§ [First Day]
§ Madam Speaker
It will be for the convenience of the House to know that the subjects for debate on the Queen's Speech will be as follows:
Thursday 18 November—environment, transport and the countryside; Friday 19 November—trade and industry and social security; Monday 22 November—foreign affairs and defence; Tuesday 23 November—home affairs and education and employment; Wednesday 24 November—the economy.
I shall now call on Dr. Jack Cunningham to move the Address, and Mr. Ivan Lewis will second it.
§ Dr. Jack Cunningham (Copeland)
I beg to move,That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, as follows:Most Gracious Sovereign,We, Your Majesty's most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, in Parliament assembled, beg leave to offer our humble thanks to Your Majesty for the Gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament.This is my first speech from the Back Benches for almost a quarter of a century. It is very' encouraging to be looked upon by my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench as a promising Back Bencher. When I was asked by my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip to move the motion, I noticed that she carefully omitted the words often whispered to Back Benchers on this occasion—"Do this well and you could be in line for a job in the Government."
Whatever my merits, this occasion is certainly a well-deserved and great honour for my constituency and the people of Copeland, whom I have had the privilege to represent in this House for more than 29 years. Although it is the most remote English constituency from Westminster, it is certainly the most beautiful in the whole of the United Kingdom.
Copeland is a rural borough with a population of 72,000, set in 300 square miles of west and south Cumbria. It stretches from just north of the magnificent Georgian port and town of Whitehaven, south to the town of Millom on the majestic Duddon estuary. Copeland is bounded to the west by many miles of beautiful Cumbrian Irish sea coastline and, to the east, by the highest mountain range in England.
Copeland includes the ancient and lovely market town of Egremont, as well as former coal and iron ore mining towns and villages such as Distington, Lowca, Frizington and Cleator Moor. There are dozens of rural villages and hamlets in the dales, on the hills and on the coast. There are 29 parish councils in my constituency. Hundreds of farmsteads cover the hills and dales, as well as the rural parts of the coastal plain. I therefore often permitted myself a wry smile when, as Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, I was frequently told that I had no knowledge or experience of the countryside.
My constituency—as those hon. Members who know it realize—is dominated by one massive, magnificent, unique, and sometimes brooding and dangerous presence. [Laughter.] I refer, of course, to the Lake district national 9 park. Copeland contains the highest mountain in England, Scafell Pike; the deepest lake, Wastwater; the smallest church in England, St. Olaf's at Wasdale Head; and the largest yen earner in the UK economy.
No election ever takes place in Copeland without several people saying to me that they cannot vote for me because I give too much support to the nuclear industry. Happily, at least 20,000 usually say that they will vote for me, even though I do not give enough support to the nuclear industry. British Nuclear Fuels makes a huge contribution to the west Cumbrian economy, and a very positive contribution to the UK as a whole. Nuclear power will assist us in meeting our Kyoto commitments. We have no hope of meeting them without it.
For many years, Copeland has elected the biggest liar in the world—but not at general elections. The election is tomorrow night in the Bridge inn at Santon Bridge. Members of Parliament are banned—probably on the grounds of too much skill and practice. However, members of the Press Gallery could enter. We all know one or two who would make outstanding candidates.
Copeland contains the most numinous dale in all Lakeland—and I do not mean my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours), awe-inspiring though he can often be. I mean Ennerdale. As well as the grandeur of Wasdale, Eskdale, Dunnerdale and the Whicham valley, it features many miles of magnificent coastline, sites of special scientific interest, Roman antiquities, Hard Knott fort on the famous mountain pass, the Ravenglass estuary—used as a port by the Romans—and the magnificent castle and grounds at Muncaster. Not surprisingly, tourism is of growing importance to the local economy.
Copeland is famous not just for beautiful scenery, but for ugly people. I mean, of course, the gurners. The world gurning champion is elected in Copeland every year during the Egremont crab fair. Gurning is the art of pulling grotesque faces; as they demonstrate each week during Prime Minister's Question Time, some Opposition Members are rather good at that.
The coast-to-coast walk begins in Copeland in the lovely seaside village of St Bees. Some local people follow the Eskdale and Ennerdale foxhounds, but many, many more follow the hound trails where the dogs race across the fells following a scented drag.
I have long been closely associated with many voluntary associations that do excellent work in Copeland. I am the honorary vice-president of the Wasdale mountain rescue team. Fortunately, during more than 30 years of walking and climbing in lakeland, I have never needed to call on the excellent skills and experience of that team, but, during my 29 years in the House, there have been one or two occasions on which I would have been glad to see its members abseiling down from the Public Gallery to rescue me from the Chamber.
Whitehaven, a gem of a Georgian town, was built by Sir John Lowther in the 17th century, and still contains some 240 listed buildings. The harbour is an ancient monument, now being dramatically rejuvenated by the Whitehaven Development Company—with grants from the Government—and the Millennium Commission. At its height, in the 18th century, the port of Whitehaven was second only to London in terms of tonnage shipped. Its fleet exceeded 200 vessels, and trade flourished with Ireland and America.
10 In 1699, the Whitehaven merchant George Gale met and married, in Virginia, a widow, Mildred Washington. When she died in Whitehaven in 1700, her sons John and Augustine Washington returned to America. Augustine's son George Washington became the first President of the United States of America. Had his grandmother lived in Whitehaven, history might well have been very different.
On 22 April 1778, during the American war of independence, the American naval captain John Paul Jones, born at Kirkbean on the Solway, entered Whitehaven harbour at night, spiked the guns and set fire to some vessels that he caught escaping to sea. A hero in America, he is regarded to this day as a pirate in Whitehaven. This summer, Whitehaven held its first successful maritime festival; I hope that there will be many more.
No one will be surprised to learn that I. strongly support my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and his Government. I have spent 30 years or more working to see such an Administration in office. During long years in opposition, it sometimes seemed that Labour was determined to stay out of power. Under my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, however, we are now firmly established, once more, on political ground that it was a terrible mistake ever to abandon.
In the face of all reason, logic and experience, I have supported both the Labour party and Newcastle United football club all my life. As an inexperienced Government Back Bencher, I am pleased that fell walking and climbing have taught me always to choose my foothold carefully. I know that it will be difficult to walk the narrow political path between whingeing and sycophancy. I shall probably need some tutorials from my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) before I get it right. [HON. MEMBERS: "Where is he?"] I wish him well because I understand that he has been ill recently.
As a loyal Back Bencher, as hon. Members would expect, I asked Alastair Campbell for suitable guidance and humorous anecdotes about the Prime Minister. He replied, "You don't think I'm paid all this money to make jokes about my boss, do you?"
I recall that, during difficult negotiations with the French, the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food advised me in a meeting, "Minister, dealing with the French is all down to tone." I told him not to be so familiar about the Prime Minister.
During one of his many interviews in the French language, the Prime Minister, slightly in error, said that he desired Lionel Jospin in many different ways. I am not sure quite how he has been desiring, or admiring him, as he should have said, lately, but, in the recent dispute with the French, I congratulate him and my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on keeping their heads when the Leader of the Opposition and all around him were losing theirs.
Much in the Gracious Speech will be welcomed by my constituents. Surrounded by outstanding natural beauty and unparalleled scenery as they are, they are not all protected, or immune, from unemployment, poor housing, low pay, ill health or poverty in old age. They need jobs with good earnings. Too many do not have that advantage. Unemployment in Copeland is 50 per cent. higher than the national and north-west regional average. In some wards, it is four times the national average. In Millom 11 new town, Egremont, St. Bees and Mire House east wards, there are difficult problems. They would benefit from being given objective 2 status.
That is why the extension of the new deal and the maintenance of a strong economy are welcome in Copeland. Talk of the economy "overheating" brings wry smiles, or even anger to many of my constituents. Blunt instruments such as the fuel cap escalator, which we inherited from the previous Administration, cause serious harm in remote rural areas, especially to small businesses. The Government are right to review its impact. In particular, improvements in public transport, especially to the west coast main line, will be welcomed, as would be much needed road improvements on the A595 in Copeland.
The new deal has halved youth unemployment in Cumbria; its extension is excellent news. The commitment to greater economic growth and to a dynamic knowledge-based economy will be widely supported in my constituency.
The Bill to establish the new Learning and Skills Council to improve standards for post-16 education and training is welcome. The reform of the Child Support Agency is overdue. As honorary president of a disability group in Copeland, I know that the establishment of the Disability Rights Commission will be warmly applauded.
People with disabilities, elderly people, people with young families and those who live in remote rural areas will all welcome a Bill to reform our electoral procedures to make it much easier to participate in elections.
West Cumbria has long historical links and family connections with Ireland. People there and those in the House should welcome progress in Northern Ireland and wish all the parties well in their efforts to implement the Good Friday agreement.
In Copeland, people already have considerable access to Forestry Commission and National Trust land. Those organisations do an excellent job in Copeland, where the trust manages sensitive conservation and public access with great co-operation from farmers. As a member of the trust and of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, I know that the Bill to improve access and to bring greater protection to wildlife will be supported strongly.
The new Labour Government have already made a big difference in Copeland through improvements to health, education, youth employment and job creation through the new deal, sure start and single regeneration budget funding. Of course, much more needs to be done.
This third legislative programme maintains the momentum of modernisation and reform. It is a powerful and coherent statement of the Government's commitment to promoting fairness, job creation, enterprise and welfare reform. The programme contains further important commitments to young people, people with disabilities, carers, pensioners and those on low incomes. It will be warmly received in Copeland and it deserves the House's support. I wish my colleagues in the Government every success.
