of women in prison. That shows who the rogues and vagabonds are among the sexes. We now have a woman Speaker, we have had a woman Prime Minister, we have a woman Leader of the House and a woman Chief Whip.
I am sure that everybody will welcome the working families tax credit and the minimum wage proposals, which will help women far more than any measures for many years. Thirty years ago, there were rows about equal pay. Conservative Members said that it would bankrupt Woolworths and Debenhams. We said that it would not—and it did not. The women at Woolworths went across to Debenhams and bought some curtains and carpets and the women at Debenhams went across to Woolworths and bought six tins of paint and a paint brush for the old man to get on with doing the kitchen. It created more work than any legislation ever. The working families tax credit will do the same. There will be fairness at work for the unions, which is all that they have ever asked for. I am very pleased about that.
Thirty years ago, Tom Jones had a song—that shows how old he is—called, "What's New, Pussycat?" Now we are getting down to just a few old Labour pussycats still here: there is my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) and me. We represent three neighbouring constituencies and come here to reminisce about old Labour. It is a bit like "Last of the Summer Wine"—but last of the summer Labour—with Compo, Foggy and Clegg. We spend our time wondering whether Wall street will crash, just like the Berlin wall crashed down, but Bill Clinton always bounces free.
Another song has been popular this year. It comes from the film "The Full Monty", which many people in the House and throughout the world have seen. It starts with a scene in a canal, where the unemployed steel workers are standing on a car trying to steal scrap to make a bit of money. That scene was shot at Bacon lane bridge in Attercliffe, 200 yd from where I was born and 300 yd from where I started work at the age of 15. The first line of the song is, "I believe in miracles." After 30 years in the House, I can see my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench achieving that. There are new jobs in the derelict areas and in the derelict pit sites in my constituency. There is a brighter future for the workers and families from the areas depicted in the film "The Full Monty". As an old Labour stalwart, I congratulate all Labour Ministers: the miracle has arrived.
§ Dr. Lynda Clark (Edinburgh, Pentlands)
I am honoured to second the motion moved so ably by my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton). It is obvious from his warmth and humanity why my hon. Friend has been re-elected many times by his constituents.
My relationship with the constituency of Edinburgh, Pentlands is not quite so long standing. However, the constituency has a proud tradition of retaining the same elected Member for many years—the only slight problem is that, in the past, it was a Conservative Member. For obvious reasons, I praise the judgment of my constituents who changed that history. However, I reassure them that I will not ask to stay in this place for 30 years, as that might test their patience to exhaustion.
It is an honour for me to follow in the tradition of women like Peggy Herbison, Shirley Summerskill and my right hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor). My right hon. Friend was the last woman to make this speech, as long ago as 1975—not that she looks that old. The consequences of seconding this motion may seem pretty grim; they are certainly variable. Some hon. Members, such as my right hon. Friend, have shot to stardom as Cabinet Ministers and some have immediately lost their seats at the next election. I trust that a less traumatic middle way—because it is new Labour—may be possible for me. Whatever happens, our electorates will be there to remind all hon. Members where the paths of glory lead.
This honour is still new to me, and I hope that all hon. Members will share my pleasure in it. My only problem is how to make a speech in support of the motion that hon. Members on both sides of the House will not judge to be sycophantic and the Labour Whips will not judge to be rebellious. That is a difficult task. I do not carry a pager, but my recent experiences of life without one have almost convinced me of the error of my ways. Last week, I moved to a new flat in London. To be frank, I moved in a small van surrounded by my goods and chattels in bin bags—such is the glamorous life of a Member of Parliament in London. I arrived at this place looking rather dusty and dishevelled, and I realised for the first time why baths have been provided on the premises. I made use of the bath in the Lady Members' Room while my messages waited—in the old-fashioned way—on the message board. Time passed, I got washed and changed, and then I collected my messages and discovered that I had been selected for this honour. If I had had a pager, I would have realised that while I was in the van with my bin bags, and my whole day would have been much better.
I realise, of course, that the real honour belongs to my constituents in Pentlands. Hon. Members who have been fortunate enough to visit my constituency will be aware of its scenic beauty, its charming villages which have become part of the greater community, the enviable reputation of its schools and universities, its many churches and its very hospitable residents. However, there are also serious problems of unemployment and poverty.
In only 18 months as a Member of Parliament, I have become very proud of my constituents. I have had hundreds of letters from all parts of the constituency. Many of them concern issues that relate to the wider community such as environment, foreign policy, immigration, social justice, welfare reform and human rights. Those constituents, like many people in Britain, 14 are outward looking and conscious of the fact that they have a responsibility and interest that transcend all national boundaries. As their Member of Parliament, I try to act as their advocate in the Scottish tradition, without fear or favour. I am proud of their wide concerns, which I share.
I look forward to working with constituents and Members of the Scottish Parliament to create a fairer society, extending opportunity and respecting human rights. That is one reason why I welcome the Gracious Speech.
The outline of the Government's programme is impressive. It builds on the programme of constitutional reform and social justice that the Government have already done so much to deliver. On constitutional reform, I welcome the Bill to remove the voting powers of hereditary peers. I cannot say that it will lead to dancing in the streets of Pentlands, but I might have a little dance.
The opportunity for pre-legislative scrutiny of a draft freedom of information Bill underlines the Government's commitment to open government. I put in a special plea for the Select Committee on Public Administration to keep the Bill.
My constituents will be pleased about the proposed changes to the national health service. The NHS Bill will end GP fundholding and create primary care trusts. That will help to ensure that local health service needs are shaped by GPs and community nurses. They are on the front line and they know what the problems are.
For many unemployed people in my constituency, obtaining a job is the first step to independence and financial security. The working families tax credit, which my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw also welcomed, will help many people. It will provide extra help directly into the pay packet for child care costs.
I welcome also the fairness at work Bill. That will encourage family-friendly employment and provide a mechanism for implementing the EU directive on part-time working. In my work as a lawyer, I am aware of the many iniquities suffered by part-time workers, who are often women who have no pension or illness benefits and who are poorly paid.
I welcome also the Bill to set up a disability rights commission. That will be welcomed not only by disabled constituents but by all who have an interest in fairness and opening up opportunity.
Being keen, diligent and new, I was going to give the House a commentary on all the Bills, but those who are more experienced took me aside, had a word in my ear and said that that was a very bad idea. Indeed, one hon. Member said that it did not matter what I said, as long as I was brief. That sounded like good advice. Briefly then, I commend the Gracious Speech to the House.
§ Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)
I begin, as is traditional and proper, by paying tribute to the one hon. Member who died during the previous Session. I cannot claim to have known Gordon McMaster well, but I know that he was well liked by many hon. Members on both sides of the House. He shared with many of us a passionate commitment to advancing the cause of disabled people, and I pay tribute to his work on that issue and others. He is greatly missed.
15 I use this opportunity to express once again my sorrow at the death of Sir Michael Shersby. Michael died within days of the general election but just before the previous Session started. He was a great loss to his family, his constituents and the House.
It is a happier tradition at the opening of this debate that the Leader of the Opposition congratulates the hon. Members who proposed and seconded the Loyal Address. I can do that without reservation today. Traditionally, the Government ask one bright, rising Member of the House, who they hope will be helpful in future, and one old-timer who has been sporadically helpful in the past. They have done that on this occasion.
The hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Dr. Clark) made a good speech. She was first elected to the House last year. She is one of only seven female Queen's counsels in Scotland—a mark of her great distinction, which she displayed this afternoon. I had to delve quite deeply into her impressive CV to find its highlight, which was that she represented her university at ice dancing. She might reflect on the fact that skating on thin ice and going to the Bar are ideal preparations for being a Member of Parliament. Indeed, she skated on thin ice this afternoon when she said that she was not wearing a pager. If she is the Torvill of the afternoon, is the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) her Dean? She looked pretty worried when the hon. Gentleman mentioned "The Full Monty".
Whether the hon. and learned Member for Pentlands would agree with all the views held by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw, I do not know. The hon. Gentleman has a position of great influence in the House because he is on the Catering Committee—
§ Mr. Hague
Oh, he was on the Catering Committee. Last year, he ensured the restoration of northern male dishes to the menus in the restaurants of the House because, he said, Labour women Members of Parliament had made itlike a Kensington wine bar".I do not want to embarrass him. One journalist said of the hon. Gentleman:if the Daily Mirror editorial column were to walk the earth in human form, it would look and sound likehim.
This month, the hon. Member for Bassetlaw commemorates the 30th anniversary of his first election to the House. Throughout that time, he has always been outspoken and principled and a determined fighter for the causes in which he believes and for the constituents whose interests he was elected to represent. He told me recently that his daughter got a good reception when, as a trainee journalist, she knocked on my mother's door and asked to do an interview. As the hon. Gentleman was an outspoken opponent of the national lottery, I think he should be thankful that she did not knock on Auntie Marge's door—and I do not recommend her doing so in future.
The hon. Member for Bassetlaw is also a keen enthusiast of Sheffield Wednesday. He will agree that being interested in sport helps one to keep life in 16 perspective. As I reminded someone the other day, I support Rotherham United at football, Wales at rugby and Yorkshire at cricket. When one supports those teams, the result of the general election is just a minor irritation.
I have not finished with the hon. Gentleman yet. He is a talented man because he has published a play and a novel. The play was called "A Majority of One". When my secretary asked the Library for a copy, the Library said that the hon. Gentleman had made it clear that he did not want anyone to have it at the moment. Unfortunately for the hon. Gentleman, I had already got hold of the novel "Grass Roots".
The hon. Gentleman maintains that the novel is not autobiographical, but its main character is someone who was elected to the House, to represent a northern town, as the narrow Labour victor at a by-election when a Labour Government were in office. The hon. Gentleman showed an uncanny gift for prediction. Page 183 of the novel states:The Ministers made all the decisions, together with the civil servants in Whitehall. They asked no advice from back benchers, and no help except to vote for the policies in the Chamber of the House of Commons. As far as he could see the back bencher was merely lobby-fodder.All they were required to do was to be walking rubber stamps … Everything over and above that was merely superfluous activity … to gain publicity …Indignantly, he sat up in bed. What a load of hypocrisy.Given that he wrote that in 1977, he showed amazing foresight. Remarking on how the Labour Cabinet conducted its business, he wrote:They manipulated the system by giving out information in winks, leaks, nods and innuendoes"—how could anyone imagine such a thing happening?—to privileged journalists rather than in a true democratic way by all the party arriving at a collective decision … It was sheer humbug.What tremendous predictive powers the hon. Gentleman had, although the alarming thing is that a year ago the book was on the fiction shelf in the Library, but now it is filed under current affairs.
I congratulate unreservedly the proposer and seconder of the motion.
I should say what we welcome in the Queen's Speech. We are delighted that the presidents of Germany and China will be paying state visits. We shall certainly give them a warm welcome. I hope that the Foreign Secretary and others will forgive me for observing that we have not done too well with visiting dignitaries in recent months. A certain pattern is emerging. The invitation goes out months in advance. Two days before the visitor arrives, an article in The Sun gives a grovelling apology, but turns out to have been written by the Prime Minister's press secretary. The day before the visitor arrives, an article in one of his home newspapers denies the apology—not written by the Prime Minister's press secretary. Then there is the ritual of the arrival. On the day itself, there is the red carpet at 3 o'clock, the VIP party at 4, the contract signing at 5, the hospital at 6, the arrest at 7 and the extradition at 8. They know how to do things, this Government.
We welcome and will support other items in the Queen's Speech. We will support the creation of a disability rights commission, although we shall look closely at the detail. I hope that the commission will ensure that the landmark disability rights legislation, 17 which I took through the House, is properly enforced and leads to a lasting change for disabled people. We shall also look at and debate in detail the financial regulations Bill and the asylum and youth justice Bill. We welcome the part-privatisation of the Commonwealth Development Corporation, so that it is free to build on the excellent work that it has done in dozens of developing countries. I am sure that all stages of the Bill's passage through the House will be well attended—if only for the immense pleasure of seeing the Secretary of State for International Development take her first privatisation measure through the House of Commons.
On Iraq, we welcome the Government's declared readiness to use force against Saddam Hussein if he fails to co-operate with United Nations weapons inspectors. As I said to the Prime Minister last week, he will have our full support if force is necessary, including the use of force without further warning. We believe that it should be an aim of alliance policy to remove Saddam from power, given that his appetite for brinkmanship with the UN, for creating instability in the region, which damages our interests, and for creating weapons of mass destruction seems endless.
We strongly support the Government's continued commitment to making progress towards lasting peace and stability in Northern Ireland. My right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), when he was Prime Minister, refused to accept that the people of Northern Ireland were condemned to live for ever in terror of the men of violence. He started the peace process, which the Government have had the courage to continue. I have unreservedly congratulated them on securing the Good Friday agreement.
I am sure that the whole House will want to join again at the start of a new Session in congratulating the democratic political leaders of the Province on the enormous effort that they continue to put into turning the agreement into lasting peace. The awarding of the Nobel peace prize to the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) and the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume) was not just a recognition of their tremendous personal commitment, but a fitting tribute to the hundreds of people who have given so much—often their lives—to secure peace for the people of Northern Ireland.
We want the bipartisan approach to the peace process to continue, although it is our duty, as the Opposition, to speak out when we believe that the Government are making a mistake. Seven months after the agreement was signed, more than 200 terrorists have been released from prison early, but not one gun or 1 ounce of Semtex has been decommissioned. We believe sincerely and strongly that continuing to release terrorist prisoners without any decommissioning by paramilitary organisations in return should stop. Such lack of reciprocation breaks the promise that was given to the people of Northern Ireland. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said:several things must happen in parallel in order to build confidence. That has always been the situation, whether it be decommissioning, the release of prisoners".—[Official Report, 20 April 1998: Vol. 310, c. 484.]The Government must stand firm and say to the terrorists: "No more prisoner releases, and no place in the government of Northern Ireland, until there has been substantial and verifiable decommissioning. No decommissioning: no exit. You cannot have both the bullet and the ballot. You have to choose." We must get the terrorists to choose.
18 The second Session of any Parliament is always one of key fundamental importance to any Government. It usually contains major legislation. Often, it is the last chance to enact changes that will come into full effect before the next general election. The programme that we have been given today has everything to do with the Labour party's priorities and nothing whatever to do with the people's priorities. Every Queen's Speech before this one has been about what the Government were going to do through legislation in the coming year—but not this one. It has been modernised. All is not what it seems. Let us have a look at parts of it. We are told:Regional Development Agencies will be established in England".It does not take the most eagle-eyed Member to notice that we passed that legislation last year, when it went through Parliament. We are told also that the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly will be established. That legislation was passed last year. There are other things on top of the things that the Government have already done that they would get round to doing if they thought that that was important enough. There is reference toa draft Freedom of Information Bill",a draft Bill on party funding and a draft Bill on a strategic rail authority. The Queen's Speech even defends the Government on the food standards agency by stating that they will betaking forward proposals for the Food Standards Agency.What does that mean? Does that mean that there will be legislation or does it not?
The Government have decided to lump everything together—consultation papers, taking forward proposals, draft Bills and Bills that they have already enacted so that everyone can try to have part of the package. The good thing about this is that we can see who the winners and losers are round the Cabinet table. The winners have a Bill; the losers have a draft Bill. The real losers have their proposals taken forward. The completely defeated have a consultation paper. For those who have nothing at all, at least there is the consolation of being Deputy Prime Minister. There is the right hon. Gentleman on the Government Front Bench. Where is the integrated transport strategy? Where has it got to? The Deputy Prime Minister is in his place and no doubt he can tell us.
Back in July, as the right hon. Gentleman was telling us, after 20 years in the wilderness, this was the day when transport policy burst out into the light of a new dawn. He said that doing nothing was not an option. Clearly doing nothing is an option. There is the right hon. Gentleman busy doing nothing. The right hon. Gentleman is Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, but there is nothing in the Queen's Speech about the environment, nothing about transport except the shadow rail authority and nothing for the regions except what we have already done. What is the point of having an integrated transport policy when the right hon. Gentleman cannot even integrate it into the Government's programme? He has never been one for nursing a grievance quietly, so he can tell us all about it whenever he wants.
§ The Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. John Prescott)
I have got 77 White Paper proposals under way and five Bills out of the 22.
§ Mr. Hague
At least people with a Jaguar can breathe a sigh of relief that the right hon. Gentleman's crazy 19 anti-car proposals are stuck in a lay-by. Those with two Jags can breathe two sighs of relief. The right hon. Gentleman need not look so grumpy. He and the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) can always form a club of people who give unquestioning support to the Prime Minister but get precious little in return.
What happened to the freedom of information Bill that was to be in the Queen's Speech? It has been announced many times and it now appears as a promise of a draft Bill. In July, the Cabinet Minister in charge of the Bill said that we would have a draft Bill by September. We still do not have a draft Bill. Nothing seems more ridiculous now than freedom of information from the Government who gave us formula one, with its meetings that were never minuted; Sierra Leone, with its telegrams that never turned up; a junior Environment Minister, with his mysterious planning letters; and the Paymaster General, who has woven such a web of secrecy round his affairs that no one understands how he borrowed a fiver from Robert Maxwell and came back years later as a multi-millionaire. Where is the right hon. Gentleman, by the way? He seems not to have turned up. The Government are drafting a freedom of information Bill but they have a suppression of information culture.
The right hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) found that out the hard way. He spent months putting a freedom of information Bill together only to discover that the only information with which the Prime Minister was free with was that he was going to sack the right hon. Gentleman in the reshuffle. Last week, the right hon. Gentleman had to speak out against the Government lies that the Bill was not ready. He said that it was 90 per cent. drafted and about to be published when he got the boot from the Cabinet in the summer. The right hon. Gentleman is nodding and confirming what I have said. He said:Number 10 is already in operation trying to blacken me.Watch out—there were witnesses this time.
What happened to the Bill to implement the Neill Committee recommendations? It is now reduced to a draft Bill. Two weeks ago, the Home Secretary told us:We will act quickly to implement the main findings".—[Official Report, 9 November 1998; Vol. 319, c. 58.]What he meant was that he would act slowly to draft legislation to leave out the bits that he did not like.
We promised support for the Neill package, so why is it not in the Queen's Speech? The Prime Minister can explain that in his speech in a moment. I suspect that it has something to do with Lord Neill's key recommendation that Governments should not spend taxpayers' money on referendum campaigns. Will the Prime Minister accept that central recommendation? He can get up now, if he likes, and tell us—yes or no. What is he afraid of? Why does he not want fair referendums? He is not so keen on cleaning up political funding now, is he?
§ Dr. Desmond Turner (Brighton, Kemptown)
The right hon. Gentleman is being a little conservative with the truth in suggesting that there are not measures in the Queen's Speech that he and his party will oppose root and branch. The only way in which they can oppose them in these Houses is by the use of the unelected votes of Tory 20 hereditary peers. In that way he hopes to obstruct the clearly expressed will of an elected Parliament. How can he justify that?
§ Mr. Hague
The hon. Gentleman clearly has not read his party's manifesto if he thinks that there was a clearly expressed will to have closed lists in European elections campaigns. Where was the clearly expressed will from the people of the United Kingdom? Let him stand up again and tell us where the clearly expressed will of the people was. There was no clearly expressed will.
Speaking of referendums, what has happened to the referendum on proportional representation? The Prime Minister said of the Jenkins report that he was not persuaded by it. Does that mean that we shall have a referendum with three boxes—yes, no, and not persuaded, so that the Prime Minister can fill one in? There is no mention of such a referendum because the Cabinet cannot decide on its view. As the Prime Minister's press office put it,The Cabinet is not split on PR. It has agreed a collective position. And the collective position is that we must have a national debate.That was clever. Since then, we have heard nothing about it.
Let us see how the Cabinet is getting on in the national debate. Let all those in the Cabinet who are in favour of proportional representation raise their hands. [Interruption.] None of them. It does not look as though the pact will get very far, does it?
The poor Liberals have been strung along again. The right hon. Member for Yeovil will be the first Liberal leader to say to his party, "Go back to your constituencies and prepare to give in to the Government."
Was the right hon. Gentleman listening carefully to the Queen's Speech? There was no mention of the European Elections Bill being reintroduced. The speech was obviously printed before he threw his tantrum on the telephone the other night. It does not look as though all those long-distance calls were worth it. I certainly hope that he reversed the charges.
Everybody can relax. There has been a stay of execution for the Lib-Lab pact. The European Elections Bill apparently will be part of the legislative programme. Once again, the Prime Minister will march his troops into the Division Lobby to try to force on the British people a voting system that denies voters their basic right to choose the candidates who represent them.
§ Fiona Mactaggart
Does the right hon. Gentleman recall that it was his party that introduced the same form of proportional representation in Northern Ireland? Does he believe that under the present electoral system, where in relatively small constituencies only 7 per cent. of the British people can name their Member of the European Parliament, it is a fundamental democratic right to choose between candidates? Ninety-three people out of 100 do not even know who those candidates are.
§ Mr. Hague
What extraordinary arrogance to assume that the electorate do not want to take an interest in who 21 their candidates are! Why does the hon. Lady not listen to the view of the Anglican and Catholic Bishops who wrote to the Prime Minister this week about theirgreat concern thatclosed listswould make it extremely difficult to vote with their consciences. Under a closed-list system, voters would be unable to distinguish between candidates' views on a range of important areas.Why is the Prime Minister so anxious to have closed lists? Neither the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) nor the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. Morgan) are standing for the European Parliament. Why does he not just be honest and admit that he simply wants to gag his party and thinks that he can get away with it?
To all independent opinion, this affair has made the strongest case possible for a second Chamber, with independence and integrity, which can stand up to the Prime Minister of the day, and which the Prime Minister wants to neuter.
§ Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)
Let me get this clear. Does the right hon. Gentleman want to insist that the next European elections are fought on a system which hopelessly distorts the result of the votes cast by the British voters and in which the individual candidates are not chosen by an open list but are selected by the parties? That would at least be consistent with the fact that, when the issue of open lists came up in the other place in Committee, the Conservatives did not even support it.
§ Mr. Hague
I am arguing for an amendment to the Bill which would have brought in open lists. The right hon. Gentleman had better remember that it is Liberal Democrat policy to support open lists, and the Liberal Democrats have spent their time voting against their own policy on a three-line whip. That is the heart of the matter.
The Queen's Speech has everything to do with the Labour party's priorities and nothing whatever to do with the priorities of the British people. There is no legislation that will make it easier for a single extra person to obtain a job. There is no legislation—
§ Mr. Hague
No, I shall not give way. I want to make some progress. We know the position of the Liberal Democrats.
There is no legislation that will improve hospital treatment for a single extra patient, and there is no legislation that will improve education for a single child.
Now let us look in detail at what is in the Queen's Speech. Is giving more power to trade unions meant to be a priority for the British people? That is what the legislation that the Government propose will do. It will force companies against their will to recognise trade unions and it will pile burdens and extra costs on British business just when it is facing a severe economic slowdown created by the Government's incompetence. That is not a priority for the British people; it is a priority only for the Labour party.
Remember the sequence of events in the past few days. Thursday, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry 22 said that he was thinking again about the Bill. Sunday, the headline appears: "Unions to Blair: we'll stop your election funding". Tuesday, the Bill is a centrepiece of the programme. It is a simple and crude pay off. The unions pay the Prime Minister's bills and he passes theirs.
What about a Bill on the NHS which will increase NHS bureaucracy? When was that a people's priority?
§ Ann Keen (Brentford and Isleworth)
What do reputable companies have to fear from trade unions? Does the right hon. Gentleman think that a two-tier system is good for patients in Britain?
§ Mr. Hague
The hon. Lady obviously knows little about British history if she thinks that extensions of trade union powers can never create difficulties for businesses and employment. That is likely to happen. As the chairman of the CBI's small business council—the Government spend a lot of time talking to the CBI—flatly said, the Billwill drive people out of business.Why is that a Government priority, and why is it a priority at this time?
Let me tell the hon. Lady about the NHS Bill. It will take power away from general practitioners and give it to unaccountable and bureaucratic primary care groups. It will take money away from patients to spend on more management—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) and the Secretary of State for Health laugh, but let me read out a letter from a doctor. It says:I am"—[Interruption.] Well, Labour Members do not like to take advice from the doctor. It says:I am a General Practitioner and quite concerned that the proposals in the White Paper"—Labour Members should listen to this, because it is not on their pagers or from a Labour party briefing, but what a real person says—will seriously undermine the quality of care that is available to patients …Under the new White Paper it is very clear that GPs will have to spend more time away from their patients involved in bureaucracy, administration work and accountancy.The Government should be responding to those concerns, not fiddling with the waiting list figures. We have already got waiting lists for waiting lists—subsidiary waiting lists and concealed waiting lists.
I have here an internal memo from Bradford Hospitals NHS trust—I hope that hon. Members will take this down—which says:Following new NHS guidelines, patients on Waiting Lists forcertain operationsare not to be included in monthly returns.To enable us to identify such patients more easily, a new list '05' has been set up. Patients who went on the list prior to 1st June … have now been transferred to this list.23Please could you ensure that all future entries for such operations are now put onto this list.They arenot to be included in monthly returns".That is the sort of thing that we are getting from the Queen's Speech.
This morning, the Government tried to pretend to the press that the main thing in the Queen's Speech was welfare reform, but increasing welfare bills and increasing benefit dependency, which is what it will do, were never the people's priorities. It has been a sorry tale. The Prime Minister held roadshows, but cancelled them when someone threw an egg at the Chancellor—Delia Smith has not been the only one to help egg sales over the past year—and he appointed a Minister for Welfare Reform, but pushed him out of the Government when he tried to reform welfare.
The Prime Minister said before the election thatNew Labour is about cutting our welfare bills".
§ Mr. Hague
I shall take the hon. Gentleman's intervention in a couple of moments.
After the election, the Prime Minister let welfare bills rise. The working families tax credit—the centrepiece of his policy—will cost billions of pounds extra, bring half a million new people into benefits, make it more financially rewarding for people to look after someone else's children rather than their own and benefit lone parents over one-earner couples. It will mean that upper rate taxpayers—some earning as much as £38,000 a year—will become eligible for a benefit that is supposed to be targeted on low-income families. Those are not the right priorities, and that is why we oppose the abolition of the existing family credit, which costs less, but works better. What counts is what works.
§ Mr. Leslie
The right hon. Gentleman has talked about his decision to urge cuts in social security. Does he plan to cut disability benefits, child benefit or perhaps pensions—or all three—as well as the working families tax credit?
§ Mr. Hague
If the hon. Gentleman had been listening, instead of becoming so overexcited, he would have heard me talking about the working families tax credit. Our argument—it is the right argument—is that family credit should be maintained and the working families tax credit not introduced.
It is clear that the Government have embarked on a welfare reform programme without any idea of what they are doing. One moment they say that they will tax the child benefit of upper rate taxpayers; the next, they say that they will give upper rate taxpayers a new benefit to help them to look after children. One moment they pass a measure to reduce the advantage of lone parents over one-earner couples in the benefit system; the next, 24 they introduce an entirely new measure to benefit lone parents over one-earner couples. One moment they talk of increasing incentives to work; the next, they introduce a raft of new means tests. The result is £40 billion of extra expenditure.
§ Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)
Given the right hon. Gentleman's earlier commitment to the disability rights commission, when he has scrapped the working families tax credit will he also scrap the disability element of the tax credit—yes or no?
§ Mr. Hague
The hon. Gentleman knows full well, because he and I have served together on Committees, of my commitment to disabled people and to benefits for disabled people. I have never advocated reductions in benefits for disabled people. [Interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman disagrees about the working families tax credit, let him consider what the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) said. In August, the right hon. Member for Birkenhead said:the whole of the working family tax credit venture is fraught with great dangers. It offers huge bonuses for dishonesty. It strengthens the employer's hold over working people—'these are the conditions, cheat, and both of us will be better off. It … pulls employees into a spider's web of dishonesty and corruption. It rewards employers paying low wages. It takes pressure off improving productivity".Those are the words of the one man in the Labour party who knows more about welfare reform than anyone else, and I suggest that the Government listen to him.
None of the Bills in the Queen's Speech addresses the pressing priorities of the British people. That is especially true of the Bill that I suspect will dominate this Session. That Bill will hang like a millstone around the Prime Minister's neck and show that the Government are more interested in fiddling with our constitution than addressing the real priorities of the British people. When the hon. and learned Member for Pentlands said that she would be dancing about it—her constituents will not—she gave the game away in an otherwise splendid speech. The Bill replaces an independent second Chamber with a house of cronies.
The Prime Minister thought that the House of Lords was an independent second Chamber when it defeated the previous Government. Indeed, he congratulated it and said that that was a victory for common sense. He has now set up a royal commission to consider alternatives to the present House of Lords. Given that it will report in just two years' time, why will he waste the coming year on a piece of constitutional vandalism that will be obsolescent in 24 months? All sensible people want to wait for the royal commission. They are not prepared to embark on reform of the House of Lords until they see where the Government are going with it. They do not want stage 1 without stage 2.
The reason the Prime Minister does not want to wait for the royal commission is clear: he has never intended carrying out proper reform of the House of Lords, but wants to create a house of cronies beholden to him alone. We know what his vision of the future is: Lord Draper of Lobbygate; Lord Robinson of Offshore Funds; Lord Mandelson of Rio; and the Prime Minister will be Baron of Ideas.
25 The director of Charter 88, who is not normally an ally of the Conservative party, said that the Prime Minister plansto create an Upper House that is so pliant and illegitimate that it will expose the Government to the charge of dictatorship".It is time that the Prime Minister listened. The public and the press are against him on this matter. Why does he not do the common-sense thing and wait for the royal commission? He can waste an entire year trying to ram a Bill that no one wants through Parliament and trying to increase his powers of patronage, or he can spend that year getting on with real people's priorities, such as jobs, schools and hospitals.
