§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)
Madam Speaker has ruled that there will be a 10-minute allocation for Back Benchers. The amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition has been selected.
§ Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)
I beg to move,
That this House affirms that effective parliamentary democracy in the United Kingdom and effective scrutiny in Europe depend on competent, coherent and constructive opposition; regrets the failure of the disunited Conservative Parliamentary Party at Westminster and the antipathetic and complacent Conservative group in the European Parliament to provide that necessary check on the executive, especially given their confusion over the future funding of education, policing, the NHS and other public services, Britain's positive role in Europe, and the achievement of necessary reforms of the institutions and policies of the European Union; and considers that the British taxpayer gets inadequate value for money from the Official Opposition.
Even before I say a word, this motion has served a useful function because it has attracted an unprecedented number of Members to the Chamber on a Thursday afternoon.
§ Mr. Heath
Let me say at least one or two sentences.
The motion may serve a further useful function, however unlikely it may seem, by uniting Conservative Members behind a common position for a fraction of a moment. The previous motion failed to do so; they were here but did not feel able to express an opinion.
§ Mr. Heath
I shall give way to many hon. Members later, but I would like to make some progress.
I want to quote a Conservative of some historical significance. I think that he is still kosher in Conservative circles. Benjamin Disraeli said:No Government can be long secure without a formidable OppositionHe was right. Some have affected to say that this motion is unimportant and inappropriate. That is wrong. I challenge those who say that opposition in this Chamber is unimportant or trivial because it is only by the quality of the Opposition that we can test the mettle of the Government.
§ Mrs. Laing
If the hon. Gentleman considers that opposition is important, about which I agree, why is he not today opposing the Government?
§ Mr. Heath
The hon. Gentleman is eager, and will have his turn, which I shall enjoy, but he must wait.
Regret has been expressed by some outside the Chamber that our motion did not specifically refer to the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). They were looking forward to a debate on his performance as leader of the Conservative party. There are several reasons why we should not do that. First, in discussing the performance of political parties, we should deal with policies and the way in which they present their case and not with individuals.
§ Mr. Swayne
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that all opinion polling evidence reveals that most Liberal Democrat voters agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) on the single currency? Is not this motion really about the Liberal Democrats' fear of their voters and their attitude to the single currency?
§ Mr. Heath
The hon. Gentleman is always entertaining and has lycanthropic tendencies that amuse us all. If he wants to discuss opinion polls, he will find it instructive to consider the popularity of his leader, that of the leader of my party and that of the Prime Minister, even with their own voters.
It is not right to criticise the Leader of the Opposition personally, nor do I want to provoke yet another of his relaunches. We had many from the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) and now many from the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks. They have had more relaunches than the Padstow lifeboat. They are getting to be tedious.
§ Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way to another west country Member. My memory of the west country goes back a long way. I remember debating with the leader of his party when he spoke on behalf of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in Yeovil in 1983. He puts forward the leader of his party as a model parliamentarian but how can he defend this quote from "Breakfast with Frost" on 15 May 1994 when the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) told David Frost:I was in favour of a referendum on Maastricht. Why? Because I do not believe in the sovereignty of Parliament.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. The House is very noisy indeed this afternoon. I am enjoying the hon. Gentleman's speech and I want to hear it.
§ Mr. David Heath
Conservative Members are doing half my job for me. [Interruption.] The Liberal Democrats have for a long time been in favour of a referendum on key European issues; we have always made that plain. Our party was the first to say that. I do not understand why the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) has a problem with that. My right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) is the third reason why I must not attack the leader of the Conservative party; it is the policy of the Liberal Democrat party not to do so. We do not wish to undermine the Conservative leader; we leave that to those who are much better qualified to do so.
§ Mr. Bercow
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, although, in listening to his speech, I fear that the odds are lengthening on his leadership bid.
If the Liberal Democrats take their responsibilities in the House as seriously as the hon. Gentleman would have us believe, will he explain why the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), who spoke for the Liberal Democrats from their Front Bench at Business questions this morning, was accompanied by only one other Liberal Democrat Member on the Back Bench?
§ Mr. Heath
I fear that the hon. Member for Buckingham has no chance of getting on to the Front Bench, if he continues to be effective. Let us put his question in another way. On Wednesday morning, we held an important debate on the Prison Service. Why was not one Back-Bench Conservative Member in the House to discuss the Prison Service?
I must make progress on the main matter: the lamentable job that the Conservatives are doing as the official Opposition. We can excuse them during their first few weeks; they were in shock and they were new to opposition—apart from those Members who had been opposing the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major). They had to learn the job. We accept that; opposition does not come naturally to everyone. When you are used to the ministerial Rover, it may take a little time to adjust.
I excuse their collective amnesia. If one is responsible for 18 years of disastrous government, you can understand why you want to put it out of your mind and why you want to forget all the things that you have done. It is understandable that they wanted to forget and move on. There is also a logical inconsistency at the heart of the Conservative Opposition; it is not easy to defend public services when you have spent nearly two decades running them down. It is not easy to portray yourself as the friend of the education service, the health service or whatever, nor to position yourself as the champion of local 485 determination when you have presided over the most centralising Government that the country has ever seen. Like the over-enthusiastic reveller at the office party, you dimly remember what happened; you want to forget, but, unfortunately, the rest of the office—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
I certainly do not want to forget anything. The one thing that I have not forgotten is that the hon. Gentleman should not use the word "you", which implies that he is involving the chair.
§ Mr. Heath
It was a hypothetical "you", Mr. Deputy Speaker. Of course, I would not suggest that you had attended an office party or that you were an over-enthusiastic reveller, in any circumstances.
I accept that some individual Conservative Members, such as the hon. Member for Buckingham, show great assiduity in their personal opposition. They have been consistent in opposing. The only regret is they have been consistently opposing different things at different times and are mutually incompatible in their opposition. That is the real charge and our real problem with the current official Opposition. The Conservative party at Westminster—[Interruption.]
§ Mr. Brady
I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman—I am almost flattered. He talks about inconsistency. Will he talk about the inconsistency between the manifesto on which his party stood in Scotland last week and his party's preparedness to renege on a key pledge on tuition fees only a week later?
§ Mr. Heath
I have heard nothing about reneging. [Interruption.] I have heard the Parliament of Scotland going about its business on Scottish affairs, quite separately from this place—quite rightly too. If we are going to talk about the Scottish Parliament, the hon. Gentleman may care to reflect that if the voting system that he and his colleagues advocated had been in place, there would not have been one Scottish Member of Parliament from the Conservative party. They have made not one ounce of progress since the general election. Furthermore, if there were a Conservative Member in the House who represented a Welsh constituency, we could talk about Wales and point out that there would be only one Member in Wales and that he would certainly not be the leader of the Welsh Conservatives. Not only did he lose his personal seat, but his vote has gone down since the general election.
The real charge is that the Conservative party at Westminster is so divided, so incoherent and so unable to maintain a consistent position on almost anything that its Members are giving the Government an easy ride. That is the greatest failure—[Interruption.]
§ Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford)
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way on the question of consistency in giving the Government an easy ride. Two months ago, the House held a Third Reading debate on a relatively small piece of legislation, dealing with blocking up a loophole relating to business rates. The Liberal Democrats voted against the Bill on Second Reading, in Committee and on Report and their spokesman, the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam 486 (Mr. Burstow) told me that he and his party would be voting against the measure on Third Reading. When the Government thought that they were going to lose the vote—indeed they came within 24 votes of losing—why did the Liberal Democrats abstain, on the instruction of the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler)? Where is the consistency in that?
§ Mr. Heath
I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall can make his own points. [Interruption.] The uniform business rate system was introduced by the Conservatives, maintained by the Conservatives and it is now maintained by the Labour Government. Only one party has been consistent in its opposition to the uniform business rate—the Liberal Democrat party.
The performance of the Conservative Opposition so concerned members of the press that, after six months, The Sunday Times concluded that the Tories had simply given up on Westminster—I think that was right. I have seen very little reason for The Sunday Times to revise its opinion. [Interruption.]
§ Mr. Fraser
In a bid to help the hon. Gentleman out of the hole into which he is digging himself, and because it is the Liberal Democrats who instigated the debate, may I ask him to confirm how many times the Liberal Democrats have voted in the House in the past year, how many times they have voted off their own bat, how many times they have abstained and how many times they have voted with the Government, so that we can judge their record?
§ Mr. Heath
The hon. Gentleman has the same access to parliamentary facilities as I do and I really do not see why I should do his research for him. Curiously enough, I do not know the answer to all of his questions and I suspect that not a single hon. Member present does.
To return to the subject of the Conservatives' consistency, let me point out that, when in government, they were against labelling genetically modified foods and they did everything they could to speed up the introduction of GM crops, but now they are against them. The Conservatives have done the most remarkable U-turn on the fuel duty escalator: they introduced it, they agreed to it, but now that a few lorry drivers have arrived on their doorstep, they purport to oppose it. Their Home Office team calls for more police spending, but their Treasury team asks for less spending on public services, and they then try to reconcile the two demands. Simultaneously, in separate Standing Committees, Conservatives argued for capping in respect of the Greater London Authority, but against capping for authorities in the rest of the country.
Consistency is not the Conservatives' strong point, even on serious matters, on which the House and the country have the right to expect a degree of consistency from Conservative Front Benchers. I accept that hon. Members have strongly held and differing views on matters as important as the crisis in Kosovo, but I have to 487 ask the Conservatives what their official position is. Is it the one stated by the Leader of the Opposition on 23 March, when he said:Although we support the use of ground troops to implement a diplomatic settlement, we shall not support their use to fight for a settlement."—[Official Report, 23 March 1999; Vol. 328, c. 163.]?Or is it the stance the right hon. Gentleman adopted yesterday, when he pressed the Prime Minister for precisely that use of ground troops and criticised him for delaying the decision to deploy them?
That brings me to the subject of Europe. There are 162 Conservative Members in the House and there are at least 162 different opinions on Europe among them. No amount of papering over, no heavy-duty camouflage and no ducking and diving can disguise that brutal fact, which is why they get themselves in such an amazing tangle. Let us take the example of fisheries policy—a matter debated on several occasions in the House. Tory policy tosses and turns with every tide: it has drifted from the impossible to achieve to the impossible to define. On 15 December 1998, the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) said:We need to bring back under national control our own fishing grounds".—[Official Report, 15 December 1999; Vol. 322, c. 844.]and he later said:We shall be as resolute in demanding and obtaining those requirements as Baroness Thatcher was many years ago."—[Official Report, 15 December 1999; Vol. 322, c. 847.]Setting aside the question of whether Baroness Thatcher was quite as resolute as the hon. Gentleman says, is that a policy that commends itself to the rest of the party? It would appear not, because James Provan, the Tory Member of the European Parliament who is the Tories' fisheries spokesman there—there are two fisheries spokesmen, one in Westminster and one in Brussels—said:Leaving the common fisheries policy is not an option that Britain can consider.That appears to be the view of the former fisheries Minister, the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), who advocates a form of zonal management. The Conservatives have a shoal of fisheries spokesmen, each dangling from a different hook.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. It is most unfair that conversations are continuing throughout the Benches—that cannot be allowed. It is not good that I keep having to stand up to ask for order.
§ Mr. Heath
Something Conservative Members might find interesting is what appears to be a definitive statement of Conservative fisheries policy on 11 March. The hon. Member for Teignbridge said:Let me make it clear, yet again: in our defence of the British fishing industry, we rule nothing in and nothing out."—[Official Report, 11 March 1999; Vol. 327, c. 492.]There we have it—the Conservative position on Europe is that they rule nothing in and nothing out, because some would rule it in and others would rule it out and they cannot agree among themselves.