§ Mr. Ivan Lewis (Bury, South)
It is with a great sense of humility and honour that I second this motion. This is an important parliamentary occasion, but it is made even 12 more important by the fact that Northern Ireland is moving ever closer to a peace to which everybody aspires. I have been privileged to spend the past 48 hours first in Belfast and then in Dublin as part of a cross-party delegation. I can tell hon. Members, journalists and newspaper editors that we do not owe it to any particular political leader or to any particular tradition in Northern Ireland, but we owe it to the children of Northern Ireland to ensure that we achieve that lasting peace.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) on his magnificent speech. I pay tribute to his tremendous record of public service over many years, which I know will continue for a long time to come. When I was researching this speech, I discovered that my right hon. Friend once wrote a PhD thesis entitled—those who remember his time at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food may sympathise with this—"Penta fluoro phenyl derivatives of metal". My right hon. Friend might want to know that I have read the first line of that paper and still do not understand a word of it.
I am sure that hon. Members want to join me today in sending good wishes to my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) who is lying in a hospital bed recovering from a serious road traffic accident. We all hope that she will be back with us in the near future.
I want to take this opportunity, on behalf of the 1997 intake of Members of Parliament, to thank the more experienced hon. Members and parliamentary staff for the many kindnesses they have shown to us during this difficult and challenging settling-in period.
After learning that 1 had been asked to second this motion my hon. Friends the Members for Halton (Mr. Twigg), for St. Helens, North (Mr. Watts) and for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Bradley) all asked me, independently, to mention them in my speech. Hansard will record that I did so.
Since 1 May 1997, I have been conscious of the tremendous level of trust and confidence that has been placed in me by my constituents. Bury, South is the place where I was born, raised and have lived all my life. We are proud of our community, proud of our towns of Prestwich, Radcliffe and Whitefield and proud of our village of Simister. We are proud of our teachers, pupils, governors and parents and our local education authority who have worked together to achieve some of the best education results in Britain. We are proud of our partnerships between statutory bodies, voluntary agencies and the private sector.
In Bury, South, we are also proud of the multi-faith nature of our community—composed of Christians, Jews, Muslims, those of other minority faiths, and those of no faith at all—living and working together, in an atmosphere of mutual trust, respect and friendship.
We are proud also of achieving all that despite having one of Britain's lowest funding levels. However, I have every confidence that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and the Regions will address our SSA, RSG and ACA in exactly the same way as she has tackled CCT. Is it any wonder that people do not relate very well to local government?
My constituents will warmly welcome the contents of the Queen's Speech. I am proud that, after 18 years in the wilderness, we have the first Government this century who do not ask people to choose between fairness and prosperity, but who understand that fairness and 13 prosperity are interdependent attributes of any successful and truly united nation. I believe that if those charged with rebuilding Britain in 1945 were here today, they would be impressed—perhaps even surprised—by a Labour Government who combine competence with radicalism.
I know all about wilderness years. I joined the Labour party in the 1980s and survived, just about. I also left school at 16, with all of three 0-levels, and I am a lifelong supporter of Manchester City football club. I also know, more than most, that wilderness years can, do—and will—come to an end.
In a political context, I hope that this reassurance will give some comfort to Conservative Members—although the fact is that there are wilderness years, and wilderness years. In a football context, I hope that it will give some comfort to my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for the Home Department and the Government Chief Whip. On this one occasion, I also tell my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer that, tonight, there will truly be a case of boom or bust for his beloved Scotland.
On the whole, politics is a serious businesses. I believe that hon. Members on both sides of the House enter politics because they want to make a difference for the better. However, it is also important that we should not fall into the trap of taking ourselves as individuals too seriously. I should therefore like to share with the House some examples of the clangers that I—although it might be hard to believe—have dropped in my first 30 months as a Member of Parliament.
After six months as an hon. Member, I sent out to my Labour party members a list of the Government's achievements, which began:The Government have banned books in all our schools",and went on to say:The Government has provided £1,000 to all schools with which to purchase handguns.In some parts of the country, that might well be a credible future manifesto commitment!
I also recall, a couple of years ago, arriving late at a Remembrance Sunday service at one of my cenotaphs. It was an inter-faith service, involving the local Christian and Jewish community. The rabbi was in full flow, in Hebrew, and I thought that I should let the mayor know that I had arrived, a few minutes late. I therefore promptly tapped him on the shoulder, at which point—as the rabbi continued speaking—he marched forward, saluted and laid his wreath. Only later did I realise that mayor and vicar had done a deal, by which the vicar would tap the mayor on the shoulder when he had finished. Perhaps this has been the only occasion on which an hon. Member has been able to tell a joke about a Member of Parliament, a vicar, a rabbi and a mayor, and get away with it.
Then there was the time, shortly after my appointment as Parliamentary Private Secretary to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, when my mobile phone went off and a voice at the other end said, "It's Steve here." I pondered for a minute, desperately trying to make sure that I did not give the wrong response, and said, "Steve who?" I thought that it was going to be the shortest appointment in political history. I want to take this opportunity to say how genuinely delighted I am to have been appointed PPS to the Secretary of State. I believe that he is one of the greatest Secretaries of State for Trade and Industry since the last general election.
14 I want to articulate what being a Member of Parliament means to me through the prism of my own personal and political experiences. Remembrance Sunday made me think about my grandfather. He was a proud Scot who died fighting for this country in the second world war and who, as a young man of 19, went to Spain to fight for the international brigade against Franco's fascists. This April, I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland with a group of 150 teachers at the behest of the Holocaust Education Trust. I saw for myself an entity that was designed to deliver a significant part of Adolf Hitler's final solution. Like millions of others, at the same time I watched on my television screen as ethnic cleansing was being perpetrated in Europe in 1999. I pondered how little we sometimes learn from history. I also pondered—yes, people may accuse me of being sycophantic—the fact that we have a Prime Minister who did not cross to the other side of the street, but, out of a sense of moral purpose, not economic imperative, demanded that the world take action so that we do not tolerate ethnic cleansing as we approach the new millennium.
As I was preparing this speech, I also thought of the people with learning disabilities who changed the course of my life when I began doing voluntary work at the age of 14. 1 recalled their daily struggle to be accepted as equal, worthwhile members of society and how they wanted the opportunity to pursue and fulfil their potential. I remembered their families, who too often found that the services that were supposed to be there to help them were not there when they needed them. They also suffered pain, often caused by the fear and ignorance of their fellow human beings.
I also reflected on a personal experience when, at the age of 14, I sat in the headmaster's office in the private school that I attended, waiting for my mother to collect me. I had been separated from my schoolmates because my father was no longer able to pay the school fees.
Those are just some of the experiences that have shaped my personal and political beliefs. I am immensely proud, as one of the new generation of Members of Parliament, to have been asked to second the motion on the Queen's Speech. I am immensely proud to be the Member of Parliament for my home town constituency. I am pleased to support the programme of a Government who are rebuilding a consensus in this country around civilised and decent values. We are not simply a collection of individuals; there is such a thing as society. The powerful and influential have an enduring and eternal responsibility to ensure that all our citizens have a stake in the country's future. This Queen's Speech is another landmark in our millennium mission to create a new Britain, built on the foundations of social justice and economic prosperity.
§ 3.4 pm
§ Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)
It will be a pleasure in a moment to congratulate the proposer and seconder of the Loyal Address, but I begin, as is customary and right, by paying tribute to the three hon. Members who died during the previous Session.
Derek Fatchett will be missed by all in the House and most especially by Yorkshire Members. He and I used to enjoy very much our annual lunch with Yorkshire Post journalists, where we would swap gossip about our respective parties. He was a very able Foreign Office Minister. I remember the new King of Jordan telling us 15 earlier this year that his work was greatly valued in the middle east. It is very sad to have to talk about Derek in the past tense.
Roger Stott was also popular throughout the House. It speaks volumes of him that, despite the many prestigious posts that he held, including Parliamentary Private Secretary to the previous Labour Prime Minister, he was always proudest of his achievement as Rochdale's housing chairman, when he completely refurbished the town's entire pre-war housing stock.
When the House lost Alan Clark, it lost one of its great characters: brilliant, irreverent, passionate about many things, a book lover's dream and a Whip's nightmare. He described himself as "Genghis Khan, only richer". I can imagine the entry in his diary for today, from wherever he is writing: "17 November. Another dreary beginning of the Session, and this time I was the subject of the usual sanctimonious tributes, especially from that dreadful man Hague. Mind you, the Speaker looked particularly fetching." The House, politics and public life in general are poorer without Alan.
It is also the duty of the Leader of the Opposition on these occasions to pay tribute to the proposer and seconder of the Loyal Address. The Government always hand out these opportunities as prizes: one to a promising new Back Bencher whose career could be ruined by a bad speech and the other to a seasoned veteran whose career could not be saved by a good one.
After a good speech, the hon. Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis) can relax in the knowledge that his career is safe—at least until I have praised him. It was when he and I appeared together at a Jewish charity event in Manchester recently that I first learned that he admitted to a lifelong, passionate and traumatic relationship with someone other than his wife. Thankfully for all concerned, as he mentioned today, that relationship is with Manchester City football club, which is having a good season in the first division, so perhaps after today there is a chance that they might be promoted together.
The task of praising the right hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) is a little more complex, especially as in our most recent encounter the phrases used included "insufferable arrogance" and "breathtaking hypocrisy"; but I am quite fond of him really. It was bad news all round when he left the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food last year—for the current Minister, who had to take on his job; for manufacturers of luxury office furniture, which are now entirely dependent on Lord Irvine; for British Airways, whose share price immediately collapsed; and for him, because he went on to do a job in the Cabinet Office that did not really exist.
That did not seem to worry the right hon. Gentleman, however, and one of the charming things about him is that he is an eternal optimist. I remember him visiting the Ribble Valley by-election campaign in 1991 and confidently telling everyone that Labour would win. The Labour candidate got 4,300 votes out of the 46,100 cast. [Hon. Members: "What about the Liberals?"] I am coming to them in a minute.