The Queen's Speech abolishes the independence of general practitioners, increases council tax bills through the abolition of competitive tendering and increases trade union power. We know from the growth forecasts that the Chancellor must constantly downgrade and from surveys such as the CBI business survey, which shows confidence at its lowest level for 18 years, that there is a serious economic situation. Business confidence is at an all-time low and Government complacency at an all-time high.
We need not rely on surveys and forecasts to tell us that; we can use the evidence before us, if only we are willing to listen. The Prime Minister might listen to someone on his constituency doorstep. A letter from someone in County Durham says:I draw your attention to the Prime Minister's recent visit to the North East when he supported the 'upbeat' view of the economic situation. On a visit to"—the company he worked for—which was televised, he encouraged viewers to ignore the closures of Fujitsu and Siemens and think of success stories such as"—that company.What he forgot to mention was that just prior to his visit, myself and 93 of my fellow workers had been laid off by that same company. We were all employed on work for Rover, Ford and Nissan. I believe that all of these companies are experiencing short-time working.All of my applications for work since have been unsuccessful because of layoffs and I know of many more anticipated by Christmas.There we have it: the Nero of Sedgefield, who is fiddling with the constitution while jobs burn. Today, he has served up to us a Bill about working practices that will make it harder for people to find work in practice; increases in council tax bills in the future when people find it hard to pay the bills they have now; and welfare reform that increases dependency and welfare bills.
The Prime Minister is trapped in a European agenda that will bring higher taxes, higher spending and more regulation: all the things that we know from the past destroy jobs, not create them. The Queen's Speech should have contained measures to make it easier for jobs to be created by halting new regulations that will make it more expensive to employ people, such as statutory union recognition and parts of the working time directive, and plans to curb the dramatic increase in welfare spending, so that interest rates can be cut further.
The Prime Minister should have considered measures to improve education, not just made vague promises of consultation papers. The Queen's Speech should have contained measures to end the rule that popular schools cannot expand so long as unpopular schools have 26 empty places, and measures to make it easier to set up and run new schools, or to allow successful schools to use their experience to help neighbouring schools.
The Queen's Speech could have contained real action to protect the British countryside, such as measures to ensure that two thirds of new homes are built on brown-field sites instead of on green belt. It should have provided a fairer deal for British farmers by insisting that the same high standards that are applied at home are applied to foreign food imports. It should have contained real help for married families by using the tax and benefit system, instead of abolishing the last recognition of marriage in the system.
Not one of those measures is in the Queen's Speech, because it is all to do with the priorities of Labour politicians and nothing to do with the priorities of the people. It shows that they are a Government with no purpose except their own re-election. Their legislative programme contains only what will help them to fund their party, to control their organisation or to buy off interest groups.
The Queen's Speech contains Bills to increase the power of union paymasters at the expense of jobs and businesses; Bills to hand control to local government officials at the expense of local taxpayers; Bills to appeal to the prejudices of the Labour party at the expense of better public services; Bills to increase the power of the Prime Minister at the expense of democracy and in defiance of common sense.
The Government want to move from one election campaign to the next without bothering to govern in between. Before new Labour, politicians fought elections in order to govern. This Administration govern in order to fight elections. This Queen's Speech is about the priorities of the Labour party, not about the priorities of the people.
§ The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair)
As tradition has it, I shall begin by performing two duties, one of which is the sad duty of paying tribute to Gordon McMaster. He was a valued Member of the House, and, for those who knew him, could justly be described as one of the nicest and kindest people anyone could ever meet. He was a thoroughly decent man, and is sadly missed in the House. I also join the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) in his tribute to Michael Shersby.
It is my more pleasant duty to pay tribute to the proposer and seconder of the Loyal Address. My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) made a brilliant and scintillating speech, and we all enjoyed it immensely. The similarities between 1968 and now were interesting, but the differences were even better. Apart from politics, my hon. Friend's other lifelong passion is football. Whatever excitement he felt in proposing the Loyal Address, I am sure that it was as nothing compared with Sheffield Wednesday's 3–1 defeat of Manchester United last Saturday.
My hon. Friend was a Whip during the previous Labour Government—he was known as a strong Whip. He was also a whip on Sheffield city council. He was known as something of a control freak in his time. He sounds like my type of politician! I pay tribute to his speech, and to the wonderful way in which he put across his case on behalf of his constituents.
27 I also thank my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Dr. Clark), who entered the House last year in the most dramatic way by defeating the former Foreign Secretary. As she showed today, she brings formidable skills to the House, having been a distinguished Queen's counsel. She always contributes well to our debates. I should tell her, in case she is worried that anything that she said sounded rebellious, that I do not carry a pager either. It is always better to write the messages than to receive them.
The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks made a speech that was full of great jokes—I will give him that—but it was a speech devoid of any serious content. The right hon. Gentleman said nothing of any interest about any major subject that concerns the country. As a sixth-form debating speech, it was fine; but, for a speech that was supposed to address the big issues of the day, it was full of diddling and tiddling but nothing much else. I believe that the right hon. Gentleman spent more time on the Paymaster General than on education. And what was the one policy? We heard no policy in the entire speech, save one. The right hon. Gentleman would scrap Bank of England independence; he would scrap the £40 billion investment in our schools and hospitals; he would scrap the working families tax credit revenue deal; but he will die in the ditch to save the hereditary peers.
I gather that the right hon. Gentleman has hired an image consultant. I would go back and hire another, because that was the response of a Conservative party that is moving ever further rightwards and backwards. Its programme has nothing to do with the interests of the country.
The right hon. Gentleman said that we had not legislated. In the last Session, we proposed 22 Bills and delivered 52 Acts, including four education Acts. Now, in a much shorter Session, nearly 20 Bills are promised, covering a range of issues barely any of which the right hon. Gentleman mentioned. Yes, there are other draft Bills, and yes, they do deal with issues such as freedom of information, the food standards agency and the funding of political parties. The right hon. Gentleman seemed to criticise us for not doing those things more quickly. Well, that lot had 18 years in power, and they did not do any of them. They never introduced any legislation relating to the funding of political parties: indeed, they refused to let the then Nolan committee even look at the issue. On food standards, they opposed every move that we made in opposition, and they never did anything about freedom of information.
We have had a big legislative programme, last year and this year. This will be a year of challenge. The key themes of the Queen's Speech are modernisation and fairness, so that we can create a Britain that is strong, modern and fair. In the Queen's Speech, we set out how we can do that. The Tories messed the job up; Labour is getting the job done. That is the difference.
Of course it comes as a shock to the Tories to see a Government deliver on their manifesto. After two decades of Tory government, it probably comes as a shock to the public as well, but the fact is that we are delivering. If ever we want a metaphor for recent times, we need look no further than another subject that the right hon. Gentleman did not mention: BSE. The Tories messed 28 it up; Labour sorted it out. The Tories made threats; Labour made progress. The Tories gave us the beef ban; yesterday, a new Labour Government lifted it. That is the difference.
Let us leave aside the fact that the right hon. Gentleman did not mention a single policy area of any serious nature, and examine the legacy that we inherited and what we did. We had boom-and-bust economics and a doubled national debt. We had rising class sizes and waiting lists. In one in five non-pensioner households, no one was working. Britain was utterly marginalised in Europe and the rest of the world. This year, last year's work is paying dividends: the lowest long-term interest rates for more than 30 years; the inflation target now met; the lowest ever corporation tax; unemployment down, employment up; waiting lists and infant class sizes coming down; the biggest ever increase in child benefit; new rules to tackle anti-social neighbours and to cut crime; a special bonus for pensioners with winter fuel; free eye tests; and discount fares on public transport. [Interruption.] Conservative Members talk among themselves. They are not interested. When we get on to serious policy, they start muttering among themselves; they do not want to hear it.
As for the cheek of the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks about the countryside and about building on brown-field sites, he was attacking us, saying that we were not doing enough. When his Government were in power, 46 per cent. of the building was on brown-field sites; we have raised it to 60 per cent., and we are the party that has invested in rural transport—opposed by his party.
In addition, we have the young people on the new deal: 160,000 of them have passed through it; 30,000 are already in work, as promised. Those are great achievements that we will take forward in this year's Queen's Speech. [Interruption.]
§ The Prime Minister
Let me see whether I can liven Conservative Members up. Is any one of them prepared to tell us what the Tory position now is on Bank of England independence? Is any one of them prepared to tell us whether they oppose the new deal? Is any one of them prepared to tell us which part of social security spending—apart from the working families tax credit, to which I will come in a moment—they oppose? It is no wonder they are talking among themselves.
Let me deal with the issues that were raised on the economy. The Government are delivering long-term strength. Let us not forget that we inherited a situation where inflation was predicted by the Bank of England to rise above 4 per cent., and where the budget deficit under the Conservatives was £28 billion. We therefore introduced Bank of England independence, followed by new fiscal rules to control and to cut borrowing. We put through the two toughest financial years that any Government have done for a long time, and we did that precisely so that we could sort out the public finances and get the investment into our public services that we need. As a result, even in a downturn, current budget surpluses will be run every year and the golden rule met in full. We will have, even with the additional spending, the lowest borrowing as a percentage of national income of any major European Union country.
29 There is no doubt that there will be difficult times for business and jobs in the forecast slowdown. We do not hide from that, but we should never tire of drawing the contrast between now and the early 1990s, when interest rates were not, as now, coming down from 7.5 per cent., but were 15 per cent. for a year or more, and 10 per cent. for four years or more; manufacturing output fell by 7 per cent.—over 1 million jobs went in that Tory recession in manufacturing; and unemployment topped 3.5 million.
The reason for drawing attention to the Conservatives' record in the early 1990s is that their policies, in so far as there are any—the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks did not give us any, but in so far as one can divine the policies from the shadow Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer—are precisely to repeat those mistakes: cancelling Bank of England independence, so returning interest rates to short-term political considerations; cancelling the additional spending; and opposing every measure that we took to cut the budget deficit. Every one was opposed by the Conservatives.
§ Mr. Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe)
It is very good of the Prime Minister to seek to re-attract the interest of the House.
Every time the Prime Minister seeks to justify having taken measures appropriate to the late 1980s, he cites a Bank of England forecast about the danger of inflation rising to 4 per cent. if these measures had not been taken. Does he not recall that Bank of England inflation forecasts have always been wrong? Does he regard the 4 per cent. as representing a risk of an inflationary boom? Is that the justification for raising interest rates to the highest level in the developed world, causing near recession in manufacturing, agricultural ruin and a slowdown to 1 per cent. next year, on the optimistic forecasts of the Chancellor of the Exchequer?
§ The Prime Minister
I congratulate the right hon. and learned Gentleman on raising a serious issue—it is probably why he is not the leader of the Conservative party today. At least it was a question on the economy. The right hon. and learned Gentleman may shrug his shoulders at the Bank of England forecast, but I certainly do not. If he was being really honest about it, I think that he would recognise that, when we took office, the budget deficit, at £28 billion, was far too high. Also, a Bank of England forecast going over 4 per cent. meant that inflation was on the way up, while our main competitors had inflation rates of under 2 per cent. That is an unsustainable position. On the exchange rate—with the greatest respect to the right hon. and learned Gentleman—when people realised that interest rates had to go up, the exchange rate went up. The exchange rate is now back down to the level that we inherited from him.
I believe that the only way of getting long-term stability into the economy is to have Bank of England independence. I do not know whether or not the right hon. and learned Gentleman supports that—I am never sure of his position—but I believe that, in the long term, that gives us the best chance of a stable economic policy.
The real point is that we are better placed to weather the storm as a result of the tough decisions that we took. All round the world, the International Monetary Fund, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and 30 Development and the European Union are downgrading world growth forecasts. The question is how we best meet this economic challenge as a country. I say that we do so by the new and modern rules for Bank of England independence, the new fiscal framework that we have in place and the extra investment that we are making in our public services and productivity.
The centrepiece of the Queen's Speech is the set of measures to improve the health service, our schools and law and order and to reform welfare. The £40 billion for schools and hospitals, which is opposed by the Conservative party, is the biggest increase in investment ever for those two services, but it is part of a deal. The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks made no serious mention of the fact—I will—that the money is expressly tied to reforming the way those services work.
In education, we inherited a situation in which 500,000 infants were in classes of more than 30. Under this Government, more than 100,000 children were already in smaller classes from the start of this year. As a result of the measures we are taking, we will ensure that all children in infant schools will be in classes of fewer than 30 by 2001. Nursery education is now available for all four-year-olds, and the £300 million national child care strategy will provide child care for children in every neighbourhood. Again, none of that was mentioned by the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks.
The literacy hour has been launched and we will publish the pilot results by the end of the year. We plan the same approach to numeracy. More than 2,000 schools have been given help through the new deal, which was also opposed by the Conservative party. A further 12,000 will be helped soon. Next week, we will be announcing the biggest reform of the teaching profession in 50 years. If we take those measures together with the four education Acts already passed and with specialist schools, the encouragement of setting by ability in different subjects and beacon schools, there will be a real drive towards pushing up standards in primary and secondary schools throughout the country.
Those are people's priorities. We will now have the power to tackle the schools and education authorities that are failing. Also—again opposed by the Conservatives—for the first time in years, education spending as a percentage of national income will increase. That is another promise fulfilled.
I shall now come to the health service and the extraordinary remarks of the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks. I take it from those comments that he will oppose the measures that we propose. We have invested the largest single amount in the biggest hospital building programme ever. We have invested £2 billion and £21 billion is coming next year, to tackle waiting lists and improve the national health service. New services such as NHS direct and booking systems for out-patient and in-patient appointments are coming on stream and there is extra investment for cancer treatment. We make no secret of the fact that the NHS Bill will put the final nail in the coffin of the costly, disastrous and bureaucratic internal market introduced by the Conservatives. On the letter that the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks read out from a doctor, I should tell him that the British Medical Association supports the proposal. The two-tier health service will go.
31 Additionally, the Bill will establish—the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks never even dealt with it—a commission for health improvement which, for the first time, will inspect every hospital and have powers to investigate wherever there are concerns about clinical practice. A new national institute for clinical excellence, a demanding framework to measure performance and GP practices, will ensure that best practice reaches into every part of the NHS. The right hon. Gentleman did not say a word about those plans. I do not know whether that silence means that he opposes or accepts the plans, which are central to what the Government are trying achieve for the health service.
§ Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)
Much of what the Government plan to do on the health service is welcome. However, I have a few simple questions. Although the Prime Minister seems to believe in democracy in education, and in local government running housing and social services, there will be less, not more, democracy in the health service. Why? Does he accept that there is rationing in the national health service? If so, why are there no proposals for deciding on its priorities? If he does not accept that there is rationing, will everyone be given treatment by the national health service when they need it?
§ The Prime Minister
The hon. Gentleman's questions are somewhat inconsistent. First, on democracy, primary care groups will increase the ordinary ability of doctors, nurses and others in the health service to ensure that those precise concerns are taken into account locally. Secondly, those people will be best placed to determine priorities in the national health service. The best way of determining priorities is to ensure that we have the best framework, which the Bill will provide. I should also say that the £21 billion extra will transform health care in the United Kingdom. That money is coming into the health service only because, in our first two years, we took the difficult decisions that were opposed by the hon. Gentleman and the Liberal Democrats—which is why we shall continue taking them.
The new crime Bill also was not mentioned by the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks. I should have thought that crime was a top priority among the public. We have achieved an immense amount in the past year. Nevertheless, the Bill will help not only to halve the time it takes to get young offenders to court but to put a stop to offenders getting repeat cautions. For first-time offenders, there will be a new discipline and regime of restraints on their activities. There will be new protection for witnesses, and new rules on the treatment of drug offenders.
For all those public services—including the health and police services—there will be efficiency targets to ensure that the extra money is spent wisely.
Taken together, the measures—both the investment and the reform—amount to the largest programme of change in our public services for many years. One of the best things about them will be that, for the first time, people working in those public services can take pride in public service—which the Conservatives constantly undermined when they were in office. Conservative Members now have the chance to renew that commitment to public service under the new Labour Government.
32 On modernisation of the welfare state, 18 months ago, we had a situation which one in three children lived in poverty, one in five families had no one in work, there was record income inequality among pensioners, and spending was growing at 4 per cent. a year in real terms. We are tackling each one of those problems left to us by the Conservatives—with the new deal; equalisation of single parent benefits; overhaul of the Child Support Agency; greater security for pensioners through a new minimum income guarantee; the biggest-ever recasting of student finance, extending higher education by lifting the cap that the Tories placed on higher education; and rooting out fraud and waste.
In the coming year, with the programme that the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks dismissed—I do not think that he spent any time discussing it—we shall embark on the next stage of reform. Our programme will introduce a single gateway into the benefit system, modernise the systems of support for disabled people and for widows and introduce low-cost stakeholder pensions. We shall make work pay for low-income families through the working families tax credit. Moreover, legal aid will be radically transformed.
Each one of those measures is a huge measure of change. Each one of those subjects was ducked when the Conservatives were in office. From his speech today, it was quite unclear whether the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks supports or opposes the measures, other than the working families tax credit. If, as he says, he opposes the working families tax credit, is that the only part of social security spending that he opposes? We do not know. Most of the money on social security spending is about pensions uprating, disability benefit uprating and extra child benefit. Are those measures opposed by the Conservative party? We do not know.
The Conservatives oppose the £40 billion, and we assume now that they oppose the extra social security spending. The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks shakes his head. I read his article in The Daily Telegraph a few days ago. He called our spending proposals "an irresponsible spending spree". I assume that, if they are an irresponsible spending spree, the Conservatives oppose the proposals. Or are they saying that the proposals are irresponsible, but they would introduce them anyway? The Leader of the Opposition cannot have it every way. The Conservatives have been caught on this because they refuse to say where they stand on the key issues. The one thing that they are prepared to say is that they oppose the working families tax credit.
I should tell the Leader of the Opposition that 1.5 million hard-working families will benefit from the working families tax credit. Many of them will gain more than £20 a week. We are doing that in order to help them make work pay. The right hon. Gentleman gave the example of a family with an income of £38,000. Such a family would have to have four children for all of whom they needed child care. There will be families in that situation, but what I say is that, if those people really need that help in order to get to work, the Government should make it easier for them, should help them and should ensure that they get the support that they require to support their own family. In each of our welfare reforms, we are giving help to those who need it. It is fair reform and change. It is modernisation of our system. On each of our proposals, the Conservatives either have nothing to say or are opposed to it.
33 We also propose several measures to promote social justice and fairness, including fairness at the workplace, with new rights for individuals. They are rights to be exercised by union members. Ordinary workers will get the say as to whether they are represented by a union. We will promote fairness for disabled people, with a new disability rights commission. We will promote fairness under the law, with greater access to justice. We will promote fairness for those seeking asylum, with faster, tighter, more just procedures. We will promote fairness for all households paying their water bills, with new legislation that will keep down prices.
Yes, we do believe that it is important that the House of Lords is reformed. We believe that it is important because we believe that it is important to deliver on the pledge that we made to end the right of hereditary peers to sit and vote in the House of Lords. The Leader of the Opposition called it an independent body. Let us examine this independent body that we have.
§ The Prime Minister
From the policies that the right hon. Gentleman is espousing, I think that it probably is his focus group. The House of Lords is dominated by the 750 hereditaries. The vast bulk who take the Whip take the Tory Whip, with the result that in our bicameral system, the Houses of Parliament, one House is in the permanent hands, in perpetuity, of one party—the Tory party. That may suit the interests of the Tory party, but it does not satisfy the interests of the country.
Look what the Leader of the Opposition says about the House of Lords, this independent representative body. Out of 750 of them, there is one black and one Asian and there are 14 women. How can the Tories seriously say that that is representative? Almost half the 750 went to Eton. I have nothing against people going to Eton—
§ The Prime Minister
Or private schools, no, but we were elected; that is the difference. For the Leader of the Opposition to make support for the hereditary peers the centrepiece of his attack on the Government only indicates, I am afraid, that whatever the jokes and the debate, when it comes to the issues of big strategic judgment, he gets them wrong every single time.
What is more, we have made it clear that no party, whatever its view, will have an overall majority in the House of Lords. A strong, independent Cross-Bench element will be preserved. We are suggesting the first change to the sole right of the Prime Minister to recommend life peers. Before the royal commission—which will have a time limit—is established, we will set out as the Labour party our submissions about what the final stage of reform should look like. We will let other parties do the same. The more that can be done by consensus, the better. It is time to end the feudal domination of one half of our legislature by the Tory party, which claims a divine right to govern Britain and makes a hash of it every time that it does.
§ Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)
How many times during the 18 years of Conservative Government 34 did the House of Lords defeat the Government? What is the difference between a life peer appointed by the Prime Minister or by the Labour party, with the Whip, and a hereditary peer, who at least is independent?
§ The Prime Minister
As I keep saying about independence, the vast bulk of the hereditary peers are Tories. Those are the people who turn up. The hon. Gentleman suggested that the House of Lords used to defeat the Conservative Government as much as it defeats the Labour Government. That is emphatically not the case, I am afraid. In the past Session, the Lords defeated the Labour Government about three times more often than they defeated the Tories. They always do that. In any event, a system in which one part of the Houses of Parliament is perpetually in the ownership of the Conservative party cannot be justified. That is the position that the Conservatives stand for and it cannot be right. It is certainly the only policy on which the Leader of the Opposition evinced any real passion. If the Conservatives wish to make that the centrepiece of their opposition, let them.
I join the right hon. Gentleman in his remarks about Northern Ireland and about the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) and the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume). In particular, I thank the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) for starting the peace process. I strongly support what they have done and pay tribute to all those who have been involved in the process to bring about a lasting settlement in Northern Ireland. That includes my right hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Marjorie Mowlam).
We still face a difficult challenge. We shall never forget the people of Omagh and the suffering imposed on them by the terrorists. We shall ensure that the whole of the agreement is implemented in full. That is the position that we have taken throughout and we have to carry on with it. We shall not rest until we have a lasting settlement in place in Northern Ireland. I ask for the support of the whole House in trying to bring that about. That cross-party support has been important and will continue to be so.
§ Madam Speaker
Order. I have heard many comments from sedentary positions today and I think that we have had enough.
§ The Prime Minister
I mentioned the strategic errors of judgment of the Leader of the Opposition earlier. Perhaps I can now deal with Europe. The lifting of the beef ban is important in its own right, but let us be clear; it has been achieved only because of a new and different relationship with Europe. We are engaged, succeeding and getting results for Britain. In the coming year, we have to continue to focus on the programme of economic reform, the need to make subsidiarity a reality, pushing forward the negotiations for enlargement and taking forward the debate in Europe on a common foreign and security policy and our defence capabilities.
Whatever the siren calls of the Opposition, we shall continue to prepare for the euro. There are only two intellectually coherent positions on the euro. One is to believe that there are overwhelming constitutional reasons against entry, which means opposing entry for ever.
35 That is the position of a good part of the Conservative party, including its shadow leader, the former Defence Secretary.
The other argument is that the constitutional arguments are not overwhelming and the decision should based on the UK's national economic interest. That is the Labour position. The Conservative party's official position—that we should be against entry for 10 years or two Parliaments or whatever is the right hon. Gentleman's position of the day—is ridiculous. Either the constitutional objections are overwhelming or they are not. The right hon. Gentleman's position is determined not by logic or reason, but by the divisions in the Conservative party. That is the burden that this country carried for the last years of Conservative Government. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned party funding. The Conservatives are led—and, as his rather incomplete party accounts show, funded—by those who want to drive Britain ever further to the margins of Europe. I believe that to be a betrayal of our true national interest. It is no surprise that the right hon. Gentleman did not dwell on it in his speech, but it is an important subject. He should go away and think less about his lines and more about the serious topics of the day.
§ Mr. Giles Radice (North Durham)
I congratulate the Government on their position on the euro. Did my right hon. Friend note that, yesterday, 100 leaders of Britain's top companies—which represent a quarter of this country's gross domestic product—called for entry into the euro sooner rather than later?
§ The Prime Minister
Yes, I certainly did notice that. Our position is that there must be sustainable economic convergence in order to ensure that entry is in our interests. We set out that position in our manifesto and hold to it.
I agree strongly with my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Radice) and the signatories to the letter that we cannot pretend—as the Conservatives do—that the issue will go away. The euro will exist from 1 January next year and will have an enormous impact on British business, whether we are in or out of it. Some companies and people will use it and, in all probability, some shops will accept it. It is vital that we prepare our country for the euro, and that is what we are doing.
One more Bill is worthy of note. Indeed, in time, it may have as great an impact as any we debate today—although I bet that it will not merit much attention in tomorrow's press. We are in the midst of an industrial revolution that will take two decades, not two centuries, to complete. The internet is setting the pace. It is the fastest spreading technology ever. It is growing exponentially—literally—with use doubling every 100 days.
It is the new electronic market for airline tickets, insurance and even for household goods. Last year, just three companies generated £2 billion in sales from the internet. It is predicted that, within five years, electronic commerce could be worth more than £300 billion. The internet is literally transforming industries. It may be commonplace to discuss this revolution, but it is not yet common for Governments to have a strategy for dealing with it. Britain does, and it is part of our vision for this country's future: to build an economy that is based on knowledge, creativity and skill rather than on competition for low wages, low skill and low technology.
36 We will take three steps towards making this country No. 1 in the area of electronic commerce. First, we will introduce an electronic commerce Bill in this Parliament. Our historical strength as a trading nation was based on our framework of commercial law. We need to put that legislation in place as fast as possible in order to boost that new market in Britain.
Secondly, we will invest in skills. Every school will be connected to the internet, every teacher will have the chance to receive training, and in the next few years every child should be able to leave school IT literate. They are huge advances for our country.
Thirdly, we will invest in creativity. We are putting £1.4 billion into scientific research through the new public-private partnership. We have delivered the greatest ever increase in arts funding—right in itself, but also an investment in the creative industries.
Britain is well placed: English is the language of choice of nearly two thirds of those on the internet. We will set out further strategies for this knowledge-driven economy in the competitiveness White Paper. We no longer need in this country a false choice between new and old industries, between manufacturing and services. There is a new economic discipline based on competition, competence and creativity—the three Cs of the knowledge economy. That is proof that the Government are delivering on this country's future, and that is an issue about which the right hon. Gentleman said precisely nothing.
§ Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes)
Before the Prime Minister sits down, will he mention the word "environment"? It has not yet appeared in his comments today and does not appear until seven lines before the end of the Queen's Speech. Does he accept that the Queen's Speech is a bitter disappointment to those who expect the Government to make a commitment to the environment?
§ The Prime Minister
It certainly should not be. I have already mentioned the environment in my comments about brown-field sites. The hon. Gentleman will know that this country and my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister have played a leading role in both Kyoto and Buenos Aires in putting environmental issues on the agenda. The hon. Gentleman will know also that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer introduced a series of measure in his Budget that are designed to improve environmental technology and to help protect the environment in Britain. The Government are using the new deal to implement energy conservation programmes the length and breadth of the country. All those measures are opposed by the Conservative party, but the Liberal Democrats cannot say that we are not doing anything for the environment. [HON. MEMBERS: "Not enough."] They always say that it is not enough. At every stage we are delivering on our promises. At every stage we are putting in place a framework for stable economic growth, the revitalisation of our public services, the modernisation of our welfare system, a modern constitution and a re-engagement by Britain in Europe and the rest of the world. Of course, all that takes time, but at every stage we are trying to prepare Britain for the challenges of the 21st century.
37 At each stage those proposals have been opposed and attacked by the Conservative party as it retreats ever further rightwards. Now, during the debate on the Queen's Speech, we know that Conservative Members oppose Bank of England independence.
§ The Prime Minister
Conservative Members are shaking their heads. The shadow Secretary of State for Trade and Industry appears not to oppose Bank of England independence, but a few months ago, he said:We opposed the Bank of England Bill in the House of Commons … I and my colleagues warned about the dangers of what the Government was proposing.I had not understood that, in today's Tory party, that is a statement of support. Are Conservative Members opposed to Bank of England independence?
The speech of the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks did not deal with that issue or with our £40 billion extra investment, which Conservative Members have called reckless and irresponsible. The right hon. Gentleman did not mention social security spending on child benefit. We know that Conservative Members are opposed to the working families tax credit, but what is their position on the rest of our programme? We simply do not know. We assume that they oppose it because they accuse us of spending recklessly and dangerously. Conservative Members have opposed the new attitude towards Europe, and every constitutional change. They have absolutely nothing to say on the issues of moment to the people of this country. On the economy, they are illiterate. On schools, hospitals and crime, they are silent.
Today, the dividing lines between the Conservatives and Labour became clearer. The Government have policies for Britain's future; the Tories are stuck in the past. The Government promote fairness for the many; the Conservatives defend the privileges of the few. The Government have the direction and purpose that the country needs; the Tories are drifting aimlessly. New Labour is facing up to the country's serious problems; the Tories are without a clue about what those problems are, never mind how to confront and overcome them. We have a Tory party on the road to nowhere and a new Labour Government delivering our promises. That is the difference between the two parties following the Queen's Speech.
From the Opposition we have heard jokes and debating points but not a single, serious remark on a single, serious policy. When Conservative Members engage in such opposition, we know that on the big issues of the day—jobs, the economy, industry, crime, hospitals and schools—they have lost the argument. That is the real reason why they lost the election. They are still in denial about that. That is why they want the other place, with the in-built Tory majority, to try to win back power for them. They lost the election because they were out of touch and took the wrong turnings for the country.