§ Mr. Heath
The same is true of the Conservative group in the European Parliament, with the possible exception 488 of the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh), who is trying to catch my eye and who is unique in representing part of Yorkshire in this place and part of Essex in the European Parliament—I am sure that she reconciles those two functions admirably. I shall be happy to give way to her.
§ Miss McIntosh
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, because I hope that he can help me to understand the motion. The word "antipathetic" is not well known in the English vocabulary; does he mean it in the Spanish sense of "antipatico"? When he criticises the Conservative group in the European Parliament for failingto provide a necessary check on the executive",is he expressing a wish that the Conservative group in the European Parliament should provide a brake on the Executive in this country? I doubt that that is the desire of the majority of Members of this House.
§ Mr. Heath
Obviously, I shall have to help the hon. Lady with her English. I must disappoint her: antipathetic is not the opposite of pathetic. It is possible to be pathetic and antipathetic at the same time, and the Conservative group in Europe does it so well. If the hon. Lady looks in her dictionary, she will find that antipathy is defined as incompatibility and mutual opposition. I cannot think of many words that better sum up the position of the Conservative group in the European Parliament.
What are the three issues on which we might expect that group to adopt a coherent approach? The first issue is changes in the policies of the European Union. As we have seen, members of the group cannot agree among themselves, so how can they influence even other conservatives in the European Parliament? The answer is that they cannot, because they are completely ineffectual. Let us take an example.
§ Mr. Heath
I will recognise the hon. Gentleman in a moment. Let us take this example first, and then he can react to it.
Irrespective of what one thinks of the euro, the debate on the launch of the euro, on 2 May 1998, was a historic one for the European Parliament. What was the position of the British Conservative group in Europe? Two voted for, three voted against, nine abstained and four did not bother to turn up.
§ Mr. Heath
The hon. Gentleman had obviously been preparing that intervention for a very long time and it would be wrong for me to try to top it, so I will not.
On the European Commission, the second major topic for the European Parliament, where were the Conservatives when we held the essential debate on the conduct of the two Commissioners in question—when the European Liberals, Democrats and Reformers, led by that excellent man, Pat Cox, were leading the charge against Mrs. Cresson and Mr. Mann? They were all over the 489 place, as usual. They were split, they were unable to persuade their colleagues and, eventually, they went along with the fudge put together by Mr. Santer and the Socialist group on the European Parliament. The result was that the opportunity passed, and the chance to identify and get rid of the people who had abused their position in the Commission passed with it. I believe that the European Parliament will come to regret that.
The third issue is that of MEPs' pay and allowances. On 18 June 1998, MEPs were asked—it is an important question, because that was the point at which we could start the process of getting MEPs' pay and allowances into line—whether a system should be establishedwhereby all allowances for MEPs reflect actual costs".That is not an unreasonable request, one might think—not something that one would oppose easily. Well, the Conservatives in Europe managed it. Four voted for it, eight voted against it, two abstained and four could not be bothered to turn up. I do not know whether it was the same four who could not be bothered to turn up.
§ Mr. Heath
I could not possibly comment on the hon. Gentleman's suggestion.
On 3 December, we had the introduction of the "statute for MEPs", setting pay and conditions and allowances. What was the reaction of the Conservatives in Europe to that? Two Conservatives were for it, 12 abstained this time, and four did not bother to turn up. [HON. MEMBERS: "The same four."] I have my worries about those four.
§ Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)
Since we have reached December, may I tell the hon. Gentleman that he is doing a very good impression of the man with the nice white beard who gave my young son a gift at Christmas? [Interruption.] Not, indeed, the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson). Are the Liberal Democrats seriously trying to be an Opposition at all? What gifts does the hon. Gentleman expect from Ministers? Does he expect the reward received by the Liberals in my local council, Blaby district, who ran the district in a Lib-Lab pact for four years and, as a result, were thrown out in last week's election?
§ Mr. Heath
That is for the hon. Gentleman to discover. His briefing notes are clearly inadequate.
Let me give one last example of the Conservatives' inadequacy in the European Parliament. On 13 April, for once, the Tories all voted the same way—all those who turned up. I suspect that four were absent. They voted en masse to support an independent report on the "Corpus Juris". Unfortunately, they voted en masse the wrong way.
490 Edward McMillan-Scott, the leader of the Conservatives in the European Parliament, had to come to the BBC later to say:Having discovered what it said, I changed my vote.He had not read the document before telling the Conservative Whips which way to vote, so the Conservatives all trooped into the Lobby to vote for something that was the opposite of what they thought.
That is a measure of the consistency, the coherence and the ability of the Conservatives to do their job properly in the European Parliament. The Tory party is not a party that can provide proper scrutiny in Europe or persuade others to embrace the reform that is essential in Europe. It is a confused disgrace.
The Conservative party no longer knows what it is for. Over the past week we have seen how confused it is about funding public services. It is in denial over its record in government. It cannot understand that others have longer memories than it does. It is chronically disordered and incoherent in its response to Government policy. It cannot muster the slightest pretence at a united policy on Europe.
The Conservative party has elevated expediency to an art. Its answer to any question of policy is to ask the relevant Minister to resign. One day we will want a Minister to resign—possibly as a result of the revelations made in a point of order earlier—but no one will take the slightest notice when Conservatives call for that, because they do so every week. The Conservative party is, as we have seen, ineffectual to the point of peripherality in the European Parliament. It is failing in its duty as an Opposition—a duty that we believe to be important. I commend the motion to the House.
§ 5.3 pm
§ Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes)
I beg to move, To leave out from "opposition" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:notes with contempt that the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party considers it to be a constructive use of specially allocated opposition time to indulge in a petty and vindictive attack on Her Majesty's Opposition rather than to challenge the executive and hold it to account; and points out that, in so doing, a Party whose record of attendance and willingness to sacrifice principle for party advantage shows that it has no constitutional claim to the position and privileges which are rightly accorded to opposition parties in the parliamentary system.
I shall deal first with the motion that we seek to amend. We owe a debt of gratitude to the Liberal Democrats today. They have given us half an hour of enormous fun. In their incredible motion, they have shown a way of raising hypocrisy to a new height. They have shown how to take the science of sycophancy to new frontiers, and they have broken all records in arrogance and sanctimony.
I use those two words carefully. The right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), the leader of the Liberal Democrats, has made a lifetime career of perfecting the arts of sanctimony and arrogance, yet even he has not had the gall to lead the debate today. He knows that there are 491 limits to the credulity of the British public, and he has left the jester's role today to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath).
§ Mr. Ancram
The hon. Gentleman's appreciation of parliamentary debate needs a little improving. I have never heard such a load of synthetic rubbish as we heard over the past half hour.
The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome got quite carried away and even sat in the seat of his rather more senior namesake, who is at least listened to with great respect when he addresses the House, but we should not be surprised that we find ourselves facing this motion today. We know that the Liberal Democrats, in their increasing desperation for recognition, have for many years been prepared to abandon all their principles, and even sell their grannies, to get a part share in the back seat of a ministerial car.
Today, the Liberal Democrats have left their grannies far behind and gone one further. In an attempt to curry favour with the Government, they have quite simply abused an Opposition day. It is worth recalling that an Opposition day gives the opposition parties the chance to choose and debate a motion which holds the Government to account on the vital issues of the day.
Opposition days, as we know and appreciate, are valuable and rare. There are many matters of great moment which we might have thought the Liberal Democrats would have chosen for debate today—Kosovo, the situation in Northern Ireland, or education, which they are always telling us they are so interested in. We might have debated health or we might even have had a proper debate on their European dream—but which, of all those important topics, have they chosen? None. Instead, they seek to launch a half-baked, ill-informed, misdirected and totally ineffective attack on us.
The motion talks aboutcompetent, coherent and constructive opposition",but the Liberal Democrats have launched this debate, which shows clearly that they are no Opposition at all. All I have learned from today's debate is that Liberal Democrats can be pathetic and antipathetic at the same time.
The Liberal Democrats have been caught in a quandary. At this very moment, they are working out a coalition deal with Labour in Scotland, even at the expense of having to abandon pledges made in the recent election. They are, rather tragically, in mourning—I suppose that we should have some sympathy for them—because they have not even been invited to join a coalition in Wales. They long for Cabinet participation in England; indeed, I understand that they and the Government have published today their joint vision on a further sell-out of British sovereignty in Europe. They have not come to the House to tell us about that; they did not even bother to give us any indication of it in the debate.
No wonder the Liberal Democrats have tried to deploy the smokescreen of this synthetic attack on the Conservative party in opposition. They did not dare take the Government on because they want to get into bed with them, but that will not work. Everybody knows that the 492 motion has been tabled because they are no longer, in reality, an opposition party or even part of the Opposition. The motion comes from a party that is now so firmly in bed with the Labour party that it has become little more than a shapeless lump under the Government's duvet.
The Liberal Democrats talk about effective parliamentary democracy and competent opposition. What a time for them to choose to do so—they are effectively leaderless. Their leader has announced that he is going and I cannot say that his absence will be noted, because he is rarely here. His potential successors are at sixes and sevens on the direction that their party should take. [HON. MEMBERS: "Where are they?"' Even when the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome was on his feet, less than half the parliamentary Liberal Democrat party was here to support him.
We are told that the Liberal Democrat leadership campaign has not started, but I have never seen such manoeuvring as is going on at the moment—it gives a totally new meaning to the phrase "a fluid situation". There is even a chance that a Scottish Member of Parliament will become the leader of the Liberal Democrats; imagine the coherent and effective leadership there would be then. Such a leader would be preaching the Liberal Democrat mantra of more public spending on education in England, but would not even be in a position to influence education in his own constituency after the Scottish Parliament has taken over.
Such a leader would be a part-time Member of Parliament who would be cut off from the normal day-to-day problems of our constituents, which the rest of us have to deal with. It would be very like having a party leader appointed from the House of Lords. Yet this is the party that seeks today to lecture us on coherence, competence and effectiveness. Let me make it absolutely clear that we will take no lectures on competence from the Liberal Democrats.
Last week, the electorate gave their verdict where the Liberals have been in power, and where that competence has been tested. Worthing gave them the order of the boot, as did Horsham, Waveney, East Dorset and New Forest. The Liberals lost control of 19 of the 32 councils that they were defending; we gained 48. Last week, overall, the Liberals lost 160 seats in England and Wales, while we gained more than 1,300. That is the real test of competence: that is the electorate's verdict on Liberal competence compared with ours. Where the Liberal Democrats had a real track record on which to base their judgment, the electorate found that competence wanting.
§ Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)
I am interested in the right hon. Gentleman's thesis that that is the real track record. Four years ago, when the seats were fought, the party of which the right hon. Gentleman is chairman lost 2,000 seats. The fact that it gained 1,300 on this occasion is a result of its winning back the seats that it lost when its Government were among the most unpopular in the modern history of Britain. Was that the correct verdict of the electorate?
§ Mr. Ancram
I am glad that the electorate saw the error of their ways in the recent elections, having been taken in four years ago by the Liberal Democrats' pretence that they could be competent administrators in local government. After four years, the electorate have 493 now discovered—in the case of more than half the councils that the Liberals used to control—that, far from being competent, all they produced was indecisiveness and drift; and the electorate have taken the first possible opportunity to get rid of them.