It was the right hon. Gentleman's eternal optimism on television on general election night in 1992 that led him confidently to tell everyone that Labour was still going to win even as the results came in. It was his eternal 16 optimism again that led to a newspaper report two weeks before last month's reshuffle stating that the Cabinet enforcer hadtold friends that Tony Blair believed he was performing a valuable 'managerial' role at the heart of government".That is another blind trust of which the Prime Minister took advantage. At least the right hon. Gentleman has left office—I think that it is him—with that famous photograph of a fellow Cabinet Minister in a compromising position. As you would say, Madam Speaker, for greater convenience I have obtained a copy. I can now reveal what is in the photograph: it features the current Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food eating a baguette.
The right hon. Member for Copeland has had a long and distinguished career, stretching back to ministerial office in the last Labour Government. Bernard Ingham describes him in his memoirs as exceptionally able. The right hon. Gentleman's speech today and that of the hon. Member for Bury, South were most able, and I congratulate them both.
As usual, there are some things that we can welcome in today's Queen's Speech, and we will look closely at the detail of Bills dealing with mandatory drug testing, reform of the Child Support Agency, wildlife protection and other measures in the programme. We will also look with great interest at the Government's proposed reform of the system for children in care. Because of my time as Welsh Secretary, when I set up the north Wales child abuse inquiry, I am distressingly familiar with the scandal of the treatment of children in care. We owe these vulnerable children everything, but, too often, we give them worse than nothing despite the dedication and commitment of so many staff. I hope that the Government can tackle this national disgrace.
We also welcome the absence of some things from the Queen's Speech—for instance, any measure to meet the Prime Minister's manifesto commitment to hold a referendum on proportional representation in this Parliament. The poor old Liberal Democrats have behaved themselves all year, not saying boo to a goose, and they look cheerfully expectant on days such as this. What do they get in return? Nothing. What a shame that the Liberal Democrat leader has gone in a few short months from "Have I Got News for You" to "I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue".
Of course, the Liberal Democrats are not the only ones having problems with electoral systems at the moment. After the shambles we have seen in London in the past few days, I do not know how the Prime Minister could, with a straight face, write these words into the Queen's Speech:My Government … will make it easier for people to participate in elections.That must be the first instance of something being put into the Queen's Speech entirely as a joke. If the Prime Minister is finding the problem so difficult, I have a solution for him. Why does he not split the job of mayor of London? The former Health Secretary can run as his "day-mayor" and the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) can run as his "night-mayor" The Prime Minister is thinking about it, I can tell.
More seriously, the whole House will welcome the progress made this week in Northern Ireland under the skilful chairmanship of Senator Mitchell, without whom 17 it could not have happened. That is a great tribute to him and to others—to all involved, particularly the leader of the Ulster Unionist party. It is now the clear responsibility of the terrorists and their political representatives to deliver and to demonstrate once and for all that their commitment to democracy and rejection of violence are for real. Following the statements made this week, we can now look forward to the formation of an inclusive Executive alongside the beginning of a credible and verifiable process of decommissioning, leading to complete decommissioning by May 2000 in accordance with the Belfast Agreement. However, we all look to both Governments to state clearly that if the republicans fail to fulfil their obligations to decommission their arms, it will be Sinn Fein, not the Unionists, that faces the penalties.
The Gracious Speech includes a Bill to implement the Patten report on policing in Northern Ireland. Many of the recommendations are non-controversial and will have our support, but there are others that are highly security sensitive and we believe that it would be dangerous to introduce them before there is a lasting peace and decommissioning. All of us owe the Royal Ulster Constabulary a huge debt, so I ask the Prime Minister to give a guarantee that he will not bring forward any proposals that could undermine its effectiveness in combating terrorism and upholding the rule of law.
We cannot be so charitable about much of the rest of the Queen's Speech. Of course we welcome the state visit by the Queen of Denmark, and I understand that future state visitors may soon be able to enjoy London's newest tourist attraction. We read in the newspapers that the Prime Minister now employs so many spin doctors that he is thinking of moving somewhere bigger and turning Downing street into a museum. It could be even more exciting than the dome: followers of the mayoral election can walk through the zone of indecision; take a ride on the gravy train, and see the chamber of broken promises.
Unfortunately, however, the "year of delivery" zone will not be ready for the millennium. Do hon. Members remember the Prime Minister's year of delivery? He promised that he would cut class sizes, and a year later class sizes have risen. Where is the action in the Queen's Speech to improve schools? He promised lower waiting lists, and a year later the waiting lists for the waiting lists are double what they were. Where is the action to speed up treatment for heart bypasses and other serious operations? He promised to be tough on crime, and a year later police numbers have fallen. Where are the measures to reverse the fall in police numbers?
§ Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney)
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned crime. Will he take this opportunity to apologise to the House and the nation for the fact that crime doubled during the 18 years of the Governments that he supported?
§ Mr. Hague
The previous Conservative Government added 16,000 to the number of police officers in this country; it has taken the Home Secretary two years to reduce that number by more than 1,000.
This Queen's Speech will do nothing to reverse the Prime Minister's broken pledges. This is supposed to be the programme that will take Britain into the new century and it is probably the last full programme of this Parliament, but it contains nothing for families, nothing 18 for savers, nothing for schools, nothing for the NHS and nothing for business. There is nothing in this Queen's Speech to make next year anything other than another year of no delivery.
The Prime Minister has produced a Queen's Speech in which, unbelievably, those Departments that have made the greatest mess of things this year get the most legislation next year. It is as though he had devised a competition to make sure that the most incompetent Cabinet Ministers spend as much time as possible in the one place where he will never clap eyes on them—here in the House. Who—
§ Mr. Hague
I think that the hon. Gentleman will want to hear this.
Who has won the competition? Perhaps it is the Deputy Prime Minister. No, even in the league of incompetence he has not quite made it to the top. Step forward the Home Secretary—this year's winner of the league for departmental foul-ups, ineffective legislation, ministerial bungling and misrepresentation of his own policies. He deserves his victory.
§ Mr. Plaskitt
Will the right hon. Gentleman explain to the House how scrapping the national minimum wage would help families?
§ Mr. Hague
There is nothing in this Queen's Speech to help families. The effect of the minimum wage on the level of wages and employment remains to be seen, and every sensible person should consider those effects.
The Home Secretary faces a situation in which crime is set to rise after years of falling; each month shows record numbers of bogus asylum seekers; terrorist suspects have been released because the Government left out key parts of legislation; Soviet spies are uncovered but not charged; injunctions are taken out against newspaper leaks by Ministers who live by leaks; and there was a complete distortion of police numbers in the Home Secretary's conference speech, which was then exposed by a letter from another member of the Cabinet. It is enough to make people want to leave the country, but under this Home Secretary people cannot even get a passport.
With at least 10 Home Office Bills to come, we might think that at least one would be tough on crime or tough on the causes of crime. Now we know that that was part of the great Labour lie. Where is the common-sense legislation to ensure tougher and more honest sentencing? Where is the common-sense legislation that would put victims first? Where is the common-sense legislation to reverse the cut in police numbers and get the police on to the streets? Instead, we have a Bill to abolish trial by jury.Surely, cutting down the right to jury trial, making the system less fair, is not only wrong but short-sighted, and likely to prove ineffective."—[Official Report, 27 February 1997; Vol. 291, c. 433.]That is what the Home Secretary himself said just two years ago.
The Government are doing not what they promised to do, but what they promised not to do. They say one thing and do another. They said before the election that they would protect jury trials and increase police numbers. Now jury trials are being abolished, while police numbers have fallen by 1,000.
19 We see that again with the party funding Bill. It is quite right that the Neill committee's recommendations on party funding are being implemented, and we will support them. However, the Neill committee also made a clear recommendation about the funding of future referendums, saying that there must be a fair opportunity for each side of the argument to be properly put to the voters. The Home Secretary said in July that the Neill Committee had made a number of suggestions for change relating to referendums and that the Government accepted them all.
Why do the Government's proposals ignore the Neill committee's recommendations? Why is the Prime Minister about to entrench in law rules that are blatantly unfair and recommended by no one? The answer is clear. If the new rules were implemented today, and the Prime Minister called a referendum tomorrow on, say, the single currency, the Yes and No campaigns would be unevenly funded. The Bill would mean that those in favour of abolishing the pound would be allowed to spend 50 per cent. more on their campaign than those in favour of keeping it. Faced with a referendum in which giving one third of the vote to the trade unions and handing over the voting list to the former Secretary of State for Health are not options, the Prime Minister has set out to create rules that guarantee an unfair referendum. If he proceeds with such rules, it will be abundantly clear that the only fair chance to choose between his intention to scrap the pound and our intention to keep it will be at the next general election.
Who came second in the league of incompetence? This time no one can deny the Deputy Prime Minister his due, for who could doubt that he has had a vintage year? He started it with his immortal statement about the green belt:The Green Belt is a Labour achievement and now we're going to build on it.The right hon. Gentleman was standing in at Prime Minister's Question Time so much that Wednesday is now the only day that the Prime Minister spends in this country. As Lady Richard revealed recently, the Deputy Prime Minister has even been chairing Cabinet meetings. She says in her diary for a Cabinet meeting on 19 June:Blair said he was in favour of the Millennium Dome and then disappeared, leaving John Prescott in charge. The meeting fell apart.The Deputy Prime Minister reminds me a little of an ageing Soviet leader in the old days. [Interruption.] I know that Labour Members do not like hearing about the Deputy Prime Minister. The right hon. Gentleman's power is taken from him, but he is still brought out to wave to the crowds at the party conference. Everyone pretends that he only has a cold, but it is rather worrying that he seems confused by simple questions and has to take a car to go even a couple of hundred yards. All around him his friends are quietly disappearing: Lord Macdonald is taking over his Department and Lord Falconer is taking over his role—purely for his own protection, of course.
From the way in which the transport Bill will hit middle Britain, it seems that the Deputy Prime Minister, who has been excluded from the Prime Minister's election team, has joined our election team. The Bill proposes congestion taxes, motorway taxes and car parking taxes, on top of more rises in fuel taxes and road taxes. We welcome 20 effective measures to improve rail safety, but most of the transport Bill is a declaration of war against everyone who drives a car.