This Government were elected and have public support precisely because we are delivering on the basic tasks that the country set us: basic modernisation of our schools and hospitals, delivery of the economic framework for 38 stability and essential fairness such as the minimum wage, the working families tax credit, help for poorer pensioners and the new deal for the young unemployed, which has cut by over 30 per cent. unemployment among young people who have been unemployed for more than six months. Those are the people's priorities. That is the people's agenda. By having nothing whatever to say about that, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks has shown why neither he nor his party will be the people's choice.
§ Mr. Ashdown
I begin by joining the Prime Minister and the leader of the Conservative party in paying tribute to Gordon McMaster and Sir Michael Shersby. They will be greatly missed in the House, and I can add nothing to what the right hon. Gentlemen have so eloquently said about them. As tradition and pleasure require me to do so, I also join in congratulating the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) and the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Dr. Clark) on their speeches today—one speech from a very old hand, the other from a very new one.
As the hon. Member for Bassetlaw reminded us, he has been here a long time, and he has had a great deal written about him. The leader of the Conservative party drew our attention to words written by Matthew Parris, who described the hon. Gentleman as the editorial column of the Daily Mirror on earth in human form. He went on to say that for the hon. Gentlemaneverything is a disgrace; everything is the Tory Government's fault, everything ought to have something done about it; and everything can be expressed in one-line sentences".I thought that the hon. Gentleman's speech was one of the best that I have heard in these circumstances. It was amusing and very typical of him.
Of course, other, more generous, things have been written about the hon. Member for Bassetlaw, which describe him asThe voice of the people, commonsense …. and all that is decent";Bright, shrewd, rooted and realistic".In the spirit of non-tribalist, constructive opposition, I prefer those descriptions to the former.
The hon. and learned Member for Pentlands has a justifiable reputation outside the House but has not yet provoked such judgments for her performance inside it. I have no doubt that she will. I am happy to congratulate her on her speech, and I hope that I have the privilege of hearing more of the same sort in future.
This is the 10th Queen's Speech to which I have responded on behalf of the Liberal Democrats—[HON. MEMBERS: "Plenty more to come."] What loyal colleagues they all are. It is, in many ways, one of the most difficult Queen's Speeches to which to respond. There is much that the Government have done, and intend to do, which we support and on which we have worked with them, 39 but there is also much in this programme for the next year that falls short—in some cases, far short—of what we would wish.
The Government tell us, in almost the first line of the Loyal Address, that their aim is the modernisation of Britain, and the Prime Minister used the word "modernisation" a great deal in his speech. I agree with that. I remember talking about it 10 years ago, and I am delighted that the Prime Minister has now taken up the same language. We support that aim and applaud the scale of the ambition that lies behind it..
The Government have told us elsewhere that they want to go down as one of the great radical reforming Governments of this century, on a par with the radical reforming Governments of 1906 and 1945 and—yes, in their way—of 1979 as well. We hope, too, that that is how they will be judged, for Britain needs a truly radical Government of change if we are to be in a position to face the challenges of the new century, which is now only a year and a handful of days away.
Governments must be judged not by what they say, but by what they do. One knows what they will do more by the mid-term years than by the first flush of their post-election Queen's Speech or the carefully manipulated programme of their last, pre-election one. If this Government are to achieve their ambitions for change, it ought to be in this Queen's Speech that we see them clearly set out. I am bound to say that, from what I have seen and heard so far, I cannot do so. The great reforming Governments of this century had three key qualities. They were clear about what they wanted to do, they were determined to do it, and they were prepared to be unpopular on the big issues in order to succeed. In this Queen's Speech I cannot see either the programme or the determination and willingness to take the necessary risks to match the Government's achievements to their laudable rhetoric.
§ Mr. Ashdown
That is not to say, to answer the hon. Gentleman, that there is not much with which we can agree, such as the proposals for a Greater London Authority. The Prime Minister was also absolutely right to refer to trading in the new technology market. We also support the principle of the working families tax credit, the need to improve financial regulation, and the importance of raising standards and status in teaching.
We support some proposals in the Government's programme with enthusiasm—a university for industry, a disability rights commissioner, and a chance to vote, at last, on an equal age of consent, to name three. In other areas, we shall continue to work constructively with the Government, such as on the completion of the constitutional agenda, especially the reform of the House of Lords. Who knows, perhaps we shall also work constructively with the Government on European issues, such as the formulation of a common foreign and security policy—if the Prime Minister is serious about that.
We shall, however, oppose some proposed items of legislation—and vigorously, if necessary. We shall oppose vigorously some of the legal aid proposals if they deny access to a genuinely independent defence. We shall 40 also oppose some of the Government's asylum proposals which threaten to act as a deterrent to genuine asylum seekers or which prolong the destitution and unnecessary suffering created by the previous Government's policies.
Overall, it is not what is in the Queen's Speech that worries me; it is what is not in it. My hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) was right when he said that the Queen's Speech kicks so much off the field that, after it, there will be standing room only in the long grass. Too much that ought to be done now is being held over for another time—increasingly, not just for another time, but for another Parliament.
Six great themes comprise the modernisation programme to which we on the Liberal Democrat Benches are committed and to which the Government claim to be committed, too. They are the modernisation of our constitution, our welfare system, our economy, our relations with Europe and our public services, and the modernisation of our relationship, both as individuals and as the state, with our natural environment. If the Government are to achieve their aims, we must see clear and distinctive progress in this Session on each of those key areas. There are clear markers in each against which the Government will be judged.
On the constitution, the Government have already achieved a great deal—but there is much more yet to be done before the locked-together constitutional reform programme is complete. There must be an early return of the European Parliamentary Elections Bill, and a clear and fixed determination to drive it through in time for June's elections—however long their lordships must sit. The Conservatives' obstructionism and the votes of hereditary peers must not be allowed to overturn the wishes of the British people, two thirds of whom voted last year for proportional representation at next year's European elections.
§ Mr. Ashdown
The leader of the Conservative party mutters about closed lists. Let us test his sincerity on the matter. When an amendment was tabled in Committee in the House of Lords proposing open lists, did the Conservatives vote for it? Not a single one did so. What is more, the Conservative spokesman who opposed that amendment described what they have now taken us to war over as manifestly unfair. That is rank hypocrisy on the Conservatives' part. There are no other words for it. In now pretending that they will make an issue of something that they could not even support earlier, they are deliberately seeking to use the hereditary peers to overturn the wishes of the British people in the ballot box, two thirds of whom voted for proportional representation. That is the standard to which the Conservative party has now sunk. It uses a constitutional impropriety to overturn the will of the people. This issue is again one of the peers against the people. There is no other way to look at it.
§ Mr. Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West)
That is the right hon. Gentleman's description of the past. In this Session, when the Bill comes back, will he ask the Prime Minister to accept open lists?
§ Mr. Ashdown
Exactly so. The hon. Gentleman obviously does not have a command of the procedures of 41 the House. He cannot have such a command. The Bill has to come forward in its present form or the ultimate resource of the Parliament Act 1911, which has to be invoked to take it through, cannot be used. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman does not even know that.
If the Bill comes back in a changed form, the Parliament Act cannot be used. If the Conservatives are about to say that they will give the Bill passage—
§ Mr. Ashdown
Is the hon. Gentleman about to say that the Conservatives will give the Bill passage? Is the hon. Gentleman about to say that?—[HON. MEMBERS: "Give way."] No. The question has already been answered. If any Conservative Member would like to come to the Dispatch Box or anywhere else to say that the Conservative party will give the Bill passage, I think that we would be prepared to listen. If Conservatives are not prepared to say that, the Bill must take its course through this House and the House of Lords. We shall see whether the Conservatives, once again, will stand against the will of the people and use the hereditary peers to do so.
§ Mr. Ashdown
I note that the right hon. Gentleman has changed his tack. The question is whether we are prepared to allow hereditary peers to overrule the wishes of the people and the wishes of the elected Chamber. I am not prepared to put into position a case where we ask the hereditary peers to overturn the wishes of the House. That would be constitutionally improper and I am surprised that the right hon. Gentleman proposed it.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Because a Member is addressing the House. That is why I ask the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) to be quiet.
§ Mr. Ashdown
It is scarcely surprising that the Government and the rest of the country welcome the proposed reform of the House of Lords. If there was any doubt about the necessity for this reform, there can be none now as a result of what has happened over the past few weeks. Surely there can be no place in a 21st-century Parliament for people with 15th-century titles and 19th-century prejudices. We shall support the Government in the abolition of the sitting and voting rights of hereditary peers. We shall urge them to make early 42 progress on setting their plans and a timetable for the second stage of reform. To fail to do so would be to give unnecessary ammunition to those who seek to defend the otherwise indefensible.
The Government have announced the establishment of a royal commission. We welcome that. However, its work should be time limited and it should report no later than the spring of the year 2000.
We have also been promised a draft freedom of information Bill. That much, at least, is good. But when? The right hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) told us last week—he should know—that his Bill has been in preparation for 18 months. So what is the delay? If the publication of that draft Bill is held up beyond the first weeks of next year, the suspicion will grow that the Government are involved in not the delivery of a manifesto promise but its emasculation.
I remind the Government that the new arrangement for carrying over Bills commences in this Session. So there is nothing to stop them introducing freedom of information legislation in the summer, if they wish, and carrying it over to the next Session if they run out of time. We would wish the Government to make a commitment that, if there is time in this Session, the freedom of information Bill will be introduced.
Modernising our welfare system is the second key declared aim of the Government's programme this year. The scope of the Bill to be presented is wider than many, including ourselves, had anticipated. We welcome that if it means a more comprehensive approach to welfare reform. However, the devil will be in the detail, and judging by the detail pre-leaked to the press, much is sketchy, some is worrying, and almost none has been subject to consultation so far.
One item that has been the subject of discussion is stakeholder pensions. We are glad to see that included—or perhaps I should say re-included—in the Government's programme, but that leaves unanswered the big question: are stakeholder pensions to be optional, as we hear, or are they to be universal? In this country 27 million people face the prospect of hardship in old age because of underfunded pensions. There is only one way to solve that—by making second-tier pensions universal. Are the Government prepared to grasp that nettle, or will they duck the issue, as we have heard so far?
On the economy, the key, as the Prime Minister said last week, is stability—how to create it and how to preserve it. The Government have made good early progress towards monetary stability by granting independence to the Bank of England last year, as we have long recommended. Good, but are they prepared to back that up with the measures necessary for fiscal stability and exchange rate stability?
Next year will be tough for the economy, especially for manufacturing and for manufacturing employment. The question that the Government must answer is whether they are prepared to hold their course, as they have said they will, and whether they can sustain their commitment to the golden rule when the economy gets rougher and the decisions get a lot tougher. Crucially, will the Government now give the lead that the country so desperately needs on the issue of the single currency—adopting a declaratory policy, setting a target date for joining and pursuing a policy that enables us to do that?
43 That is not, as the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Radice) pointed out, just a matter of the enthusiasm of the Liberal Democrats. There is now a wide view across industry that what the country needs is a lead. Only yesterday, as the hon. Gentleman noted, 114 senior business people, including the leaders of 20 of the FTSE 100 listed companies, issued a statement calling on the Government to give the lead on the euro that they and the country are calling for.
The position that the Prime Minister has adopted is no different from that of his predecessor. We sit on the fence. We do nothing. We wait until the time is ripe. That is the old formula for a lack of leadership, rather than giving the country a clear direction. I understand that it would mean taking a risk—perhaps even a risk with some of the Prime Minister's newspaper-owner friends, but that is what leadership is about. It means giving the country a clear lead on a big issue. The Government are failing the country when they fail to do that.
§ Mr. Ben Bradshaw (Exeter)
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that there is a crucial difference between this Government's policy and that of the previous Government? Theirs was against, in principle; ours is in favour, in principle. Theirs was wait and see; ours is prepare and decide.
§ Mr. Ashdown
I strongly welcome that. It should make it all the easier for the Government to come clean and set the lead. I have no doubt that that is what they believe and that is the direction in which they are going, but they cannot lead the nation by stealth. They must make sure that they set a direction for the country. In so far as the Prime Minister and his Government agree with the hon. Gentleman and me, I find it perplexing and bewildering that they cannot set that lead. I can put it down only to timidity on the issue, which I think is not the characteristic for which the Government would want to be recognised.
§ Mr. Skinner
The right hon. Gentleman does not understand. We fought an election on the issue, and we got a massive majority. I know that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister reads the manifestos and studies them carefully. I do the same. I made a few alterations, but he has to stick to the overall new Labour manifesto. I expect him, as an honourable man, to carry it through. All the wailing and whining from the leader of the Liberal party, who is desperate to hang on to his job, will not change my right hon. Friend's mind.
§ Mr. Ashdown
The Prime Minister should give the hon. Gentleman a job. It would be useful. It might show whether they were still fighting on the same manifesto. I suspect that there is a vast difference between the two.
To be fair, the Government's manifesto was that they would decide according to the nation's interests. Fine. I know of no cogent case in support of the country's future interests which requires us not to join a single currency. That is evident now. If the Prime Minister would like to describe circumstances which he can foresee in which he 44 will take a decision not to join, I will agree that he should sit on the fence and look longer. But I do not believe that such a case can be made.
On the public services, the Government's flagship Bill in this Session will be one to restructure the NHS—again. To be fair, what the Government plan is a vast improvement on the Tories' legacy. But, as my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) said earlier, they have missed the chance to make the NHS more democratically accountable—to its public, not to its professionals—and to give all, rather than just a few NHS professionals, a greater stake in their service. They have also missed their chance for the most important restructuring of all—the integration of health and social services, which would have been well worth while.
The Government have ducked the central health issues, what one might call the "r" words—recruitment and retention of staff; how to raise funds for the NHS and, most crucial of all, the question, again raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey, of rationing. Unless we are prepared to face up to the issue of rationing in the NHS, we will never resolve the underlying question of the underfunding of the NHS. The longer we duck that question, the longer we shall fail to resolve it.
§ Mr. Ashdown
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I shall make a little more progress. If he seeks to intervene later, I shall be happy to consider that.
The final key area in which a modern Britain would look for action from the Government is that mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker)—the environment. In many ways, that is the most disappointing and depressing omission from the programme. The Government are fond of Green Papers, but they are less fond of genuinely green policies.
The Prime Minister, introducing his first Queen's Speech 18 months ago, promised toput concern for the environment at the heart of policy making".— [Official Report, 14 May 1997; Vol. 294, c. 68.]It now appears that that was the same heart his predecessor put us at in relation to Europe. Eighteen months later, there has been no significant legislation to back up those words. From the look of this Queen's Speech, there will be none in the next 12 months either.
There are no energy efficiency measures to build on what we have. There is no progress towards green taxation and nothing to protect wildlife. Above all, there is nothing to reduce the number of cars on the road. During last year's election, Labour promised that it wouldreduce and reverse traffic growth".
§ Mr. Ashdown
It is the Prime Minister's party's policy. In June last year, the Deputy Prime Minister confirmed that when he said that he wouldhave failed if in five years' time there are not … fewer journeys by car.45 "Hold me to it," he said—strong words. Unfortunately, the Government's transport White Paper now meekly hopes onlyto reduce the rate of traffic growth".The aim of reducing traffic has been converted into reducing the rate of the increase in traffic. Faced with their promise to reduce and reverse traffic growth, I fear that the Government have simply reduced and reversed their transport policy.
The Deputy Prime Minister—I say this in his absence—has, to the surprise and delight of many, including me, gained a growing and deserved reputation for being serious about the environment. He is widely admired and respected abroad for that. But he is not, it seems, sufficiently trusted by his Government to introduce a single piece of nationwide legislation on the environment which could make a reality of his brave words in foreign conference halls from Rio to Buenos Aires.
I may be wrong. I am eager to be proved so. Perhaps the Government will do something about it. Here are two markers for making the final judgment. Will the Government now address the problem of road traffic growth with the seriousness that they promised at the election? We shall wait and see. Will they, when it comes to the Budget, finally grasp the nettle of environmental taxation so that we can begin taxing what we do not want, such as pollution and resource use, rather than what we do, such as income and wealth?
§ Mr. Geraint Davies
The right hon. Gentleman will recall a document entitled "Moving ahead", passed at a Liberal party conference, which suggested that personal income tax allowances be changed from £4,195 to £10,000, costing the country some £29 billion. Would he have liked to see that change in today's Queen's Speech? Would he have raised that £29 billion from an environmental tax, and, if so, how?
§ Mr. Ashdown
The answer is yes. We believe that that could be done during two Parliaments, and that taking taxes off the things that we want more of, such as wealth and jobs, and putting them on to the things that we want less of, such as pollution and the use of finite raw materials, would generate large sums of money which could be used to reduce taxation, particularly thresholds. Our judgment—not particularly radical, rather conservative—is that during two Parliaments it would be possible to achieve precisely what the hon. Gentleman has referred to in our policy document.
This is a Queen's Speech for a busy year. But leaving aside the measures on the other place and on welfare, we shall be busy doing chiefly small things because too many of the big things have been ducked. The reform of the House of Lords is radical and necessary, but it is not an excuse for the exclusion of other matters which should be tackled now if the reforms to which the Government say they are committed are still to be achieved in this Parliament.
For the second Queen's Speech in a row, the Government are still consulting on legislation on freedom of information. Legislation on a strategic rail authority is still not quite ready. A food standards agency—a top priority for restoring confidence among consumers and producers—is still, apparently, in a legislative no-man's land.
46 We have no difficulty in supporting the Government in many areas, and in working with them where we agree. We share many of their declared ambitions, but we regret the slow pace which has been set by this Queen's Speech and that so much of the Government's programme has been kicked into the long grass. We regret the caution in the Queen's Speech and, in time, the Government will regret it too.
We would never have had Nye Bevan's NHS, or Beveridge's welfare state, or Lloyd George's old-age pensions, if those Governments had been as timid as this Government are now. They succeeded because they were prepared to take risks, including, sometimes, with their own popularity. The Government are putting their success at risk because they are too timid. They are considering too much how they will survive the next election and too little the long-term good of the nation beyond that.
We fear that, by the end of this year, too much that ought to have been done will have been left undone, and too many Bills will be standing in the long grass waiting to be completed, waiting for a different time and perhaps even for a different Parliament.
§ Dr. David Clark (South Shields)
I am glad to have caught your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to join in the debate so ably opened by the mover of the Address, my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton), and seconded by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Dr. Clark).
I have known my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw for almost 30 years. His contribution was typical of him: it was witty and down to earth and, in a sense, it epitomised him in that he is the epitome of common sense. He truly represents his Bassetlaw constituents.
I do not know my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Pentlands as well as I know my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw. I have visited her constituency—I join her in acknowledging the beauty of that part of Edinburgh—and I was impressed by the forward-looking, progressive approach that she and her constituents had to affairs of state. I have been cross-examined by her in a Select Committee: she showed her forensic skills, and got to the core of the problem in the way she did when she seconded the Address. I look forward to hearing her speak in future.
The right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) made a good speech, although he got carried away a little bit in his peroration. He talked about timidity, but he has not taken on board the problems that the Government face.
I find myself in rather a strange environment. This is the first time for a decade and a half that I have spoken from the Back Benches, and I was rather cruelly reminded of that by my local paper, The Gazette, which is the oldest provincial evening paper—and the most important paper—in the country. When I asked my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister a question a couple of weeks ago, The Gazette ran the story and introduced it topically by saying, "Last time our Member of Parliament asked a question from the Back Benches, Alan Shearer was still at school." That brought it home forcefully to me, but here I am.
Most of my years as a Front Bencher were spent on the other side of the House, preparing for a Labour Government. I do not believe that those years were 47 wasted, and I have certainly not been disappointed by the first 18 months of the Labour Government. There have been many active, radical and progressive measures—more than 50 Bills—and I look forward to many more in the years to come.
I shall follow the path of the right hon. Member for Yeovil and try to compare the progress of the Government with that made by the other two radical, left-of-centre Governments of this century, although it is difficult to do so after only 18 months and we should perhaps take a raincheck on it.
Those Governments were returned by landslide—in 1906, as the right hon. Gentleman said, and in 1945. I see obvious parallels. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made clear, the first is welfare reform. In the early years of this century, that first radical, Liberal Government were dealing with only the basic requirements of the welfare state, although that is perhaps too grand a title for it. A lot of Bismarckian concepts were accepted within our system, but that was a way forward and it was probably epitomised by old-age pensions, which were introduced in that period.
I think that everyone accepts that the 1945 Government laid the groundwork for a complete change in the relationship between society and the citizen: we had the welfare state, the national health service, pensions, national insurance and a raft of measures which served us well for the best part of 40 years. It is interesting that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister greatly emphasised the fact that one of the present Government's flagships would be welfare reform, based, as the Queen's Speech says, onclear principles of work, security, fairness and value for money.That is right.
The Government are trying to expose our unhealthy dependency on the dependency culture. The Queen's Speech refers to the stakeholder pension, the working families tax credit—I am disappointed and saddened that the official Opposition have said that they are opposed to those—the disability rights commission and a range of changes in the welfare system. That must be right.
The other common factor, which has tended to dominate the debate today, is reform of the House of Lords. It is uncanny how history keeps repeating itself, and it is uncanny that that first radical, Liberal Government of 1906 ran into trouble with the other House; indeed, the position was the people versus the peers. The two general elections in 1910 culminated in the Act of Parliament that finally cut the Gordian knot—the Parliament Act 1911.
History repeated itself under the 1945 Government—a radical, Labour Government were frustrated by the other House. They had to use the legislation of the previous radical Government—the 1911 Act—to achieve the Parliament Act 1949. Here are we in 1998: in 1999 or 2000, we shall have, in effect, another Parliament Act or House of Lords reform through the invoking of the 1949 Act. That has got to be right. In my judgment, it is impossible in a modern society to defend a legislature that is based partly on the hereditary principle. That is anathema to democracy and an anachronism which cannot sit comfortably in the new millennium.
§ Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)
The right hon. Gentleman will agree that, if there is to be a bicameral 48 Parliament, as we have now, the second Chamber will have to be in some way effective and in some way independent. For all its faults—I willingly accept that it is imperfect—the House of Lords has a degree of independence. Hon. Members laugh, but it is painfully obvious that it has a degree of independence in that it voted against the Conservative Government a great deal in the previous 18 years.
The right hon. Gentleman is an intelligent and sensible man. Does he believe that it would be an improvement on the current situation to have purely nominated peers sitting in a second Chamber—which would be unreformed, apart from getting rid of the independent element—and to have a Chamber resting solely on the patronage of the Prime Minister?
§ Dr. Clark
One of the weakest points made by the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) was his attempt to claim that the House of Lords was independent. I find that incomprehensible, and I believe that 99.9 per cent. of the British people would do likewise. If the hon. Gentleman reads the Gracious Speech, he will see reference to a royal commission. He will have heard my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister refer to the fact that he would seek consensus wherever he could, to try to achieve agreement about a reformed second Chamber. That is the way forward.
The hereditary peers in the House of Lords are the antithesis of what drives the Government—modernisation. It is clear that, if we are to equip our country and ourselves for the new millennium, we must modernise many of our institutions and approaches. One might argue that the Government were elected on the theme of regeneration—the economic, social and democratic regeneration of our country. That was the right approach, and it was endorsed by an overwhelming number of constituencies, which is why the Government have a majority of 179.
It is a matter of regret that so many Opposition Members still have not realised that the British people yearn for modernisation of our country so that we can play our part in the world. If we are to modernise our country, we must modernise our attitudes, our culture and some of our institutions. A key cultural change which needs to be made is that of the Government's relationship with its citizens. There must be more openness. I was pleased to hear the Leader of the Opposition support the concept of a freedom of information Bill—such a concept has certainly been endorsed by his official spokesman. If we are to change our culture, we must move from being one of the most secretive societies, when it comes to government information, to one of the most open.
Last December, I produced a White Paper entitled "Your Right to Know", which has been widely welcomed. Everyone agrees that it would move us a long way forward. Although more than 90 per cent. of the work on the draft Bill was completed, I was not surprised that it was not mentioned in the Gracious Speech.
§ Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)
On behalf of the Liberal Democrats, I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for the work that he has undertaken on that important aspect of modernising our system of government. Does he accept that the best way to test the Conservative 49 party's intentions is to bring forward a Bill as soon as possible? We could then see what Conservative Members did with it.
§ Dr. Clark
I shall pick up that point as I develop my argument.
I understand the Government's difficulties. We do not know the position of either the Conservative party or the other place. Given the limited time at our disposal, certain Bills have had to be put on the back burner. Like the right hon. Member for Yeovil, I was encouraged to see the draft Bill referred to in the Gracious Speech, but I was disappointed that it did not go before the Select Committee on Public Administration in September as we had hoped. I hope that that will happen early in the new year. It is an extremely useful innovation whereby we publish draft Bills and hon. Members can analyse them and make suggestions so that, when Bills finally come before the House, they are in the finest possible form. Freedom of information is not an easy subject on which to legislate, given the interface with human rights, data protection and the necessary security of our country. However, we have done all the detailed background work and are well on the way to having a fine piece of legislation. I anticipate that such a Bill will appear in the next Gracious Speech in 12 months' time.
I have dealt with changes in culture; I shall conclude by discussing changes in institutions. The structure of government is becoming increasingly outdated. It is based on the paper chase of the old industrial society. We are moving into not only a new millennium but, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said this afternoon, a new world—an information society—which means that many of our institutions will have to change. The Gracious Speech recognises that by announcing a Bill that will transfer the Contributions Agency to the Inland Revenue. That makes common sense, as the system will be more efficient and easier for our citizens, which is what government should be about.
I was also pleased that the Gracious Speech referred to a Bill on electronic commerce. I disagreed slightly with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister—I am glad that he is not here now—when he said that we have two decades in which to make such changes. The pace of change in electronic issues is so fast that, unless we get it right within one decade, or half a decade, we shall miss the boat.
I was interested to see that we must still await a White Paper on better government. I was encouraged to see in the Sunday press that the Government were investigating the possibility of doing away with girocheques for the payment of benefits. They are an out-of-date and inefficient method of paying benefit and are open to fraud. We should move towards a system whereby, once a person has been assessed for benefit, the money is immediately transferred electronically. The possible savings are immense. When a similar process was undertaken in Australia, the cost of delivering benefits was reduced from 100 cents to 4 cents. Savings of a similar magnitude were made in the United States.
We should not be timid about making such a change. Hon. Members on both sides of the House want post offices to be retained. People who do not want to use a bank should be offered a free post office account so that money can be transferred to it directly. Many rural areas 50 have no banks, so post offices could be used instead. Experts in such matters say that we could save some £6 billion a year on our welfare bill.
I hope and anticipate that the ideas that I have put forward will appear in future Queen's Speeches. We have heard today the second stage of the plan of a radical Government who intend to modernise our country. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw said, we still have a 27 per cent. lead in the polls. If we keep up our radical agenda, which is relevant to the ordinary people of Britain, we shall retain that massive lead and the support of the general public.
§ 5.8 pm
§ Sir Michael Spicer (West Worcestershire)
Given the circumstances of the departure from office of the right hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), he made an extraordinarily loyalist speech. If the Government's proposals for the House of Lords go through and it becomes an entirely appointed Chamber, the right hon. Gentleman will deserve his reward. If I were him, my only nagging worry would be the Prime Minister's attitude to his own party; although the Prime Minister has an aversion to the Conservative party, he has a far greater aversion to the Labour party. Judging from the reaction of Labour Back Benchers this afternoon, the feeling is mutual.
I have never thought of the Prime Minister as a closet Conservative, as some do. However, he is extremely fond of the Liberal Democrats, so it is not surprising that the thrust of the Queen's Speech should be so attractive to them. The right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) said that the Liberal Democrats approved of much of the Queen's Speech. He should have said that they approved of most of it, because that is what he really meant. He merely wanted to tinker with it, and go a little further here and there. Nothing in the Queen's Speech was fundamentally out of tune with the views of the Liberal Democrats. That is now par for the course.
§ Mr. Baker
That is a gross misrepresentation of the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown). We do not disagree with much in the Queen' s Speech, but we have made the point that a huge amount is missing from it—whether on the environment or whatever—and that is terribly important. We have great doubts about the value of the Queen's Speech for that reason.
§ Sir Michael Spicer
No doubt, the Government will be listening to those pointers, and they will be followed up. I intended to show how that is likely to develop. When we boil it down, Liberal Democrat policy has two strands—the right hon. Gentleman said that there were six, but I think there are only two.
One strand is the party's policy towards Parliament, which is simply stated. It is to give itself more power through proportional representation, and then, in effect, to abolish Parliament. It is an inconsistent policy, but it would result in the break-up of the United Kingdom and, therefore, of this Parliament. Proportional representation would break up relationships with constituencies. The bits and pieces of what will be left after the power of the second Chamber to provide checks and balances has been broken up will be handed over to European institutions. That is the paradoxical basis of the Liberal Democrats' policy on the parliamentary side.
51 More interesting perhaps are the Government's policies on the economy and how they fit in with the instructions that are increasingly being issued to them by the Liberal Democrat party. One of the Government's key economic policies is to do away with old-style nationalisation, because it appeals too much to the old Labour party. With the agreement of the Liberal Democrats—I should be happy to debate the many examples of such agreement with them—the Government want to put in its place widespread, interventionist, regulatory policies. Those regulatory policies are much more widespread than people realise, and are mind-bogglingly extreme. Regulation is part of the theme of the Queen's Speech.