The Liberal Democrats know this. We have heard the excuses for the lack of a motion relating to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition; but for days the Liberal Democrats have trailed with the media the idea that today's debate would constitute a personal attack on my right hon. Friend. After last Thursday, they suddenly realised that they would look more foolish than they normally do, and—if I may use a current expression—they have degraded their motion into the pathetic specimen that is now before us.
§ Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon)
I hesitate to return the right hon. Gentleman to an issue of substance, but may I pursue the question of the consistency of the official Opposition? The deputy Leader of the Opposition made a speech in favour of public services in the context of health and education, and a few days later, sitting next to me on a public platform, repeated his plans to privatise pensions. Which of those views does the right hon. Gentleman think is consistent?
§ Mr. Ancram
The hon. Gentleman should examine the facts more closely before making statements like that. He ought to take a little account of what is happening at this moment in the Standing Committee considering the Finance Bill. In the words of the Paymaster General herself, the Committee is debating matters of vital importance to British industry. I understand that for most of the afternoon no Liberal Democrat has been present in the Committee, and that while the Minister was making her statement about the vital importance of the matters being discussed, one Liberal Member wandered in. That is the test of opposition. The test is whether the Liberal Democrats are prepared to get down to the grind of opposition, and to take part in Committee debates.
For the Liberal Democrats to attack our record in opposition really takes the biscuit. The disparate bunch sitting on the Liberal Benches today represent the party that was so "coherent", to use their own word, that last September it turned turtle on the Floor of the House. Hon. Members will recall the embarrassing climbdown of the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), who is present now. During the emergency debate on the Criminal Justice (Terrorism and Conspiracy) Bill, dealing with the Omagh terrorists, the hon. Gentleman had to withdraw publicly his support for the Government's position when his attempt to ingratiate himself with the Government fell foul of his leader's arrogance. No doubt hon. Members recall his immortal words:I am sincerely sorry if I have in any way ledthe Governmentto expect my full support for the whole motion."—[Official Report, 2 September 1998; Vol. 317, c. 728.]That expectation was based on the fact that the hon. Gentleman had appended his name to the motion. I suppose that he is going to tell us now that we should not regard the fact that the names of his colleagues are on today's motion as any indication that they support the motion.
494 This is the party that was so coherent before Christmas that, having spent the whole of the previous year demanding open list systems of voting for proportional representation elections, voted consistently against our attempts to achieve that for the European Parliament elections. It is the party that is so coherent that it continues to talk about its education policy in terms of 1 p on income tax, which does not sound very much, as opposed to telling the truth: it would mean that each average family would pay £150 extra in tax. The Liberal Democrats know that that would not go down too well.
The Liberal Democrats are the party that is so coherent and honest that, even now, it is negotiating to make a deal with Labour in Scotland which will compromise the pledges that the Liberal Democrats made to the Scottish people during the recent election. Far from coherent or constructive opposition, that is a betrayal of those who voted for them in the Scottish elections. It is Liberal Democrat politicians behind closed doors cocking a snook at their voters, while abdicating constructive opposition, or indeed any opposition at all.
The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome says that he does not know what is going on. He must be the only person who is not reading today's newspapers. One of the Scottish newspapers describes it as a sell-out. The Guardian describes it as a "fudge" by the Liberal Democrats, saying that they must have compromised on their position on tuition fees, when they gave a clear pledge to the Scottish people at the election. The ink is hardly dry on the ballot paper before their coherent, consistent and courageous party starts to change its position.
What is clear is that no one is sure of the outcome of the negotiations in Scotland except in one respect: the Scottish people will not get the policies for which they voted. They will get a fudged compromise, which will be a mixture of the agreements arrived at behind closed doors to give the hon. and learned Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) a seat in the Cabinet of the Scottish Administration.
§ Mr. Andrew Rowe (Faversham and Mid-Kent)
My right hon. Friend is being awfully unfair. The Liberal Democrats have been absolutely consistent for about 10 years: they will do anything, go anywhere and make any deal provided that they can get themselves the semblance of power which being in the Cabinet would give them.
§ Mr. Ancram
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He sums it up well.
What is worrying is that, having discovered in the elections in Scotland and Wales that, if they have the right sort of voting system, they can come fourth in the elections and still get a share of power in government, the Liberal Democrats now support proposals by Lord Jenkins of Hillhead to change our national electoral system. They are not satisfied with just trying to opt out of opposition in Scotland and Wales: they are trying to abdicate responsibility for opposition nationally as well. They seek to do that not by winning the support of the British people, but by creating a system that will keep them permanently in coalition without any great support. We will find that Scotland and Wales's instability today will be this part of the United Kingdom's tomorrow.
§ Mr. David Heath
Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the Conservative party as represented in 495 Westminster has opted out of Scotland and Wales completely and that, in terms of council representation, it has opted out of Liverpool, Sheffield, Newcastle, Manchester, Wigan, Gateshead, Knowsley, Salford, South Tyneside; in fact, out of almost every major city in the north of England?
§ Mr. Ancram
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has deliberately left out Carlisle, which, after many years of being a Labour council, is under Conservative control. He talks about our position in Scotland and Wales. I assure him that my party in Scotland and Wales will keep its election promises in the way in which it conducts itself in the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly. The Liberal Democrats have already start to break theirs in both.
§ Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)
Before my right hon. Friend moves from his theme about the way in which the Liberal Democrats wish to gerrymander the voting system, is he aware that, in every general election since 1983, the total number of votes cast for the Liberal Democrats has gone down?
§ Mr. Tyler
Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm two points of Conservative policy? First, is it now Conservative Members' position that, despite opposing the method of election to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, they now accept it; their Members will take their seats in those bodies; and they recognise that it is a perfectly legitimate method of election? If so, and secondly, does the Conservative party now guarantee that, if it were ever again elected to power, that election system would remain in place?
§ Mr. Ancram
On many occasions since the referendums and passage of the legislation, we have said that we do not like the electoral system created in Scotland and Wales. However, those are the rules of the game, and we play the game by the rules that we find. We still believe that first past the post is the right way of conducting elections in the United Kingdom.
In their motion, the Liberal Democrats mention the word democracy—which is normally understood to mean rule by people—yet, in everything that they seek to do, they are attempting to create "Libocracy", which means unrepresentative nile by the Liberal Democrat party itself.
Liberal Democrats lecture us on effective and constructive opposition, but I should put a few facts before the House. Liberal Democrat Members are such an effective opposition that, since November 1998, they have spent a grand total of 42 hours and 41 minutes speaking on main business. That contrasts with the official Opposition's 150 hours spent on main business.
The Liberal Democrats are so effective in opposition that, in the 1997-98 Session, on major Bills, they voted with the Government two out of every three times. As my 496 hon. Friend the Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) has said, the Liberal Democrats are so effective in opposition that, earlier this year, having already voted against Second Reading of the Rating (Valuation) Bill—and realising that the Bill could be defeated without their abstention, for which Labour would subsequently smack their bottoms—they abstained on the Bill's Third Reading.
The Liberal Democrat party is such a constructive opposition that, until February 1999, it allowed the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell) to sit on the Defence Committee, scrutinising the Government, while he was simultaneously working with the Government on their much vaunted Cabinet Joint Consultative Committee. If by "constructive" they mean simultaneously being both the scrutiniser and scrutinised, they have certainly achieved it. However, it hardly matches their pious words in today's motion about providingthat necessary check on the executive".
The Liberal Democrats preach to us about opposing, but we have opposed, questioning the Government every step of the way. We warned of the anomalies that devolution would throw up, which we are now seeing with each passing day. We fought against the raft of regulations and burdens that the Government have imposed on business. We have opposed the tax increases that have been introduced by stealth. We warned about the dangers to the health service resulting from Labour's wrong priorities. We have spoken up for farmers, fishermen, road hauliers, parents, and small businesses. We have stood up for the people of the United Kingdom who are suffering because of the Government's actions. In short, we have opposed.
Where have the Liberal Democrats been? They have been all over the place, except on one issue. To be fair to them, they have shown a coherent position on one subject—Europe. Their motion criticises our position on Europe and the conduct of our Members of the European Parliament. They accuse us of failing in several respects, particularly in reforming the European Union's policies. The easiest way of understanding what they mean by that criticism is to examine what they have done and are doing in practice.
We know that the Liberal Democrats ignore the views of the British people and call for us to join a single currency now. We know that they want a fast track to integration. We know that they want a common European foreign policy, a common European defence policy and a common European social policy. Their ultimate aim is a common European Government. It is strange to say, but on Europe, they almost make Romano Prodi look like a reactionary.
Liberal Democrat MEPs have voted for a common asylum and immigration policy and a common visa policy. They also voted for abolishing all border controls, and for ending the veto in justice and home affairs.
What about social Europe? On 19 January, Liberal Democrat MEPs voted fora genuine European social area to be established".It was to be based on the European social model, with social legislationbinding and to apply throughout the Union.497 The motion continued:Rather than allowing a certain trend towards deregulation, legislation must remain the essential instrument for enshrining social rights".
Liberal Democrat MEPs have also voted for tax harmonisation. They want more environmental taxes and taxes on energy products. They want to harmonise European education systems. They want a pan-European electoral system and have voted for a motion calling for "a genuine European executive" with a view to promoting a union acting as an integrated, united and coherent body. In short, they want a United States of Europe.
Presumably that is what the Liberal Democrats mean by being a constructive opposition in Europe. We want no part of it and neither do the majority of the British people. If they criticise us for not pursuing their Euro-integrationist dream, let them have the courage to come out openly in the coming European election and defend the policies that they have voted for in the European Parliament. Let them ask the British electorate for their verdict. We shall argue for Britain in Europe, but not run by Europe. Let them argue for a Britain submerged and subsumed by Europe, which is the logical outcome of their policies. But I am probably hoping for too much. I suspect that, as usual, we shall see the unedifying sight of Liberal Democrat candidates hiding their European light under a bushel for fear of being seen too clearly.
We shall place our position on Europe clearly before the British people and we shall show how our MEPs have worked for that position. Conservative MEPs have fought a strong rearguard action in favour of a free market Europe, securing important successes. They prevented the quotas on non-European television programmes that the Commission had wanted. They frustrated socialist attempts to impose impossible burdens on business, including a policy last week on the distance selling of financial services. Those meat and potato issues are the work of the European Parliament and the Conservatives have been defending the interests of the people of this country.
On fraud, the record of Conservative MEPs has been second to none. Two of them—Edward McMillan-Scott and James Elles—have done more than anyone else in the European Parliament to make the fight against fraud and mismanagement such a big issue. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome was wrong about the record of Conservative MEPs in the votes on the Commission. The Conservative MEPs said no to signing off the 1996 accounts in the first move that set off the recent events. Conservative MEPs sponsored the motion to sack the Commission in January. Conservative MEPs went into alliance with the Commission's auditor-turned-whistleblower, Paul van Buitenen, to expose the scale of mismanagement in the Commission. Conservative MEPs pushed for Edith Cresson to step down immediately. Conservative MEPs are leading the campaign to ensure that the so-called caretaker Commission—better referred to as a cling-on Commission—packs its bags and clears out as soon as possible.
We have a clear position on Europe. It is the position of a responsible Opposition. The motion is a sham. It is put forward by a party that is leaderless, rudderless and 498 without principle—a party that has been rejected in the country by those who have experienced its "effectiveness", its "coherence" and its "competence". Not only have the Liberal Democrats failed for years to oppose: today they seek to promote and join the Government whom they were elected to oppose.
Many of us have known for a long time that Liberal Democrat politics and straight dealing have never been easy or close companions. The motion is a second-rate motion from a second-rate party. It does nothing for democracy and even less for the party's reputation. If I am ever again asked to define the words "rank hypocrisy", I should be hard pressed to find a better example than the motion. I ask the House to reject it with the contempt that it deserves and to support our amendment.
§ Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)
I hope that I shall not give offence by saying that I have never heard a more inconsequential set of speeches made in the House of Commons on the subject, allegedly, of our role as a Parliament in our system of government. I say that without offence because I do not want to join in the exchange of abuse.
I hope that the Hansard of today's debate is not made available to our troops and airmen involved in the war in Kosovo. Most hon. Members know that, over recent years and for a variety of reasons, Parliament has become less and less relevant to decision making in our society. To avoid following the pattern of the previous speakers, I should point out that the process of bypassing Parliament; the centralisation of power; the use of patronage; and the use of the royal prerogative to avoid serious debate began under earlier Governments and is being continued under the present Government.
I wish to speak about the relevance of this debate to next Tuesday's debate on Kosovo. My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) and I have asked on a number of occasions—the request has been echoed by Opposition Members—for the House of Commons to be allowed to express its view on this major war, which is involving not only our service men but their families, and which will cost the people of this country a great deal. The Government have consistently refused to allow that.
I asked my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House—whom I have known and worked with closely over the years—whether we could have a vote. In reply, on 22 April, she said thatalthough I well understand the express wish of Members on both sides of the House for a decision-making procedure of the type that he describes and suggests, there is no precedent for that in the House."—[Official Report, 22 April 1999; Vol. 329. c. 1053.]That is to say that the present Government, who are committed to modernisation, are basing their decisions on the mediaeval principle that the question of going to war is a matter of royal prerogative—and so indeed it is.
I looked back to the journals of the House for 1621—a month or two before I got here—when James I sent a direction to the House of Commons that it had no business discussing foreign or defence policy. The House passed a protestation, and the King then dissolved Parliament. The question whether the legislature has any role in the conduct of foreign and defence policy must concern people who take different views in this House.
499 Some of my hon. Friends are in favour of the deployment of ground troops and of stepping up the bombing, and should be allowed to express that view in the Lobby. Others, such as myself, think that the venture was ill judged, ill thought out and has failed. I should be allowed to express that view, on behalf of the people who elected me. A vote could then take place. If we are to discuss parliamentary democracy—as distinct from this debate between the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties, which may have been fun for them but was not for me—we ought to discuss that matter.
For our children, we describe ourselves as a democracy. I always attend state occasions and, in this House, we talk about a parliamentary democracy. When the Queen makes a speech, she does not mention either word—she says that we are a constitutional monarchy. There is all the difference in the world between a democracy, a parliamentary democracy and a constitutional monarchy. The reason why the Queen says that is that Parliament cannot be called without a writ inviting the returning officers to return Members. When we meet, I have to tell a lie to sit in this House—I must say:I swear by almighty God that I will bear faithful and true allegiance".I do not believe that—I am a republican. Every Minister must swear an oath of allegiance. The Privy Councillors's oath is even worse. They must say that they will defend the monarch from "foreign prelates, potentates and powers". When they go as Commissioners to Brussels, Privy Councillors take another oath, and say that they will take no notice of any nation that might put pressure upon them. These may not seem to be significant questions, but they become so when a war occurs and we are not consulted.
I wish to refer to the growth in patronage. All Prime Ministers appoint all the bishops; why cannot the Church of England have the confidence to choose its own leaders? Why cannot we select or vet judges in the way that the Senate does in the United States? The Prime Minister has just appointed a new Commissioner to Brussels who, I understand, is not even the choice of the Conservative party. He has used his patronage to appoint a Conservative representing a different view, but that is the practice. All Ministers are appointed and dismissed by the Prime Minister.
If the Labour evidence given to the royal commission on the reform of the House of Lords is to be believed, all the House of Lords is to be appointed. Some wonder whether it is not the intention to appoint the whole House of Commons, but we have not reached that stage yet. It is certainly true that the use of party patronage in choosing a First Minister in Wales or a mayor in London, or disposing of my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan), shows a desire to control everything.
Everyone with power wants to do that, so we must ask not why they do it but why we accept it. The House has the capacity to do something about it. I introduced the Crown Prerogatives (Parliamentary Control) Bill—
§ Mr. Blunt
The right hon. Gentleman is debating parliamentary democracy, but he is not speaking to the 500 motion. I seek your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker, on whether we should be debating the motion or the short title, as chosen by the party that chose the motion. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the short title is most misleading.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)
First, let me reassure the right hon. Gentleman that there is injury time, so he has not lost out as a result of the point of order.
I have not heard anything out of order so far. There is a broad title to the debate, and I shall naturally listen to all hon. Members to ensure that they stay within it.
§ Mr. Benn
It would be difficult for me if discussing parliamentary democracy in a debate under that heading were itself ruled out of order. If I ever left Parliament it would be to devote more time to politics, because it is very difficult to be in the House and have any political role.
The Crown Prerogatives (Parliamentary Control) Bill was supported by my hon. Friends the Members for Linlithgow, for Preston (Audrey Wise) and for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson); by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews); by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster); by the hon. Members for Lewes (Mr. Baker), for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley), for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) and for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman); and by the right hon. Members for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis) and for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley). That is broad support. Even the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) signed an early-day motion calling for the Commissioners to be approved by the House of Commons.
Trying to be constructive, I consulted the 17th-century precedents, when the abuse of Executive power had reached similar proportions, and decided that we should send a humble address to Her Majesty. I have drafted it, and I would be grateful for support from all parties. I have written to certain Privy Councillors.
The draft reads:To Move:That a Humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the Royal Prerogatives relating to the making of war and the commitment of the Armed Services to the present military operations in the Balkans be now placed at the disposal of the House of Commons for the purpose of permitting Members of Parliament to debate and vote upon a substantive Motion on the merits of that policy and any alternative Motions that might be moved designed to lay the foundations of a just and peaceful settlement in line with Britain's international obligations.
I wish that this debate was about our role. The media have taken over. The governor of a central bank, not elected by proportional representation, although one might have expected that from those who favour it, is coming along, as is Rupert Murdoch. They are squeezing us. They do not report us. I hope that they do not report the early speeches in this debate, because they did the House no credit. I say that from the depth of my feeling.
We must restore parliamentary democracy in Britain before it is ultimately squeezed out. I genuinely fear that, so I hope that the speeches that follow will not be a further exchange of hustings schoolboy abuse but will try 501 seriously to address the question that must concern us all: have the House of Commons and the people whom we represent any role whatever in the decisions that matter in our lives, or are we merely spectators of our fate, and not participants in the future that we want to shape?
§ Mrs. Virginia Bottomley (South-West Surrey)
It is an honour to follow the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn). Although I do not share his view on Kosovo, he expressed precisely the concern that I have felt in the two years that I have been on the Back Benches in opposition. I have been a Minister for almost my entire parliamentary career. I was determined to retain my seat in Parliament and act in a constructive and responsible way in opposition. I have been appalled that many of the conventions that were familiar when the Conservative party was in government have been eroded and that the role of Parliament has been diminished. I have been appalled by the use of patronage, the culture of the control freak, the manipulation of the media and the abuse of the House of Commons to the extent that statements are leaked and consideration of legislation is taken away from this Chamber. Patronage has moved to a new level.
The Liberal Democrats' motion comes at a time when there is a greater need than ever before to check the tyranny of the Executive. The Labour party was understandably desperate for power after 18 years. The disciplines of the control freaks have been applied ruthlessly in government. The activities of the No. 10 policy advisers around Westminster and Whitehall are legion. It has been embarrassing to behold the Liberals, who officially believe in parliamentary democracy, using their motion for a childish attack on the official Opposition when they themselves have sold out the role of opposition because they are so desperate for government. They have played a sycophantic, embarrassing charade in breaking through and joining a Cabinet Committee. The people who most despise that behaviour are the Liberal voters.
I was moved to respond directly to the right hon. Member for Chesterfield because I have a growing appreciation of his concern that Parliament will become progressively more irrelevant. I am extremely alarmed by the use of referendums bounced through without proper debate. I support and endorse the Neill committee's condemnation of the Government for so tilting the argument about, and the funding of, the Welsh referendum. It is the duty of the Opposition to hold the Government to account and scrutinise in whatever ways we have left to us the way in which they make decisions and the probity of their behaviour.
Last weekend, many important articles appeared which got to the heart of what motivates the new Labour team. Andrew Marr talked not about the politics of contentment, which apparently is a way of stirring up apathy—the real winners of the elections last week were the apathetic and disinterested—but about prozac politics: the refusal of the Government to expose issues to honest and open debate. The Government walk into things without knowing what to do next. The launch is the product. It is all about the launch. Whether it is devolution or, tragically, the situation in Kosovo, reform of the House of Lords or whatever, we have the launch but then no one seems to 502 have any idea about what happens next or how to take the issue forward. We should be able to look to the Liberal Democrats to assist us in our work of rigorous examination of the Government's behaviour and policy-making processes.
The debate has been called by the Liberal Democrats on a most curious occasion. It is one week since a great number of us joyfully took control of previously Liberal Democrat-controlled councils. My council is one of the six in which the Conservatives took control from the Liberal Democrats. I am delighted that Worthing was another such council. Eight of the 75 Liberal Democrat seats that were lost last week were in Waverley; 12 of the 1,345 Conservative seats that were gained were in Waverley.
I felt that the House would want to know what Liberal Democrats were like in government. In Waverley, they could not have been described as coherent, constructive or responsible. Indeed, there was an overwhelming desire there to be rid of the Liberal Democrats, who were wasteful, profligate and, above all, secretive. The more they spoke about openness, the less openness they provided. They engaged in empire building, and the management of their different projects was deplorable.
The irony for me, in following the speech of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), is that the Liberal Democrats in my constituency go around saying that they blame Labour for losing the election. However, those same Liberal Democrats made no effort to resist the appalling treatment that the home counties have received at the hands of the Government. There have been vindictive and deplorable settlements on local government and health spending, but apparently they have been supported by the Liberal Democrats. In my constituency and others, their approach to expenditure on roads is different from what they profess elsewhere when they ignore the appalling transport problems of the A3 at Hindhead.
I urge the Liberal Democrats, at this time above all others, to take up the obligations and duties of opposition and help us to hold the Government to account. This Government want their members to be on pager control and to speak on-message on all possible occasions. In an extraordinarily ruthless and professional way, the Government insist on placing their spokesmen—and their friends and cronies—in positions of responsibility and influence. The Minister shakes her head, but I shall be happy to give her a number of examples, the most glaring of which involves a person who time and again was rejected for a health appointment. When he made it clear that he had been a lifelong Labour supporter and party member, he was given an appointment at a local health trust within a fortnight.
§ Mr. Phil Woolas (Oldham, East and Saddleworth)
How does the right hon. Lady square what she has said with the appointment of Chris Patten to the European Commission?
§ Mrs. Bottomley
It is not remotely difficult to square the two propositions. I was Chris Patten's Parliamentary Private Secretary, and I think that he is an excellent appointment. The Opposition may submit names for the post of European Commissioner, but it is for the Government to select one. Chris Patten, as chairman, 503 guided the Conservative party to victory at the 1992 general election, when the party gained a million more votes than the Government managed in 1997. I believe that he will conduct his duties with great distinction.
The task now is to ensure that, before Britain and its national interests are eroded beyond repair, the Conservative Opposition secures the co-operation of the Liberal Democrats, who at present show only sycophancy towards the Government. We must build on our successes of a week ago.
§ Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre)
I am pleased to follow the two previous speakers, who have greatly elevated the debate. I was disappointed when the debate began, as I had expected a debate on parliamentary democracy to be a grand occasion, with stirring speeches being made. I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) and the right hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mrs. Bottomley) have raised the tone of the debate considerably. That said, I disagree with each of them almost equally, but that is parliamentary democracy.
If there is a serious point in the motion—it is difficult to detect one—it is about effective scrutiny. We have heard something of Kosovo, and I shall say more later, but I was impressed by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister's generous and principled response yesterday to the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), in which he affirmed the importance of questioning, even in war.
When I hear the right hon. Member for South-West Surrey and read newspaper reports about Labour Members being enslaved to their pagers, I wonder whether they are facing reality. I have a pager. In fact, it is vibrating away as I speak, which is quite delightful. It usually tells me that there is a Division in the Commons while I am waiting in the Lobby to vote. The nicest touch of all is that, as I wend my way home, it says, "Goodnight and God bless from the Chief Whip"—or words to that effect.
As a Member of only two years' standing, I honestly do not recognise all the talk about control freaks. As a Back Bencher and as a member of the parliamentary Labour party, I have dissented in the past, and I am dissenting now about crucial aspects of Government policy. In my experience, honest dissent and principled disagreement are acknowledged. People are listened to, and attempts are made to accommodate one's point of view and to reconcile it with policy.
Another important element of parliamentary democracy—the bottom line, as it were—is that parties which trumpet their policies in manifestos before elections should keep their promises. The Government are keeping their promises. Waiting lists are coming down. Class sizes are being reduced. Crime and disorder is being tackled. We have a new deal for young people, and a stable, sustainable economy. On the reform of the House of Lords, progress has been made that has been dreamt of for 100 years. Devolution has happened. Real progress is being made for those who struggled through 18 dreadful years of Conservative rule.
Tories talk about oppression by the Labour Government, but anyone who experienced life beyond Parliament during the 18 years of Conservative Governments knew what oppression was. I experienced 504 oppression. Almost on the day on which I was promoted in my local government job, a Conservative councillor tried to have me disqualified from my elected position as a councillor because I had reached a certain salary level.
As a social worker, I experienced the poverty and powerlessness of oppressed people throughout 18 years in which the previous Government dictated to local authorities and ordinary people. Conservative Members have nothing to teach the Labour party about parliamentary democracy.
Those of us who yearned for a Labour Government know how important it is to people that this Government are keeping their promises. It is essential that voters can trust that politicians, when elected, will be prepared to do what they said they would do. This Government are to be utterly and heartily commended for keeping their promises. I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House can acknowledge the importance and truth of the need to keep faith with the electorate.
§ Mr. Dawson
I have no interest in intruding in the trivial spats between the two disappointed groups of people on the Opposition Benches. I want to stay on the subject of parliamentary democracy and to discuss representation in this House. It is my experience that people want us to be representatives—
§ Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)
Is the hon. Gentleman in favour of coalition with the Liberal Democrats or not?
§ Mr. Dawson
I am talking about parliamentary democracy and the representation of the people. I have no interest in entering into the argument with which hon. Members demeaned the beginning of this important debate.
The electorate are looking for representatives in the sense of Edmund Burke—people of conscience. They are certainly not looking for delegates, but for people who value all their constituents, especially, perhaps, those whose views are contrary to their own. The electorate value representatives who listen and learn—whose views and speeches in this place are enriched by the knowledge and experience of those whom we are privileged to represent.
I smiled when the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman, the right hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) was protesting—
§ Mr. Dawson
I am sorry, but I intend to continue. The Conservative spokesman was talking about all the great campaigns that Conservative Members have fought during the past two years and how they are the party of the countryside and of business.
I have long known that many urban areas are out of bounds to Conservatives, or at least to those who do not relish close encounters with fierce dogs or fierce constituents. However, in a constituency one part of which had been represented by a Conservative Member 505 for 27 years and another part of which had never had other than a Conservative Member, I have been amazed that farmers, parish councillors and people who would otherwise be described as the bastions of the countryside have told me, disarmingly and honestly, "Actually, we didn't vote for you, but at least you've turned up, talked to us and listened, unlike the other so and sos. We never saw them from one election to the next."
That phenomenon is not confined to the Lancaster and Wyre constituency. Colleagues from throughout the country have reported the same thing—Conservative Members who have complacently neglected the most basic element of parliamentary democracy, which is to get out and listen to what the people are saying.
However, it is not about representative democracy, but taking opportunities to put people directly—
§ Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)
The Conservative party seemed to think that this was a trivial motion but, contrary to their expectations, the debate has been better attended by Conservative Members than were their own debates on Tuesday. I welcome them to the Chamber.
Some serious points have been made already, and I hope to add to them. I am anxious to follow the remarks of the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn). When I was a young and impressionable student, I campaigned on his behalf in a Bristol by-election. At that time, Conservatives, Liberals and Labour supporters came to his aid because we felt that the sovereignty of the people was more important than the extraordinary, outdated rules that prevented him from taking his seat in this House. I do not think that I have confessed that to him before and I hope that he will not hold it against me.
Some of the points made by the right hon. Member for Chesterfield are germane to this debate and relate to the motion. It is not only that I agree with him about the disestablishment of the Church of England—which, as a good Anglican, I think would release the Church—nor because I agree with him about the royal prerogative. One of the most significant things about our Parliament is that it has responded and evolved throughout history. I have confessed to the hon. Gentleman before that I am a descendant of Oliver Cromwell. When he mentions the 17th century, I follow his history lesson with interest, but I remind him that British politics has evolved since then. It is no longer roundheads and cavaliers, Whigs and Tories or 19th century Liberals and Conservatives. The House and the country have a multi-party system. It is precisely because we have a different political system on the eve of the 21st century that this Parliament must mature and catch up with the rest of the body politic.
It is good fun this afternoon, as it was yesterday at Prime Minister's questions. American viewers no doubt enjoy the mock mediaeval jousting match that they see on Sunday as late-night entertainment. However, in terms of achieving things, that is all out of date. There is a serious point to our motion. The Conservatives must adapt to a different type of politics.
506 What is the new politics? The new politics says that effective opposition is selective opposition, not opposition for opposition's sake. The only time that the Government have come within a hair's breadth, or even several miles, of being defeated in this Parliament was when the Conservatives, had they voted with the Liberal Democrats and Labour rebels, could have defeated the Government over single parents. The Conservatives were logical in supporting the Government because it was their Bill. I do not blame them for that, but they must understand that in this Parliament, simple frontal attacks will achieve nothing. Last night, I spent some time trying to think of a single Conservative achievement in this Parliament.
§ Sir Patrick Cormack
In view of what the hon. Gentleman has just said, will he now define consistency?
§ Mr. Tyler
The Conservative party was consistent on that occasion. It supported the Government on that proposal because it had its origins in a Conservative Bill. I have no objection to that. I object to the corporate amnesia to which my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) referred and to Conservative Members' constant attacks. The right hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mrs. Bottomley) was a member of the Cabinet that imposed capping on local authorities yet she complained this afternoon. I reject such examples of the rank hypocrisy to which the right hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) referred.
It is difficult to think of a single instance in this Parliament where the Conservative Opposition have achieved anything. Surely we come here not just to stand up for people and make a noise but to achieve things. I know that the far left and far right resent it, but more of the Liberal Democrat agenda on constitutional reform in our 1997 manifesto has been put in place by the Government than ever appeared in a Labour manifesto. I take pride in that and give credit to the Labour party for it. That is what politics must be in future. It must not be the politics of opportunism or automatic opposition but the politics of influence and achieving things, of making real reforms to our country.
As has been said, it is true that this morning we succeeded in reaching some agreement with the Government about important reforms to the institutions of Europe to ensure that we have an effective NATO and defence policy. I regard that as an achievement. Why is compromise such a dirty word in this extraordinary place? The only reason is that we are hung up on the two-party nonsense that was created by fact that in the reign of Edward IV, as the right hon. Member for Chesterfield may recall, the King had a redundant chapel. It had Benches like those on which we sit and it was handed to the House of Commons. The two-party arrangement is an anachronism and has been one for a long time. It will continue to be an anachronism while we have a multi-party state.
§ Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)
Should Labour Back Benchers be represented on the joint Cabinet consultative committee?
§ Mr. Tyler
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. It is true that he and other Labour Members have less influence than the Liberal Democrats over Members on the Treasury Bench. However, the fact is that there are 507 many more voters for our style of politics than for his. That is a fact of life. Furthermore, I remind the right hon. Member for South-West Surrey that, last week, our poll figures went up from 17 per cent. to 27 per cent.—that was a real poll, not one that was taken by the pollsters. I have no problem with that.
After two years, the House has an opportunity to take stock and to understand that we are now in a multi-party state. Even in Chesterfield, there is a multi-party state, because the Liberal Democrats won several seats from the party of the right hon. Member for Chesterfield. Surely, that is healthy local democracy. We must realise that the House will have to find different ways of ordering its business. That is what the motion is all about. The Conservative party must realise that, in this new situation, opposing merely for opposition's sake is not sufficient. That is why we say that the Conservatives must look again at their tactics and their cohesion and must examine the extent to which they are prepared to take account of that new situation.
Some of my colleagues suggested that we should personalise the motion by proposing a reduction in the salary of the Leader of the Opposition. Given the attitude of the Conservatives to performance-related pay, to value for money and to market testing, that might have been a nice idea. However, we felt that it was more important to deal with the wider issue. It may interest Labour Members to know that the Government propose to give the official Opposition £500,000 more. That information was in a written answer—sneaked out last Thursday. By the end of this Parliament—taking the House of Commons and the House of Lords together—the Conservative party will have received £4 million each year from the taxpayer, if the Government's proposals go through. Naturally, my party will not receive anything like that amount.
Even if the Government believe that the official Opposition are giving good value for money, I do not believe that that is the view of the country—as public opinion polls show every day. I do not want to dwell on that point as there are only a few moments left of my allotted time. The most important point is to emphasise that good government depends on effective opposition. Effective opposition does not mean trooping through the Lobbies every night, although it was interesting that Members of the Conservative Opposition sat on their hands during the 4 o'clock Division while we voted on one of the biggest issues of the day. They felt that it was not necessary to scrutinise what the Government were doing or to hold the Government to account. It is not the quantity but the quality of opposition that matters.
I hope that the Conservatives will learn the lesson, eventually—I hoped that they would have learned it by now, after two years—that this is a different sort of Parliament. Our colleagues in Scotland and in Wales are adjusting to madifferent sort of politics—majority rule for the first time. The majority of people in Scotland will now be represented by a majority in the Scottish Parliament. Such majority representation will also be true of the Welsh Assembly. The figures show that Members of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly will represent pretty accurately the division of opinion in the 508 country. That is not true of this House, almost half of whose Members do not represent the majority of those who voted, let alone the majority of their constituents.
§ Mr. Tyler
I was too, and I am grateful for that. However, we are now moving towards a different type of politics. In any sane, deliberative system—whether an organisation in this country or different sorts of Parliament in different parts of the world—compromise is not a dirty word; it is quality that matters. The quality of opposition that has been afforded us by the Conservative party not only does them discredit, but does discredit to the institution of Parliament.
§ 6.9 pm
§ Mr. Tony McNulty (Harrow, East)
In relation to the closing remarks of the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), it is entirely right that compromise and quality go together. Compromise is not a dirty word, as we have seen throughout the country. However, given the activities of the Liberal Democrats in the House, I have looked long and hard to find much to do with quality. If the opening speech on the motion and the words of the motion itself genuinely have anything to do with either quality or parliamentary democracy, the hon. Gentleman is using a rather perverse definition of quality. It is not one that I would share. The hon. Gentleman spoke about grown-up politics, but if what we heard from both the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) and—although the right hon. Gentleman was much funnier—the right hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) was grown up in any respect, a lot still needs to be done.