§ Maria Eagle (Liverpool, Garston)
I notice that so far the right hon. Gentleman has not mentioned the economy, and he has been reluctant to defend the previous Government's record. What is his position on the independence of the Bank of England? Is he in favour of it or not?
§ Mr. Hague
I will come to the economy if the hon. Lady will let me continue.
The transport Bill will do nothing to ease the chaos on Britain's roads and little to improve public transport alternatives. It is a vicious stealth-tax assault on car drivers. To Mondeo man, once so cherished by new Labour's spin doctors, it is another kick in the teeth. People work hard and save hard to own a car. They do not want to be told that they cannot drive it by a Deputy Prime Minister whose idea of a park-and-ride scheme is to park one Jaguar so that he can ride away in the other.
The transport Bill is not only about cars. To try to fool their own Back Benchers, the Government have stuck the privatisation of air traffic control on the end in the hope that no one will notice. The Deputy Prime Minister will present a Bill that is rambling, over-inflated, illogical and ridiculously cumbersome—funny coincidence, that.
Everyone is asking where the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is in the league of incompetence. Indeed, where is he today? The Prime Minister has encouraged him to be like Manchester United, abandoning domestic competition and going international. The Minister is in the superleague for running the worst Department of Government in the whole of Europe. Indeed, we can congratulate him on winning that league. He has totally failed to defend Britain's interests; he has caved in to French demands after launching a boycott of all French food and spending a hectic three weeks trying to avoid camembert; and he has done what no one could have believed possible by turning our T-bone steak into an accessory to a crime.
The Minister has taken lessons in European negotiations from the Prime Minister, the expert in selling this country's interests down the river. The Prime Minister thinks it impossible to stand up for a view in Europe unless a majority already agrees with it. That stance would never have secured our budget rebate or won the single currency opt-out. The Prime Minister threw away our social chapter opt-out without winning a single concession in return. He abandoned our veto in 15 separate areas, but got nothing in return.
At the spring European summit, the Prime Minister began negotiations faced with a bad deal on milk quotas that his own official spokesman had said was not satisfactory—then he happily signed up to a deal that was far worse.
§ Mr. Hague
I am not giving way on this point; it is the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food who gives way.
21 The Prime Minister accuses us of following an empty-chair policy, but his own small band of Members of the European Parliament have decided this week to boycott Strasbourg, leaving their seats empty as a protest against the French. He accuses us of pursuing an empty-chair policy, but it is never more empty than when the Prime Minister is sitting in it.
The truth behind the Government's policies on Europe and on the economy is that they think that a highly regulated and highly taxed superstate is the future. The rest of us can see that it is the past. That is why they are presenting a needlessly complicated Bill on e-commerce, which will tell business how it should license itself. Only one part of the Bill is necessary or desirable. That is also why they are imposing a heavy new tax on information technology businesses—the IR35—which, the Professional Contractors Group says—
§ Mr. Hague
Labour Members should listen to what the Professional Contractors Group had to say. It said that IR35shows an astonishing naivety of the knowledge based entrepreneurial sector … that will kill the enterprise culture.The Government's Financial Services and Markets Bill threatens to load more costs and bureaucracy on the financial services industry and we shall seek further concessions on that Bill during this Session. Only a Government who have lost all sense of self-awareness could possibly celebrate two years of introducing red tape and burdens on business by promising a deregulation Bill.
According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the tax burden is growing more quickly in Britain than anywhere else in Europe. The Government increase the tax burden and regulation and diminish our competitive advantage when the right way to prepare for the next century is to cut the tax burden and regulation and to increase our competitive advantage. The Chancellor should try to achieve that; instead, he plans to give with one hand and take away with the other. He announces measures for pensioners yet hits married pensioners with a tax rise of £500. He promises tax relief for charities, but cancels it out by taxing their dividends. The Prime Minister goes on about the knowledge economy yet denies all knowledge of his actions.
Let us consider the Freedom of Information Bill, which is the best example of the great Labour lie.
§ Madam Speaker
Order. It occurs to me that the right hon. Gentleman is not giving way. Therefore, hon. Members must resume their seats.
§ Mr. Hague
I have given way several times and I shall do so again in a moment.
The Government talk about freedom of information yet the list of British taxes that are being harmonised in Europe would have remained secret if no one had looked at the Dutch Government's website. The reduction in the number of police would have remained secret if we had not seen a leaked copy of a Treasury letter. Tax increases of £40 billion would have remained a secret to those who listened only to the Chancellor's Budget speeches. Under 22 the Government, Select Committee reports mysteriously find their way to Ministers long before the public, and the truth is the first casualty of every difficult situation. The person responsible for creating the climate of disinformation is sitting directly opposite: he is the Prime Minister.
§ Helen Jones (Warrington, North)
While we are on the subject of freedom of information, will the right hon. Gentleman tell the people of Britain whether he remains committed to abolishing the working families tax credit?
§ Mr. Hague
We have always made it clear that we would have retained family credit. The disadvantages of the working families tax credit are that it brings more people into the benefit system and makes looking after other people's children more cost effective than looking after one's own. We will introduce our own proposals. We are not prepared to write budgets in opposition because one cannot do that—they are not my words, but those of the Prime Minister in 1996.
This year, for three consecutive weeks at Question Time, the Prime Minister told us what the CBI, the OECD and every taxpayer knows to be untrue: that taxes are going down. It took 18 questions for him to admit the simple truth that taxes are going up. When Sir Peter Kemp, a senior former Treasury civil servant was asked whether the economic statistics that the Prime Minister uses were less trustworthy than those used by his predecessors, he answered, "Well, yes."
The Prime Minister finds it difficult to tell the truth about many matters, however trivial. Three years ago, he confided to Des O'Connor that when he was 14, he stowed away on a plane from Newcastle to the Bahamas. In Newcastle airport's 61-year history, there has never been a flight to the Bahamas. In 1969, the only exotic destinations served by Newcastle were Jersey and the Isle of Man.
In an interview with a local radio station in 1997, the Prime Minister spoke of his passion for football and reminisced about watching his favourite Newcastle player, centre forward Jackie Milburn, from a seat behind one of the goals at St. James' Park. There are two problems with that statement: seats were not installed behind the goals until the 1990s and Jackie Milburn left the club when the Prime Minister was four years old.
The Prime Minister was at it again last week when he told listeners of the rock station Heart FM that his favourite tune was "Where the Streets Have No Name" by U2; when he appeared on "Desert Island Discs", it was Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings" and Francisco Tarrega's "Recuerdos de la Alhambra".
When the Prime Minister stands at the Dispatch Box and says that pensioners will not be hit by a new £500 tax, or that waiting lists are coming down, or that there will be 5,000 extra police, we have to bear in mind that nothing that he says about anything can be relied on. That might be funny when he is talking about tunes, food and childhood memories, but when he is talking about taxes, waiting lists, class sizes and police numbers he is seeking to debase and destroy the currency of political discourse in this country. Given the Prime Minister's example, it is no wonder that the Government's whole existence is based on selective leaks, twisted statistics, distorted facts, half truths and a total determination to prevent people from finding out what is really going on.
23 People across the country know what should have been in the Queen's Speech. Schools should be at its heart. There should be a Bill to guarantee parents real power and to create free schools run by head teachers and governors, not Whitehall bureaucrats. There should be a Bill to give patients in the NHS a guaranteed maximum waiting time, based not on party political targets but on actual medical need.
There should be Bills to bring about a revolution in crime fighting to prevent the rise in crime. There should be a Bill to protect the homes and assets of people who have saved for their long-term care. There should be help for working women to take career breaks to look after their children, with family scholarships to help them if they want to get back to work. [Interruption.] Labour Members ask for proposals, and then do not like them when they get them.
There should be moves to reduce the size and cost of government. Those costs have grown by £1 billion a year since this Government took office. There should be a Budget that would put an end to Labour's stealth taxes with an open and honest guarantee to cut the overall burden of tax in the lifetime of a Parliament.
The Queen's Speech should have spelled out to everyone that Britain will not be a pushover in Europe or anywhere else. It should have made it clear that we will be in Europe and not run by Europe and that we can make a success of our own currency, if we so wish.
The Labour Government pursue their own political priorities instead of rising to the challenge of preparing Britain for the new century. Future Queen's Speeches should not duck that challenge. They should turn the common sense of the British people into common-sense policies for the country. That is what the Opposition have to deliver—the common-sense revolution.
The truth that people will never hear from this Prime Minister is that this Queen's Speech does too little to prepare for the future, to widen our advantages over our competitors or to release the potential of our people. It does nothing that relates to the common-sense instincts of the British people.
§ The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair)
The Leader of the Opposition gave us a lot of jokes in what was a great after-dinner speech—and he will be making many more of those if Michael Portillo gets elected.
I remind the Leader of the Opposition of what he said in the Queen's Speech debate last year. He said that unemployment would soar and that the Government's programme would "destroy jobs". I can announce to the House the latest unemployment figures, out today: since last year, unemployment has fallen by 120,000, employment has risen by 329,000, and we have the highest level of employment ever. That is the difference between good jokes and good judgment.
I join the Leader of the Opposition in paying tribute to those who died in the past year. I pay particular tribute to Derek Fatchett, who was an outstanding Foreign Office Minister. Derek and I came into the House together in 1983. I believe that it was only when he became a Minister that his real talent came through, and I have no 24 doubt that if he had lived, he would have been an outstanding Cabinet member as well. He will be sorely missed.
I knew Roger Stott very well, for a variety of reasons, not least of which is the fact that we both beat Les Huckfield, whom people may remember, at selection conferences. He was a distinguished Parliamentary Private Secretary to Jim Callaghan, and I pay particular tribute to what he did in Northern Ireland. Even after he left the Front Bench, he always worked tirelessly for peace in Northern Ireland, and kept very good contacts with all sides. He was immensely respected and admired throughout the House.