The Government have already adapted the regulatory institutions that they inherited—for gas, water and electricity—so that they manage those industries in some detail. Investment policy is now the job of the regulator in those three industries and the regulatory bodies have imposed tough rules on investment. The Queen's Speech promises much more. There is to be legislation to provide afair basis for water charging in England and Wales.The regulatory bodies are to control not only investment, but pricing. One could argue that there is not much left of a business to run if the control of pricing and investment has been given to a regulatory body. There must be an element of independence. That is appealing to the Liberal Democrats. I do not know whether it appeals to the real Labour party, but I suspect that, as it does not involve nationalisation, it does not appeal to it very much.
The Government were most explicit about the Financial Services Authority in the draft Bill on that subject which they published some months ago. Clause 70 of that draft Bill gives the FSA power to make its own rules as it goes along, including "conduct of business rules". That is quite extraordinary, because it is the first time that such permissive powers have been given to a regulatory body. Further clauses do not restrict the authority. It must accept certain representations, but there is no sign of the effect of those representations or of what the procedure will be. The FSA is to be accountable to nobody, except possibly the European Court of Human Rights, which is not a court of this Parliament.
The Treasury Select Committee, on which I have the honour to serve, as do some Labour Members present, recently passed a report. I am afraid that I was the only person who voted against the publication of the report. The Liberal Democrats support and like very much the part of the report that says:We recommend that the Treasury examine whether legislation or further rules are necessary to define what is meant by policyholders' 'reasonable expectations'".That related to the mis-selling of pension policies. The regulators can set their own rules, and can set prices and investment. Their job is also to give everyone total protection. The philosophy is that everyone should invest with total protection, and if they do not have total protection, heavy penalties can be imposed.
The City of London and the nation should be quaking in their boots. Almost 10 per cent. of all foreign earnings—£170 billion a year—comes from foreign investments placed by the City of London, which, by most standards, has become the most successful financial center 52 in the world, including New York. That is now to be put at risk. The regulatory strand of the Queen's Speech is one of the most worrying, because it shows that the Government's strategy is to control the minutiae of the economy right across the board. That would have been unimaginable until a year or so ago.
The Under-Secretary of State for International Development looks worried or puzzled—perhaps he does not understand. The major fields of economic activity in this country have regulatory bodies that control investment and prices, and make up their own rules as they go along. How can he not agree that that is pervasive and all-consuming? Perhaps I am being helpful to the Government, because I am re-establishing some contact between them and their Back Benchers, who may like this policy. When they realise what is going on, they may think that it is better than nationalisation. However, the Government cannot say that these regulatory bodies will be accountable to anyone, and certainly not to Parliament.
The second strand of the Government's policy that is warmly supported by the Liberal Democrats—indeed, they say that they invented it, and perhaps they did—is to build a massive wall between the instruments of fiscal policy and those of monetary policy. By handing over control of monetary policy to the Bank of England, they have stripped Parliament—with the rare exception of the Treasury Select Committee, which is allowed to ask the Chancellor and the Governor of the Bank of England questions about those matters from time to time—of its power to hold accountable the body that governs our monetary policy.
The effect of that on the economy is potentially disastrous and, I hope, will be disastrous for the Labour Government. For the time being, the Government have been given a reprieve. The Government proudly announced unfunded expenditure plans of £40 billion over the next three years. The deficit has already been revised by £11 billion in the recent budgetary statement. The Government make great play of having been brave in the past two years, but they have merely applied Conservative policies on expenditure. Now that they are swimming on their own, the real Labour Government are having to revise the deficit projections almost weekly. It is now up to £11 billion, and no doubt it will go beyond that in the next few weeks.
Recently, all that has—so far—been accompanied by a fall in interest rates. In that sense, there has been a reprieve; Labour Members have breathed a sigh of relief, and the problem appears to have gone away. However, we should not bet on that continuing to be the case. The Government have, among other things, made it the law of the land that the Bank of England shall comply with a 2.5 per cent. inflation rate target.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) said earlier that we should not believe everything that the Bank says. The point is that those people now run the economy, and, if they believe what they say, that is good enough in terms of what economic policy is to be. A cursory flip through the Bank's inflation report reveals very quickly that, in the Bank's view, inflation is just around the corner. On page ii, the report states:The outlook for inflation continues to depend upon developments in the labour market.The next sentence tells us that the labour market "remains tight". Later, the Bank says: 53Downside risks to inflation from weaker growth than in the central projection are largely balanced by upside risks, which include the possibilities of a more rapid fall in the exchange rate and of past money growth creating upward pressure on prices.On the next page, the report says that monetary growth has been increasing recently, and gives the M4 figure. On the basis of bank lending figures, the growth has been even faster.
The Bank rather slides over one point. I hope that, when the Governor comes to see us the day after tomorrow, we shall probe him on this. I refer to the extent to which the Bank, in its calculations, has taken into account the effect of the Government's unwise, unfunded new spending plans, to which the report makes only a cursory allusion.
Given all those pressures, the likelihood of the Government's economic policy ending in tears is rather greater than it appears at first glance. The Government—in the Queen's Speech, they said again how proud they were of this—have isolated monetary policy aimed at controlling inflation from fiscal policy that is likely to increase inflation. The effect may well be economically disastrous.
It is because the Prime Minister, in particular—but also those whom he appoints—does not trust his own party that the Government have done what they have done to the Bank of England. It is a happy coincidence that they have pleased the Liberals in the process. That is also why the Government are sidling up to the Liberals on a daily basis. It can be felt across the Chamber. The questioning that takes place between the right hon. Member for Yeovil and the Prime Minister is almost a charade. There is an electricity between them.
The Prime Minister has embarked on a policy that he knows will end in tears in his own party, and, in so doing, has sown the seeds of his own destruction. That bodes badly for him, unless the Prime Minister decides to cross the Floor and join the Liberals—which is always a prospect, and may be the Prime Minister's fantasy. The Labour party is becoming increasingly restless, as was evident to us today. Labour Members have accused us of talking among ourselves, but the talking that was going on among them while the Prime Minister was speaking had to be heard to be believed.
The problem stems from a fundamental policy of separating monetary policy—which has now been taken out of the hands of politicians—and fiscal policy. The Government are apparently proud of that, and proud of their relations with the Liberals in that context; but I believe that it will end in disaster for the country, and, I hope, disaster for the Labour party.
§ Mr. Jim Marshall (Leicester, South)
I shall not follow the path trodden not so lightly by the hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Sir M. Spicer), who seems bemused and obsessed by conspiracy theories. I have my own doubts about the relationship between the Prime Minister and the Liberal Democrats, but they do not resonate with the hon. Gentleman's views.
I join others in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) on his speech. There can be no one more appropriate than a poacher turned gamekeeper to respond to the Queen's Speech. Unlike my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), I am not convinced that my hon. Friend is 54 always a font of common sense, but he always speaks from the heart, and I think that that came over in his speech.
May I issue a mild reproach? My hon. Friend referred to his birth and upbringing in Sheffield—particularly Attercliffe—and to the canal that runs through Attercliffe, which featured in the film "The Full Monty". Not all Members may know this, but my hon. Friend and I know that, when we are in company, as we were this afternoon—perhaps a company of 500 more than that to which we are used—and he regales the company with his story, he nearly always states that he and I were born and lived with 150 yd of each other. Today of all days, my hon. Friend could have mentioned that: it would have gained more publicity for me and for my constituency, today and tomorrow, than this or any other speech that I am likely to make in the current Parliament.
§ Mr. Ashton
I must disappoint my hon. Friend. Although we grew up within 150 yd of each other, the house in which I was born was bombed in the blitz.
My hon. Friend has not mentioned the fact that the neighbourhood, near the canal, contained a Sir and a Dame, both of whom led Sheffield city council. There must be something in Attercliffe that breeds good politicians.
§ Mr. Marshall
The House will be pleased to know that the houses involved have now been pulled down, so none of it is likely to occur again.
I agree with everything that my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields said about the freedom of information legislation. I am sorry that it did not appear this time, and I hope that the Government will honour their commitment to introduce it in next year's Queen's Speech; I am sure that they will.
In general, I give a cautious welcome to the Queen's Speech, which further implements some of our election pledges. I want to mention five topics, four of which were clearly itemised in the Speech. I hope, for the sake of remaining in order, that the fifth is covered by the wordsOther measures will be laid before you".Government spokespersons may consider some of my comments to be mildly critical—they would be right to do so—but I hope that some of what I say will strike them as helpful and useful.
Like the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), I believe that the Government should reintroduce the European Parliamentary Elections Bill. I am not a great supporter of the closed-list system—indeed, I am probably an opponent of it—but I nevertheless think that the House of Lords was wrong to continue its opposition to the Bill. The convention is clear, and has been for at least 50 years: the House of Lords can oppose once, perhaps twice, but, ultimately, it gives in. There is no precedent for defeating the Government's business on five occasions.
We could all think of constitutional situations where the House of Lords would be correct to continue to defy the will of the House of Commons, but by no stretch of the imagination, including even the wild rhetoric of the Leader of the Opposition, can the closed-list system be argued to pose a constitutional threat to the United Kingdom, so the House of Lords was wrong. It was wrongly advised by the Tory leadership in the House of Commons.
55 It is clear that the backbone of the Tories in the House of Lords was reinforced by the will of the Tory leadership in the House of Commons. I just hope that the Tory leadership in the other House will now decide to do what I believe it wanted to do at the death last week: to acquiesce in the passage of the legislation. I hope that the Tory noble Lords will be able to convince the Tory leadership in the House of Commons of the need to progress the legislation through the House of Commons and House of Lords by January next year, so that the Government can put in place proportional representation for elections to the European Parliament in June.
I welcome the legislation to abolish the right of hereditary peers to sit and to vote in the House of Lords. I am not sure from the Gracious Speech whether we are also going to remove their right to continue to use the House of Lords as a club; I would certainly favour doing that. If we are going to abolish their right to sit and to vote there, we might as well go the whole hog and deny them admission to the House of Lords.
There is no doubt that the Government's proposal is correct. Despite what Opposition Members may say, there is widespread agreement that the anachronism that has existed for 800 years, whereby 750 individuals, by the accident and privilege of their birth, have conferred on them the right to participate in Parliament, must be ended as soon as possible.
I understand the argument that there is a need to progress fairly quickly the total package of reform of the House of Lords. We cannot continue for any great length of time to have just a rump House of Lords, but that should not prevent us from proceeding with the Government's legislation.
I hope that the Government make it absolutely clear to the royal commission that is to examine the future of the House of Lords that it is duty bound to report within two years, so that the Government, and particularly the Labour party, can put proposals to the British electorate at the next election—because we are talking about the next Parliament, not this one—and again get a mandate for the total package of reform of the House of Lords.
My third item concerns the Government's proposals on the fairness at work legislation. I congratulate the Government on bringing that forward. I just hope that my congratulations are not premature.
I hope that the Government will persist in the proposals that were outlined in the White Paper "Fairness at Work" some months ago. I think that many of my parliamentary colleagues would agree that the proposals, particularly those dealing with trade union recognition, represent a modest change to redress the imbalance that was introduced by Tory legislation over 18 years. The operative word there is "modest" because, despite the bluster—there has been a lot of bluster about the issue both in the House and in the country at large—of some individual employers, the proposals do not represent a transformation, or resurgence, of trade union power.
I hope that the Government will not qualify the 50 per cent.-plus-one rule for automatic union recognition by imposing arbitrary time limits on union membership before a union member is able to participate in ballots, or by saying that someone has to have been a member of 56 the trade union for a sufficient length of time for the rule to apply. If the Government accede to that request, and I understand that the CBI, even at the 11th hour, still continues to put pressure on the Government to accept such a change, it could lead to chaos in British industry for two reasons.
First—clearly, this does not apply to all employers—there will be unscrupulous employers who will use that time limit on membership to question each and every individual union membership, which would delay virtually indefinitely the recognition of a trade union in that company or place of work. Secondly, trade union recognition in those companies or industries where there is a high turnover of employees would be virtually impossible. For those reasons, the Government should not acquiesce in the CBI's request for time limits.
I wish that the Government would ensure that companies that had fewer than 20 employees came within the ambit of the legislation. The Government are making a grave mistake in excluding such companies. I hope that, even at this late stage, we shall be able to convince the Government, when we discuss the nitty-gritty of the legislation, to accept an amendment that will reduce the figure from 20.
Having been critical, let me say that I warmly welcome the proposed reduction—from two years to one year—of the qualification period for protection against unfair dismissal. That change is long overdue. The period is still a far cry from the six months that we originally had when legislation such as this was introduced by Labour Governments in the 1970s. Nevertheless, it represents a step in the right direction. If my reading of the press notices is correct, I should also welcome the increase in the ceiling for damages against unfair dismissal from £12,000 to £50,000.
I welcome proposed asylum and immigration legislation to include an appeals procedure for prospective visitors to the UK who are refused an entry certificate. Hon. Members who have a constituency such as mine, where many people are directly from, or are descended from citizens of, the Indian sub-continent, will be aware of the great distress that the present system causes.
Many of those constituents still have close family ties with people living abroad, particularly in the Indian sub-continent. Hundreds of those people visit my office in Leicester—yearly, I emphasise, not daily—and are at a total loss to understand why their relatives have been refused a visa. Often to them—and occasionally to me—the reasons given for the refusal appear perverse. The development of an appeals procedure will be an undoubted improvement as it will at least ensure greater conformity in decision making and the independent review of executive decisions.
My main concern about the proposal is the level of charge that an individual will have to pay for his appeal to be heard. In an exchange with the Home Secretary on the Floor of the House at the time of the publication of the White Paper, I asked what the charge would be. If my memory serves me correctly, the Home Secretary said that it would be somewhere in excess of £200 per applicant.
That is a prohibitively large sum for many people living in the Indian sub-continent and probably for those in other parts of the world as well. I hope that the Government will consider levying an additional charge on all those who apply for an entry certificate for this country. That 57 money could go towards funding the independent appeals procedure. I hope that we shall be able to convince the Government to make that change.
The Government clearly intend to make welfare reform one of the centrepieces of the legislative programme for this year. I accept their argument about the need to ensure that public funds are not abused. I accept their argument that those in greatest need must receive the most benefit and, of necessity, be targeted. I also agree that, if jobs are available—that could be a severe constraint—it is better for people to be in work than to be dependent on benefits. However, I do not accept the notion—I hope that the Government do not accept it either—that the welfare system is being systematically sucked dry by the healthy and workshy. I do not believe that for one moment.
As individual constituency Members of Parliament—I am sure that others experience the same thing—we see the victims and casualties of the failure of our economic system in our advice surgeries and local constituency offices on a daily basis. We have to ensure that, in the zeal for welfare reform, the lives of those who are dependent on the system are not made more difficult than they are already.
Finally—this is not an open or even a veiled threat and I hope that the Whip will not see it as such—I will judge the Government's proposals for welfare reform on how they will affect the lives of my constituents. I know that that sentiment is shared by others in the parliamentary Labour party.
§ Mrs. Virginia Bottomley (South-West Surrey)
The Labour party waited 18 years to govern. It is now 18 months since they became the Government and the Chamber is deserted. That is a reflection of new Labour's attitude to Parliament. If one looks at the Prayer Cards, one can see that there are about 25 on the Conservative Benches and only three on the Labour Benches. At 8 o'clock in the morning, the hon. Members for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan) tend to be here placing their Prayer Cards to secure their seats, but there are a great number of Conservative Members present because we continue to think that the House of Commons is where issues should be discussed and debated.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. George Foulkes)
I have been a Member of the House for nearly 20 years and I have never used a Prayer Card. I see no reason for doing so and I see no purpose in it. There are more Labour Members present now than Conservative Members.
§ Mrs. Bottomley
During the debate on the Gracious Speech, about one in three, or fewer, Labour Members were present. That is the extent to which they have been told to stay in their constituencies, not to make trouble and to avoid debating the issues of the day.
§ Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone)
That remark is ludicrous. The right hon. Lady will see that there are far more Prayer Cards on the Tory Benches than there are people sitting in their seats. The right hon. Lady will also note that there are many more Labour Members present. She said that there were 58 only a few Labour Members present at the start of the debate, but she should note that there were many more Labour Members than Tories.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. We are debating the Queen's Speech and not the procedure for putting down Prayer Cards. Both sides of the House have made their point and we must get back to the debate on the Queen's Speech. I am obliged to ask the right hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mrs. Bottomley) to do just that.
§ Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)
I want to point out that 25 per cent. of the Plaid Cymru parliamentary party are present.
§ Mrs. Bottomley
As I advance my argument, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you will see the relevance of my comments about the extent to which the Chamber of the House is consistently insulted.
It is interesting that the Prime Minister, who has voted on fewer occasions than any other recent Prime Minister and scarcely spends any time in the House—
§ Mrs. Bottomley
Of course. I always believe in giving way, but I will just finish my sentence.
It is interesting that the Prime Minister chose to stay for the speech of the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) but not for the first Back-Bench speech which was made by the right hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark). I suppose that is because the right hon. Gentleman has had the nerve to suggest recently that the No. 10 press machine has been disregarding or trying to gainsay the work he did during his time in office.
§ Mr. White
Does the right hon. Lady not realise that this House was brought into disrepute among the community outside by the actions of her Government over 18 years? Sometimes, we spend too much time contemplating the procedures of this place rather than debating the key issues affecting the country.
§ Mrs. Bottomley
I am looking forward to advancing my argument, but I must make one further point. If hon. Members visited Speaker's Court on a Thursday, they could see the number of cars. Last Thursday at 3.15 pm there were seven cars and on the previous Thursday there were only three. That was when we used to have Prime Minister's Question Time and Ministers had the grace to come to the House of Commons.
I point that out because one of the measures in the Queen's Speech is the proposal to change the nature of the House of Lords. The debate about the House of Lords would not be so serious if it were not happening under a Government who have shown themselves more determined to destroy dissent, control information and reduce the autonomy of Members of Parliament than any other in living memory.
In a way, I was looking forward to the experience of Opposition. I chose my seat in the House because it is the seat in which the noble Lord Shore used to sit when he 59 was a Member of the House of Commons. Like me, Lord Shore believes in the process of Parliament and the scrutiny of issues and debate. My concern about the Government's vandalism towards the constitution of move first, think later, is that the House of Lords has often been—sometimes to the great irritation of members of the Government when my party was in power—the one part of the legislature that could reverse a Government's decision or make a Government think again. We have not in living memory had a Government with such a high-handed and arrogant regard for their own powers.
A couple of weeks ago, The Sunday Times published a detailed article by Robert Harris, who commented on the Labour party's Stalinist approach in seeking to control candidate selection and Members of the European Parliament, and in seeking—above all—to diminish the significance of Cabinet Government in a manner that Baroness Thatcher would never have been able to get away with.
§ Mr. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire)
The right hon. Lady has been an hon. Member longer than I have. Will she remind me of the number of times that the other place went against a Conservative Government on five successive occasions? If the other place is so in touch with popular opinion and the public mood, why did it not bat back to the House such unpopular proposals and ineffective legislation as rail privatisation and the poll tax?
§ Mrs. Bottomley
I am not able to comment in detail on the thinking of the Lords or to express a view on the rights and wrongs of the conventions, but I can express my own viewpoint. As the right hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) will discover, the joy of being a Back Bencher is that one is no longer required to be mild, obedient, good and kind, but allowed to be eccentric, opinionated and difficult. I intend to continue in that vein.
Opinion polls show that at least two thirds of the public support continuation of the role of hereditary peers in the other place until an alternative has been developed. Even that great newspaper, The Sun—which, as the Prime Minister so often works with it, must be right—has taken that view. The point is that the powers of each legislative Chamber are being diminished or removed. Only the House of Lords still has a sting, which, like a bumble-bee's, seems to work. Ministers are hell-bent on removing hereditary peers' power before developing an alternative for all to appreciate.
§ Dr. Lynda Clark
Has the right hon. Lady overlooked the small matter of the Scottish Parliament, which will begin operating on 1 May?
§ Mrs. Bottomley
I accept that the Scottish Parliament has much support in Scotland. However, the hon. Lady's question challenges me to deal also with the Welsh Assembly. The Neill report effectively condemned the referendum on the Assembly. A great deal of money was provided to support one side in the referendum, a small fraction of people voted, and it is unlikely that the referendum's outcome can be changed in the foreseeable future.
60 Among other matters, I strongly criticise the Government for failing to introduce measures to follow up the Neill report. The good name of politicians—in whatever Chamber or setting they serve—is important to all in the United Kingdom.
The Neill report made specific recommendations on the referendum process. It is deplorable that Ministers—who made so much of the issue when in opposition—have provided no legislative opportunity in the Queen's Speech to deliver Neill's recommendations on referendums, especially when the referendum in Wales will have such long-term effects on the integrity of the United Kingdom.
§ Mr. Nigel Beard (Bexleyheath and Crayford)
Will the right hon. Lady remind us of the number of occasions on which she has condemned the Conservative party for receiving donations from foreign donors, some of whom have a dubious background?
§ Mrs. Bottomley
It is enormously unwise for Labour Members to start raising issues of improper behaviour. At a time when the Paymaster General is, we imagine, on his offshore island; when—because of his compromised situation—he has been unable to speak in the House, except for 54 seconds last week; when there are real concerns about many Labour party members; and when the closed lists that have been used in the House of Lords consist of an enormous number of characters whose generosity seemed to know no bounds before the general election—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. If the right hon. Lady is criticising someone in the other place—that seems to be what she is doing—she must remember that the convention of the House is to table a substantive motion for debate. She must not question the good character of anyone in the other place.
§ Mrs. Bottomley
I had absolutely no intention of doing that. I was provoked by the hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Beard), and I have always had a difficulty about being provoked in interventions. I shall try not to give way, and to stick to the main issue—which is the Government's serious lack of progress in the Queen's Speech on implementing Neill's recommendations. The public will make their own deductions about why the Government have not favoured such progress.
There was an omission also to mention any of the substantive issues dear to the right hon. Member for Yeovil. I do not blame him for yearning for a job.
§ Mrs. Bottomley
It is understandable for one to feel a yearning and sense of injustice after serving for so long but never having a ministerial car or a red box. I tell the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (Mr. Taylor) that, to those of us who have had 10 years accompanied by red boxes and other people driving the car, the opportunity to be eccentric, difficult and opinionated is irresistible.
The right hon. Member for Yeovil seems to have been sold short by the Government. Although the Prime Minister stayed in the Chamber for his speech, the right 61 hon. Gentleman seems—in no uncertain terms—to have been strung along on substantive matters, including a freedom of information Act, among many others.
Some of the proposals in the Queen's Speech are welcome. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition said, it is important that we establish a disability rights commission. My right hon. Friend is entitled to recognition for his important work on disability legislation, for which he has been widely commended.
I should like Ministers to be aware of the situation of Peter Stock, in Godalming. After the passage of community care legislation, he was an active member of the users and carers group. He will give strong witness to the degree to which disabled people and users' interests have been disregarded. He will give even stronger evidence on the degree to which the Government have taken a vindictive approach in the distortion of local government funds and health funds, which benefit metropolitan areas to the profound disadvantage of the shire counties.
Areas such as mine receive a 2.9 per cent. increase in health spending, whereas the average increase is 4 per cent. There is enormous demand, very large waiting lists and severe staff shortages. It is impossible to attract staff because of local cost factors. Moreover, there are no funds with which to attract staff. I am sure that Ministers will have to seek better answers in passing their legislation on the disability rights commission, and tell us why they have taken such a partisan approach to funding services for disabled people, which is operating to the disadvantage of areas such as my own.
The hon. Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall) mentioned the fairness at work measures—which, undoubtedly, are part of the "no say, no pay" response. I saw Lord Sawyer being introduced into the House of Lords recently as part, I suppose, of the some say, some pay process, which has long been understood in the Labour party.
The local government changes allow local authorities off the compulsory competitive tendering hook—once again, a payback to local government friends and the Labour party's power base.
Many will watch with anxiety what is delicately called the modernisation of justice. This is a Government with enormously close relationships with fat cat lawyers—I think that that is how they keep being described. I wonder what happens at the dinner tables of all these families where there seem to be a number of fat cat lawyers closely involved with leading politicians. The serious point is that the principle of justice, and our system in Britain, depends on independent lawyers. The Government's proposal is one that is easy to suggest, but will be extremely difficult to implement unless the legal profession is more tolerant of the Lord Chancellor now than it has been over the wallpaper and the tights, and the big modernisation step of turning his back on Her Majesty this morning.
The national health service proposals are, again, a triumph of rhetoric and ideology over common sense. It is nonsense for the Government to talk about bringing an end to the internal market while saying that they will maintain the distinction between the purchaser and the provider. The Queen's Speech refers to decentralised arrangements. That contrasts with the comments made by my GPs, who believe that the new arrangements are bureaucratic, cumbersome and stifling to innovation and 62 will result in inertia. The point about GP fundholding was that it encouraged GPs and primary care services to do things differently. That led to innovation and changes in practice from which others could learn. I recently spoke to osteopaths, who said that the first time that osteopathy was available on the NHS was when GP fundholding was introduced. Once a change in service provision had been tried, it was possible to apply it elsewhere.
I hope that, in the proposals for the national institute for clinical excellence, the Government will highlight the importance of innovation. I hope that they will not use NICE as a form of rationing. The right hon. Member for Yeovil is right to say that the Government should come clean on their priorities. GPs will be in an intolerable position if the Government do not take more lead in explaining what is and what is not available through the NHS, as the gap between people's wish list of health care treatments and their requirements grows ever wider, as is inevitable in the modern world.
I hope that, in taking forward their proposals for NICE, the Government will look again at the way in which they have run down the NHS research and development budget and disregarded the post of director of research and development. The work by Sir Michael Peckham as the first director was highly regarded. One of the steps that the Government took was to cut the NHS R and D budget. That is well understood. Behind the soundbites, the reality always tells a different story.
It is also a regret that in their legislation the Government have not found time to reform the Mental Health Act 1983, which needs revision to ensure that care in the community gains more public support and confidence and that there are more coherent measures to hold on to those who are not in an institution but need day-to-day monitoring and support. Much has been tried and discussed in mental health provision. The next step must be legislation.
The final omission from this Queen's Speech, about which my constituents will be most distressed, is the lack of any progress on the integrated transport strategy. My constituents, especially those who live in rural areas, feel that they have been lambasted by the Government. Their motoring taxes are about £30 billion a year. They are told that motorists are going to have to pay NHS bills as well, as a further penalty. They have nothing to show for it. They have one of the most serious road problems, with the A3 at Hindhead, in the entire south-east. They see a new regional development agency. They see layers and layers of bureaucracy, and they see politicians passing the buck when things go wrong and claiming the credit when things go right. Yet they see no action at Hindhead, and no measures in the Queen's Speech about integrated transport.
This is a disappointing Queen's Speech. As ever, it is about soundbites and spin. I much regret the degree to which the language in the Queen's Speech sounded very much more like a party political broadcast than the language we have been used to in a Queen's Speech over the years. That is another example of abusing conventions and customs and, in this case, drawing the monarch into party politics.
§ 6.6 pm
§ Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)
Recently, I looked at my maiden speech, which I made on the first day of the Gracious Speech debate in 1992. I did so to gauge for myself to what extent I, as a supporter of my party, had achieved the objectives that I enunciated on that occasion—an occasion which for me, as for other hon. Members, was profoundly moving.
I was pleased to see identified in that speech, and reflected in today's Queen's Speech, a number of important items. The first one is the fact that the Queen's Speech today reiterates the United Kingdom Government's wish to play a full part in the enlargement of the European Union. For me, the geographical political entity of central Europe is extremely important. I include in that Estonia, which I was pleased to visit recently with the Foreign Affairs Committee. I believe that the admission into Europe of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Estonia, together with Slovenia, is a matter that stands deferred from Yalta. Those countries should be able to take their place as a matter of right in a free democratic club. I am pleased to see that, together with our European partners, the Government are pursuing that objective with vigour.
In my maiden speech, I referred to my desire to contribute in whatever way I could to the debate on constitutional and parliamentary reform. That is very much a feature of this Government. I disagree with some details of the Government's initiatives and plans, but the broad thrust is something of which all of us in the Labour party can be extremely proud. The United Kingdom constitution and its Parliament, of which all of us are proud, is basically a Victorian institution. It has not been substantially or materially altered to take account of the great growth in the role of modern government that occurs in all jurisdictions. We need to reform the constitution to make our democracy and institutions more sensitive.
Just to demonstrate that I am not making a partisan point here, I should say that we need always to remember that Lord St. John of Fawsley, when he was Leader of the House, largely initiated the modern Select Committee system, which is an enduring legacy on which we need to build. We have to enhance the status of Select Committees, increase the importance of their Chairpersons and give them more power to call the Executive to account.
With the exception of the Select Committees' creation, there has not been a radical look at how we deal with our democracy. Parliament has not evolved to take account of the vast responsibilities, budgets and interrelationships of modern government. I welcome the increments along the road of reform in the Queen's Speech, such as the announcement of legislation on the regional development agencies and new concepts of local government.
As we devolve our constitution, we need parity of treatment throughout the United Kingdom. My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) has often advanced what is known as the West Lothian question. He is opposed to devolution, but I, as an advocate of devolution, agree that we cannot ignore the issue. We should ensure that we devolve on a democratic basis to all corners of the United Kingdom. It always seemed absurd to me that I should be kept here on a two-line Whip to vote on the Cardiff Bay Barrage Bill. The good people of Dock road, Tilbury did not lie awake at night 64 worrying about the Cardiff Bay Barrage Bill, important though it was. It was clearly a matter for the good people of Wales. In the same way, a Bill about London taxis should not preoccupy people from Inverness or Caithness and Sutherland.