I was going to start my speech by saying that I rise more in anger than in sorrow, not least because, given the way in which the debate has proceeded, the best part of three hours of valuable parliamentary time has been utterly wasted. If the motion we were debating held the slightest resemblance to what have been described as matters of substance, I would happily withdraw that charge, but it does not. If what the Liberal Democrats do, both inside the House and outside it, lived up to the hon. Gentleman's remarks, I would withdraw that charge, but it does not.
My main experience is of London. I would not describe the distribution on the Isle of Dogs of racist leaflets showing a black boxer and saying, "Vote for local people"—nod nod, wink wink, the clear implication being that the black boxer is anything but local, like the black and Asian population in Tower Hamlets—as being anything but the politics of opportunism. Putting out a leaflet in my neighbouring constituency of Harrow, West, that says to local residents, not "A school is about to be built in your area. What do you think?", but "A Jewish school is being built in your area. What do you think?", when there is no planning matter to which religion is anything other than incidental, cannot be called anything but the politics of the gutter and of opportunism.
We might hear the mellifluous tones of cosy old Etonians in this place, but in the real world, that is not the reality of the new politics described by the hon. Gentleman. I could quote liberally other examples of that reality from London and from other metropolitan areas, although I cannot speak for rural areas.
§ Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)
I have no knowledge of the second matter
509 to which the hon. Gentleman refers, but in respect of the first matter, does he at least accept not only that the Liberal Democrat party held an inquiry that included people from outside the party—from the Commission for Racial Equality and other bodies—and dealt with the matter, but that we are the only party ever to have put an investigation of clear bad practice within its own ranks to independent scrutiny, and to have published the evidence and the conclusions of that inquiry?
§ Mr. McNulty
I shall write to the hon. Gentleman with the details of the Harrow case. In response to his other remarks, I shall say what the people of Tower Hamlets said at the time of the pernicious racist leaflet being distributed on the Isle of Dogs: too little, too late—horse bolted, stable door shut. If people mess about with racism, especially somewhere with experience of racism like the Isle of Dogs, holding a cosy little independent inquiry afterwards is too little, too late.
§ Mr. Prentice
The Labour party put the allegations in respect of Monklands in Scotland to an independent inquiry led by a Mr. Nimmo, QC, so it is not true that the Liberal Democrats are the only party that is prepared to look at malpractice within its own ranks.
§ Mr. McNulty
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. We shall let the matter lie there.
Given the way in which they have spoken in the debate, the Liberal Democrats have shown a profound lack of wisdom in respect of the proper use of parliamentary time. That is a cause of sadness to me, if not anger. The hon. Member for North Cornwall is entirely wrong to say that the motion is a serious one—it is not, yet it is the motion that the debate addresses, not the points of substance subsequently made in hon. Members' speeches. It is a matter of regret that parliamentary time is being absolutely wasted on such a motion.
As a side issue, I find it deeply interesting that right hon. Members such as the right hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mrs. Bottomley) have somehow developed a distaste for the patronage that served them so well when they were in government and about which we heard not a peep from them when they were the recipients of it. I do not cite the right hon. Lady as the only transgressor in that respect, for there are plenty of hon. Members who, while not saying a word against patronage throughout the period in which they are recipients, suddenly discover an aversion to it when they are no longer recipients.
§ Mrs. Virginia Bottomley
I particularly mentioned health appointments. The hon. Gentleman would be interested to know that Baroness Jay, Baroness Hayman, Baroness Dean and very many others were given health appointments by the Conservative party when it was in power. My argument was that the party now in government have abused the system to an extent that I personally regard as deplorable.
§ Mr. McNulty
That is nonsense. The matter has been looked at thoroughly, and all the appointments that we 510 have made have been fair and above board in a far more transparent sense than anything that the right hon. Lady did. However, she did agree with others that, all of a sudden, patronage has become something to be rebuked, and is regarded as profoundly anti-democratic in this place.
The motion is not serious because it is entirely wrong. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome almost traduced his own motion by his speech, because the Conservatives, to some extent, have a consistent Front-Bench line. I would happily say, in or outside the Chamber, that the line is congealing nicely around an extremist position on any number of issues. On the European Union, the Conservatives have adopted a dreadfully xenophobic and right-wing extremist position, but at least it is a position and it has some coherence. On public services, they consistently, as a party, seek at least to mislead the nation.
I believe that if one looks in detail at the current Finance Bill and the previous two Finance Bills, the running total of revenue measures that the Conservatives have voted against and have declared that they would repeal is about £40 billion-worth. Apparently, they have also signed up to the £40 billion that we shall spend on health and education. Where will that money come from? It is impossible to do both. It is misleading to suggest that it is possible.
The latest transgression is that the Conservatives say that they would freeze fuel duty and tobacco duty. That would cost £7 billion by 2002-03. No mention is made of where the £7 billion to replace that revenue will come from; yet they are still signed up to the £40 billion. I thought, reading some of the details of the Finance Bill, that Conservative spokespersons had gone to the Disneyland school of economic thought and the discussions that the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) had attended. His economics is just as bankrupt and nonsensical.
I am very happy to say publicly that the Conservatives are turning into an extremely effective, albeit redundant, extreme, right-wing, rather nasty, little Englander outfit, who have probably reached their peak in terms of parliamentary representation, and who will go down, and down with a vengeance.
I am extremely grateful to the people of England. They have ensured that, as a result of the Conservatives' mediocre performance in the English council elections last week, the biggest jester—a phrase used by the right hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram)—the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), is secure in his place. We could do no better in this country than to ensure that, with the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks secure in his place, the Tory extreme, nasty, xenophobic, little Englander ship goes down, glug glug glugging. Whether it is to be replaced by 30 or 40 more—
§ Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)
I shall try not to be too nasty in my intervention because I would not want to confirm any of the hon. Gentleman's stereotypical prejudices, but will he reflect on the following? If the Conservative performance in the local government elections was mediocre, how would he rate, against that measure—against mediocrity—the Labour party's performance in those elections?
§ Mr. McNulty
If the hon. Gentleman—as he has often done in the past—clearly leads with the chin, I will hit 511 him. Tell me, please. anyone—amateur psephologist or not—the last time that the Government of the day led in mid-term local elections. At our nadir, in 1982-83, when we were led by dear old Michael Foot, we were still three points ahead of the Conservative party. If the hon. Gentleman calls that mediocrity, he is taking a silly, ahistorical position. May I add that when I say "nasty", I mean the policies of the hon. Gentleman and his party, not the hon. Gentleman at all. I do not regard him as nasty—far from it. He is a gentleman in all respects, even though his politics are somewhat confused.
In conclusion, I say of the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks, more power to his elbow. Ultimately—in this the Liberal Democrats are entirely wrong—by causing the death of Conservative England, he will do the House and the country a great service. A statue of him should be put up in Parliament square in time to come. The death of that nasty little party will be music to the ears of the rest of the country.
§ Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry)
Listening to the opening contribution from the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), which was entirely consistent with the flippant tone of the Liberal Democrat motion, and reflecting on the concluding remarks of the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty), which rather deteriorated towards the end, I came to the conclusion that the debate was more interesting and even a touch more constructive than I had anticipated.
Throughout the debate, a number of points became clear to hon. Members in all parts of the House. The first was that we all take our own constituents extremely seriously, and we bring their interests to this place. The second was that we ought to take seriously the arguments and the issues with which we deal, and we should bring them to this place. Thirdly, whatever our party label, and whether we are Ministers in government, on the Back Benches or on the Front Bench of Opposition parties with a duty to scrutinise Ministers, we should have a commitment to the arguments and to making the right decisions on behalf of the country. Of course we are all party politicians, and we all come to this place to do that job as well. We have many roles to fulfil, but we are ill advised if we lose our grip on those essential truths. I hope that that came out in the debate.
However, we should not overlook the fact that there is a perfectly proper role for humour and amusement in this place. If we all took ourselves terribly seriously doing the job all the time—if we could not even laugh at the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome when he spoke to the motion, rather than perhaps laughing with him—that would be a deficiency on our part.
Equally, I warn the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) that we should not expect compromise on everything, if we are to commit ourselves to the argument. There will be passionate dissent between one Member and another on important issues. By all means let us compromise and agree when we can, but do not let us sweep under the carpet, in the interests of some coalitionism, some "politics lite" or some new style of politics, the fact that we will not always agree about everything. Let us just commit ourselves to taking the job reasonably seriously.
In that context, I have a little news for the House concerning the Liberal Democrats in my constituency. They did not do very well this time. Their role in the joint 512 administration in South Northamptonshire was swept out comprehensively—in my view, on its merits. Perhaps there was a precursor to that.
After the last general election, there was a problem with a proposal to put a prison on a particular site, which has since been addressed. I wrote to my Labour opponent, who ran me second—I have no great interest in the Liberal Democrats in that respect, but perhaps I would be better off if I could pump them up—and I wrote to my Liberal Democrat opponent, suggesting that we make a joint approach to the new Home Secretary on the matter, which had exercised us all during the campaign.
About a month later, my letter to the Liberal Democrat, which had been addressed to his headquarters in Daventry, was returned to me bearing the words "Gone away." He had not maintained his interest or his commitment to his prospective constituents.
We need to do better than that. When we get to this place, we need to take legislation more seriously than we do. One or two of the hon. Members who spoke in the debate pointed out that it is rather a long way from the press release or even, these days, the press briefing that precedes the press release, and the softening up on the "Today" programme, to creating a piece of legislation that takes policy through to delivery.
We are here partly to debate issues, but also to legislate on those issues and to try to get that legislation right. It is no good the Government saying, "Wouldn't it be a wonderful idea and something we could all sign up to"—which I do not—"if we could all have devolution?" Nor is it any good announcing a policy on this or that and assuming that it will happen. I have news for the House—I am not against fairness at work, but the issue is what that means, how it is to be delivered and what are the implications for the businesses that will have to deal with it. That is why legislation matters a lot.
The Whip has temporarily left the Chamber, but at least one other member of the Opposition Whips Office is aware of my views. I am like the man in the Bateman cartoon who admitted to a staggered world that he enjoyed Standing Committees, and enjoyed the detail of legislation and trying to get it right. In pursuit of these new politics, the Liberal Democrats may be well advised to take a certain lesson from some of the older hands here about the need to work the system correctly to probe the Government.
My experience of Standing Committees since we have been in opposition—on the Treasury side and in respect of my responsibilities for employment legislation—is that the Liberal Democrats have not failed to make constructive contributions. When they have been present, they have generally contributed well, but they have not majored, as the Americans would say. Their style has been Committee-light, and they do not go into something more than they have to in order to fulfil the obligations to be present and to take an interest.
The Liberal Democrats do not take the Government through the night in Committee a couple of times and do not table hundreds of probing amendments, which are designed to test Governments. If they want to be serious and want to play a part in this place, they should perhaps think about improving on that. They need not necessarily think that doing that would be a waste of time because, as we found with the minimum wage legislation, the Government have to respond—perhaps even a year 513 later—to points that we have made. That seems to me to be the right way to work. I offer one piece of friendly advice to the Liberal Democrats in respect of Standing Committees: if they want to table probing amendments, they should sharpen up their pencils, and pretty quick, just as they should in a number of other ways.