So much has been written about Alan Clark—not surprisingly, the focus has been on his diaries and the odd indiscretion—but he was, of course, also a historian of immense distinction. I shall remember him, in particular, as a thoroughly decent and likeable man. Even if one did not always agree with him—very often I did not—none the less he was liked by Members in all parts of the House. We all thought, in the end, that he brought something special to British politics.
I join the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) in congratulating the mover and seconder of the Address. The speech by my right hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) was a model of the way in which to move the Loyal Address—[Interruption.] I was about to say that if he ever needed any help with steering the right line between sycophancy and whingeing, I would be happy to give advice completely gratis.
I shall mention two things in particular. First, my right hon. Friend's service in public life, both to the Labour party and to the country, has been outstanding. As he said, he has served either in government or on the Opposition Front Bench for nearly a quarter of a century. Also—many of us will never forget this—he has one of the most priceless of political assets: enormous personal courage. He was at the forefront of the battle that the Labour party fought and won against extremism in the early 1980s. That would not have been achieved without the Jack Cunninghams of this world, and I pay tribute to him.
I also know that, as a renowned fell walker, my right hon. Friend will take great pleasure in the countryside Bill, which for the first time will open access to the countryside in a fair and reasonable way. He will also rejoice in the fact that this Session, the House of Lords will be rid of more than 600 hereditary peers—a reform that took 900 years, but which has now been made under a new Labour Government. Because we believe in fairness along with enterprise, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has compensated the older hereditary peers with free television licences, so that they can watch our proceedings from home.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis) comes from a different generation, but he has exactly the same values. His speech was tremendous, and I assure him that, no matter what praise was lavished on him by the Leader of the Opposition, he has done himself immense good in the eyes of the House, and in mine, too. His was a great result at the general election—one of the results with which we were particularly pleased—and I am sure that after his contribution today, he will do even better at the next election.
25 Before dealing with the detail of the Queen's Speech, let me congratulate the parties on the progress towards a lasting peace in Northern Ireland. I say a very special thank you to Senator George Mitchell for all his efforts over the past few weeks. I know that many difficulties remain, but we should be proud that there are politicians of courage and stature in Northern Ireland, prepared to put the past behind them in an effort to give the children of Northern Ireland the decent future that they deserve. Let us hope that those people succeed, and I hope that in trying, they have the support of all parties in the House. I pay tribute to all that the Royal Ulster Constabulary has done. I shall, of course, ensure that no changes will inhibit its proper fight against crime and terrorism of all sorts
The Queen's Speech has one central theme—to build a Britain of enterprise and fairness for all. For years in British politics, people thought that we had to choose. Either we backed policies that promoted business and sensible finance, but were indifferent to social inequality, or we engaged in old-style tax and spending to help the worst-off at the expense of sound economics.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer showed in his pre-Budget report last week how it was possible to combine enterprise, in measures such as the new capital gains tax regime, with fairness, in tackling social exclusion and unemployment. Moreover, he showed why it is necessary to combine those two things. In the new century, Britain will succeed only as a nation of all the talents, and human capital is our most precious resource. This Government understand that unemployment and poor education waste the country's assets, and that crime, bad housing and rundown inner-city estates hold people back while boom and bust destroys enterprise.
The Queen's Speech promotes sound economics and ushers in a new economy based on knowledge and skill, open to all. It alleviates poverty and social division, tackles crime, further reforms welfare and takes forward the modernisation of essential public services. In other words, it is enterprise and fairness together. At the heart of it all is our unshakeable commitment to economic stability.
I noticed that the Leader of the Opposition was due to come to the economy at some time in his speech. It was there for about two seconds, and then it suddenly went away again. We have the best chance of ending boom and bust in years—the £28 billion Tory borrowing requirement sorted out; public debt falling; interest payments on debt down by £4 billion; and inflation under control. That is no coincidence. We remember the Conservative years of boom and bust—interest rates at 15 per cent; a 7 per cent. fall in manufacturing output; 1 million jobs gone; and the national debt doubled. Let us remember them, and let us vow never to let the Tories back in charge of our economy.
§ Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)
I am grateful to the Prime Minister for giving way. He consistently boasts about low interest rates, low inflation rates and record employment levels. Will he now tell the House how that very satisfactory situation would be improved on by joining the single currency?
§ The Prime Minister
Until that intervention I had not realised how skilled my Chief Whip is—it is the only planted intervention that I have had from the Conservative 26 party. First, I thank the hon. Gentleman for those plaudits for our management of the economy. Secondly, those who are best able to decide about the euro—subject to the consent of the British people—are those who produced this benign economic situation, not those who wrecked the economy with boom and bust. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] Thank you.
The new stability was delivered only by Bank of England independence and by new borrowing and spending rules. Given that the Leader of the Opposition has had two and a half years to work out his policy on Bank of England independence, I presume that it is present Conservative policy. The present shadow Chancellor—[Hon. Members: "Not for long."] No, I believe that he will stay there for a long time. He said:We would not have given up control of interest rates in the first place".The Leader of the Opposition said:They have given up control of interest rates when they should have kept hold of them.More recently, he accused us of "dangerous arrogance" in granting independence for the Bank of England. Is Conservative policy to reverse Bank of England independence? We can see why there were so many jokes in the right hon. Gentleman's speech.
On the stable foundation of economic stability we have to build a knowledge-based economy, which harnesses the potential of new technology. That is why the Queen's Speech proposes Bills on learning and skills—post-16; electronic commerce; Post Office reform; competition and consumer rights in utilities; financial services; and regulatory reform.
At the same time, we want to ensure that work pays and to move off benefit and into work those who can work. The new deal has been a tremendous success: 350,000 people have joined it; 125,000 young people who were long-term unemployed are now in unsubsidised jobs with employers; 20,000 single parents have been able to get work, some of whom had never worked before; youth and long-term unemployment has been halved; and 700,000 new jobs have been created. None of that would have happened under a Tory Government.
New Labour is working and the Conservatives would reverse the work that we have done. The working families tax credit is lifting the incomes of 1.4 million families, some by as much as £24 per week. The minimum wage has meant a pay rise for 2 million low-paid workers. None of those measures would have been introduced by a Tory Government.
The Queen's Speech takes those measures further. The new further education and training proposals will open up new skills and technology courses to give people the skills that they need for the knowledge economy. Because many families do not earn enough to provide for a decent pension in old age and so are put off work, the new welfare Bill will make that provision possible for the first time through the state second pension. More than 6 million people will benefit. Three million disabled people with broken work records will get help for the first time and 2 million carers, who cannot provide for themselves because they are providing and caring for others, will be eligible to be credited with second pension contributions.
So, there is another round of welfare reform. We cannot do the good things—the things that get help to those people in need—unless we take the tough decisions to 27 reform the system. When we came to power, social security spending had risen under the Conservatives by more than £40 billion. It rose more in real terms than spending on schools, hospitals or law and order. During the previous Parliament, it rose by 4 per cent. per annum in real terms—one in five families of non-pensionable age had no one working. The Conservatives claim that they would finance all their new tax and spending programmes by cutting social security spending, but they never did it in the 18 years that they were in government.
Spending on social and economic failure is down today from what it was when we came to office. That was line one of our contract with the people at the last election. Social security spending will rise only by an average of 1 per cent. in real terms in this Parliament. That is because child benefit is up 20 per cent., there is more money for pensioners and because of the working families tax credit. So, where we are spending more, we are meaning to.
The Queen's Speech continues with that reform. The Child Support Agency, which is expensive, often unfair and arbitrary and failing to provide for hundreds of thousands of children, will be radically overhauled. Care services for children in care will be regulated and there will be a crack down on paedophiles and unsuitable people working with children. More help will go to the children of the poorest parents. If we provide that opportunity, we believe that we have a better chance of getting responsibility and law-abiding conduct from our citizens.
The Conservative central office brief for this debate stated that there were no measures in the Queen's Speech to cut crime. We are already cutting the time that it takes to bring persistent juvenile offenders to court. From 1 December, we will be introducing "Three strikes and you're out" for burglars, tougher sentences on rape and violence, anti-social neighbour orders, and new investment for closed-circuit television, DNA testing and police recruits. This Queen's Speech takes that further. There will be new action to break the link between drugs and crime. Punishment in the community will be transformed through extensions of electronic tagging. There will be fundamental reform of the probation service and we will prevent court and police time from being wasted on cases in the Crown court that should be tried in the magistrates court.
Some of those measures may be opposed on civil liberty grounds, but the civil liberty that is most prized by British citizens is the freedom to go about their daily lives free from crime and harassment and, when crimes are committed, for the perpetrators to be properly punished.
If we run a stable economy, if we make work pay and get people off benefit, if we reform welfare and tackle crime, then we can afford to spend on improving public services. Why did the Tories undermine our public services? It was because boom and bust economics meant that they had no consistent funding and because large numbers of people were on benefit when they should have been off benefit and into work. Dogma, of course, made them keener to privatise public services for the few than to improve them for the many—and that is what they are up to again, as I shall show in a moment.
28 Of course, waiting lists are still too long. Of course, we still need more doctors and nurses. Of course, we need better pay for teachers and more modern buildings, better transport systems and better rail and road services. But the one group of people who have no right to complain, who should be apologising rather than attacking us, is the Conservative party which created this mess because it put tax cuts for the few at the expense of public services for the many.
A lot has been done. Waiting lists for in-patients are falling for the first time in years. Yes, out-patients lists have risen; they were rising under the Tories. By the end of next year, they, too, will fall. More nurses are now in training: more doctors. Nineteen hospitals are being built with more to come. Every accident and emergency department is being refurbished. NHS Direct will by next year cover the whole country. Cancer patients who need urgent diagnosis will be seen in two weeks. Yes, we still have a shortage of cancer specialists. That is why we already have, under this Government, 400 cancer specialists in training. They will increase the numbers by 60 per cent. By the end of a five-year term, NHS spending will be more than 6 per cent. of gross domestic product for the first time. That is the spending that the Conservatives condemned as reckless and irresponsible.