§ Sir Michael Spicer
I seem to remember following the hon. Gentleman's maiden speech. I said some nice things about it, partly because that was convention and partly because it was a good speech. I have seen him become rather sycophantic since he moved to the Government Back Benches, which I did not expect. I shall try to encourage him for the rest of his speech. He has talked about rolling government and the need for parliamentary reform to control it. What specific proposals are there in the Queen's Speech or in the Government's thinking on that? The hon. Gentleman has mentioned Select Committees, which were established some years ago. All that he has come up with is regional development agencies, which represent a move away from parliamentary control.
§ Mr. Mackinlay
The hon. Gentleman should be patient, because I want to develop that theme. I chose my words deliberately when I welcomed the "increments" of reform. The hon. Gentleman can check the Official Report tomorrow on that. I was leading up to saying that the regional development agencies should be democratically elected. Law-making powers should be devolved to assemblies throughout the United Kingdom, not just to some parts of the United Kingdom. There has to be parity of treatment and constitutional symmetry. I hope that my hon. Friends will bear that in mind as we reform our constitution.
§ Mr. Mackinlay
That is so. I want democratically elected law-making assemblies throughout the United Kingdom on the grounds of good governance. I think it is good that local people should take decisions at as local a level as possible. That is real subsidiarity. Hon. Members have been patient and I do not want to dwell on the issue.
British local government works well. The principle of "If it ain't broke, don't mend it" should apply. We need legislation to enable people to innovate in local government. Ideas such as Cabinet government and elected mayors offer good opportunities for experimentation. I do not want to abandon the British tradition of local government, which has endured well. Despite press reports, it is probably the least corrupt system of municipal administration in the world. That needs to be said out of respect for the vast number of municipal councillors who give diligent and loyal service, regardless of party. We should always remember that.
Reform of the House of Lords will be a central feature of our debates in the next few days and over the coming months. We need a Chamber that can frustrate, and in some cases impede, arbitrary government, but the House of Lords has no mandate to do that. When I take students down to the other place, I tell them that its functions are very important but that its constitution is repugnant, because it has no mandate. It is absurd that people can 65 have a seat in Parliament on the basis of a hereditary principle. That is nonsense and the institution has to go. In their heart of hearts, all hon. Members know that it has to be stopped.
Deciding how to replace the House of Lords is a more difficult and sensitive issue. A House of appointed members would not be satisfactory—certainly not in the long term. There is no substitute for a democratically elected House. The old argument that a democratically elected upper House would have parity with this House is nonsense. It can be made clear in statute that the House of Commons is supreme and its view will ultimately prevail. The upper House could be elected on a rolling basis, with one third retiring every so often rather than the whole House being elected at one time. As a democratically elected body, it would have some mandate to make this place reflect and to contribute to the important job of checking the Executive. In fairness to my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench, they have made it clear that that is broadly what they want to move to. We have to tackle the issue urgently, because persisting with such an anachronism is an embarrassment to our claim to have a democratic constitution.
If we have appointed members of another place who do not have a democratic mandate, we need an age limit with some immediacy. That is a delicate issue. The Senate of Canada is an upper House with appointed life members who have to retire at 72 or 75. That is necessary. It would not be necessary in a democratically elected House, because the people would choose who represented them. I would welcome more people of senior age standing for democratic election. The current situation is unfair to some of those who have been appointed to the House of Lords. They endeavour to give good and diligent service, but age takes its toll and physical and mental capacity is, to say the least, somewhat diminished in some cases. I say that with no disrespect. We have to be candid. It is time that there was an upper age limit on people serving there if they are not democratically elected.
I should also like to dwell on the proposals for fairness at work. My background is in the trade union movement. For 17 years before coming to this place I was an employee of the National and Local Government Officers Association—now part of Unison. I have been a member of the Transport and General Workers Union since 1975. Because of my constituency's involvement with the print and board industry, I meet regularly with the Graphical, Paper and Media Union, with which I am proud to have an informal association, and many other unions. I am also a member of the parliamentary group of trade union members.
I welcome the Government's intention to introduce legislation that will renew people's rights in the workplace. Much play has been made of the fact that the legislation will give power back to the trade unions and enhance their rights. I believe that those comments are unjustified. Basically, trade unions are the instruments by which people attain individual rights in their places of work. Trade unions are voluntary organisations; their members are fallible and there may have been excesses on some occasions. Looking back on my trade union past, there are times when I think that perhaps I and others could have done things differently. However, trade unions overall are a force for good in this country. They have a proud record of championing people's rights here and elsewhere and I think we should be proud to proclaim our 66 association with trade unions, as I do. However, they are only the instruments for ensuring that individuals achieve justice in the workplace.
Before I came to this place, I collaborated with a Conservative Member of Parliament—a very good man—whose constituent had been arbitrarily and unfairly dismissed. He was incredulous at the fact that that constituent could find no remedy on the statute book. I told him that he had voted to abolish what remedies had existed. He was amazed: he could not believe that the great, fair United Kingdom provided no remedy against unfair or arbitrary dismissal for his constituent who had been employed for less than two years and treated dreadfully.
I urge hon. Members to reflect on the fact that the legislation will help their constituents. Most hon. Members have met constituents who have been treated dreadfully by their employers—harassed and dismissed or obliged to resign. Many people cannot find a remedy for those problems, and it is time that we put it right. I hope that Conservative Members, in particular, will bear that in mind when they consider the legislation.
The White Paper on fairness at work—which had green edges—contained some clear commitments from the Government. I hope that my remarks will not be misconstrued if I remind the Government that they undertook to ensure that the legislation would grant recognition to trade unions when they could demonstrate that 50 per cent. of the work force sought such recognition, usually through a ballot. That commitment must not be watered down. In any event, it is a pretty poor employer who insists that the matter should go to a ballot. Any decent employer should have a feel for things: he or she should know whether the workers are demanding recognition.
Good employment practice would normally dictate that recognition is granted to a representative body of workers that is created voluntarily. We do not hear sufficient talk from Conservative Members about good employment practice. We should talk up good employment practice which, in many cases, would avoid the use of strict and rigid statutory provisions regarding trade union recognition.
When I was a trade union official, I remember employers recognising—and sometimes welcoming—the fact that employees had got together, created an embryonic trade union branch and started to recruit people. It meant that those employers could communicate more easily with the workers. The natural virtues of leadership came into play as the more articulate workers were able to assist good industrial relations by communicating with both the employers and the employees. That is the spirit in which we should approach industrial relations. We should not try to resist at every turn the Government's proposed measures, which I believe will grant much-needed rights to many people.
I am slightly worried about hints in the press regarding a ceiling for compensatory awards in cases involving unfair dismissal. I cannot see any reason for that. In the event of outrageous action by an employer, I believe that industrial tribunals should have the discretion to award what they deem to be appropriate compensation. All compensation may be subject to appeal and review in higher courts, so it should not be capped in statute.
67 I plead with the Government to reflect again on several points. Why should unfairness be tolerated in employment units comprising fewer than 20 people? Why should unfairness be tolerated in the case of someone who has been employed for less than a year? Unfairness is surely always unacceptable and intolerable. Let us apply the test of reasonableness: if an employer behaves unfairly, the employee should have a remedy from day one. Someone employed for such a short time would seek a remedy only in exceptional circumstances. However, that does happen from time to time.
For example, new employees may have been recruited on the basis of entirely false expectations of the conditions of employment. They may have resigned from pretty good jobs elsewhere, only to find that they have been misled and have no remedy against their employers who might introduce intolerable conditions or dismiss them. That is simply wrong. I appeal to Tory Members to reflect on that scenario and cast their minds back to constituency cases and their responses to them. I am sure that, like the Conservative Member with whom I dealt when I was a NALGO official, they would have shaken their heads and said that it was terrible. We must consider the issue dispassionately on a non-partisan basis.
My next point—which again relates to a small increment of parliamentary or constitutional reform—concerns the Government's intention to publish draft Bills in order to facilitate examination in a less adversarial atmosphere than occurs in Standing and Select Committees. That will allow all hon. Members and people in the community to contribute to the debate about the details of such legislation. I refer particularly to the draft freedom of information Bill and the Government's proposals for party political funding. That is a good innovation, which I hope will be reflected in other areas in the future. If that occurs, we will have achieved a great deal.
I shall deal finally with the Gracious Speech and its relevance to Parliament. I believe that organisation of the parliamentary timetable should be removed from the Executive and repatriated to Back Benchers. That would be a great step forward for democracy. I believe that the Government should negotiate for parliamentary time with a special Select Committee comprising senior Back Benchers. In those circumstances, the Queen's Speech would be a true list of the Government's planned and agreed legislative programme.
The Government's capacity to decide when Parliament sits, the speed with which legislation is passed and the extent to which it is examined represents one of the great battles to be fought, not only in relation to this Government but against Governments of every persuasion. There is a need for us to control the legislative timetable and programme. I hope that we will talk about that reform over the months and years to come so that a future Queen's Speech, or whatever is its equivalent in any modernised parliamentary arrangement, not only lists the Government's intentions but is agreed with a representative body of Back Benchers. Such a body would not act in an adversarial or partisan way but would decide how to give proper scrutiny to legislation, which does not happen at present.
§ Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) and the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Dr. Clark) on their very fine speeches.
There is agreement that local government is—to use estate agent-speak—in need of modernisation. I disagree with the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) because, in the past few years, there has been a lot of corruption in local government. For various reasons, councillors have treated their areas as their fiefdoms. I am in favour of local government and I shall do what I can to help it to develop, but we must recognise that, in the past 15 years, it has been subjected to a great deal of corruption. Safeguards must be put in place to prevent future corruption and the Government's proposed Bill may well be the necessary legislation to do that.
The process of local government needs to be speeded up. It is no longer reasonable or appropriate that a council should go through its whole legislative cycle before making important decisions which may need urgent responses. I therefore welcome the idea that a smaller body of councillors should form an executive, with the caveat, which I hope will be imposed, that other councillors—back benchers, as it were—are not kept in the dark. They, too, should be privy to as much information as possible; otherwise, twin-track local government will develop, in which some people are in the know and others are not. That cannot be right in any system.
The Government's proposals are welcome in that regard, but central to any reform must be the repeal of legislation on compulsory competitive tendering. Any root-and-branch reform of local government must adopt that proposition as its keystone. The concept of best value is readily understood, but the great fear is that that will lead to further strain and tension between local and central Government. For example, last week, The Guardian suggestedGovernment hit squads to take over failing councils".Such a dangerous, retrograde step would create great tension between local and central Government. I have no doubt that such legislation would lead to central Government roping in councils still further and to the eventual decimation of local government.
What do we mean by "failing councils"? Are we to suppose that councils with the best possible motives, which provide adequate service delivery to a needy public from an ungenerous budget settlement, are failing because they are unable to stay within their spending limits? That would be most unwelcome.
The Government have said that the local government legislation will apply to Wales. It has long been a convention in this place that legislation on Welsh local government is considered in the normal way by a Standing Committee of Welsh Members or a Standing Committee of the whole House. On the one hand, the Government are giving Wales devolution, but, with the other, they are reining in power. The Bill will contain powers to censure councillors and even to remove and 69 replace them. A new quango will oversee that process. I have misgivings about that. Where do the thought police fit in? There must be a niche for them.
§ Mr. Llwyd
I take the view—this may have some resonance with Labour Members, but I shall say no more, to avoid embarrassing them—that if councillors or council officers are accused of maladministration or, worse still, misconduct, it is not appropriate, for obvious reasons, that a committee of their peers should oversee the investigation. That should be overseen at arm's length by a Standing Committee of the Welsh Assembly. That could be done, and I very much hope that it will be. Anything else, when devolution is on track, would be a denial of democracy.
In common with the hon. Member for Thurrock and, I hope, other Members on both sides of the House, I welcome the Government's intention to restore union recognition rights at work. I endorse what the hon. Member for Thurrock has said. A commitment to fair and equitable treatment of well-motivated, well-trained staff is paramount. The core measures must protect the pensions of workers who transfer out of local government jobs.
Another important consideration is the need to ensure that new transfer of undertakings regulations are readily understandable and provide greater certainty and clarity in protecting the terms and conditions of employment where work is transferred out of the public sector. For far too long, that issue has been shrouded in mist. It urgently needs clarifying, and I hope that that will happen in the next few weeks.
I am disappointed that the creation of a strategic rail authority has been relegated to a draft proposal, bearing in mind the considerable shift in transport policy that was outlined in the transport White Paper. Our party has made recommendations to the Welsh Office and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions about setting up a Welsh passenger transport authority.
A further shift from road to rail is vital, and no reasonable person can argue with that. There is a great need for further track development and, I am afraid, for determining the availability of through ticketing, which I raised during the debate on the privatisation of the railways. I hoped that the House would not pass that measure, but it did, and we are beginning to experience the problems that have arisen as a direct result. There is, however, a great deal that we can do.
I agree with the right hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mrs. Bottomley) that people in rural areas pay for transport two or three times over because we pay higher prices for petrol and for public transport, if it is available. The time must shortly come for us to bite the bullet—I refer to road pricing. If people want to use their cars in London, they must pay to do so. Wherever one lives in this city, there is the choice of public transport—in some parts of London, there is a choice of two or three methods. Most cities have a reasonable public transport infrastructure.
Every day when I travel by bus, I see that eight of the 10 cars that are waiting in a queue at a junction contain only one person. That is what causes pollution. Measures 70 to combat that may not be politically attractive, but, as an hon. Member said earlier, true politics means taking measures that may prove to be unpopular in the short term. Surely to heaven it is better to take unpopular steps in the short term to ensure the health of our children, given that so many more children suffer from asthma today than 20 years ago.
§ Mr. Purchase
How many times has the hon. Gentleman been in his own vehicle, travelling behind a bus containing only one or two passengers? Such buses can be equally wasteful. Does he agree that the way to protect our health and to improve the environment, especially for our children, is to impress on motor manufacturers and all those dealing with various styles of combustion that they must be prepared now to reduce the emission levels of their engines, and quickly? We can have leaner-burn and more efficient engines, which do not emit the terrible pollutants which, I agree, cause problems for children. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that would be better than trying to stop people using their cars?
§ Mr. Llwyd
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. I do not pretend to have all the answers—clearly, it is a big issue—but he is absolutely right to say that we need to encourage the manufacture of less-polluting vehicles. Yes, I have seen buses with only one or two people on board, but there may be reasons for that. For example, in the part of Wales where I live, buses are so infrequent and undependable that people often do not realise that a service exists.
A passenger transport authority is vital for the United Kingdom as a whole. I would argue for it in Wales, but it is necessary for the rest of the UK, too. Other European countries have systems whereby all forms of public transport are properly integrated and alternatives are available.
I shall not drift too far away from the Queen's Speech, for fear of being ruled out of order, but, in this context, it is interesting to see what one transport authority—the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority—can do. That transport authority compares the level of investment in roads and public transport by using cost-benefit criteria. It regulates car users in urban and overcrowded areas, controls car parking fees and then, bearing in mind environmental and congestion costs, decides on measures for various sections of the public transport services. In others words, it decides where assistance is and is not necessary. I am sure that everyone agrees that we need to set environmental targets, and that is one way of doing it, but there is not one simple answer.
If we are to improve matters in Wales in this regard, we need to look to a stronger, more beefed-up National Assembly. Again, I agree with the hon. Member for Thurrock, who argued potently for consistency. If there is to be a law-making body in Scotland, there should be a law-making body in Wales. It goes without saying that I should like that and more, but I shall not take up the House's time by setting out Plaid Cymru's policy—I think that most people know it by now.
If the Welsh Assembly is to make a difference, which is what it is all about, the people who represent their constituents in that body should be able to bring about changes that will make a difference. My great fear is that the National Assembly will not be able to do that. It will 71 be empowered to discuss various policy heads and to examine very many matters that impinge on everyday life in Wales, but many will involve primary legislation which, of course, it is not open to the Assembly to pass. I shall refer briefly to that point again when I conclude.
I must refer to the relegation of the food standards agency. I disagree with the hon. Member for Thurrock on this point. He said that draft Bills were a departure that would encourage people to join in and debate. I hope that he will forgive me, but I thought that that was what White and Green Papers were for. I take the view—it may be partisan—that draft Bills are all to do with what is included in the Queen's Speech and what is not. I suspect that the word "draft" means that something is being kicked into the long grass, as was mentioned earlier, but I hope that I am wrong.
§ Mr. David Kidney (Stafford)
We have already heard it said a couple of times today that the production of draft Bills means that certain measures are being kicked into the long grass, but I would offer an alternative point of view. If we are serious about improving the quality of legislation, it is thoroughly desirable that more Bills should be produced in draft for pre-legislative scrutiny and for consultation with people outside the Chamber.
§ Mr. Llwyd
I shall be delighted if the hon. Gentleman is right. There are two main reasons for a food standards agency. The first is to restore public confidence in the quality of our food and the second is to assist the agricultural industry. I have to say that there is no question of the agricultural industry being able to bear any further costs.
My party has discussed with the Government the fast-tracking of Bills contained in the Queen's Speech via the Welsh Grand Committee and then on to scrutiny by the National Assembly. It is an interesting thought, and I believe that hon. Members will develop the point later in the week.
It is necessary to reform the education system. I hope that the reform will be far-reaching, but I do not accept the concept of super-teachers, which seems rather ludicrous and populist. I submit that every teacher is super. I do not think that I could bear to stand in front of 30 screaming kids all day—I have been asked to mention that by my wife, who is a teacher. Before I descend into a morass of sleaze, I should say that, if we are to have super-teachers, we must surely have super-firemen and women, super-ambulancemen and women, and super-nurses and super-policemen. I am not sure whether the concept will work. No doubt other, more telling changes will be introduced—at least, I sincerely hope so.
Today, I read with considerable interest the 13 indices of the quality of life. Of the 13, six cannot be legislated on under the National Assembly proposals for Wales. It is a great shame that the Government do not propose in the Queen's Speech to extend the powers of the Welsh Assembly to enable representatives to change the quality of life for the people of Wales. When the Government are, in the name of democracy, bent on root-and-branch reform of the second Chamber, it is interesting that there is no reform of the National Assembly to ensure beyond doubt that it can make a difference to the lives of the 72 people of Wales. That would be an important step forward and would be a pure form of democracy because it would give the people of Wales what they want and what they rightly deserve.
The Prime Minister today mentioned the need to make subsidiarity a reality—to that I say, "Hear, hear."
§ Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East)
I agree with the Leader of the Opposition about one thing. Before hon. Members get too excited and sit on the edge of their seats, I should say that I agree with what he said about the second programme of any Government being very important in that it shows a Government's mettle, the direction that they wish to take and the quality of their legislation. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman about that, if nothing else.
I begin my main remarks by referring to the proposals for the House of Lords. I cannot wait for the other place to be disempowered. It is an essential—[HON. MEMBERS: "Disembowelled?"] I pronounced the word with great clarity—I said, "Disempowered." The measure cannot come too quickly. The state of affairs in the House of Lords is an anachronism and an affront to democracy and it certainly should not be allowed in a country that calls itself progressive and forward looking.
What do the Lords do? What have they done? It is worth considering for a moment their recent record of refusing five times to pass legislation. That was an important touchstone for their attitude towards this place. As a Back Bencher, throughout the first 18 months of the Labour Government, I was hearing threat and innuendo from the Lords—that they would delay the implementation of legislation in this place to suit their own ends. That was particularly so with regard to private Members' Bills.
Private Members' Bills represent one of the few tools in the Back Bencher's kit that allow us to make a mark in this place. None was more important than the Bill that proposed the abolition of cruel activities such as those often practised by people who sit down the other end of the Palace—the Wild Mammals (Hunting with Dogs) Bill. The Bill was honourable, well trailed and received tremendous support in this House, yet the message from the other place was "Bring that to our place and we will delay your Minimum Wage Bill for as long as we possibly can." The sponsors and I heard such a message, and, in the end, the Bill had to be put to one side for another day. I cannot wait for that Bill to be reintroduced by a Back Bencher when it has a real chance of succeeding and ending, once and for all, the cruel activities that are practised by a tiny minority and protected by their privileged position in the House of Lords.
Some ask, "Who should replace hereditary peers?" Frankly, I do not think that they need replacing. If we must replace them—it is a fairly absurd notion—to make up the numbers, there is a sensible way forward, on which I shall comment later.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-East (Mr. Turner) attempted to steer through a measure on consumer protection, so that men and women in a public house or elsewhere would be able to get what they had paid for: a full pint of beer. That Bill was stopped in exactly the same way—by threat and innuendo. We were told that, if an attempt were made to make progress 73 on such matters, other issues would have to pay dearly for it. The measure to abolish the rights of hereditary peers in the Lords is the most important of the Session. We must win the argument, and must not fail the people in trying to implement the measure.
If there were a contest about which single measure had increased bureaucracy in the health service more than any other since the inception of the NHS, we would have to agree that it is the preposterous paper chase that the previous Government instituted to fulfil their wish for some competitive internal market. Even now, the Conservatives have not learned that the NHS is, first and foremost, about quality. The matter is then one of how much the nation can afford and, through this place, how its budget is dispensed. When health authorities in the south of England are spending 7 per cent. of their budgets on invoicing procedures, the procedure must have gone badly awry. In my area, where about 50 per cent. of doctors are fundholders, the paper chase is an utter distraction. Our careful, step-by-step measures to recognise difficulties and variations in different localities will be welcomed—and have already been welcomed—by the medical profession and all those who support it.
I make the general bipartisan point that the country must make progress in respect of welfare. We must first recognise that, for 18 years under the previous Government, people were gently—sometimes violently—pushed on to unemployment benefit, or off unemployment benefit on to sickness benefit, whichever was the flavour of the month and whichever suited the previous Government's statistics. That was particularly so for young people in the west midlands, where we lost 350,000 jobs on the back of an experiment conducted by Lady Thatcher and Lord Howe, who sit in the other place. Their first Budget, which wiped out so much of our manufacturing capacity, led in 1983 to Britain's first deficit in manufacturing exports.
Manufacturing had held the country's head above water for as long as the records stretched; every year, there was a surplus in manufacturing goods. With the loss of jobs and capacity, young people, who had been following their fathers into factories and workplaces as tool makers, printers and so on, were discouraged from entering a career in manufacturing and engineering. Such jobs were thought to belong to a dying trade. It was said that all that mattered were service industries. We now know that, without a vigorous, expanding and well-regarded manufacturing industry, this island is sunk. We must be able to sell in order to buy. We need to sell high added-value goods, such as those we have traditionally been able to produce. Getting back on the track of manufacturing proficiency is our most important task in this Parliament. I noted that we will be bringing forward measures to improve productivity and address competition and other issues, about which I shall say a little more later.
I return to the question of welfare. How many of us, week in and week out in our surgeries, have met young men, and young women, especially, who have told us that they do not have enough money to look after their children, keep their house or do things properly? When they are asked whether they have had a job, they say, "No, I have never had a job since I left school. I was 16 when I left and nothing worked out properly. I went on one or two schemes, but nothing came of them."
74 Such people then find themselves with two or even three children—sometimes, unfortunately, by different partners, who have gone away, never to be found. These young people say to me, "They do not give me enough money to manage." When I ask who they mean, they say, "You know, the giro." We have reduced a generation of young people to the stage where they believe that wealth and welfare represent a giro dropping through the letter box on a Monday, Tuesday or Thursday morning. Lady Thatcher and Lord Howe ought to be brought to trial for crimes against young people, instead of sitting in their glory, doing damage whenever they get the opportunity.
Given the generation of people who have found it impossible to find their way into work, the raft of welfare changes that we must bring about, which were totally ignored by the previous Government, form a central part of the Government's proposals. Of course, sensitive issues will have to be addressed—not least the position of disabled people. Of course we will want to do that properly; we must not rush. We must ensure that there is a culture change, especially for young people, so that they expect the next chapter of their lives on leaving school or university to be one of work.
§ Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene because I was not in the Chamber at the beginning of his speech, for which I apologise. The hon. Gentleman has expressed concern for disabled people and I wonder whether he agrees with the Government's attack on them—for example, the withdrawal of legal aid from disabled people will prevent those who endure serious accidents from pursuing their proper rights to obtain adequate compensation through the courts. Is that the sort of generosity that typifies the Government's approach to disabled people?
§ Mr. Purchase
The hon. Gentleman may apologise for not being present for the beginning of my speech, but he should be ashamed—admittedly, he was not in the House at the time—of what the Conservative Government did from 1992 to 1997. He should have seen the obstructions that the then Conservative Government placed in the way of every proposal that was made in this place to assist disabled people. Not once could we rely on the then Government to do anything positive for disabled people. We shall be positive. We shall introduce new methods, means and processes whereby disabled people will be able to look after themselves in a dignified and proper way.
§ Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)
Was not the Leader of the Opposition, who now says that he will support the disability rights commission, the person who, as a junior Minister in the Department of Health and Social Security, blocked at every stage, time and time again, legislation for disabled persons' civil rights and any attempt to introduce into Government legislation a disability discrimination commission element? Does my hon. Friend agree that such proposals were blocked in this place and in the Lords? Indeed, in the Lords the activity against such proposals was organised, along with the voting against them, by Lady Thatcher.
§ Mr. Purchase
My hon. Friend speaks with great experience. He was one of the hardest-working Members in trying to ensure that disabled people had greater 75 liberties, better rights and more processes open to them by which they might find justice. No doubt my hon. Friend still feels exceedingly frustrated by what happened during the period to which he referred. There is no way in which the Opposition can criticise the Government. We are only 18 months into government after 18 years of dilatoriness—that is the only way in which it can be described—in dealing with the rights of disabled people.
I believe that regional development agencies will massively assist the country through its regions to regenerate the activity and competitiveness that are vital to our wealth and welfare. The RDAs provide the best opportunity for the west midlands to recover from the days when unemployment was endemic. We are now seeing, even in my constituency, unemployment falling extremely quickly. I believe that that trend will continue. The RDAs present us with the best possible chance of a full recovery.
We are particularly well blessed—if that is the term—in the west midlands with a network of motorways that gives us good access to the rest of the country, including major ports and airports. There are tremendous development opportunities alongside our new motorways, including the M42 and the M54. These areas, especially those in the north-west of the region, will assist us in attracting inward investment and generating our own investment—that is important. We have a tremendous opportunity to contribute to the growth of high-technology industries, particularly through the communications network that is now available to the west midlands.
There are some wonderful regional champions. For example, in my constituency, there is Goodyear, which in my opinion is still the world's leading tyre manufacturer. It produces tyres from the smallest to the largest. Those who have never had the opportunity of visiting a Goodyear factory anywhere in the world will be amazed at the variation in tyre sizes that are produced. The tyres range from the smallest, almost wheelbarrow jobs to tyres for super-jets. Goodyear is a regional champion in every sense of the word.
In the west midlands, there is champion after champion in the aerospace industry—for example, Lucas. In the auto industry, there is Rover, which I hope is fully on the way to recovery following recent agreements; I hope that those agreements pay off hand over fist for the company, and especially for those who work within it. Rolls-Royce is another example.
There are tremendous energy industries in the area which are well served by the communications network, including the motorways. There is a huge domestic market of 5.2 million people, which represents a tremendous opportunity. Account must be taken also of the work that is undertaken overseas in developing other energy markets, some of which I had the opportunity to see when I was a member of the Select Committee on Trade and Industry.
The midlands, especially the Potteries, has a tremendous history in ceramics. It has an even longer history, perhaps, in the glass industry. I think especially of Halesowen and Stourbridge in the west midlands. Given that the region is being defined on the map, we have the new opportunity of agriculture possibilities, which previously did not exist for the large urban 76 conurbations of the west midlands in Warwickshire, Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Staffordshire, as well as Shropshire.
As for the reformation of the common agricultural policy, Britain's fine work in agriculture, improving productivity and using land to best effect, has impressed the world over the past 50 years. Reform of the CAP will open up opportunities for employment in the cities that the west midlands has never had before. Working with town and country in this sense provides an exciting opportunity for younger people, especially through the catering and food-processing industries. Opportunities will be opened up once we have managed to revise and improve the CAP.
My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) mentioned enlargement of the European Community. That should be seen as a tremendous opportunity, and not something that will cause us great heartache. I believe that it will lead to important reforms of the CAP. It will lead also to reform of the structural and social funds, which is no bad thing. I think that the west midlands and other regions that have their heart in manufacturing should now be thinking much more about competing for business rather than queueing for grants.
I have no doubt that, as the Community expands its boundaries, the grants that we have been seeing in Britain over the past few years are bound to diminish. If social cohesion and structural funds mean anything, they will be much more carefully targeted at those areas that genuinely are falling well below per capita income in the rest of the Community. The widespread way in which the funds have been delivered so far has not always been the best approach and the funds have not always been best used.
I am not afraid of the challenge of enlargement of the EC. I think it means the opportunity for the region that I represent in part to go out and win new markets, new business and perhaps even new investment for the borough within my constituency.
I mentioned the House of Lords and how it might be dealt with at a later stage. It seems that the RDAs and the general regional set-up to which we are moving will offer sensible and good opportunities if we feel that the House of Lords must be topped up. I suggest that we should be taking from the regions people who could do a good job in a second Chamber that was reconstituted to be a proper scrutinising body. That would ensure that the local knowledge that people brought from their regions to that Chamber was put to best use. If my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Government Front Bench get the message, I hope that they will seriously consider my proposal. I am suggesting that, when we come to reform the second Chamber, the regions should be properly represented. That will at least give a link with democracy, because many of those on regional bodies will come from elected local authorities. We can take the best that is in the regions in terms of individuals' experience and knowledge and bring that into the parliamentary process to ensure that legislation truly reflects the regional needs of our country.
The Queen's Speech, and all that we have heard today, meets the test of being an important addition to the second Session of this Parliament, which I think in years to come we shall see as an important turning point.