We do not necessarily receive great accolades because we carry out such work here, but my experience is that the only Members who engage in it seriously, and at least make Ministers consider what they are doing, come from these Benches. That is why tonight's motion is particularly inappropriate, but, because of the nature of the politics that we are trying to build, perhaps we should end on a note of consensus.
I am prepared, as I was during consideration of employment legislation, to seek consensus when it is appropriate. I say to Liberal Democrat Members, if they are not aware of it, that I can say with complete accuracy that Lloyd George knew my father, and knew him well enough not to be a supporter of the Liberal party.
§ Mr. Boswell
No, he did not. He was naturally opposed to the Fabian consensus, which was beginning to develop at that time.
The point about Lloyd George, the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn)—who is back in his place for the winding-up speeches, as he should be—and all of us is that we come here with something important to say and with our own experience. Members of Parliament, including Ministers, should listen to what people say; they should not concentrate on the soundbite or the press release.
Some of us have been members of Governments, but we do not resent the fact that we are in government no longer; we have a job to do. Back Benchers—members of Her Majesty's Opposition or the tacit supporters of the Government—do not have the right to suspend their own judgment or to sit on their hands. We have a duty to think about what is involved in legislation and speak out when we should. We will do so from these Benches and, in doing so, we will discharge our historic duty to speak for this country and to make sure that this place is used on behalf of the people of Britain to its best effect.
§ Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon)
I think that the House has been entertained, but there is a serious point behind the motion. As my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) pointed out, good government requires good opposition. The Conservative party is on its heels not just because it has lost power, but because it is rudderless in terms of its philosophy and its ideology. As a consequence, it has no ammunition with which to take on the Government and provide effective opposition.
I entirely agree with what was said by the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), which was very pertinent. The right hon. Gentleman will find that Liberal Democrats believe that, in the case of issues involving the royal prerogative—such as war and peace—the House should vote on a substantive motion. We wholly endorse 514 the right hon. Gentleman's proposition, and consider that it would be in the national interest, and the Government's interest, to allow such a debate to take place.
In response to the remarks of the right hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mrs. Bottomley), I can only ask, "Where have you been for the past 16 years?" The answer is that, for 14 of them, she was in government, demonstrating the very arrogance and patronage of which she now complains, and which we had to experience at her hands throughout that period. I find it a little hard to take that, now she has suddenly found out what that experience is like, she appears genuinely shocked, as if she did not realise what she and her party were doing and the extent to which it stultified the democratic process by failing to recognise that there are times when those in opposition have a contribution to make.
The right hon. Member for Chesterfield expressed his frustration at the fact that the Government cannot always be right, the Opposition are not always wrong, and if this place is to work at all there must be some recognition of that from time to time.
To understand the dilemma of the Conservative party, we need only refer to exchanges that have taken place over the past three or four weeks. The intention was to deliver a new, improved, revised Conservative party. The deputy leader of the party gave a lecture featuring a redefined Conservative philosophy around which the party could unite before the next election. He said:the public's area of unease about Conservatives is our supposedly hostile attitude to the Welfare State and particularly to Health and Education.That remains our Achilles heel … Conservatives … must renew public confidence in our commitment to the Welfare State … But we will only do so if we openly and emphatically accept that the free market has only a limited role in improving public services like health, education and welfare.
That is a clear restatement of modern Conservatism, designed to unite the party; but what actually happened? I have read that only three speakers supported the deputy leader of the Conservative party during a frosty meeting of members of the 1922 Committee, while five spoke against him. He received "perfunctory applause". MPs left the meeting saying that they were confused about how big a policy shift the speech represented.
§ Sir Patrick Cormack
Are we to take it that, first, the hon. Gentleman believes that particular newspaper report, and that, secondly, every newspaper report of a private Liberal meeting will also be accurate?
§ Mr. Bruce
I have every reason to believe that that is the case, because a number of MPs put their views on the record very clearly. We are told that
Iain Duncan Smith, the Shadow Social Security Secretary, demanded and got a meeting with him"—the deputy leader—on Monday, but he refused to budge. There were also strong complaints from Gillian Shephard, the Shadow Environment Secretary … and from Ann Widdecombe, the Shadow Health Secretary",who had not been consulted.
Such is the state of disarray in Her Majesty's Opposition. They no longer know what they believe in, and those who do not know what they believe in are in no state to take on the Government.
515 Reference has been made to an electoral success. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) pointed out, regaining 1,300 of the 2,000 seats lost in the worst ever performance, with a reduced overall result, is not exactly success.
I point out a couple of quotes:The Liberal Democrats defy gravity. The Liberal Democrat share of the vote is up on 1995. You can't put those Liberal Democrats down … they have done well.Those comments were by Professor Michael Thrasher. The right hon. Member for South-West Surrey should take note of the other quote:I never thought I'd sit in a TV studio and hear the Chairman of the Conservative party boast about retaking Worthing.That is how far the Conservatives have fallen.
We can all claim successes. Ultimately, the electorate will decide, but the Liberal Democrats are engaging in modern politics and in new-way politics. The Conservative party does not even know what that stands for.
Today, nominations close for the European elections. How many independent Conservatives will have been nominated who oppose official Conservative candidates? Indeed, how many on the official Conservative list will embrace official Conservative candidates who have opposite views on the most fundamental issue that faces us in the European context: whether we should join a single currency?
§ Mrs. Browning
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that I am a Devon Member. How does he account for the fact that there is still in this country a Liberal party, which has representation on local councils and fields parliamentary candidates?
§ Mr. Bruce
It is a free and open democratic country in which people are allowed to put up candidates. I am rather in favour of that; so are other Liberal Democrats. This country has a multi-party system. I represent a Scottish constituency in the House. As has been demonstrated in the elections, Scotland has four political parties.
The Conservative party claims that the result in Scotland is an indication of their fightback. It fought back by achieving a lower share of the vote in Scotland than at the previous general election and by failing to win back any of the first-past-the-post seats that it had lost. It has managed to get representation in the Scottish Parliament on the basis of a voting system that it does believe in, with its Members being elected to a Parliament of which it is not in favour.
I do not know what the Conservatives will do there because, clearly, they do not believe in co-operative politics. They are on record as saying that they regard it as deplorable that parties should seek to co-operate and to form an Administration to deliver their pledges to the people of Scotland. One wonders, therefore, what is the 516 point of the Conservatives' presence in the Scottish Parliament. The answer is: not much more point than there is at the moment in the Conservative party's presence in this—
§ Mr. Bruce
I do not have any time. I want to allow the Minister time to reply to the debate.
The motion is completely serious. We believe that we have not wasted the House's time in tabling it because the people of this country have to consider what intellectual and coherent debate is coming at the Government—who have a massive majority—to engage them and to force them to explain, justify and develop what they do. That is what effective opposition is about.
The Liberal Democrats and the Labour party are engaged in a debate. We often disagree, not about what we want to achieve, but about how we think it should be achieved and in what order. However, that is a real debate about real issues.
We have consistently exposed the fact that it is not possible to deliver additional resources on health and education unless we are prepared to find money and to be realistic about it. The irony is that the Conservatives are so confused. They say, on one day, that they welcome the fact that more money is being spent, then complain that it is not as much as they would have spent, and then suggest that taxes are too high and they would cut them. It does not add up. That is the sort of economics that defies gravity, or realistic analysis.
The truth is that Conservative Members cannot understand that we are in a new era of co-peration politics—which they absolutely hate and attack at every quarter. The truth is that they hate co-operation and coalition-style politics because they cannot build a coalition even among Conservatives, never mind attaching anyone else. They are a shrinking and irrelevant force.
The Government will receive from the Liberal Democrats coherent and effective opposition, whereas they are getting nothing but incoherence, division, confusion and irrelevance from the Conservatives—who are not fit to oppose.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
That is entirely a matter for the occupant of the Chair, and is judged on the basis of the debate and its construction. I call Sir Patrick Cormack.
§ Sir Patrick Cormack
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Nevertheless, I appreciate the typical timidity of the fawning hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) in seeking to prevent my having a say after this extraordinary debate.
517 I slightly agreed with the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) when he said that the debate has not been a waste of time; in one sense, it has not. This debate has demonstrated that the Liberal Democrat party is totally unsuited to be regarded in the House as an opposition party. The right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn)—who made, as he always does, a very considerable parliamentary speech—is far more entitled to Opposition time than the Liberal Democrats are. If we are able to determine, through the usual channels, a way of giving one of the Opposition days to him, we should be most interested in doing so.
The hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty) said that he was speaking in anger rather than in sorrow. He has not only a pretty turn of phrase, but rather a low boiling point. I tell him that I am speaking far more in sorrow than in anger. Has the party of Gladstone and Lloyd George been reduced to this? It is no wonder that, today, the leader of the Liberal Democrats is not in the Chamber, and that those who are, we are told, the principal contenders for his somewhat tarnished crown also are not here.
§ Sir Patrick Cormack
Ah—we have a declaration; the first hat is officially thrown into the ring. However, in common with many hon. Members on both sides of the House, I was under the impression that the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell) and the hon. Members for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy) and for Taunton (Jackie Ballard) were among the principal contenders. Where are they? It was also very noticeable that, for much of the debate, the man whom I should regard as the Liberal Democrat party's most distinguished elder statesman—the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith)—lacked the stomach to listen to the drivel that was being served up.
The Liberal Democrat opening speech really was an absolute dog's breakfast. They set themselves up to be holier than Labour and "prole-ier" than us, and try to set an example of what parliamentary democracy is all about, but they have only provided an example of how a once great party has been reduced, first to oblivion, and then to claiming triumph when managing the election of 46 hon. Members to the House. We shall certainly never seek to emulate that example.
The Liberal Democrats have lost their history, but have not yet found their place. They are grubbing around the gutters of politics, trying to get some form of power. Today's Scottish Daily Record says it all:Lib Dems Cave In".In Scotland they are catching on to the coat tails of the Labour party—as they would have liked to do in the Principality—to enjoy some little influence and power. The hon. Member for North Cornwall let the cat out of the bag when he told the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), who is assiduous in his attendance in this place, that the Liberal Democrats have more influence than he has. That may well be true, but whether it will give the staunch Labour supporters of the hon. Member for Pendle much comfort is another matter.
518 Over the past two years we have seen an extraordinary approach by a group of people who individually are entirely charming but who collectively are what my sergeant major in the cadet force called a proper shower. We have seen them fawning their way into a position of some little influence. In tabling this motion, giving up the opportunity for scrutiny and holding the Executive to account, they have effected the ultimate abdication.
The hon. Member for Gordon told the right hon. Member for Chesterfield that he agreed with his substantive point. So why did the Liberal Democrats not choose that or another important subject to debate? They could have done so, but instead they tried to turn petty, vindictive fire on Her Majesty's Opposition. They did so very ineffectively, trying to show that we were inconsistent and incoherent. With every word that they uttered, they demonstrated that they have a claim to any Nobel prize that is going for inconsistency and incoherence.
The Liberal Democrats are the vegans of British politics. They have an extraordinary ragbag of policies.
§ Sir Patrick Cormack
They are not fit to eat the red meat of British politics. In the last Parliament they gave a new meaning to the phrase "the Sunday joint". Among their number is the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), whose purpose in life seems to be to instal pregnancy kits in nurseries and issue condoms to toddlers. The Liberal Democrats should be laughed out of court. They do not deserve to be regarded as a serious Opposition party. In the past two and half hours they have demonstrated beyond peradventure that they are not one.