On schools, 5,000 school buildings have been modernised with another 10,000 to come through the new deal. Class sizes for five, six and seven-year-olds are falling. For the first time in 10 years, in all our schools, the pupil-teacher ratio is on the way down. In two years, we have doubled the number of specialist schools and 200 beacon schools are being set up to spread excellence nationwide.
The literacy and numeracy strategies in primary schools—[interruption.] I am talking about policy, so the Conservatives lose interest. When we get on to policy, they start talking among themselves. The numeracy and literacy strategies in primary schools, opposed by the Conservatives, have delivered the best reading, writing and maths results ever for 11-year-olds in this country. Every single one of those changes was opposed by the Tories.
Next year, thanks to the Queen's Speech and other measures, there will be a new transport Bill to end fragmentation of the railways and allow us to increase investment through partnership between public and private sectors.
All those reforms that we have introduced, especially in the health service, were opposed by the Tories. Reform, yes; modernisation, certainly. But this Labour Government will never privatise essential services of the national health service. That is not the case with the Tory party.
The Leader of the Opposition was very coy about his policy. Coy is perhaps too kind a description. I will now say what the Tory policy is on the national health service. It was set out by the shadow Health Secretary at a party conference fringe meeting. He began by saying:As one of the, I think, unreconstructed Thatcherite free-marketeers in the shadow cabinet, I'm a great believer generically in markets … The biggest problem that we have in the NHS is that it is not a proper market.He went on to say that, under their proposals,Those waiting the shortest time will have to find other ways of getting the treatment required by perhaps having private medical insurance.29 Then he went on to say:I think what we're proposing could revolutionise private insurance in the way we revolutionised pensions in the 1980s.The Opposition should pay attention to this part because this is what they are fighting the next general election on. He went on to say:We therefore have to come forward with a completely new system. What we're starting is perhaps a Trojan Horse, because with the Patient's Guarantee, most of them haven't thought through the implications of what we're doing.I will tell the country the implications—what the Trojan horse is. It is to give the patient's guarantee for waiting times for urgent cases and to force all non-urgent cases to go private. That is what the Conservatives' health policy is about.
Just a couple of weeks ago the Opposition health spokesman let the cat out of the bag in another speech when he said:Why is it so wrong for people to provide for some of their own health needs? After all, at the Government's insistence, 15.5 million of us do so every year when we go abroad. Why shouldn't we do the same at home? Let me put it bluntly, too few people are willing to invest in private healthcare.How about this gem from the person who has joined him—the new health spokesperson, the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman)? In the past two weeks, talking about her own private health insurance, she said:I try to use the national health service if I can because it's important to see what it is like for people who do not have the privilege of private health care.That is what the Conservatives are about. That is why the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks did not talk about policy. If one forces non-urgent cases out of the health service, as the Conservatives will if elected, that means hip replacements, varicose vein operations, tonsillectomies, hernias and cataracts. How do elderly people in the health service afford health insurance to cover that type of operation? The Conservatives have learned nothing from their past except how to repeat their mistakes.
§ Dr. Peter Brand (Isle of Wight)
Does the Prime Minister agree that the reason why people are now considering private insurance for health is the abysmal record of the Government in the past two years, and the lengthening waiting lists?
§ The Prime Minister
We are putting more money into the national health service than the Liberal party ever pledged at the election. Of course it will take time to rebuild the national health service, but the difference between the Labour party, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative party is that we want the national health service rebuilt whereas they want it simply as a sink facility for those who cannot afford to go private.
The Tory policy on health is just one of the policies that the Conservatives have made, but they have not made very much policy, as we saw from the speech of the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks. So let us see whether we can get a response from the Tories on any policy. Do they still oppose the minimum wage?
§ The Prime Minister
In a minute.
30 The minimum wage was described by the Tory employment spokesman the other week as "a calamity", so I suppose that the Conservatives do still oppose it. We do not know.
Are the Conservatives committed to scrapping the working families tax credit? Definitely. We have definitely got them there—well done, that is a policy.
§ Mr. Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford)
On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Is the Prime Minister responsible for the policy of the Conservative party?
§ Madam Speaker
The Prime Minister and any other Member of the House make what speeches they wish to make. The Prime Minister is not spelling out the policy of the Opposition.
§ The Prime Minister
I am just trying to find out who is responsible for their policy. Do they still oppose the extra £100 to pensioners? [Hon. Members: "Yes."] Do they still want to opt out of the social chapter? [Hon. Members: "Yes."] Do they? Do they still oppose the literacy and numeracy strategy for schools? They are definitely still in favour of scrapping the new deal, I think. [Hon. Members: "Yes."] Well, it was described by the new employment spokesman asa colossal and expensive failure"—[Official Report, 14 January 1999; Vol. 323, c. 430.]He has also described it asa waste of public money and a fraud".So I assume that they do favour scrapping it.
Two and a half years on, the Conservatives cannot tell us about a single policy position that they have. When the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced last year the extra public spending, they described it as "madness", "letting spending rip", "wrong", "reckless" and "irresponsible". Just a few weeks ago, the shadow Trade Secretary said:Labour's big mistake was to announce huge increases in public spending. The Opposition recommends reducing future spending plans.At some point we should be told which spending plans.
The Leader of the Opposition says that we should "slash"—his word, not mine—social security spending. At the last count, the Tories had £4 billion of extra social security commitments. Where would they slash social security spending—on child benefit, pensions or disability? All the while the shadow Chancellor says that when he comes to power he will introduce legislation for a balanced budget, if you please. It is a new form of economics: spend more, tax less and balance the books. I think that we will call it Haguenomics—revolutionary it may be, but common sense it certainly is not.
There are only two ways such a ridiculous economic policy can end. One is boom and bust, going back to the policy of the 80s of deficit financing and tax cuts for a few at the top. The other is massive cuts in schools, hospitals, law and order, transport, pensions and child benefit.
Those policies are advocated by the people whom the right hon. Gentleman has allowed to be in charge of his party. While he makes the jokes, they make the policy. That is the deal. That is why Norman Tebbit says that he has never been happier in the Tory party.
31 The Tories have other policy positions. They want to renegotiate the basic terms of Britain's entry into Europe. As Sir Michael Butler, the civil servant responsible for negotiating in Europe for successive British Governments, wrote in the Financial Times:There is no likelihood whatsoever that other member states will accept the Conservative proposal as a basis for negotiation—not because of ideological federalism, but because it does not make sense.The Tories say—this is the right hon. Gentleman's policy—that they will block any change to the European Union, including enlargement, if the renegotiation claim is not met. There is not one other member of the European Union that agrees to that—not one. [Hon. Members: "Norway".] They need all 14 to agree to it, so there is no chance of such a strategy working, except that that is not their true strategy.
I have been investigating the anti-federal group in the Conservative party, which now contains more than 10 Front-Bench spokesmen and more than 60 MPs and MEPs. When the group was launched, it published this statement on its website:If it is not possible to attain these ends by negotiation we must withdraw from the European Union".Mysteriously, a few weeks ago, that statement was removed. But that is their real game: in Europe, but running out of Europe.
The right hon. Gentleman's position on beef was to lambast us for being pusillanimous and weak by not standing up to Europe. Just suppose that we had taken his advice. We would now have to rely solely on European law, having refused to discuss anything with France, because that would be "grovelling"—I think that was the word he used. At the same time, we would have launched an all-out trade war banning French produce in breach of European law, and would be taken to court ourselves. What a strategy. Thousands of British workers would have been laid off, and Britain would have lost any chance of selling beef to France.
As for the Tories' attack on my right honourable Friend, the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, he is the one agriculture spokesman who has talked some sense. As for Mr. Yo-Yo, the Tory spokesman, the week before last he said:Do you really believe that leaving all this to some legal action by the European Commission … is in any way an adequate response to the crisis"?Last week, he said:We and the British people … demand an immediate precautionary ban on all French meat products.Yesterday, he said:We've always said that the right way to do this was to use the European Commission machinery.It is pathetic. They are a pathetic Opposition.
The Tories have made three big strategic decisions this summer: on membership of the European Union, on the national health service and on the economy. On each, they are more extreme than ever before and more right wing than ever before, with the moderates subject to reselection and the extremists promoted to the Front Bench. It is Thatcherism without restraint and the British people do not want it.
§ Mr. Simon Hughes
May I take the Prime Minister back to his policies, rather than someone else's? 32 The Government support replacing a publicly run underground in London with a public-private partnership, yet they will not reveal any of the facts and figures on which their conclusion is based. To resolve some of the Labour party's internal difficulties, will the Government publish the information they commissioned, allow London government to make its own decision instead of trying to run it from the centre, and amend the freedom of information legislation to ensure that such information is published in future, not banned?
§ The Prime Minister
The hon. Gentleman forgets that our proposal was based on no fewer than three independent studies and is the best way forward.
§ The Prime Minister
We continuously publish information on why we believe the public-private partnership is better. The reason is that we have to combine a publicly run underground with safety in the public sector and private sector management to get the capital work done. If we do that, we shall get decent value for money, whereas if we follow the Liberal Democrats' plans, we shall not get the investment in the tube that we need and the system will fall apart.
The Queen's Speech carries on the programme of radical reform of the constitution through measures on party funding and freedom of information, and measures on welfare, criminal justice, public services and the economy. It is a Queen's Speech that promotes modernisation, but, more than anything else, it illustrates the stark choice—
§ The Prime Minister
The Opposition will do almost anything but discuss policy, Madam Speaker.
Illustrated in the Queen's Speech is the choice between enterprise and fairness under new Labour, or boom and bust and spending cuts under the Tories; between renewing the national health service and privatising it, which is the Tory plan; and between curing social division and widening it. It is the choice between a new Labour party that can address the challenges of the new millennium and a Conservative party that is more extreme than ever before. I have no doubt that, faced with that choice, the country will back a party that takes difficult decisions, recognises tough choices, and combines enterprise and fairness, which are the best, most dynamic, values that represent the good of the British nation.