§ Mr. David Amess (Southend, West)
Today's weather accurately reflects my mood after the Gracious Speech. I feel thoroughly miserable about it. It was a dreadful speech because its proposals destroy the foundations on which our society is built. It was a speech prepared by a truly rotten Government. The British people are only beginning to understand how rotten the Government are.
In contrast to the speech made by the leader of the Labour party, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition was articulate and spoke a great deal of common sense. I can best sum up the speech of the leader of the Labour party by referring hon. Members to the programme produced by Harry Enfield, in which we all observe the sermon of platitudes. All we heard today from the leader of the Labour party was endless platitudes.
Much of what the Government are doing is aimed at the Americanisation of the United Kingdom. Much as I like America and Americans, the closeness between the leader of the Labour party and the American President is pathetic to observe. The American President lied to the grand jury, then lied to the American people but, in everything that he wants the world to do, the leader of the Labour party follows. The right hon. Gentleman should be ashamed of his attempts to Americanise the United Kingdom.
I do not believe that the British people want our system to be corrupted, as the American system is, but that is what I see happening in this place—where we used to do a good job—day in, day out, week in, week out, and year in, year out. If I hear the word "modernisation" once more—in the Queen's Speech today, we heard it 11 times—I shall scream. I challenge Labour Members to define "modernisation". They know nothing about our history and culture. We know that they hate anything that is old. They hate history. They are interested only in things that are new.
As for the Labour party supporting our senior citizens, I see no evidence of it. Of the Ministers appointed by the Government, by my reckoning only one qualifies as a senior citizen. That is how much they think of elderly people. The Labour Government claim to be compassionate and tolerant. I have seen nothing over the past 18 months to demonstrate their compassion and tolerance, particularly towards their own colleagues. That is the last thing that they demonstrate, but it might be embarrassing for me to highlight examples.
We hear in the Queen's Speech that we are to have open government. That must be the biggest joke of the year. For the past 18 months, everything has been stage managed. It has been a waste of time coming to the House of Commons, because the press are fed with the information a week or two beforehand. With one or two honourable exceptions, Labour Members, like stuffed dummies, follow everything that they are told to do by their bleepers. When I first came to Parliament, we had a big Conservative majority, but we had more guts and gumption than Labour Members. They know only too well that what their Government are doing is plain wicked, yet very few have the guts to stand up and challenge their Government.
The Government trumpet, "Education, education, education", but we all know Labour's hypocrisy on education. When there was a Conservative Government, Labour Members said one thing and did another when it 78 came to their own children's education. Now that they are in office, how are they delivering education in our constituencies? They claim that they will reduce class sizes to 30. I challenge any hon. Member to come to my constituency, Southend, West, where every primary school is full, and tell us how we can have classes of 30 or fewer. We do not have any grass to put portakabins on. We do not have room in our playgrounds for extra classrooms. In Southend, West, classes of 30 are not deliverable.
A few weeks ago, I attended one of the new training sessions for our teachers. I witnessed at first hand this arrogant Labour Government humiliating teachers. There the teachers were, in front of lecturers, being told how to teach numeracy and how to teach writing, because every class is to have a numeracy hour and a literacy hour. The Government are destroying teacher morale.
Two weeks ago, I was privileged to speak at the Durham union. I proposed the motion, "That this house believes that Labour has misled the nation." I am delighted to say that we won. When the Labour spokesman got up to talk about education, he was shouted down by the students at Durham, who had been misled about tuition fees as they have been misled about many other things.
I am proud that, in my constituency, I have four superb grammar schools. It is ironic that three products of our grammar schools in Southend, West sit on the Labour Benches. Grammar schools represent the finest traditions in this country. Unless the Labour Government can come up with a better proposal to replace them, they should be ashamed of trying to destroy our grammar schools. I and my Conservative colleagues intend to fight them to the end, as I am sure people will do throughout the country.
§ Mr. Amess
I am happy to speak about Basildon, about Southend, West or about any other constituency that needs a bit of profile, but I was about to deal with the economy.
The Labour Government pretend that there is no slump. I do not know to whom they speak but, regardless of what the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase) said, wherever one goes throughout the country, business women and business men all say that their order books are falling. The difference is that, instead of boom and bust, there has been no boom at all during the past 18 months of Labour economic management, while the economy is rapidly going bust.
The leader of the Labour party challenged Conservatives to say where they stand on the position of the Governor of the Bank of England. I am proud to say, although I may speak only for myself, that I am totally opposed to the Governor of the Bank of England being given the power to set interest rates. I have no doubt that that has damaged the economic situation and deepened the recession. We all know why Labour did that—so that the Governor of the Bank of England could be blamed when the economy goes wrong.
People have no faith in the Labour Government because of their mismanagement of the economy. In Southend, we have high unemployment. There is nothing in the new deal to deliver jobs for people there.
Over the years, the wicked Labour party has pretended that the Conservatives do not care about the national health service. I wish that Labour Members of Parliament 79 could have been in my constituency headquarters, Iveagh hall, last Tuesday when we had an open meeting of health professionals, including consultants, doctors and nurses. They were overwhelmingly not members of the Conservative party, but it was interesting to listen to them.
The Government managed to increase hospital waiting lists to 1.3 million, but, miraculously, within two months that number fell. We now know that that was because of six fiddles by the Secretary of State for Health—subsidiary waiting lists; the waiting list for the waiting list; withdrawal of routine operations; reprioritisation; administrative clean-up and reduced referral rates from general practitioners.
Time after time in my constituency last week, we listened to anguished health professionals, outraged that the Government are wasting money on ridiculous initiatives to reduce waiting lists when the result is that out-patients suffer and waiting lists grow longer. The general public in my constituency has no faith whatever in what this rotten Government are doing to the health service today.
The Leader of the Labour party made his name on crime. He promised to be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime. Go to any high street and ask the general public whether they think that the Labour party is doing a good job on crime. They certainly do not believe that it is. My chief of police is 26 under establishment and he is prepared to go public on that. It is a waste of time to question Home Office Ministers in the House. The Minister at the Dispatch Box simply says, "Hands up, it ain't me, guv. It isn't my fault at all. It is all the fault of the local authority."
In many constituencies, graffiti is a great annoyance to the general public. When Southend put in a bid for closed circuit television, as ever it was turned down. I hope that the Government will take seriously the problem of graffiti, and rather than resting on the local government settlement, earmark money dedicated to doing something about graffiti in Britain. It is a serious matter. We want those who deface our signs and streets caught and we want to see them punished.
The Labour party knows about everything, but in fact it knows the value of nothing. This rotten Government have broken up the United Kingdom. I cannot think of a more stupid thing to have done at this moment in our history. Everyone knows that from strength comes power and, with strength, one is listened to.
As to closed lists for European elections, it is completely undemocratic for political parties to sit around in closed rooms and list their people from one to nine. I entirely agree with the bishops and others who say that, for moral reasons, we should know all about the individual candidates and be entitled to vote accordingly.
When we were summoned to the other place to listen to the Gracious Speech today, when the abolition of hereditary peers' right to sit and vote in the other place was announced, for the first time ever hon. Members said, "Hear, hear." That devalued hon. Members in everyone's eyes. It made them look pathetic and small minded. Those hon. Members who bother to toddle down to the other place to listen to debates will know that half the time the Members there speak much more sense than hon. Members here, particularly those on the Government Benches.
80 I never heard any Labour Members protest whenever, during the past 18 years, the other place voted against the Conservative Government. However, the Conservative Government would listen to what was said in the other place and, if a Bill were returned two or three times, would amend the legislation accordingly. The difference between that Conservative Government and this Government is that, because the Government are led by someone who Harry Enfield says is like a vicar, they cannot do anything wrong.
§ Mr. Robathan
Does my hon. Friend recall the occasion on which the Prime Minister, as shadow spokesman on the Home Office, specifically said that a Government defeat in the other place was a victory for common sense? There was no call then for its abolition.
§ Mr. Amess
My hon. Friend is entirely right, but, as we all know, the Labour party is not interested in history. The fact that it said that then does not count at all now.
On Europe, who is kidding whom? We all know that the Chancellor, who wants the Prime Minister's job, is softening us up to join the single currency. Thank goodness the Conservative party is the only one united in its opposition to the single currency, a united states of Europe and one Government. The British people will support us overwhelmingly on that.
The leader of the Labour party was a paid-up member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. That must not be mentioned now because the Labour party is not interested in history—it is interested only in modernisation and new Labour. Just look at what the Government have done to the Territorial Army. The TA consists of decent men and women who defend Britain and it is taken seriously. With no knowledge, the Government have practically destroyed the very foundations of the TA, and they should be ashamed.
What is ethical about the Foreign Secretary's foreign policy? Wherever he goes, there are rows and arguments. For the first time ever, we have not signed up to the United Nations condemnation of China's human rights record. We heard today why not. The Chinese leader has been invited here next year.
The President of the United States telephoned his poodle, and we agreed to bomb Afghanistan and Sudan. We know only too well that the bombs turned out not to have hit their target. With one or two honourable exceptions, Labour Members said nothing about that.
Local government is to be modernised. Every week, the newspapers carry stories about some corrupt Labour-controlled local authority. It was laughable to hear the intervention from the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) today. Her local authority is being investigated. Wherever one looks on the Labour Benches, there are Members whose local authority is being investigated. However, local government is to be modernised, so that problem will be sorted out.
Finally, the Queen's Speech referred to other measures being laid before us. I, like my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, am overwhelmed by the power of the Deputy Prime Minister. He has managed to secure for himself a huge chunk of legislation. It was noticeable that he became very excited and sought to intervene. Southend, West badly needs some help for transport.
81 Two weeks ago, we had a debate on quarantine. Yesterday, the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food had the cheek to claim credit for the ending of the BSE crisis. There was no mention of the German Government, whose Chancellor will be visiting us next year. Whenever someone reaches high office, the Prime Minister becomes his great pal. For the Minister of Agriculture to claim credit for the ending of the BSE crisis is laughable. Why have not the Government introduced legislation on quarantine? I listened carefully to what the Minister said in the recent quarantine debate and all hon. Members said that we could not possibly wait three years for legislation. If I am lucky in the ballot for private Members' Bills, I hope that I will have Government support in bringing forward such a Bill.
The reality of life is represented by a telephone call that I received yesterday, telling me that one of my constituents had died of hypothermia. My constituent—a Polish gentleman aged 73—came to my surgery on about four occasions. I, as a Conservative Member of Parliament, tried to help him; the Lib-Lab council tried to help him; and the Labour Government, through the Department of Social Security, also tried to help him. We all failed—the man is dead. I am not blaming anyone, but it seems that, for my constituent, we did not manage to fix this new world that we have entered.
The Government have let everyone down, and they have let themselves down—the Gracious Speech is evidence of that. The sooner the people of the United Kingdom have the opportunity to throw the Government out of office, the better. The sooner they go—before they do any more damage to the United Kingdom, the better for all of us.
§ Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone)
You will be pleased to hear, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I am not going to follow the rant of the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess). First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) on the way in which he moved the Loyal Address. He did so in a witty way, and he was complemented by the seconder, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Dr. Clark), who made an eloquent speech.
The Queen's Speech shows the Government's commitment to the agenda that they set out 18 months ago, and the Bills that are outlined in it show that the Government have distinguished themselves from the Opposition in the policies that they have put forward. On productivity, the Queen's Speech makes the point that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has, over the past 18 months, set out to stabilise the economy. In doing that—and in avoiding the boom and bust that we experienced over the previous 18 years—he has referred to how he will concentrate on productivity and improve it, and how he will address the issue of competitiveness.
In the previous Parliament, I was a member of the Trade and Industry Committee. In 1994, we considered the issue of competitiveness to identify the features that make it up. The Government of the day responded to the Committee with a White Paper—the first on competitiveness for 10 years—and noted the points made by the Committee. In so doing, the Government drew attention to the need to tackle the issue of competitiveness, which they had neglected for so long.
82 The Trade and Industry Committee identified a number of characteristics that make up competitiveness—for example, education, training, innovation, marketing and management. Innovation was also badly neglected over the previous 18 years. Although the previous Government acted and introduced business links—on the initiative of the Labour party in opposition, whose idea they were—they failed to connect them to a conduit which would have linked them to universities and colleges. We could have had a technology transfer that would have been enormously helpful to small and medium enterprises.
In considering competitiveness, I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry will take on the suggestion that we may be able to link business links into technology transfers by connecting them to universities and colleges.
The Government have started to deal with education, and £19 billion has been made available to it. The hon. Member for Southend, West was rather churlish about Labour's improvement of the education system. He knows full well that, for the first time ever, nursery education is available to all parents who want it for their four-year-old children. By 2001, it will be available to parents who want it for their three-year-old children. The improvements are there. At the same time, the Government are determined to get class sizes down to 30 and, in so doing, to increase pupils' opportunities by making better attainment levels possible for them.
Improvements have been made in education, which is so important in respect of competitiveness. For example, the education systems of our main competitors—Japan, Germany, America and France—have been so much better than ours, especially the German system, because of the way in which the Germans have been able to link academic education to vocational education. We need to consider that.
§ Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire)
Is the hon. Gentleman therefore vouching that we go down the road of the German education system, which of course has grammar schools?
§ Mr. Clapham
I am vouching for our need to develop that better connection between vocational and academic education, which is something that we have never developed. The hon. Gentleman will know that, in the 1960s, the Robbins report suggested that we should have separate universities—the polytechnics were universities that would deal with the practical application of knowledge. We had to go down that route, because the established universities did not want to take on what they considered to be education for mechanics.
The Germans have developed a system in which they have been able to connect vocational and academic education. The hon. Member for Southend, West talked about history and said that Labour was not interested in it, so the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) may be surprised to hear a statistic from 1870: in Germany, there were 111,000 pupils in secondary education; in this country, there were 11,000. The Germans started to realise education's importance to competitiveness way back. We are beginning to deal with that, although we have also had to deal with the legacy of the past 18 years. Consequently, we have had to concentrate a great deal of resources and effort on the education system, but things are beginning to move.
83 For example, because of the legacy that we picked up, Labour has had to introduce the new deal to give young people an opportunity. Many young people who are benefiting from the new deal were previously thrown on the scrapheap—they did not have an opportunity. It has given people opportunities and, as we heard today, we have created 30,000 new jobs through it.
The new deal is working, and I can tell the hon. Member for Southend, West that in my constituency—where there is a considerable rate of unemployment, as there is across Barnsley—employers have been quick to work with it. Young people who would not otherwise have had an opportunity are beginning to be given skills that they can use in the market.
The new deal is beginning to work, and I should like training and enterprise councils to ensure that there is also an element of education where the new deal connects with the training that they provide. Instead of there being only specific training on the job, there should be a link to education to create the opportunity for the worker who is being given new skills to be much more flexible in the market.
The features of competitiveness were well identified in the Trade and Industry Committee report. Innovation is so important for competitiveness that we need to develop a conduit from university to company. A recent study by the Coalfield Communities Campaign shows that real unemployment is as high as 24 per cent. among mining communities in Barnsley, which has high unemployment. Income per household in my constituency and Barnsley generally is just 55 per cent. of the national average and productivity is 64 per cent. of the national average. In the current global economy, it is clear that new jobs and foreign investment will not be transplanted to areas like Barnsley, but that we need to develop our home-grown industries. We need a link with local universities such as Sheffield and Leeds so that both marketing and innovatory skills can be transferred to the production line. It is extremely important to develop the transfer of technology link.
My constituency and Barnsley generally have enormous problems, but the Government have already started to tackle them. Although it is not mentioned in the Gracious Speech, the coalfield task force has reported. At its conference on Monday 1 December, the Deputy Prime Minister will make an important statement on the implementation of the task force's recommendations. Eighty recommendations form a package that will be enormously helpful to coalfield areas. The moneys can be drawn from the surpluses that were paid to the previous Government. In 1994, the previous Government drew up a formula whereby half the surpluses from the mineworkers' pension scheme were taken by the Government. During that period, the Government sold off British Coal's land, which raised well over £1 billion. The money is therefore available to regenerate the coalfields. Thus the Government are taking positive action to help areas that were badly neglected by the previous Government.
It would be helpful if, instead of being churlish, Opposition Members would read the Gracious Speech and recognise that substantive issues are outlined in it. On reform of the House of Lords, it is clear that the hereditary 84 principle is totally out of step with a modern democracy. The Government propose to withdraw the hereditary principle. In the transitionary stage, before implementation of an elected second Chamber, the second Chamber could be composed of people who represent the regions, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase) suggested. Regional development agencies and regional assemblies will soon come into being and people elected to those could be appointed to the second Chamber. A number of alternatives could be considered while the royal commission decides on an electoral system for the second Chamber. It is therefore churlish of Conservative Members to say that the Government want a controlled second Chamber. That is simply not true.
Had Opposition Members read the Gracious Speech, they would have seen that it introduces a number of substantive Bills that will bolt on to the first 18 months of a Labour Government and prepare the path for progress.
§ Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)
I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham), whom I believe to be a man of principle. He resigned his important position in the Government over a matter of principle, so I hope that he will accept that many Conservative Members object to the proposed changes to the House of Lords as a matter of principle. It is not acceptable to scrap hereditary peers without knowing what will replace them. I am happy with change to the second Chamber if we know what is coming along the road. We do not seek to defend outdated practices, but we do not want a second Chamber that is less independent than the hon. Gentleman has already been in this Parliament.
It is a sad reflection on the manner in which the Government have treated this House that both sides of the Chamber are extremely empty for this debate. I suspect that some Labour Members have been pressed by their Whips to make long speeches. I would exempt one or two, but I see from the smiles of others that they have been pressed.
I join other hon. Members in congratulating the proposer and seconder of the Humble Address, particularly the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton), who made an entertaining and wry speech.
The opening paragraph of the Gracious Speech says that Her Majesty's Governmentwill focus upon the modernisation of the country".The right hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) spoke about the need to modernise the country and catch up with the rest of the world. Perhaps I am not entirely awake on this matter, but I do not see what the Government want to modernise. Is it Heathrow, which is the busiest, or second busiest, international airport in the world? Is it British Airways, which has been voted the world's favourite airline? Is it the dealing rooms of the City of London, which make London one of the world's financial centres? Is it our armed forces in Bosnia or the Gulf? Is it the fact that we now hold, for good or ill, the world land speed record?
Perhaps the Government want to modernise traditions. I suspect that many Labour Members do not like the carriages, the Household Cavalry and much of the pomp and circumstance that go with this morning's Queen's 85 Speech, for instance. However, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, the right hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham)—the so-called "Cabinet enforcer"—said that he was quite happy with traditions as they form part of the country's history.
I suspect that "modernisation" is simply a slogan—slick, but meaningless. It is rather like the slogan "cool Britannia", which was trumpeted around the country, but has now been dropped because it was meaningless and became embarrassing. I fear that the modernisation slogan has little substance.
The Gracious Speech is practically empty. Let us look at what is not in it. It does not mention the proposed referendum on proportional representation. Personally, I am delighted, but why is there no mention of the so-called "independent" commission led by Lord Jenkins, which came out with the amazingly un-independent idea that we should have a voting system that favoured the Liberal Democrats—his own party. If Liberal Democrat Members do not understand why the Queen's Speech does not mention that commission, I must tell them that it is because of the 50–50 split in the Labour party—among Cabinet and Back-Bench Members—on whether to have proportional representation. The Liberal Democrats should understand that they are unlikely to get a referendum or proportional representation unless the Prime Minister can square it with Labour Members.
The Queen's Speech contains nothing on the Neill report's sensible recommendations, with which Conservative Members agree whole-heartedly. We particularly go along with the suggestion that a referendum should be fairly funded on both sides. Decent and honourable Members from both sides would agree that that is fair. I thought that the Queen's Speech would contain a commitment to legislate on the Neill report's recommendations on party political funding, but the Government seem to have dropped that measure. Why? Is it because they did not like those recommendations?
The Government are currently pouring money into a disingenuous propaganda campaign about preparing businesses for the euro. That should come under the Neill report's recommendations, and should be examined.
The Queen's Speech does not contain any mention of a rail authority or an integrated transport system. It refers to consultation, which I welcome, but we had a White Paper last year and I commented on it. It contained much that was good. I am all for improving our transport system, but sadly the proposal was too contentious, and the Deputy Prime Minister's measure was dropped.
Why does the Queen's Speech not include a freedom of information Bill? There will be further consultation, but much consultation has taken place over the past 18 months. Is there no Bill because members of the Government are divided on the matter? I am quite happy that it does not include such a Bill, but the argument is taking place within the Government, and the Cabinet is split.
Why is there no mention of a food standards agency? It sounded great when Labour were in opposition, but it is more difficult to achieve in government.
§ Mr. Robathan
It was included, but there will be no legislation. The hon. Gentleman must know that it has 86 been pushed gently into the long grass. There will be a little more consultation, which I am not against, but we have been discussing this matter for the past 18 months.
I welcome the commitment to the public-private partnership for the Commonwealth Development Corporation. I am a member of the Select Committee on International Development, which has already discussed this sensible measure.
I also welcome the Government's policy on Iraq. Although it was alluded to only briefly in the Queen's Speech, we are now talking about indicting Saddam Hussein. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), who has been pushing this matter for some time, as have I. The Foreign Secretary has always dismissed the idea of bringing Saddam Hussein before an international tribunal before a United Nations international court is established. I am delighted that we are now considering setting up a special tribunal to indict Saddam Hussein, and to separate him from the peoples of Iraq, whom he terrorises.
An asylum Bill is proposed. The Labour party bitterly opposed the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996. I understand that the Bill will give a de facto amnesty to up to 30,000 asylum seekers. Past practice shows that 25,000 or more of those asylum seekers would be judged to be economic migrants. Such a Bill is not good for the workings of the system or for justice, because it would let down asylum seekers who behave properly. My constituents, be they of English or Asian descent, would feel that the justice system had failed.
On the European Union, the Queen's Speech says that the Government will work to reform the common agricultural policy. All right-thinking hon. Members would applaud that, but the Government will need to have a great deal more influence. It is easy to say that they want to reform the CAP—I want it to be reformed—but what will they do about it? I fear the answer is that they will do nothing. We have insufficient influence, and in my opinion the CAP is not reformable. It is highly costly, environmentally destructive and corrupt and should be scrapped.
Why does the Queen's Speech contain nothing on the single currency? It is because the Labour party is split on that issue. The Prime Minister spent half his speech attacking Tory policy, but he did not say what his policy is, because that would have shown up the divisions in his party. Perhaps we should ask Rupert Murdoch what Labour's policy will be. I would love to hear Labour policy being trumpeted from the rooftops, instead of the Prime Minister being negative and acting as if he is still the Leader of the Opposition.
There is a commitment to the reduction of the homosexual age of consent. The Government are out of step with their focus groups. Apparently, 75 per cent. of the British people believe that the homosexual age of consent should not be reduced. The Lords did the Government a favour in the last Session. The amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw was defeated on a free vote. I understand that the Government intend to bring it back, and I think they are right to do so if they are to reduce the homosexual age of consent. I shall oppose the measure, because it has nothing to do with equality, but the Government should acknowledge that the Lords did them a favour.
87 Finally, I shall deal with the abolition of the hereditary principle in the House of Lords. As I said to the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone, this should be a matter of principle for all of us. What is proposed is not reform, because that would lead to a new second Chamber. A unicameral Parliament has been suggested. That is a respectable position to take, although it is not one that I take. The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase) and the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) thought that that would be a good idea. To replace an admittedly imperfect system with one that is worse—a system of cronies and appointed patronage—cannot be right.
Who might the cronies be? They may have been the Prime Minister's pupil master or someone who had shared a flat with him—both are Ministers in the House of Lords. They could be people who have attended dinner parties with the Prime Minister as part of the so-called Islington mafia, or people who have been donors to the Labour party. That would not provide an independent Chamber. All right-minded people in the House and outside believe that it should be a sensibly reformed second Chamber, perhaps even an elected Chamber, but not one that is in the pocket of the Prime Minister of the day. The current plans do not serve democracy. The royal commission should report and we should have a sensible discussion so that we can improve the second Chamber.
The most interesting aspect of the Prime Minister's speech was the reaction of Labour Members. While he was speaking, the Strangers Gallery emptied. I counted three Labour Members who went to sleep. I was bored stiff, and I was not alone, because I looked at the faces on both sides of the Chamber. Labour Back Benchers were most certainly not convinced by what the Prime Minister was saying. They could not see the point of it all. That is the reason for abolishing the rights of hereditary peers: it is the one thing that unites Labour. Every time it is mentioned, Labour Members cheer, and they refer to it in their speeches. We even heard the words "hear, hear" in the House of Lords during the Gracious Speech. It was not a rumble of Tory peers' discontent, as the Evening Standard alleged; it came from hon. Members under the Gallery who had come from the House of Commons.
The proposal for the House of Lords is not reform: it is a totem, an idol, a touchstone of the left. "Abolish the hereditary peers" is the great battle cry, but is that it for the Queen's Speech? It looks like it. After 19 months, the Government have lost the plot. They have a huge majority, but the Prime Minister has no idea how to enthuse his foot soldiers, largely because he is completely out of sympathy and out of tune with his own party and on a different wavelength.
§ Mr. Nigel Beard (Bexleyheath and Crayford)
Like the previous speakers, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Dr. Clark) on their witty and eloquent introduction to the debate. I welcome the measures in the Gracious Speech to modernise Britain and to bring the best out in all our citizens. That is what the British people wanted when they 88 turned to Labour last year, and our velvet revolution will continue, despite the threat from the dark ages as hereditary peers mount their last hurrah.
Like a fool playing in the road to hinder the next stage of the great expedition, the Tory party will incur the wrath of the British people if it mobilises feudalism to block Britain's progress into the 21st century. How barren the Tory vision is in the coming years, given that the two great occasions that it can foresee are the battle for the hereditary peerage and the battle to isolate Britain from the mainstream of Europe. Gone is the Churchillian vision of Britain in the world; it has been replaced by the pathetic illusion of "Britain is the world".
For all that we must and will modernise Britain, we must not narrow our vision to a preoccupation purely with issues at home. There are currents in the great ocean of international affairs that could knock us off course at home if we do not deflect them, or at least dissipate some of their energy.
Practical men and women may justifiably say, "But at home we can do something. These international issues are intractable: they involve action by others besides ourselves, and we cannot move unless the Americans lead." I recognise some of those realities, but they do not absolve us from doing what we can, and what we can do may be many times greater than we imagine.
At present, the American President is incapacitated by threats of impeachment; the German Chancellor is new; the Russian President is ill, and faces the bankruptcy of his economy. Japan is so near to crisis that natural introspection is being intensified. Moreover, the European Union is in as strong a position as the United States, economically, to give a world lead. No country is better placed than Britain—through the European Union, NATO, the Group of Seven or the United Nations, or through direct diplomacy—to give such a lead.
What, then, are the commanding international issues? First, there is the stabilisation, through regulation, of global financial markets, to stem the maverick forces of financial fluctuations on economic policy management. That includes the reflation of European markets to counteract the recessionary forces that are arising from both Asia and Russia. Secondly, there is the promotion of stable economic growth in developing countries, and the fostering of democratic integrity among the regimes that run those countries. Third, and by no means least, is the managed elimination of nuclear weapons and civil nuclear hazards. That includes the future of the START 2 treaty, the future of the non-proliferation treaty and the decommissioning of unsafe nuclear power stations.
I want to consider those issues in turn. Following the east Asian and Russian financial crises, the Group of Seven has agreed codes of practice designed to give an accurate and clear picture of the financial condition of individual countries—so-called transparency. The position will be monitored by the World bank and the International Monetary Fund. There is no doubt that that constitutes a good first step, but a good first step is what it is. There are countries in which effective government does not operate, and in that context such an orderly process will be meaningless unless it is added to.
Equally, measures that treat American practices as a common worldwide standard at best will not suit the diversity of economies that are developing their own style and idiom, and at worst will be treated with hostility and suspicion.
89 In the next few years, the world will need to establish institutions that command the confidence of both developed and developing democracies, while allowing capital flows between countries without the destabilising effect of laissez-faire international capital markets. Britain—as a long-time ally of the United States and as a member of the European Union and of the Commonwealth—has a pivotal role to play in the early evolution of such an international financial accord: a Bretton Woods for the 21st century.
Such moves are a precondition for avoiding the worst of the world recession. Europe could indeed be the engine that helps to lift the world out of recession. France, at the start of the Mitterrand era, demonstrated the difficulty of a Keynesian expansion of demand in one country where exchange controls had been lifted; but that need not be true if all the countries of the European Union reflated their economies together, in a controlled and co-ordinated way. With left-of-centre Governments in power in most European countries, the political climate is right for such a move, which would, at the same time, address the problem of unemployment in Europe.
There are two aspects of the problem of nuclear weapons. The first is the control and progressive reduction of the nuclear weapons piled up in north America, western Europe and Russia; the second is the need to avoid the proliferation of nuclear weapons elsewhere in the world.
Progress towards mutual reduction of stockpiles is at an impasse, because the Russian Duma is reluctant to pass the strategic arms reduction treaty that followed START 2. It is crucial for the impasse, and the suspicions that go with it, to be overcome.
Current proposals for the expansion of NATO eastwards not only prevent that impasse from being overcome but, in the unstable Russian political climate of the moment, play into the hands of revanchist Russian nationalists. That is too real a danger.
The position is made worse by the April resolution in the United States Senate which claims the right to station all types of troops in the new NATO territories, and which includes nuclear weapons. It rejects even the concept of the Russian proposal for a nuclear-free zone in central Europe. Moreover, it is possible that putting nuclear weapons in the former East Germany breaks understandings that were solemnly given to President Gorbachev—at least, he believes that they were given to him—by United States Secretary of State Baker and Chancellor Kohl at the time of German unification.
