HC Deb 11 November 1999 vol 337 cc1307-9

The Duke of Edinburgh and I were pleased to receive the State Visits of His Excellency the President of Germany last December, of His Excellency the President of Hungary last June and of His Excellency the President of the People's Republic of China in October.

We recall with pleasure our State Visit to Korea in April.

We were delighted to pay State Visits to Ghana, and South Africa, over the last four days, and to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.

My Government have taken action to build a platform of economic stability and steady growth, based on clear long-term objectives for monetary and fiscal policy, with openness and transparency in policy making.

My Government's goal is high and stable levels of growth and employment. The new system of monetary policy-making ensures that interest rate decisions are taken in the best long-term interests of the economy. As a result, the UK now has a sound and credible platform of stability. Inflation is historically low and expected to remain close to target. And long-term interest rates are also at historically low levels. Employment is up by over half a million since the election, with more people in work in Britain today than ever before.

To ensure high levels of employment, my Government are extending the new deal, to help more young people and the long-term unemployed. And my Government are tackling the poverty and unemployment traps. To make work pay and encourage job creation, they have introduced the national minimum wage and the new 10p starting rate of tax, cut the basic rate of income tax from next April, and reformed national insurance. And the Working Families Tax Credit, introduced in October, is helping to make work pay for low-paid working families.

My Government are continually looking at ways to improve productivity, including in the public sector. They have set tough targets for outputs from every department in Public Service Agreements.

My Government's legislation to raise standards for all children is now coming into effect. There has been a widespread reduction in the number of children in infant classes of over 30 and there is extensive support for the literacy and numeracy strategies. My Government published the Teachers Green Paper—the most radical reform of the teaching profession in a generation—and has since announced progress towards a new pay structure for teachers.

Parliament has passed for the first time legislation for the creation of a Disability Rights Commission, which will help create a positive climate for people with disabilities in their lives and work.

My Government have put in place the framework for a modern National Health Service. An Act has been passed to replace the NHS internal market with decentralised arrangements based on partnership, quality and efficiency. Waiting lists have been reduced by 200,000 since their high point in April 1998, and by 69,000 since March 1997.

An Act has been passed to establish a Food Standards Agency to protect public health and the interests of consumers in relation to food.

Legislation has been enacted to support minimum standards at work, to promote partnership and to make it easier for people to combine family responsibilities and employment.

An Act has been passed which takes forward my Government's programme of welfare reform, promoting work for those who are able to work and security for those who cannot.

My Government has begun the modernisation of local government. Legislation has been enacted to secure the delivery of high quality local services on a sound financial basis.

My Government have begun the process of restoring democratic, city-wide government in London. Legislation was enacted to establish the Greater London Authority, providing London with a new form of strategic governance.

An Act has been passed which will enable the implementation of the EU Directive on Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control, which will maintain a coherent pollution control regime for the United Kingdom.

Legislation has been enacted to provide a fair basis for water charging in England and Wales.

An Act has been passed to modernise and strengthen immigration control. It will speed up the system of immigration and asylum appeals. This Act is essential to the delivery of a fairer, faster and firmer immigration and asylum system to which my Government is committed.

An Act has been passed which creates a new sentencing disposal for first-time defendants pleading guilty in the youth court and introduces new measures to help vulnerable witnesses to give their best evidence in criminal trials.

Legislation has been enacted to establish a Community Legal Service and a Criminal Defence Service. They will replace existing legal aid arrangements and enable resources to be better targeted. The Act also extends the use of conditional fees, removes unnecessary restrictions on the provision of legal services and makes reforms to magistrates' courts and the appeals system. This will increase access to justice. Other law reform measures have been enacted.

As a first step in a process of reform, legislation has been enacted to remove the automatic right of hereditary peers to membership of the House of Lords.

The people of Scotland and Wales voted to have their own Parliament and National Assembly and it was my pleasure with The Duke of Edinburgh and The Prince of Wales to open the National Assembly of Wales on 26th May and to open the Scottish Parliament on 1st July.

In Northern Ireland, my Government have continued to work to secure the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. They have, in co-operation with the Irish Government, established a review to overcome difficulties in its implementation. They have welcomed the Report of the Independent Commission on Policing.