§ Mr. Kennedy
In fact, my voice is not as throwable as it should be, so there is a practical problem, Madam Speaker.
33 I follow the Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Roger Stott, Derek Fatchett and Alan Clark. Roger Stott was a long-standing colleague in the House and a good friend. When I learned of his death, it seemed unbelievable that, only two weeks before, he had visited my constituency on parliamentary business; it all happened so terribly fast. As has rightly been said, Derek Fatchett was in the process of making a significant contribution to foreign affairs, as all of us who take an interest in such matters were aware.
As for Alan Clark, he was one of the great characters who, to use Denis Healey's phrase, had a hinterland—distinguished and occasionally spicy—outside politics. He made a significant comment to me when I reviewed his diaries, which I thoroughly enjoyed: the smell of politics, whisky and cigarettes rose from each page, as though one was sitting in the Smoking Room of the House. On my way to a radio studio to discuss the diaries with him, I told him how much I had enjoyed them, to which he responded, "The most significant thing of all, Charles, is that not one swine sued." He did not actually use the word "swine", Madam Speaker, but it is before the watershed and I do not want to get thrown out of the House in the first minute of my speech; I am sure that those who knew Alan can imagine the term he used. Nevertheless, the significant point is that, despite some fairly spectacular revelations, he was not sued. I think we can assume, therefore, that as with so much of what he said, whether one agreed or disagreed with it, he brought a luminosity of truth to the proceedings—certainly, as he observed them.
I also pay tribute to those who proposed and seconded the motion. Let me say first, however, that—this in connection with a Queen's Speech that features proposals for a Freedom of Information Bill, of which more later—my office was under the impression late last week that, ridiculously, the Government were trying to keep the identities of the two Members involved secret. When we asked the Whips Office who would propose and who would second the motion, so that suitable remarks—or insults—could be prepared, the Whips Office said that we had better talk to the political office at No. 10; so we did. The political office said that we should speak to the Prime Minister's parliamentary private secretary, so we did—and the Prime Minister's PPS said that we should talk to the Government Whips. It is good to see joined-up government in action.
I much enjoyed the speech of the right hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham), as did the whole House. In his penultimate post as Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, in a Government who are very much driven by image, the right hon. Gentleman was responsible for one of the most memorable images of that Government's tenure so far. It takes a lot for a Cabinet Minister single-handedly to get a million people on to the streets of London, but he did it with the countryside march.
The right hon. Gentleman is known, deservedly, as a snappy dresser in the House. The Evening Standard has never been his greatest fan, particularly when he was Minister of Agriculture, but I can testify that I have never seen him wear jackboots. He was once described, by Matthew Parris—I had better say that, or he will invoice me—as havingthe saturnine good looks of a swarthy praying mantis and the adenoidal menace of a slightly sadistic junior geography master; he speaks as though twisting a small boy's ear as he hammers home the admonition".34 Well, we enjoyed the admonition this afternoon, and we wish the right hon. Gentleman well.
The hon. Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis) has been described in Roth's "Parliamentary Profiles" as "a youthful Blairite". I do not know how far loyalty to the sycophancy factor now extends on the Labour Benches, but the phrase "youthful Blairite" suggests that the Blairite Sun King—if I may use my predecessor's term—is not himself youthful, so he may not be quite Blairite enough.
We have heard about the hon. Gentleman's support for Manchester City football club, but we should also pay tribute to the immense amount of charity work that he has done for his community, in his earlier professional life as well as in his constituency. We Liberal Democrats congratulate him on his speech.
Before I deal with the Queen's Speech, let me—again, on behalf of my party—pay tribute to the contribution that the right hon. Member for Upper Balm (Mr. Trimble), the leader of the Ulster Unionists, is currently making to the Northern Ireland peace process. At times it has been a painfully slow-moving scenario, but only today there has been a quickening of the pace. Let us hope that the scenario becomes a fully successful one. The more the House can support the endeavours of the right hon. Gentleman and the other parties involved, the better.
Let me now turn to the Queen's Speech. I was struck by the fact that it is not until the ninth or 10th paragraph that we read any details of what the Government propose. I know that they have got propaganda down a fine art, but any individual Member who went to the Table Office attempting to frame parliamentary questions featuring the degree of self-justification and political argumentation that appear in the first nine paragraphs of this speech would quite properly be ruled out of order. The Government would have done better to get on with the business and the meat, rather than introducing so much style and dressing at the beginning. Given that we are moving into the second half of the current Parliament and, one assumes, into a more electoral atmosphere in the House, the general lack of ambition in the speech is disappointing.
As has been said, 1999 was supposed to be the year of delivery, but there has not been sufficient or adequate delivery in terms of schools, hospitals, class sizes, waiting lists and waiting times. Great claims were made, but the outcome has been disappointing. Why is that? Let us be fair. Many of the Government's instincts are good, but those instincts are suffering as a result of the Government's timidity, as has been revealed in the Queen's Speech.
Let us begin with the positive. It is excellent news that there are plans to extend the Race Relations Act 1976 to the public service. It is ludicrous in particular that, under the original legislation, the police have always been excluded. We welcome those plans without qualification.
Many Liberal Democrats welcome the fact that the Government are introducing further moves to equalise the age of consent for gay men. That is the correct thing to do. It is a step towards more equality, which we have long advocated, for gay men and for lesbians. There should be fundamental equality before the law, so it is the role of Parliament to redress the position. I am glad that the Government are returning to the matter.
I urge the Government to go further on these and related matters. There is surely a need for more comprehensive equality legislation, seeking equality of 35 treatment and, indeed, access to justice for all who face discrimination, whether because of age, disability, race, religion, sex or—the age-of-consent legislation will attend to these people—sexual orientation.
I move to measures that affect all of us in our respective parties. The inclusion of a Bill to regulate the funding and spending of political parties has to be welcome, but our support for the detail will, self-evidently, have to wait for the detail itself. A cautious welcome can also be given to the care standards and care leavers Bills, which will cover social services, health care, child care and young people leaving care. Of course, we will support initiatives to raise standards in those sectors, but we will need to study the detail carefully to ensure that local authorities are left enough flexibility to tailor services to their localities' specific needs.
Again, although in some areas the Government are moving in a way that is worthy of support, too often they are held back by timidity, or by their old centralising habits. The first and foremost example is the Freedom of Information Bill. We have long advocated that policy and have been involved in discussions with the Government since the draft Bill was published last May. We welcome the concessions that the Government have made since then, but their centralising tendency is again in the ascendant. We will do all we can to improve the Bill in its various stages through Parliament.
It is worth bearing the following point in mind. Even after the Freedom of Information Bill, as proposed to be drafted, becomes law, it would still be possible to keep much information from the public which the information commissioner would not be able to order the Government to produce. That cannot be regarded as full, meaningful freedom of information legislation. It is still partly defence of Government secrecy legislation.
On constitutional reform, given the kind words of the leader of the Conservative party on the matter, I will be straight with him. The Liberal Democrats are very disappointed with the position that the Government are taking, although not wholly unsurprised. We are disappointed that they have chosen not to give details of a second Chamber reform Bill.
As I stood at the other end of the building this morning listening to the Gracious Speech and gazing around the finery of the Lords Chamber, I could not help but think, "If this is reform, we need a bit more." I suspect that, in the interim House, we will have, as was evident this morning, fewer tiaras but more parliamentary tantrums. There is no substitute for going full scale towards the second stage and completing Lords reform. The fact that the Government are still hiding behind the royal commission suggests that they do not know what they want to do next. We do: we want a fully elected second Chamber. That is what Parliament and the country need.
We welcome the inclusion of a local government Bill, particularly as it will include the provision to repeal section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988. We share the Government's desire to make local government more innovative and accountable—it would be hard not to—but the Bill will not go far enough. Local government has a bad reputation among too many people.
The low turnout for local government elections should serve as a warning to all who care about democracy—presumably that involves hon. Members—that people do 36 not feel engaged in local politics. Why is that? They know that, all too often, their votes do not count and make no difference because councils do not have the power to do the things that really matter to them in their locality. That is why we advocate two things. First, councils should have the power of general competence to enable them to do anything that they are not specifically prohibited from doing. Secondly, in parts of the country, decades of one-party rule have bred arrogance and downright corruption. Against that background, the introduction of fair votes would do more than anything to rejuvenate local government and break what are all too often local bastions of Labour incompetence and corruption.
The policy of fair votes for local government is strengthened by legislation that has already been enacted by the Government. We can have our arguments about whether there should be elected mayors—I could forgive the Administration this week for thinking that they may have been mistaken about that—but the Government attached to the concept of a mayor for London fair votes for assembly members. So they have already established the principle of fair votes within the single most significant local authority area in terms of population, wealth and spending capacity; surely therefore it should be extended elsewhere.
The case for fair votes goes further than just local level. The Prime Minister and his party had a manifesto commitment to hold a referendum on electoral reform for Westminster elections during the lifetime of this Parliament. Today's speech makes it clear that the Government have no intention of honouring that commitment to the British people. A Bill to bring about a referendum on electoral reform could have paved the way for the British people to choose between first-past-the-post and the proposals of the Jenkins commission. They are being denied that choice.
Politics and participation in politics are devalued when Governments fail to honour manifesto pledges. During the election the Prime Minister said, "Trust me." People have been willing to trust him on a large number of things, but on this issue there is a fundamental breach of trust and the Prime Minister should acknowledge that.
I come now to the Bill on welfare reform and the proposed changes to child support. The House agrees that the Child Support Agency cannot go on in its present state, but there should be fundamental reform rather than still more tinkering. The Government want to simplify the system, but as we know from our constituency experience, simplicity often means rough justice under the CSA. The Liberal Democrats want to see the abolition of the Child Support Agency, to be replaced by a new unified system of family courts that will ensure that decisions are fair and appropriate to the financial circumstances of all concerned.