Further afield than Europe, the explosion of nuclear weapons by India and Pakistan has established a dangerous trend throughout the developing world that could in itself nullify all attempts to sustain the non-proliferation treaty.
All those issues are connected, to a greater or lesser extent. A Russian Government struggling with a collapsed economy may well agree to reduce their nuclear armoury in exchange for economic help. A developing country may well forgo the crippling expense of nuclear weapons in return for a guarantee of military help from NATO, and a programme of development aid.
We in the developed world are becoming complacent about many of the issues. Because we have institutionalised negotiations in one form or another, we have come to believe that we have resolved those issues, but we have not. Perhaps if we had had a peace treaty, a 90 peace conference, to mark the end of the cold war, we would have begun to resolve some of them; but we did not. Now we need an initiative to deal with the complex of interwoven and counterpoised issues that will threaten the 21st century if we do not begin to resolve them, deliberately, at the outset.
Britain is in an excellent position to launch such an initiative. There can be no greater gift to the generations of the 21st century than the creation of conditions for peace and prosperity from the experience of the troubled 20th century. The world has seen a Pax Romana, a Pax Britannica and, lately, a Pax Americana; let our legacy for the 21st century be a Pax Democratica.
§ 8.9 pm
§ Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes)
Before I come to the Queen's Speech directly, may I reflect on one or two comments by hon. Members, particularly Conservative Members? I have listened with great interest to contributions from hon. Members on both sides of the House—we have a come a long way from the packed House that we had earlier, when the three party leaders were making their contributions—but the Conservative contributions appear to fall into two camps.
First, there was a great defence of the unelected House of Lords, which appeared to permeate many of the speeches by Conservative Members. I found the defence of the House of Lords and the opposition to the Government's proposal to remove the voting rights of hereditary peers somewhat odd.
It is often said that the House of Lords is full of people who sit independently, think independently, speak independently and then independently vote Conservative; that has certainly been the case on recent occasions in that place. It is true that we have not had another example in which legislation from this Chamber overwhelmingly voted for on five separate occasions has been rejected by the House of Lords. It is not even legislation that is of overwhelming proportions, which might, in some circumstances, justify rejection; it is on the technical matter of open or closed lists. There can be no defence for the House of Lords behaving in that way.
Although it is preferable for the House of Lords to be reformed and for details of how it will be reformed to be coterminous with the removal of hereditary voting rights, by their behaviour on the European Parliamentary Elections Bill, their lordships have forfeited that right to hang on until the royal commission has reported; their behaviour can in no way be justified.
I am going to criticise the Government, by the way, just in case hon. Members think that I am not—I assure them that I will—but let us give credit where credit is due. We do not have a Government who are tearing up the fabric of the nation, or one of the other colourful phrases that come from Conservative Members. Silver Stick in Waiting has gone, but Gold Stick in Waiting is still there. The pace of reform is quite slow and some of us would like it to be speeded up, rather than stopped in its tracks.
The other element of the Conservative contribution is a depressing one not only perhaps for someone who is from a Liberal Democrat background, but for someone who has operated in the real world and on other elected bodies such as councils. It is nonsense to say that everything that 91 this Government do is wrong and everything that the previous Government did was right. Those two premises are wrong.
No Government are entirely wrong all the time; not even the previous Conservative Government were entirely wrong all the time. Even a broken clock is right twice a day, so it is nonsense to take the adolescent approach of saying that everything that the Government do is wrong, which we heard from the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), who is no longer in the Chamber, and from others. It is much more constructive to say that the Government are right on these particular issues and wrong on those particular issues.
That is one of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats in this Parliament are proving to be the sensible Opposition and why we have much more influence over the Government than the Conservative party, which is four times our size in the House of Commons. It is the art of opposition. The Conservatives have been out of practice for some time and have not mastered it.
§ Mr. Robathan
I thought that there was a pact between the leader of the Liberal Democrat party and the Prime Minister and that there was a Cabinet seat, or a Cabinet Committee seat, here and there. Is the hon. Gentleman certain that he is still in opposition and that he is not an appendage to the Government? I ask that because Labour Members appear to be concerned that Liberal Democrats are just another arm of the Government.
§ Mr. Baker
I am happy to give the assurance that we are not part of the Government; nor are we an appendage of any sort. There is no talk of Cabinet seats. I am happy to tell the hon. Gentleman that we are retaining our full independence. We will continue to do so and to lead the opposition to the Government, as we did on tuition fees, beef on the bone and a range of other issues, but we will also push them on areas where we can influence them and persuade them to move in the right direction.
Having talked about the Conservatives, I turn to the content of the Queen's Speech. As hon. Members on both sides of the House have said—though more, I confess, from the Conservative side—the Queen's Speech is notable for what is missing, rather than for what is in it. That is a great pity. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) said, in the second Session of the Parliament, with a big majority, a big mandate, a basically supportive public, a basically supportive House of Commons on all sides, apart from the Conservative side—I include the nationalists and many of those who represent Northern Ireland seats—the Government have not taken the opportunity to introduce a programme of radical reform.
It is a pity because the public wanted that radical programme, rather than this careful nudge, nudge approach of gradually removing problems, gradually rolling back what the Conservatives have done, and gradually moving forward on certain fronts. They wanted more than that.
My main criticism of the Queen's Speech is not that it is terribly wrong. It is not that there are things in it that we do not like; there are, but, by and large, it is harmless enough. But is that what we want to achieve? Do we want 92 a harmless Queen's Speech, or to do something that will transform the landscape of our country? It is a missed opportunity. I am sad about that. I would have liked the Government to be much more radical. They would have received support from the Liberal Democrats if they had taken that approach.
In an intervention, the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) made the point about draft Bills. I am in favour of such Bills because they allow mature reflection on legislation. They allow matters that are clearly wrong to be eradicated earlier, and the Government to back down, if the truth be known, without losing face. It is sensible to have such an arrangement, but I am against draft Bills on matters that have been subject to huge introspection and consideration already. As the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) has said, the freedom of information legislation is a case in point. The food standards agency is another.
Those two proposals have been well worked out. The right hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), for whom I have much respect, did much work on that and said that the Bill would be ready by the end of September. I am sure that it was, but he was sacked for being too radical and the freedom of information Bill was transferred to the Home Secretary, who is known to be sceptical about it.
That is the reality. The Home Secretary wants some time to water the thing down; we all know that. It is pity that he has got away with that, and it is a pity when hon. Members who are radical, such as the right hon. Member for South Shields, are not allowed to bring forward legislation.
The story about the food standards agency—I would be interested if anyone tries to correct this—is that it was going forward and that members of the Government, including the Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, fully supported the agency, but that the new Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has come in and his civil servants have tried to do a job on him to persuade him that the agency is not a good idea and that much of MAFF's empire will be lost.
That is the story in the papers. I do not know whether it is true, but I do know that a food standards agency Bill could have been introduced in this Session and has not been. No convincing reason has been given by any Labour Member as to why that has not been progressed in this Session of Parliament. Again, that is a great pity.
I want to spend the rest of my time talking about the environment, which is, after all, my portfolio responsibility. My greatest regret about the Queen's Speech and, indeed, about the Government is that sufficient attention is not given to the needs of the environment, despite the clear conviction politics of many Labour Members and their dedication to environmental issues, which I do not doubt; it was clear during their years in opposition. However, that commitment has not translated itself into action in the Government and particularly not in the Queen's Speech.
§ Mr. White
The hon. Gentleman says that the Government have not done anything on the environment, but he ignores everything that has happened in Kyoto and 93 the work that the Deputy Prime Minister has done. He says, "The environment—nothing is happening," but a great deal has happened because of the Government.
§ Mr. Baker
I did not say that nothing was happening. I said that there was no Government commitment to environmental legislation in this Parliament or this Queen's Speech. I will come on to the work of the Deputy Prime Minister shortly. He has done a good job—credit where credit is due.
When I intervened on the Prime Minister some 35 minutes into his speech earlier today, he had not mentioned the environment once except in an oblique reference to a comment from the Leader of the Opposition about brown-field sites. The Government say that the environment is at the heart of their policy making. The Government's heart must be in their boots because the environment is nowhere near the centre. The environment is not mentioned until seven lines before the end of the Queen's Speech. That is all there is. It is an afterthought tacked on to the speech—we used to accuse the Conservatives of tacking on the environment. At the end of a long Queen's Speech it says that the Governmentwill continue their leading role in protecting the environment, including the global climate.It is a great pity that that is the only place where the environment is mentioned.
§ Mr. David Drew (Stroud)
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that that is indicative of a new style of politics. We are moving towards a consensual approach rather than legislating and then trying to take people along afterwards. I wonder what opinion he has about that.
§ Mr. Baker
To be honest, that seems a rather odd intervention. I am all in favour of consensual politics, but if legislation is required, it should be forthcoming. I will demonstrate why I believe that legislation is necessary in certain circumstances.
I believe that the Deputy Prime Minister has done a surprisingly good job. He had a very good track record in transport before the general election and everybody acknowledged that he was a good shadow spokesman. He held the then Government to account very well. We were looking for good things from him when he took office in the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. I believe also that the junior Minister—I hope that that is not an insult to the Minister for the Environment, the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher)—has done a good job. In fact, the entire Department understands the issues well and pushes them forward. The problem is not within the Department. The problem is that the understanding within that Department is not manifest in other Departments and there is no legislative time for the necessary measures.
Sadly, the Deputy Prime Minister has lost out in the argument for legislative time. He has lost out to the Department of Social Security and others. I am sorry about that because we need environmental measures. We need action on transport in particular. Between 1974 and 1996, the cost of motoring fell by 3.5 per cent., notwithstanding the petrol price increases that the Tories were happy to introduce but are now trying to disown. The cost of rail travel during that time rose by 74.8 per cent. and the cost of bus fares rose by 57.5 per cent. That is not a transport scenario that anyone can support and the free market has made things worse.
94 In opposition, the Labour party was keen to improve the railway system. It opposed privatisation, as did my party. When privatisation went ahead, the Labour party pledged to renationalise Railtrack, which was also my party's policy at the general election. That was then watered down to the creation of a strategic rail authority, not a strategic transport authority, which is what we really need. That has now been watered down further and we are reduced to having a pale shadow of a strategic rail authority whose powers are unclear and to the Deputy Prime Minister having a meeting with the train operating companies on 26 November when he will shout at them and try to get improvements that way. It is sad that it has come to that.
We have from the Government no cohesive plan to identify and reopen closed stations or lines or to use the potential for passenger transport that is available on some freight lines and there is no plan to identify potential freight terminals. There is confusion, which needs to be sorted out by legislation—that picks up my earlier point—over the allocation of train paths by Railtrack. Railtrack has the power to help passenger traffic at the expense of freight traffic and there is some evidence that it is doing that.
English, Welsh and Scottish Railways, which is one of the successes of privatisation, has a proposal to treble rail freight over the next 10 years. It is a very good company and it is doing very well, but it will not be able to do that unless it gets the necessary train paths. Railtrack is already being unhelpful to that company. That needs to be sorted out by a strategic rail authority and not left in the hands of Railtrack, whose motives are governed by profit rather than what is best for the railways. That is an example of where legislation is necessary for the railways.
There are other problems with the railways. There is a lack of new rolling stock. Anyone who lives in my part of the world, down in Sussex, will know of the poor rolling stock on Connex South Central. The rolling stock on the line from Lewes has been in use since 1963 and that is not untypical of the rolling stock on that franchise.
I believe that Connex is the only franchise that has come up for renewal at this point and the Government's one act has been to refuse to renew the franchise. Of course, the franchise should not be renewed automatically, but in my judgment—I may be wrong—Connex South Central had a package of improvements to the rail service in my area which justified an extension to its franchise. It included new rolling stock, electrification of particular lines and other goodies. It is a shame that that decision was made. I question whether it was made for dogmatic reasons or on the basis of a financial assessment of what was best for the country.
There is worsening punctuality up and down the rail network and rocketing prices in some areas. There is confusion over the young person's railcard and the old person's railcard. The national rail inquiry service improved for a while, but is now getting worse. The level of accuracy is now very good, but there is a question over the length of time it takes to answer a call. Those things are getting worse and need to be sorted out. With the best will in the world, cajoling the railway companies, the train operating companies and Railtrack will not achieve that. It could be achieved only by a strategic rail authority, if then. The fact that such an authority does not feature in 95 this legislative programme means that we will have another year of misery for passengers on our trains. That is a great pity.
There is a need for legislation on bus transport. As I have said, we should have a strategic transport authority. There is no proper regulator for buses. It is all higgledy-piggledy and, if we are not to have a strategic transport authority, we need an Ofbus. We have seen in the newspapers this week that there are to be massive reductions in long-distance coach trips. Towns such as Weston-super-Mare, which is represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Cotter), will be without their long-distance coach routes. There is no minimum standard or requirement for such coach trips and National Express has just decided to cut them. I do not know whether there was any consultation with the Government, but I suspect that there was not.
The Government say that they are genuinely committed—I am sure that they are—to trying to get people out of private cars and on to public transport, but that is being undermined by the withdrawal of National Express services, the deterioration of rail services and the failure to regulate the bus industry. We need legislation so that the Government can put their intentions into force or they will find that they are pouring water into one end of the funnel while it is coming out of the other. That is a great pity.
Figures show that 59 per cent. of car journeys are under five miles and the school run has increased from 12 per cent. of journeys to 26 per cent. in the past 20 years. The Royal Automobile Club, which is hardly the most environmentally friendly organisation—it says that it is becoming more so—says that 20 per cent. of car journeys could be avoided if other means of transport were used more efficiently. We need a clear lead from the Government, but we have not got it. There are other issues such as through ticketing which need to be dealt with by a strategic rail authority. It is a great pity that those things are not in the Queen's Speech for the forthcoming Session.
Another transport problem involves ferries, which is a great problem for my constituency. It is likely—perhaps even more than likely—that the ferry between Newhaven and Dieppe will be withdrawn. If that ferry is withdrawn, the Government can do nothing about it. In fact, the Government have been helpful. Ministers have responded and looked into legislation and they have held meetings, but there is no regulation of ferry services. It is an important passenger service and, unlike railway line services, it does not need permission to shut. The service can just go and nothing can be done about it. All hon. Members representing constituencies along the south coast, regardless of political party, who support the service will be left high and dry by the lack of regulation. There is a need to introduce legislation to protect essential services, such as essential ferry services.
As I said, there is much to be done. I shall raise very quickly only a couple of other issues on which the Government have not done all that they might do to improve their environmental credentials. There will not be a wildlife Bill, although there is a need to protect flora and fauna across the United Kingdom. The Queen's Speech contained nothing about giving proper powers to existing national parks or about helping the South Downs conservation board in my area.
96 There was nothing in the Queen's Speech about protecting sites of special scientific interest, for which many hon. Members on both sides of the House have pressed very hard. The fact is that, if one wants to build infrastructure, such as a road, the cheapest way of doing so is to build through an SSSI, which has the least value. Such an approach is mad, and it must be changed. Although hon. Members on both sides of the House think that it would be a good idea to legislate on the matter, the Queen's Speech did not mention it.
§ Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East)
The hon. Gentleman, like me, is a member of the Environmental Audit Committee, which produced a report a few months ago called "Greening Government". The Government have recently given a response—I read it over the weekend—to the report. Will the hon. Gentleman be gracious enough to admit that the Government have made many promises and agreed with almost all the criticisms that the Committee made in our original report?
§ Mr. Baker
Yes, I am happy to accept that the Government have made promises in good faith; but it remains to be seen whether the promises are fulfilled. In my speech, I have not touched on "greening government" as the hon. Gentleman uses the term—as a correlated approach within government, which is a key test of how the Government react to environmental issues. The history of this Government and the previous Government—of all Governments—has been a failure to take the environment seriously outside the Department that leads on the environment. It is a key point.
§ Mr. Kidney
As the hon. Gentleman is so graciously giving some credit to the Government for their actions, will he give some credit to the Treasury for ratcheting up the fuel duty escalator; for providing extra money for rural bus services and innovative transport services in rural areas; for its consultation papers on a variable vehicle excise duty and Lord Marshall's energy tax; and for its 18 proposals—on which progress will be made—in the pre-Budget report, each of which has an environmental aspect?
§ Mr. Baker
I am always happy to give credit where credit is due, as I hope that hon. Members will accept. However, I think that some of the Treasury's motivations on, for example, VAT on fuel, landfill tax and possibly aggregates tax are not predominantly environmental but revenue raising. Treasury Ministers put a green coat on measures to raise revenue, so that they can claim environmental credit. I shall be happy when Treasury Ministers start to produce a green book, which they have not done; when they are more prepared to accept hypothecated taxes, which they currently are not; and when the Treasury—which likes to think that it is leading edge, although it is not; it is outmoded and old-fashioned—starts to understand that environmental economics is a way to deliver not only good environmental policy but good social and economic policy. When the Treasury takes those actions, I shall give it the credence that the hon. Member for Stafford thinks that I should give it.
I question the motivation of Treasury Ministers. One reason why we have not seen a co-ordinated approach across the Government is that Ministers in the Treasury 97 and in the Department of Trade and Industry—whom I think of as the environmental bad guys—have used blocking tactics. Neither I nor the Liberal Democrat party is suggesting raising taxes—I should say, before Labour Members say it, not even a penny on income tax—to deal with environmental issues. We suggest that we should change the way in which taxes are raised, so that we have taxes on bad things, such as pollution, and fewer taxes on good things, such as employment. The tax take will remain the same, but we can change tax raising so that it is not only about raising money but about achieving social and environmental objectives.
I should like Treasury Ministers to take much more action than they have taken so far. I hope that the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) will be good enough to concede that Treasury Ministers' performance at the Environmental Audit Select Committee's hearings was not one that will go down as one of the best in the annals of this Parliament's history.
The Queen's Speech is harmless enough. It contains one or two welcome measures—abolition of hereditary peers' voting rights is a very good step—but what a pity that the Government, who have such a mandate in the House and in the country, have missed an opportunity to be far more radical.
§ Mr. Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East)
Last year, when I made my maiden speech, on the first day of the debate on the Loyal Address, I spoke after the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker). As I was lucky last year and was called to speak on the first day, I thought that I would try to do the same this year. However, I was called to speak after the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan), who spoke after me last year.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) gave us an interesting history lesson, which reminded me of a story that I was told when I first started working in the computer industry. Just before the 1970 general election, a computer operator was carrying a tray of cards on United Kingdom export figures and dropped it. He scooped up all the cards, put them back in the box and fed them through the computer. The figures duly came out. Later that month, a blip in Britain's exports was revealed, putting us back into the red. Subsequently, the operator discovered that he had missed a card, which was for a £1 million aeroplane export order. The subsequent official figures showed that Britain was back in the black. The operator was a socialist and has never forgiven himself for causing the 1964–70 Labour Government to lose the general election. The story illustrates the potential impact of technology.
Not all of today's speeches have dealt with one of the key points made by the Prime Minister, who said that the electronic commerce Bill was one of the key Bills in the Queen's Speech. I think that he was absolutely right about that. Although an electronic commerce Bill may seem innocuous, in years to come it will be thought of as one that defined the United Kingdom. The Bill addresses many important issues—of civil liberties; of types of regulation; of whether American-style self-regulation will dominate or we will adopt more sensible regulation; and of encryption and third-party trusted key holders.
Many countries do not have a strategy on developing information technology and electronic commerce, thereby giving Britain an opportunity to take the lead. The 98 Government should be congratulated on their recent performance at the meeting of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
The United Kingdom does not have a sufficient skills base to benefit fully from information technology. I was told recently—I do not know whether it is true—that the American Government have issued 500,000 green cards for people skilled in IT, so that they can work in the United States. Many people have gone from the United Kingdom to the United States because of the opportunities that that country makes available to them. We train people who subsequently work in the United States, which reaps the benefits. The Government have to ensure that we keep our skilled workers in the United Kingdom.
The United Kingdom has a tremendous shortage—the latest estimate is about 50,000—of good programmers and analysts. Although the new deal has started to tackle the shortage, we must do much more. The millennium bug programme is helping to fill the shortage, but we must do much more. The speed of technological change is being grossly underestimated, and we have to keep re-skilling our work force if we are to keep up. Although we have the advantage of being able to re-skill, we will have to ensure that new skills can be acquired not only by those designing systems but for those using them.
The electronic commerce Bill will have to perform a difficult task. It will not only have to remove barriers preventing competition and development in electronic commerce, but do so without removing the protections that have developed over the years. The Bill also must not create new barriers.
The Bill will change the culture of the United Kingdom. The internet will open up government and public services and facilitate business's competitive instincts. If we get the framework right, the Bill will enable us to accomplish many goals. If we get it wrong, we will damage the United Kingdom for decades to come. Therefore, it is one of the key Bills. I am certain that the Government will get it right, but it is important that we recognise that it is key.
The issue of culture has also been raised tonight. I agree not only with the concerns expressed by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), but with his conclusions that the terms of the freedom of information Bill must be right. It is important that we subject it to the draft legislation process rather than put a half-cocked piece of legislation on the statute book. We have done that too often in this place. It is important that we get that Bill right because it will be a key piece of legislation for the next century.
The drive towards better government and freedom of information will lead to a change of culture in our public services. I recently saw an example of that. Stockholm city council decided to cable all of Stockholm and make that cable available to the businesses that could use it. It created a private company and, although its shareholders were Stockholm city council, in all respects it was a private venture because it went to the market to raise the necessary capital. It then dug the cable through Stockholm and made it available to all companies to enable them to compete, whether they were in public or private ownership.
Stockholm city council, as shareholder, got its return and the investors, through the private market, got their return. The case put me in mind of the way in which the 99 Victorian English cities, such as Birmingham and Manchester, developed the new technologies of their day—electricity, gas and sewers—from which we are still benefiting today. If we are to allow Britain to move forward, despite the scoffs of the Opposition parties about modernisation, we need to remove the shackles from innovation and new technologies.
All that brings me to the peers. I made an earlier suggestion about what the Government should do about the House of Lords other than abolish the voting rights of hereditary peers. Some time ago—after the third defeat, I think—I suggested that we should give every Tory voter a peerage and use the Parliament Act 1911 to reduce the time for which they could hold that office to one month. We would then have a permanent non-Tory Government. Anyone who dared to vote Tory would be made a peer and lose his or her right to vote. I am not sure that that is very democratic, but it appealed to my sense of humour.
It is important to make it clear that, when voting rights are removed from hereditary peers, there will not be a Labour majority in the other place. I would prefer a Chamber that had a permanent Labour majority, but then that is my old Stalinist background coming out. It is important to recognise that Labour will not have a majority in the second Chamber and that the process of appointment to it will change.
I welcome the fact that the work of the royal commission will be subject to a time limit. When the Scotland Bill went through, it was said that it related to unfinished business, but the issue of hereditary peers is unfinished business that goes back even longer than that. The hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) said that the Labour party did not understand history, but the old saying that those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it definitely applies to the Tory party at the moment.
The other crucial issue in the Queen' s Speech on which we will be judged is welfare reform, in which I am a strong believer. It is critical. I come to it from a simple point of view—the current system does not work. Week in and week out, I see people at my surgery who are suffering under the current system because they cannot get the benefits that they need. In 1997, I did not think that it was possible that people who did not have any money were told, "The only thing that you can do is go down to the Salvation Army and get some food vouchers," yet that is what happened just after we took over in May 1997. It is wrong that that could occur at the end of the 20th century.
The welfare system was designed in the late 1940s, when men worked and women stayed at home, and when the ratio of working people to pensioners was far greater than now. It is long overdue for reform. I shall judge the welfare reforms on the simple question of whether the people who lose out under the current system will benefit under the new one. It is important that those people who desperately want to work can do so, whether part time or full time, or with changing hours. The way in which work is organised will fundamentally change in the coming years and it is important that the benefits system, and the support that it gives to families, recognises that the work pattern will not always be as it is now. We need a system that responds to that. We do not need a system under 100 which different benefits are paid out on different days but need a system under which money can be transferred to where people need it.
We have a tremendous opportunity in this Queen's Speech. Far from being irrelevant or harmless, as the hon. Member for Lewes said, it is a Queen's Speech that will go down as the point at which Britain turned the corner, when we started to behave as a country that cared; when we started to look after our older citizens, the disabled and those who did not have work. It will also be seen as the point when we began to remove barriers to work and competition and allowed our public services to become entrepreneurial. Its importance for the future will be based on that.
§ Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)
It is a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Mr. White), since we went to the same grammar school—at different times of course. He will have been a constituent of mine at one time. When he said that the Queen's Speech would be seen as the point time when we turned a corner, I remembered that old Ulster expression. When a person asks how far it is to such and such a place, the reply is, "It's just round the corner." I have a suspicion that his corner may just be as far ahead as that guidance to wanderers in Northern Ireland.
I welcome the speeches made by the mover and seconder of the motion today, especially that of the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton), to which I shall return in a moment. I join those who have put on record their tribute to Gordon McMaster and his contribution to the House. He is missed. I worked with him in the disability lobby and I knew his concern about the UDR Four and his regular inquiries as to what was going on. He was a man who had an open heart and a concern for people. I join those who have paid tribute to his memory today.
The hon. Member for Bassetlaw referred to the reform of the House of Lords. I have no difficulty with reform, but I believe that it is wrong to reform without having thought through the future. I speak in the context of the reference made by the hon. Gentleman to Lord Fitt's speech 30 years ago in this House, when pressure was put on the then Northern Ireland Parliament, which was prorogued at that time. Successive Governments have spent years trying to put something in its place.
I believe that there is a need for a revising Chamber. How it is formed may be open to debate, but I am convinced that there is a need for one. The evidence for that is the last Bill relating to Northern Ireland, which went through the House in a shameful way in four hours, when 420 amendments to it had been tabled. That shows that there is a place for a revising Chamber to give this Chamber time to reflect on its legislation before it finalises it.
I must try to put the record straight. The hon. Member for Bassetlaw said that Lord Fitt, then Gerry Fitt, the Member of Parliament for West Belfast, talked about the numbers of people who did not have a vote and said that one person had something like 24 votes. The impression would have been given to people here and to people outside the House, and internationally, that many people in Northern Ireland did not have a vote for either the old Stormont Parliament or the Westminster Parliament. 101 The reality is that those votes referred to the local ratepayers franchise, which was not removed in Northern Ireland after 1945.
Significantly, when the Conservative Government tried to bring in the community charge, commonly called the poll tax, they did not have the nerve to extend it to Northern Ireland, because it would have been an admission that there was a reality in what was called the ratepayers franchise. Many people have misunderstood that. It is important to remember that it had nothing to do with Unionism or nationalism; nothing to do with Roman Catholicism or Protestantism. Presbyterian ministers, Church of Ireland rectors and Roman Catholic priests did not have a vote in local council elections because they were dwelling in Church-owned property that did not have rates paid for it. The issue cut across society.
I welcome the Government's commitment to bringing back the regulations and laws on the age of consent relating to those who may abuse their position of trust. If there is any change in the age of consent, I suggest that the best compromise may be that of Northern Ireland, making the age 17 rather than 16. In this modern age, with so many children murdered or abused, we should long since have established a commissioner for children. The various bodies that are concerned about the welfare of children have been urging that for a long time. Before the end of this Session, I hope that the Government will introduce legislation on a commissioner for children.
The Queen's Speech refers to international terrorism. I am reminded of what sometimes happens when children misbehave in public on the Shankill road. Their mother says to them, "When I get you home, I'll murder you." The youngster looks at her and laughs, because they already know that it means, "When I get you home, I'll do nothing." It is a meaningless threat. We have made such threats that we have not followed through, allowing some of the greatest dictators in the world to laugh at us as they have been not just threatening the United States' oil supplies or the stability of the middle east, but persecuting their citizens, be they the Shi'ite Muslims in the marsh or the Kurds in the north. The same has happened elsewhere. It is time that Governments who claim to be democratic started to work together to deal with such dictators.
As a Northern Ireland Member, I have a wry smile about that. The hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East said that he had his own sense of humour. We all have, and I sometimes get into trouble with mine. Is there not something wrong with a Government who justified the illegal help to restore the ousted Government of Sierra Leone on the grounds that they were getting rid of rebels and putting into power a democratically elected Government, while in Northern Ireland they have opened the way for unreformed terrorists to be placed in executive positions in a democratic structure? As I understand it, there is no legislation to guard against that.
I say that advisedly. There was a fringe meeting at the Labour party conference addressed by a Unionist councillor with Gerry Adams. Two Ministers and a former Cabinet Minister were on the platform. According to a newspaper report, the best joke was told by the Unionist councillor, who said, "How can you tell the difference between Sinn Fein-IRA and the Spice Girls? We know that Geri has left the Spice Girls." Without one weapon decommissioned, we are still pressing ahead to give credibility to those who are not the majority of people in 102 Northern Ireland, but a minority who, through terror, have sought to dictate terms in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and elsewhere.
I ask the House not to join those who have been happy to demonise the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Significantly, some of the charges that were laid against the old Ulster Unionist Government have been laid against successive British Governments, Labour or Conservative. The reality is not one of civil rights, but of national identity. The RUC has served all the people of Northern Ireland. I know fine men and women from the Roman Catholic community who have proudly served and have borne the penalty, being murdered by republicans.
The other side of the equation also has to be borne in mind. Those of a loyalist terrorist persuasion have not earned the right to represent the people of Northern Ireland. My hon. Friend the Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis) was castigated because newspapers misreported part of his speech in the House and let the Loyalist Volunteer Force off the hook. I want to explain what he was getting at when he talked about what terrorists—loyalist terrorists—have stooped to. I am reminded of a prison chaplain who, the day after his young son was brutally kicked and maimed for life, was told by a loyalist prisoner, "We hope you got the message." It is a scandal and a shame in a democratic community when we give credibility to what I call the incredible.