The Liberal Democrats are also trying to undermine this place. Many of their proposals would take the life away from this Chamber and put it elsewhere. They are attending in reasonable numbers this afternoon, but I cannot remember a day when I have seen so many Liberal Democrats on the Benches. Even today, there have never been more than 30 of them here. In the Division earlier, 38 of their 46 Members voted. This has been a shoddy performance by a rather third-rate crew. I hope that the House will reject their motion with derision and accept our amendment.
§ The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Ms Joyce Quin)
When I first read the motion, I wondered whether it was up to the Government to comment at all. I have never seen a motion quite like it in my 12 years in Parliament, and I was reinforced in that view by the words of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), who has been in this House for much longer.
Listening to the two opening speeches, I wondered whether I was taking part in some new form of parliamentary spectator sport. One of my colleagues suggested helpfully that I should have brought a whistle and acted as referee—although that would not have met with your approval, Mr. Deputy Speaker, since you referee our proceedings wisely. During those two speeches, I felt glad and relieved to be sitting with my colleagues on the Labour Benches.
519 I wondered also which Minister should respond to the debate, because the motion covers a range of topics including policing, education, the NHS and other public services. It was difficult to know how to respond to such a motion. However, there are various elements of the motion that accord with my ministerial responsibility, particularly the references toBritain's positive role in Europe—something with which I strongly agree—and the importance ofnecessary reforms of the institutions and policies of the European Union", to which I attach considerable importance.
Given the nature of the motion, it is not surprising that the contributions have ranged widely and, in the 10 minutes that I have left, it will be difficult to respond to many of the issues. I shall refer to one or two of the points made at the outset. I support some of the arguments made by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), including his strong condemnation of the centralist policies pursued in this country in the 18 years until 1997, and the importance of decentralisation, devolution and the constitutional reforms which I am proud have been undertaken by my Government.
§ Ms Quin
On the contrary, I find that people in my constituency are pleased at the amount of consultation that the Government have undertaken. On a policy for which I used to have some responsibility—the fight against crime and the local partnerships against crime—the local consultations to launch those partnerships were tremendously welcome, and people throughout the country felt that their views on those important issues were being taken into account.
I very much welcome decentralisation and the constitutional changes upon which we have embarked. I welcome devolution in Scotland and Wales, and I welcome also the regional development agencies and decentralisation within England.
Hon. Members from both sides of the House—or perhaps I should say from all three sides—talked about the elections last week. The Government take considerable satisfaction from those elections, which produced the best ever results for a Government two years into their mandate.
§ Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire)
The Minister has just made out that the Government believe in consultation. Can I draw her attention to the review of meat inspection charges? The industry has been given 10 days, until noon on 17 May, to respond. The letter went out on 7 May, but some in the industry did not receive it until 11 May. Cabinet guidelines alone would require eight weeks in which to respond. Is that equivalent to consultation for an industry?
§ Ms Quin
I understand that there had already been many discussions on the issue with the people and the industry concerned. My colleagues in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food consult widely with the interested parties.
520 Many hon. Members referred to the elections. Our results were very satisfactory; in fact, on the basis of those results, we would have retained some of our most marginal seats in the House. Indeed, in some cases we even improved on what was previously our best ever result.
§ Ms Quin
No, because, like all hon. Members, I have been very much constrained by time in this debate.
We have heard some interesting and thoughtful speeches, especially from Labour Members. I listened with especial interest to the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield, of the right hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mrs. Bottomley), whose speech I increasingly disagreed with as it proceeded, and of my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson), who reminded us that, although the Government have responsibility to Parliament, we also have responsibility to the people and must deliver on the manifesto commitments on which we were elected. I am very glad that we are delivering on those commitments.
When I first came into the House in 1987, the Conservative party was in government and seemed to me to be governing in a way that treated people with contempt. We remember issues such as the poll tax, and the arrogance of that large majority, which stands in stark contrast to both the style and the practice of the present Government.
The right hon. Member for South-West Surrey accused us of bypassing Parliament. I find that strange. As the motion refers to European policy, let me remind her and the House of the improvements that the Government suggested, and then introduced, for European scrutiny procedures, precisely in order to give hon. Members a much better opportunity to question the Government and scrutinise European legislation. I welcome the changes and the fact that all aspects of the European Union can now be scrutinised in the House within a satisfactory time.
Far from bypassing the House, it seems to me, from my admittedly mere two years' experience as a Minister, that one rightly spends a great deal of time dealing with parliamentary questions and correspondence and giving evidence to Select Committees on a whole range of issues. We respond day by day to Parliament's very reasonable demands that we should explain and discuss our policies. Hon. Members use the various procedures open to them to bring that about.
It has been suggested that the Government do things by stealth, and European policy was mentioned in that context. I remind the House that we are committed to holding a referendum on the single currency. It is not possible to avoid debate or introduce a measure by stealth if one is committed to holding a referendum on it.
The Government's record on European policy is a proud one. We have played a positive role in Europe that has brought considerable benefits to our people. The real protection of British interests and the real patriotism are in the positive role that we are pursuing. That shows that 521 Labour is by far the best party to deliver, in government, good and effective results in Europe for our people.
That is why, at the forthcoming European elections, as well as at other elections thereafter, the electorate should spurn both the oppositions from whom we have heard today and support the Government and our policies.
§ Question put, That the amendment be made:—
§ The House proceeded to a Division—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
I think that the hon. Gentleman and the right hon. Gentleman are forgetting the new procedures of the House for raising points of order, which should be done from the Benches by the Chair. I have followed exactly the correct procedure in putting the Question on the amendment first. That Question has to be dealt with before the next Question can arise. I have called a Division on whether the amendment be made.
§ The House having divided: Ayes 137, Noes 36.522
|Division No. 174]||[7 pm|
|Ainsworth, Peter (E Surrey)||Fallon, Michael|
|Amess, David||Flight, Howard|
|Ancram, Rt Hon Michael||Forth, Rt Hon Eric|
|Arbuthnot, Rt Hon James||Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman|
|Atkinson, David (Bour'mth E)|
|Atkinson, Peter (Hexham)||Fox, Dr Liam|
|Bell, Martin (Tatton)||Fraser, Christopher|
|Bercow, John||Gale, Roger|
|Beresford, Sir Paul||Garnier, Edward|
|Blunt, Crispin||Gibb, Nick|
|Boswell, Tim||Gill, Christopher|
|Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W)||Gillan, Mrs Cheryl|
|Bottomley, Rt Hon Mrs Virginia||Goodlad, Rt Hon Sir Alastair|
|Brady, Graham||Gorman, Mrs Teresa|
|Browning, Mrs Angela||Gray, James|
|Burns, Simon||Green, Damian|
|Butterfill, John||Greenway, John|
|Cash, William||Grieve, Dominic|
|Chapman, Sir Sydney (Chipping Barnet)||Gummer, Rt Hon John|
|Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archie|
|Chope, Christopher||Hammond, Philip|
|Clappison, James||Hawkins, Nick|
|Clifton—Brown, Geoffrey||Hayes, John|
|Cormack, Sir Patrick||Heald, Oliver|
|Cran, James||Heathcoat—Amory, Rt Hon David|
|Curry, Rt Hon David||Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael|
|Davies, Quentin (Grantham)||Hogg, Rt Hon Douglas|
|Davis, Rt Hon David (Haltemprice & Howden)||Horam, John|
|Day, Stephen||Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot)|
|Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen||Hunter, Andrew|
|Duncan Smith, Iain||Jack, Rt Hon Michael|
|Faber, David||Jackson, Robert (Wantage)|
|Fabricant, Michael||Jenkin, Bernard|
|Johnson Smith,||Robathan, Andrew|
|Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey||Robertson, Laurence (Tewk'b'ry)|
|Key, Robert||Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne)|
|King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater)||Rowe, Andrew (Faversham)|
|Kirkbride, Miss Julie||Ruffley, David|
|Lait, Mrs Jacqui||St Aubyn, Nick|
|Lansley, Andrew||Sayeed, Jonathan|
|Leigh, Edward||Shephard, Rt Hon Mrs Gillian|
|Letwin, Oliver||Shepherd, Richard|
|Lewis, Dr Julian (New Forest E)||Simpson, Keith (Mid-Norfolk)|
|Lidington, David||Soames, Nicholas|
|Lilley, Rt Hon Peter||Spicer, Sir Michael|
|Lloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham)||Spring, Richard|
|Loughton, Tim||Steen, Anthony|
|Luff, Peter||Streeter, Gary|
|MacGregor, Rt Hon John||Swayne, Desmond|
|McIntosh, Miss Anne||Syms, Robert|
|MacKay, Rt Hon Andrew||Taylor, Ian (Esher & Walton)|
|Maclean, Rt Hon David||Taylor, Sir Teddy|
|McLoughlin, Patrick||Tredinnick, David|
|Major, Rt Hon John||Trend, Michael|
|Malins, Humfrey||Tyrie, Andrew|
|Mates, Michael||Walter, Robert|
|Maude, Rt Hon Francis||Wardle, Charles|
|Mawhinney, Rt Hon Sir Brian||Wells, Bowen|
|May, Mrs Theresa||Whitney, Sir Raymond|
|Moss, Malcolm||Whittingdale, John|
|Nicholls, Patrick||Widdecombe, Rt Hon Miss Ann|
|Norman, Archie||Wilkinson, John|
|Ottaway, Richard||Willetts, David|
|Page, Richard||Woodward, Shaun|
|Paice, James||Yeo, Tim|
|Paterson, Owen||Young, Rt Hon Sir George|
|Prior, David||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|Randall, John||Sir David Madel and|
|Redwood, Rt Hon John||Mr. Tim Collins.|
|Allan, Richard||Kennedy, Charles (Ross Skye)|
|Beith, Rt Hon A J||Kirkwood, Archy|
|Bell, Martin (Tatton)||Livsey, Richard|
|Brand, Dr Peter||Maclennan, Rt Hon Robert|
|Breed, Colin||Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll & Bute)|
|Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)||Oaten, Mark|
|Burnett, John||Öpik, Lembit|
|Burstow, Paul||Rendel, David|
|Cable, Dr Vincent||Russell, Bob (Colchester)|
|Chidgey, David||Sanders, Adrian|
|Cotter, Brian||Skinner, Dennis|
|Davey, Edward (Kingston)||Smith, Sir Robert (W Ab'd'ns)|
|George, Andrew (St Ives)||Tonge, Dr Jenny|
|Hancock, Mike||Tyler, Paul|
|Harris, Dr Evan||Webb, Steve|
|Harvey, Nick||Willis, Phil|
|Heath, David (Somerton & Frome)|
|Hughes, Simon (Southwark N)||Tellers for the Noes:|
|Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham)||Mrs. Caroline Spelman and|
|Keetch, Paul||Mrs. Eleanor Laing.|
§ Question accordingly agreed to.
§ Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.
§ That this House notes with contempt that the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party considers it to be a constructive use of specially allocated opposition time to indulge in a petty and vindictive attack on Her Majesty's Opposition rather than to challenge the executive and hold it to account; and points out that, in so doing, a Party whose record of attendance and willingness to sacrifice principle for party advantage shows that it has no constitutional claim to the position and privileges which are rightly accorded to opposition parties in the parliamentary system.523
§ Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border)
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. What advice can you give the House on the debacle of that vote? Is there a case for amending Standing Orders? A minority Opposition party tabled a motion criticising the main Opposition party and urging us to be competent, but the Liberal Democrats were so incompetent that they failed to provide tellers, and we had to do the work that they were too incompetent to do.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
None of that is a matter for the Chair. The procedure followed was perfectly in order.