I welcome the Gracious Speech and the advances that it contains. I shall refer quickly to three issues. First, I trust that the Government will heed the advice of the person involved in tertiary education who told me that, if money is to be poured into education, it should be poured into the primary sector as we are losing out at that level and failing to equip children to go on to further study.
The second issue involves welfare to work and other aspects of the Government's modernising plans. There is something wrong with a job skills programme that seems to revert to an earlier programme which ruled that, if people did not have a job by the end of level 2, they could not proceed to level 3. That is possibly one reason why so many people are poorly equipped. For example, many in the construction and building industry chose self-employment as a tax evasion dodge through national insurance. However, many of those self-employed cannot afford to undertake necessary training at a time when the building and construction industry is short of some 6,000 people. I trust that the Government will seek to improve training standards.
Finally, I welcome some of the movement in health—which is my area of responsibility. However, I am surprised that, in reforming primary-led health groups, a Government who supposedly consult the people cannot find room for the views of the patient and carer or client and customer. We must hear the people's voice. Although my daughter is a doctor, it is my experience that the doctor is not always right and a second opinion is often vital. It is important also for doctors to listen to their patients.
§ 9 pm
§ Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth), who does important work in respect of health, social security and disability. I shall touch on one or two of the points that he raised in connection with Northern Ireland—the area that he represents.
103 The hon. Gentleman pointed to past franchise problems in the Province, but there are modern franchise problems in Northern Ireland—especially involving fraud and impersonation. The Northern Ireland Forum produced evidence in connection with that problem. I presented my case to that body, and its document was then used by the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, which offered several arguments in an attempt to tackle the problems of fraud and impersonation. The Committee's views, in turn, influenced the Government in taking subsequent measures.
We must remain eternally vigilant when it comes to franchise matters. I continue to stress that many people do not appear on electoral registers while others appear on them fraudulently. A modern system must tackle that problem. If modernisation has any benefits, it is in the area of enfranchisement.
§ Rev. Martin Smyth
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, particularly regarding registration. One of my constituents was on the register of a London constituency and moved to Belfast towards the end of September. That constituent cannot appear on the new register in Belfast and, as my constituent was not in London before the October date, cannot appear on the London register. That example surely supports the argument—which the hon. Gentleman has espoused for some time—for a rolling registration.
§ Mr. Barnes
Rolling registration techniques should certainly be introduced, and I am disappointed that that measure is not in the Queen's Speech. Much good progress has been made: developments have occurred within the Home Office, the Labour party national executive committee has adopted the rolling register, and the idea enjoys wide cross-party support. Unfortunately, we must wait a little longer for the introduction of legislation. The Prime Minister, as shadow Home Secretary, accepted that argument and encouraged hon. Members to support the electoral legislation that I introduced. I hope that that means that the Government will respond favourably in the future.
The hon. Member for Belfast, South mentioned several other matters. He referred correctly to the position of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and to obvious concerns about the outcome of current investigations. A Select Committee report recognises the important work of the RUC. Its suggestions for reform include not dismantling the RUC or dramatic changes but developing an environment in which the RUC can represent people both across the communities and across the sexual divide—the sexes are not represented equally in that force.
The hon. Member for Belfast, South referred to the terrorist problem in Northern Ireland. Decommissioning is important if the peace process is to continue. At a recent meeting of the Friends of the Union, which took place in the House, Sean O'Callaghan pointed out that various Members, including Labour Members, say that giving up arms is beside the point because more can be acquired. As he said, if arms were given up and IRA commanders told their activists to rob a bank to get money to purchase weapons, the activists would reply, "What do you mean? You have just handed over the weapons and now you 104 want us to rob a bank to replace arms that have been built up over years." Decommissioning is tremendously important and cannot be switched on and off like a tap. Once the arms situation is tackled, it will be difficult to restore it.
The only other comment that I want to make on the speech of the hon. Member for Belfast, South relates to the joke that Chris McGimpsey made at a fringe meeting at the Labour party conference. I know who claimed to pass on the joke to Chris McGimpsey, and I shall tell the hon. Gentleman later.
I want to deal with the overall Government position on the Queen's Speech. The hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) implied that the Government's talk about modernisation is vague, that they pick up bits and pieces of policy from all over the place just because they are modern and that there is no broad approach. He is entirely mistaken. The Government have a clear set of ideas, with which I am not always in tune, but they are definite positions which need to be understood. Modernisation is part of that. It is stressed in the first paragraph of the Queen's Speech, which refers tomodernisation of the country, its institutions, its public services, and its economy.Modernisation is therefore tremendously important.
Before I develop further points about that topic, I shall stress other ideas that link with that notion and clarify it. The first is partnership. The Commonwealth Development Corporation is to undergo a form of privatisation and become a public-private partnership.
Another idea, which is not contained in the Queen's Speech but influences it, is the Prime Minister's philosophy of the third way. He has produced a Fabian pamphlet that expresses those ideas, and theorists are producing related ideas. The third way will interlink the free market and social justice, and the Queen's Speech contains such ideas. There is stress on measures that have already been taken, such as giving the Bank of England control over interest rates, which is the free market aspect. The Queen's Speech also includes many social justice measures, some of which were mentioned by the hon. Member for Belfast, South. Those relate to reform of benefits and are influenced by the joint approach of the free market plus social justice.
Another point that is continually stressed is globalisation. Because of the international markets, there are restrictions on the actions in which any Government can engage. There is some sign that these points have been taken on board, in that the Queen' s Speech refers to the G7 partners working together on financial issues, and there is also reference to the global climate.
I have stressed modernisation, partnership, the third way and globalisation and shall now relate them to points made in the Queen's Speech. If one takes modernisation by itself, as the hon. Member for Blaby did, one sees that it is an odd idea. It is not clear, like the traditional sort of Conservatism that we generally had before Lady Thatcher became leader of the Conservative party and handbagged it into taking a particular approach. We might ask, as the hon. Member for Blaby did, what we are supposed to modernise.
I am in favour of some of the suggested modernisations in the Queen's Speech. We are going to replace the internal market in the national health service. That will be 105 a distinct advantage, because the operation of that market has involved a waste of resources, which can now be used to fulfil the health service's real purpose.
We will also establish a disability rights commission. I should have liked us to go further. I introduced the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill, the thrust of which I hope will be enacted in future. When the previous Conservative Government presented what was then the Disability Discrimination Bill, it was said that the best change to it would have been the inclusion of such a commission, because the commission was the dynamic that would help to improve disability legislation.
I welcome the fact that more money is to go to the health service and education. I also welcome what is to happen to the other place, although—to quote Bernard Crick—I regard it as "nibbling at the ermine". In other words, we are doing only a little to tackle the issue by getting rid of hereditary peers' powers, but in the hope of something more substantial at a later date. Even that may not be as dramatic as some of the solutions that I could suggest, but it is a step in the right direction.
Eventually, we are to have the food standards agency and freedom of information legislation. I wish that firm proposals had been included in the Queen's Speech, but we are at least starting to move in the right direction.
The Queen's Speech contains many nice, modern measures, but why do I like them? What is it that attracts me to them? I am attracted to them because I am a democratic socialist and they are an extension of either democracy or social welfare. I sign up to these measures and will be keen to support the Government in the Lobbies, although I encourage the Government to go further.
There are some modernisations in the Queen's Speech that I distrust. They include the modernisation of local government. The local government White Paper seems to be about turning back-bench councillors into lobby fodder. What happens in the House is what people often believe happens on councils. When Labour Members who were councillors attend meetings of the parliamentary Labour party, the first thing they say is how differently things operate in the Labour groups and in the PLP. They say that, on the council, issues were debated, decisions were made and then the councillors would adhere solidly to the whip. But now, the position is determined from on high. That allows greater scope for rebellion, because we have not been party to a decision, but it means that we have not been party to the decision making either.
That is what the Government are about in establishing mayors, chief executives and centralised systems. Phrases in the White Paper are rather anti group activity. I know that many councils do not operate as they should, but reforms can be introduced to stimulate activity. Often, better facilities, and especially greater resources, are required for councillors to perform their functions.
I do not like what has happened to the Bank of England, with the resultant loss of control over interest rates. The measure was mentioned in the Queen's Speech, although it had already been implemented. It represents a loss of democracy. The House needs to take some issues more seriously on board, and greater controls should be introduced. Control over bodies such as the Bank of England should be in the hands of elected representatives.
Nor do I like much that is going on concerning the European Parliamentary Elections Bill. Because of the furore in the other place, a little low-level politicking has 106 been turned into a matter of high constitutional principle, and the detail is therefore being ignored. I happen to think that details are quite important. I am abstaining on everything related to the issue because I am against lists. I am against closed lists, because of the power of party bureaucrats, and open lists, because people from the same party fight each other over seats, as they do in the Republic of Ireland. We should not institutionalise conflicts between members of the same party; there can be enough conflict without it.
I am worried that we may not get some of the modernising moves right. I am not in one camp or the other; I will need to prod the issues. Labour has made a commitment on fairness at work, but concerns have been expressed by the Trades Union Congress about what will emerge in the Bill in the end. Its executive committeecontinues to express its strong concerns at reports that the government is giving sympathetic consideration to employer lobbying aimed at sabotaging clear principles set out in the White Paper.The White Paper was already a compromise towards which the unions had been pushed, but it seemed acceptable. We may now be going too far in placating employer interests.
The Queen's Speech says that we are in favour of European Union enlargement. I think that the priority in the EU is democratisation. It has been said that, if the EU applied for membership to itself, it would not be granted it because it does not have the democratic arrangements and provisions required in order to operate. Tremendous pressure should be put on achieving proper democratisation in a federal, social and democratic Europe, which would provide scope for expansion. New members would know the terms of the club that they applied to join.
I like the commitment on education, but I want some proof of it. Derbyshire, for instance, in which my constituency lies, suffered tremendously under the previous Government's arrangements, and it has suffered fantastic cumulative losses in education spending. We are hoping that, in the standard spending assessment statement in December, the Government will provide extra moneys and that we fare proportionately better than some. Several other counties have suffered in such a way, and are part of organisations such as the fair funding campaign. So, under the notion of modernisation, I go for some things because I am a democratic socialist, I am really worried about others, and some will depend on how they pan out.
I return to the issue of partnership, which was mentioned frequently in the Labour party's election manifesto and in documents published before the general election, and has been talked about considerably since then. Labour, when it was founded, was a mixture of socialists, trade unionists and workers in what was called a labour alliance. It was not a particularly left-wing body, but socialists could work with people who had a labourite interest, those who were exploited and who wanted to try to correct things.
The then opposition to us became the Conservative party. It was clearly the party of free enterprise and capitalism. Labour and the Conservative party conflicted with each other. However, there were periods of compromise, consensus and mutual moderation, which Harold Macmillan in the 1930s would have called the "middle way". That might not be very different from the third way that is now propounded. 107 Despite comings-together on many occasions, there were distinct different interests that were often discussed between the two sides. The old-style Liberals, not the Liberal Democrats, represented the party that attempted to square the circle. It was the party of partnership. Liberals thought that it was possible to get capital and labour around the table and that their representatives would be after the same thing once they had talked to one another.
I am not against capital and labour talking, but their representatives should realise that they are negotiating. They are making temporary compromises today so that they may argue and manoeuvre for temporary compromises tomorrow. It is part of what I dare to call the class struggle, which still takes place within society. The old Liberals ignored that. However, new Labour now has this philosophy of partnership. That is reflected in the private finance initiative, for instance, of which the council in my constituency is making good use. The council has to respond to the world in which it finds itself. However, I would sooner see public resources being supplied to local authorities. The participation concept is provided for in the Queen's Speech in terms of the Commonwealth Development Corporation.
I was talking about the third way, which is free markets and social justice. This is not a new way. It is not something that has just come about. It has some similarities, as I have said, with Harold Macmillan's middle way. To some extent, it is an ideal. Its historical background comes from people such as Lloyd George. The Lloyd George social liberalism reflects the third way considerably. That has a problem for me as a socialist. To me, free markets produce inequality, injustice and exploitation. If we want to see that readily and easily, there are international examples. After all, we have a global economy and the third world is included. Let us consider, for example, countries such as Malawi where there is destitution. That is part of the experience.
Social justice will be stunted if it has to take place within free market arrangements. There is the idea that the free market lays the golden egg and that thereafter there is some redistribution. I think that we must examine the way in which the market works and the problems that it produces.
Labour reflects some of the third-way notions. The Queen's Speech refers towork for those who can".I hope that that means that we shall create work. It is no use saying that there should be work for people who can work, after we have sorted out the people who are to work, if there is little work for them and they must accept poor wages, even though we are producing minimum wage legislation.
I did not realise until after the election that the slogan "Off benefit into work" was meant to be taken as it was produced. It was intended to say, "Get people off benefit and you will get them into work." It should have said, "Provide work and it will get people off benefit."
That reflects part of the problem that we experienced with single-parent benefit and perhaps, to an extent, with disability. Although many good measures are contained in the White Papers on benefits and on disability, we are in danger of moving increasingly towards selective help 108 and further away from universal benefits. I am a universal benefit man because that is implicit in the democratic socialist philosophy that I hold.
My next point is about globalisation. I hope that we are not expected to accept that we are hermetically sealed inside a world capitalist order and that in no circumstances can we get out. I would accept a great deal of the philosophy behind new Labour's programme if it were a temporary compromise because of the circumstances in which we found ourselves, so that we could build for tomorrow. If, however, it were seen as our long-term objective, that would be a serious mistake.
The third world suffers deprivation. There is the prospect of the multilateral agreement on investment, at the behest of multinational companies, with their particular interests. We should not say that we can do nothing about that. The weapons to tackle the evils of international free markets are what they have always been for democratic socialists: democracy and demands for social justice. That means organising with people to achieve those objectives—for example, by assisting those who work in co-operatives in Africa.
We should not think about bombing Iraq into submission, because we would be bombing the Iraqi people. Similar cases were the bombings of Sudan and Afghanistan. We should not always follow Clinton's lead.
Although we do not yet have a society that is ready to accept a fully fledged socialist programme, we should modernise in a democratic socialist direction. We should extend democracy. We hear much talk about fancy franchises and other arrangements. Whatever they are, everybody should be part of the process. At the beginning of the discussion, I suggested a rolling register, which still seems to be entirely relevant.
Socialism entails working to tackle world poverty. In the case of Iraq, that is hindered by the operation of sanctions. The standard of living in Iraq is probably about one tenth what it was when Saddam Hussein emerged, much of that due to him and his conduct of the war with Iran.
On Northern Ireland, the Government got things tremendously right. They should provide the resources from the benefits of peace, and tackle decommissioning, thereby fostering the sensitivity and the democratic arrangements necessary to develop a society. Those features are sometimes absent from their foreign policy, and for that reason should perhaps have been included in the Queen's Speech.
§ Mr. Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West)
I am not sure that references to Northern Ireland should come under the heading of foreign policy.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes). His is one of the speeches that is always well worth listening to. I hope that those on the Government Front Bench will pay attention to the practical points that he made. For those who are concerned about the purpose of politics, I should like to say that I strongly agree with him and commend his account of democracy and what I call well-being—a mixture of wealth and welfare. There are few occasions when fully democratic countries go to war with each other or have high-level civil wars. Democracy is important to allow all the other things that matter to happen.
109 That brings me to a point of dispute—that is a friendly way of putting it—with the leader of the Liberal Democrats, who spoke in a firmer tone than perhaps he should have done about the use of the Parliament Acts in establishing the system of elections to the European Parliament. The plain fact, confirmed on page 570 of "Erskine May", is that, if the House of Lords made a change to an open-list system which this House then accepted, or if this House added a "suggestion" by resolution to the Bill that did not pass in the previous Session, that could still allow the Parliament Act to apply.
In practice, if the Government could stop being quite so fixed on the closed-list system and accept the open-list system, which the Liberal Democrats and the Tories want, and which, as far as I can see, most Labour Back Benchers would prefer, the Bill could become an Act before the deadline and the problem would go away. That is a practical suggestion which I hope will be passed on to the Prime Minister.
Each time I challenged a Minister or Labour Back Benchers assembled to say who thought that the closed-list system was the best system, not a single one moved. Ministers could not name a single supporter who thought that the closed-list system was to be preferred.
There is no more that I want to say on that at the moment; but, if the leader of the Liberal Democrats has any influence at all with the Prime Minister, instead of saying that he will get his Liberal Democrats to vote for a closed-list system when they want an open-list system, he could ask the Prime Minister to change his mind and go for an open-list system.
§ Mr. Bottomley
It is not the numbers that matter but whether the Bill is right or wrong. The other place has two functions, which I hope it will keep, one of which is to consider detail and the other of which is to protect the rights of voters.
In multi-councillor wards, I have never seen both elected councillors, or sometimes all three, obtain precisely the same number of votes. Voters want to pick and choose. The closed-list system, for which Liberal Democrats voted, does not give that opportunity. All the names should go on the ballot paper. Voters should be able to get the Government to agree with the Liberal Democrats policy. If the other place makes that possible, I will support it. In the same way, with regard to the age of consent, the other place wanted, in effect, the Bassetlaw amendment on positions of trust and responsibility. The Government did not agree then, but they do now. That seems perfectly reasonable.
The Queen's Speech does not refer to a privacy law. There are times when it is tempting for people in politics to argue for a privacy law. I am glad that the Government have not given way to that. The media can do great damage and publish many things that are wrong, but no privacy law that I have seen is workable. I would ask that the Government start paying more attention to the things that look wrong and may be wrong.
For example—I tabled an early-day motion on this—if the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has regulatory responsibility over the media, as is illustrated 110 by the fact that he referred the Manchester United-Sky proposed link up for investigation, he is presumably the person who would have to say whether the Arsenal-United Media proposed link, if it came forward, should be referred.
Yet, in Stephen Glover's article in The Spectator on 21 November 1998, and in other articles in The Times and The Guardian, there is the suggestion that the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, or his helpers, or the Prime Minister's chief press secretary put pressure on Lord Hollick to sack the editor of The Express on Sunday or to have some of the journalists changed.
The Prime Minister should ask the Cabinet Secretary to institute an inquiry into that. During that time, he should announce that any media reference involving Lord Hollick or United Media would require a decision by another Minister, perhaps the Leader of the House. That is the kind of issue where the Prime Minister wants to look squeaky clean.
The Prime Minister can stop people fearing that proprietors or editors are worried about a call from someone in the Government or on behalf of the Labour party asking for a journalist or editor to be sacked. Without making a threat or a promise, it might be feared that someone who was angry with a journalist or editor would make a marginally different decision over a reference on regulation in the media.
I support some things that the Government are doing. I support the Green Paper "Supporting Families: A Consultation Paper" if that is aimed at encouraging parents to have more competence and confidence in bringing up children and the more effective functioning of families with their shared responsibilities. I strongly support the increase in child benefit, something for which I have argued since I became a Member of the House about 23 years ago.
I welcome that increase, but—if I may niggle—it is quite clear to me that Ministers did not read the consultation paper, and those civil servants who read it did not pay enough attention to page 56, where there is a list of "Other Government publications". Top of the list is the Labour party manifesto. If Ministers do not read to the end of their own documents, they should. Any Minister who read that document would have said that the Labour party manifesto was not a Government publication. It might be "other interesting reading", but it should not have gone in with the productions paid for by the taxpayer.
When the Prime Minister noticed that—I brought it to his attention—it would have been better if he had apologised, but he should go a stage further and say, "As well as Ministers failing to read their own publication, what about the civil servants?" Have we reached a stage where our independent, impartial civil service—which serves Governments of any party with a majority—does not dare, or does not care, to say to Ministers, "Excuse me, you've got this wrong"?
I cannot believe that civil servants did not read page 56 of that Government publication. The Prime Minister—when he is speaking to senior civil servants, as he does on occasion—should say, "If any of your people think that we are doing something that is wrong, either by mistake or deliberately, tell the Minister. The second time, tell the permanent secretary and the third time tell The Guardian, if necessary."
111 There is a responsibility, which is shared by the Cabinet Secretary and the Prime Minister, to make sure that civil servants spot such things and take action. There should not be confusion between party interest and Government responsibilities.
I shall move on, to Northern Ireland and then to West Sussex. I strong believe that the Royal Ulster Constabulary has done valiant work and has carried much of the burden over the past 30 years. It has not been perfect, but it has been very good.
It is wrong that the only police service in the United Kingdom with the word "Royal" in its title is in Northern Ireland—it is not in Scotland, in Wales or in England. I do not want to throw away the RUC name or tradition, but I want to add to its title the words "Northern Ireland police service". In the same way that the Conservative party and the Labour party have alternative titles, it is perfectly reasonable for the Northern Ireland police service—the RUC—to have both titles available for people to use as they wish. We could add to the RUC's fine tradition a movement towards being like police services in other parts of the United Kingdom.
One of the dominant issues, which is referred to in passing in the spending sentences of the Queen's Speech, will be the Government's determination on the standard spending assessment. I think that West Sussex will be penalised; it also loses out in health allocations.
It is no coincidence that most of the West Sussex health authorities and hospitals have the worst waiting lists and waiting periods, partly because there are many elderly people on the south coast. Most of the illnesses for which people do not receive urgent or emergency treatment are ones that the elderly experience, and most of the problems experienced by young people are emergencies or urgent.
The pressure on resources in the Worthing and Southlands Hospitals NHS trust, and in others, is enormous. I hope that the Secretary of State for Health will come down to West Sussex, listen to the nurses, the auxiliaries in the hospitals, the doctors and the people on the health authorities and share with them his view of how they can manage on the resources that they have. Those resources are not adequate.
In education, there are also problems, but one of the biggest problems—this comes into casualty reduction—is money for roads. Although the Worthing bypass did not go through, money is still needed to give protection to local people, especially vulnerable road users. For example, on a county road—the A259 at Ferring—people on foot, on bikes or on horses are exposed to the daily risk of trying to cross a busy dual carriageway that carries virtually the same amount of traffic that motorways used to handle, before they grew even larger.
West Sussex will not have the money to put in the improvements, although extra money is being paid by motorists, and vulnerable road users—people outside cars and on foot—have environmental needs. Two weeks ago, a tragic crash killed Mr. Wallace at the site where I, a county councillor and other concerned local residents pointed out in January that action was needed. Cash control over West Sussex county council is in the hands of the Government. The strings need to be loosened.
112 There needs to be a source of funding so that casualty reduction measures can be taken. We must continue to reduce the number of road deaths because, at over 3,000 a year, 10 a day, it is still far too high.
I do not understand why the Deputy Prime Minister insists on an extra 12,000 homes in addition to the 38,000 that West Sussex must produce. It was agreed that West Sussex could take only 38,000, and the Deputy Prime Minister should have accepted that. I hope that his early success in the courts will be overturned. Even if it is not, he should tell West Sussex that it can get by without the extra 12,000, in the same way that Worthing local council decided to lift its threat on development of the Goring gap. Places such as West Sussex need protection from overdevelopment. They need people who are willing to enter local and national politics to stand up for them.
It is a great honour for me to continue in Parliament representing a new constituency. Some of the issues are the same as they were when I was first elected and we had a Labour Government; some are the same as under the Conservative Government. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have much more in common than our debates allow us to believe. However, unless we can be specific about constituency issues and, as the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire said, recognise the importance of democracy and the link with the electorate so that we do both what our electorate want and what is right, we shall fail. Both the Government and the Opposition have an opportunity to make things better so long as we work hard at it. We should tell people to have faith in politics as they can provide a better life for many people and, when times are hard, give a degree of comfort, even if they cannot provide a cure.
§ Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay)
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Mr. Bottomley), who represents a fellow seaside town, and to hear a constructive speech from a Conservative Member. Like my constituency, Worthing is an end-of-the-line town—a place to which people go not to get somewhere but to visit because of what it has to offer. All coastal resorts tend to fall between two stools: the urban and the rural. Those are mentioned in the Queen's Speech, whereas coastal resorts are not.
The Queen's Speech made no mention of the damage that has been done to coastal resorts over the years. In the past year, the removal of "bed nights" from the local government grant formula has cost seaside resorts dear. No legislation has been promised for the deregulation of dry rooms. Many licensed hoteliers want to maximise the use of floor space in their properties, but are caught by ancient rules that require them to set aside a dry room. Nothing has been said about VAT on accommodation, which acts as a disincentive when the UK holiday industry competes with Europe.
Nothing is said about reforming the planning system, which is a significant problem in tourist areas where the market is in decline and there happens to be an over-supply of tourist accommodation. Under the existing planning system, people cannot obtain permission to change the use of their property. They become wedded to the tourism industry and have to ratchet down their tariffs to pay their bankers. They cannot change the use of their property in order to pay off that debt.
113 Another problem faced by any area that receives visitors is the additional cost of fire, police and health services, especially casualty services, which are not recompensed within the national health service. Local people suffer because the service available to them is diminished by the pressures caused by visitors. I was sad that the Queen's Speech said nothing about that.
The Queen's Speech felt like an end-of-term speech, such as one might expect the year before a general election. That may be because the reform of the House of Lords is expected to take up a great deal of time, so a number of legislative items could not be included.
I also regret that the Queen's Speech contained nothing about leasehold reform, which was in Labour's manifesto. Ministers have promised consultation papers, but we are still waiting for the legislation to be brought before the House.
There are no measures on housing revenue accounts. Local authorities that have a surplus must force their poor council tenants to meet the housing benefit bill for other poor council tenants. No attempt has been made to change that. The legislation to speed up conveyancing in the housing market, which was promised last year, has not been included in the Queen's Speech. That is pretty important, because a flexible labour market requires a flexible housing market. Speeding up conveyancing would be a small contribution towards that.
My constituents and others in the south-west will be disappointed by the Queen's Speech—as we have been disappointed by government over the past 20 years—because we wanted a farming Bill. We were pleased about the Secretary of State's announcement of new money to tackle the crisis, but that does not secure the long-term future of the industry. We would have liked measures to reduce the strength of the pound, so that farmers could compete with producers abroad and maintain CAP support at comparable levels.
Foreign imports should be subjected to the same high standards as British meat, especially beef and pigmeat products. We should encourage a "buy British" policy. We have a ridiculous situation in Devon. As a result of compulsory competitive tendering introduced by the previous Government, our local education authority has to purchase Irish beef when perfectly good Devon beef is available. The Government should have turned their attention to that matter in the Queen's Speech.
The Queen' s Speech should have included a transport Bill that went a bit further than the additional money made available for rural areas in the Budget, and used more of the money levied from fuel taxes. As my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker) said, there should be a strategic transport authority, and there should be guaranteed funding transport packages, including safe routes to school, traffic calming, cycle and bus lanes, home zones and improved public transport. The Government talk a lot about discouraging people from using cars and encouraging them to use public transport, but the problem is that they are doing it the wrong way around. They should put the public transport infrastructure in place first, then they can get people out of their cars. They cannot do it the other way around, and they certainly cannot do it in rural areas where there is no bus service or public transport infrastructure.
The Queen's Speech should have included a crime and policing Bill that changed the funding formula in line with the significant extra demands made on policing rural 114 areas. Rural areas cannot make the economies of scale that can be made in towns and cities. People in my part of the country would have liked the demands made on the police by the increase in the population in Devon and Cornwall during the summer months to be recognised. If the police in Northampton or Oxfordshire are under strain, they can draw resources from the surrounding counties. However, Devon and Cornwall are on a peninsula, and go out to the sea, so they cannot draw resources from other areas. They must stretch their resources further.
There should have been a housing Bill that reassessed the number of extra homes needed in each region. That is becoming critical. The hon. Member for Worthing, West referred to Sussex, but other hon. Members would no doubt jump up and say that this problem affects their areas also. We should require developers to work with planning authorities to ensure that what is built matches local need. The part of the house build equation that is missed is not the number, but the type of housing required to meet local need.
We would have liked to see second home owners pay full council tax. It would have been easy to introduce a Bill to provide for that. A relatively short space of parliamentary time would have been required to allow local authorities that needed to end the concession on council tax to subsidise services in areas where there are too many second homes, which threaten schools, bus services and shops. At present, local authorities cannot subsidise communities in that way. If the council tax take were increased, the Chancellor would be able to ensure that the money was spent in the right way.
Water charges in the south-west are a vital issue. I cannot stress too much to hon. Members who do not live in the area how important water bills are there. They constitute a disproportionate part of the fixed incomes of, for instance, people on welfare benefits. Neither pensions nor welfare benefits take account of the cost of water charges, yet ours are the highest in the country. It would have been nice to see a bill introducing council tax banding to replace rateable value as a first step towards a fairer system, and perhaps a national fund for environmental improvements. It seems entirely wrong for the south-west, which contains 3 per cent. of the nation's population, to be lumbered with paying, through our water bills, to protect, enhance and clean up 30 per cent. of the nation's coastline.
Most of all, those of us speaking from a south-west perspective would like a Bill providing fair funding for the region. It would include provision for a sparsity factor in the standard spending assessment, to take into account the extra costs of providing services in rural areas, to take account of seasonal fluctuations of population that take their toll on regional services and to recognise the problems faced by peninsular communities with a lack of neighbouring services to fall back on. We would like such a fair funding Bill to be kept under regular review by an independent body.
During the 18 years of Conservative government, there was a great sense that we did not get a fair deal and, in the past 18 months, there has been precious little to convince constituents in Devon and Cornwall that they are getting a better deal from the present Government. It is a shame that, from a south-west perspective, the Queen's Speech does not seem to meet local needs.
Debate adjourned.—[Mr. Pope.]
§ Debate to be resumed tomorrow.