Even more worrying in the area of social policy are the provisions that propose to remove benefits from those who do not comply with community sentences. The Government are right to look at how to deal with crime, especially since under their tenure police numbers have fallen by 1,000. Also, as was made clear in earlier exchanges, the Conservative party's track record in office of dealing with crime in the inner cities or the hidden crime in rural areas is not such that they speak from a position of credibility. Removing benefits from those who fail to comply with community sentences is self-evidently unacceptable, however. We argue that it could well drive 37 the people involved further into law breaking. In many cases, the measure would penalise not only the offender, but his or her dependants as well.
One is not soft on crime because one opposes such a measure—Liberal Democrat Members would certainly, for example, support tough sentences for serious offenders. The key point is that the measure is illiberal, potentially counterproductive and could increase crime; and we shall oppose it.
It was distressing to hear the Prime Minister today re-run what was once a traditional Tory argument—that the greatest offence to civil liberties is when people do not feel safe walking the streets. Although such a situation is a deep offence to civil liberties, we shall not promote and protect people's feeling of safety by overturning other civil liberties. Public safety and civil liberties are not mutually exclusive.
The environment and public transport have been neglected for overlong by the Government, and their new proposals certainly do not go far enough. When it is printed, the proposed Bill giving greater access to the countryside will have to be studied closely before a final conclusion on it may be reached. We certainly believe in enhanced—but, equally, managed—access to the countryside.
For the past two and a half years, the Government have talked tough to car users while doing very little to improve public transport alternatives. In light of the Paddington tragedy, attention has rightly been focused on the safety of our railways. Against that backdrop, we broadly support most of the proposed transport legislation, as far as it goes. However, the Government's intention to introduce a public-private partnership for the delivery of air services is deeply worrying. It is code for part-privatisation of National Air Traffic Services, and Liberal Democrat Members will strongly oppose it in the House.
As a fully public body, the sole concern of National Air Traffic Services is safety, but the minute the profit motive is introduced, that can no longer be the case. The Government must think again on the matter—as I think that they will be encouraged to do not only by Liberal Democrat Members, but by Labour Back Benchers.
We have serious reservations about two other criminal justice proposals, the first of which is to introduce mandatory drug testing after arrest. As I said, we are certainly not soft on drugs or crime. However, it is one thing to test bad drivers for drugs as well as drink, and another to test for drugs everyone arrested as soon as they walk through the doors of the local police station. The proposal involves important civil liberties issues.
Secondly, in the coming Session, the Government's plans to curb jury trial in England and Wales will face a battle royal from Liberal Democrat Members. The arguments in favour of change do not add up. Only 5 per cent. of completed criminal cases end up in the higher courts, and the Scottish system—my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace), the Scottish Minister for Justice, is beside me in the Chamber—with its accountable prosecutors and full-time judges is not a parallel.
There are other ways of reducing costs by improving criminal justice procedures. If the Government persist with their plans to curb trial by jury, their reputation as a defender of liberty will suffer irreparably.
38 We come now to what might be called items notable by their absence. Drugs are perhaps the greatest tragedy facing our society, but on that issue, the Government are burying their head in the sand. Politicians on both sides of the House are guilty, as there is too much of an ominous silence in Westminster for a rational and mature discussion on drugs. We make it clear, and I repeat, that we want a standing royal commission on the misuse of drugs to be set up, to investigate and consider strategies for combating the abuse of all drugs, including alcohol and tobacco.
Another huge omission from the Queen's Speech was mention of an issue of great importance for the United Kingdom, now and for the future—the single currency. Liberal Democrat Members have stated our position on the issue, and—to be fair—Conservative Members have stated their many positions on it. However, we need the Government to give the country a lead on it. A single currency preparations Bill would help the country to prepare sensibly for the euro, if the British people decide in a referendum that they want it. The Government's policy is to prepare and decide. That is fine, but first they must prepare. Britain in Europe is one thing, but Britain's long-term interests in Europe are another and they are suffering as a result of indecision and timidity at the top.
When I look back at the day in 1983 when the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and I entered the House for the first time and consider the motives that brought us into politics in our respective parties, I wonder whether any of the three of us thought that during our first decade and a half here we would see such momentous events as the collapse of the Berlin wall, Mandela walking free and becoming president of his country and the end of the cold war. There have been dramatic, historic changes during the period for which we have been privileged to serve here.
What do those events have in common? To me, they all show that what wins in the end, even in the most difficult circumstances, is the burning desire for liberty. They represent the triumph of the dignity of the individual, of human will over state imposition or state insularity, or quite simply, of freedom.
In this technological, globalised world where George Soros can make or break democratically elected Governments at the touch of a button and Alan Greenspan can send a shockwave through international economic markets with a single nuance, we have a Government with a benign economic scenario and a thumping majority, yet in the Queen's Speech, half way through this Parliament, they are being timid when they could do so much. They could do so much for those who need politics the most in this country, while being more liberal and recognising the importance of the individual to a far greater extent.
The Queen's Speech contains some policies worth supporting and we shall support them, but it also shows the Government's limited priorities. We have seen this afternoon that the Conservatives have no stance or policy and no effective opposition will come from them, but there will be rigorous and constructive opposition from the Liberal Democrats.
§ Dr. David Clark (South Shields)
I am delighted to take part in this debate on the Queen's Speech and to say how exciting the past two and a half years have been.
39 The Government came to office on a theme of modernisation and regeneration—economic, social and political. Those themes were evident in the first two Sessions of this Parliament. During the first Session there were 52 Bills and during the second, 32. We have seen great and necessary changes.
I do not pretend for a moment that the past 30 months have been comfortable for everyone in this Chamber or in the country. Change, by definition, implies discomfort on occasions. However, I believe that the change brought about by the Government has been focused, directed and necessary for us to face the next century equipped to provide jobs for our people and freedom for our citizens.
As we move from the old industrial age to the new information society, driven by information technology, there are a dilemma and a paradox that have to be addressed. We must get the balance right between efficiency and modernisation on the one hand and individual liberty and guaranteed freedoms on the other. This is the right time to strike that balance.
I am encouraged by the fact that there is an e-commerce Bill in the Queen's Speech. If we are to survive in the global economy—and I believe that as an English-speaking nation we have great advantages on the internet and in e-commerce—we must get that legislation right. I have looked at the draft Bill and followed its progress and I am concerned that it could be too draconian. I am very conscious of the paradox highlighted by the need for liberalism and the desire of the police and security services to get heavy-handed on encryption and to demand the use of keys so that they can, in essence, be illiberal.
We must get the balance right. I hope that the Bill in its final details will err on the side of liberalism, because the way forward is to regenerate our knowledge-based economy through e-commerce. Let us not pretend. It is not a question of buying books from Amazon. It is about how we do business as a Government and as a country. If we do not get it right, we will threaten the whole of our electronic strategy for the future.
§ Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border)
Is there not a danger that if we go slightly too far in the Bill we will drive the electronic commerce companies and IT providers overseas, where they will provide exactly the same services as the Government are hoping to control here?
§ Dr. Clark
There are not many issues on which I agree with the right hon. Gentleman, but I certainly agree with him on that point. We are in the global market, and if we do not do it, someone else will. We must get the balance right and err on the side of liberalisation and a light touch.
I warmly welcome the proposed legislation on access to the countryside and on the protection of flora and fauna. It is interesting, when we consider the legislation giving us the freedom to wander the countryside on uncultivated land—I stress that we are talking about uncultivated land: mountains, moorlands, heaths and downs—to note that such a right to roam was demanded by Labour pioneers a century ago when our party was born. It is appropriate that we are to have such legislation in Labour's 40 100th year. We have had to wait 100 years for the new Labour Government to introduce this much desired legislation.
§ Dr. Clark
It is old Labour indeed: I tried to introduce a private Member's Bill to effect the change in 1979. Unfortunately, the House was not ready for it.
Now we are introducing powers to strengthen the protection of sites of special scientific interest and of animals. I believe that the overwhelming majority would sign up to that. In 1985, I succeeded in introducing two private Member's Bills on wildlife and the countryside, and it is good to see them being built on. I am beginning to think that if one hangs around long enough, some of one's ideas will come to fruition. Perhaps there can still be old Labour in new Labour clothing.
A key right in the Queen's Speech is freedom of information. I acknowledge the help and support that I have received from Liberal Democrat Members and, indeed, from the official Opposition. Last year, it seemed that they might be coming round to our views; but we must wait and see whether that is still the case.
Perhaps the most important thing that I did in the Cabinet was to draw up the White Paper on freedom of information. If we are to have a modern society with a proper relationship between Government and citizens, we must sweep away the culture of secrecy that has bedevilled this country at every level of bureaucracy. If we do that, we can start to rebuild the relationship of trust with our citizens. I tried to design a Bill that would serve not the press, lawyers and business people, but the ordinary men and women of this country. Once people entered the system, they would remain in it and the information commissioner would have the final say as to what should be withheld and what released.
I freely admit that I was very disappointed when the draft Bill appeared. I then became encouraged as I saw expert members of the Select Committee on Public Administration dissect the Bill, consider it and propose sensible improvements to it. I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department has seen fit to accept so many of those proposals, but we still have to persuade him further. We are not there yet.
Two aspects of the draft Bill and its amendments need to be changed. The first relates to the power of the information commissioner. It is critical that a Minister should not take the final decision as to what is released or what is withheld. I cannot understand the Home Secretary's concern in that respect. At the end of the day, there are enough checks and balances on the information commissioner for him or her not to be irresponsible. He or she will know what is in the interests of the security of our nation and what is in the interests of our citizens. The Bill must be improved to take account of that.
Another aspect of the Bill perplexes me. I do not understand why the Government are so resistant to the idea of the factual information given to Ministers being made available. I am not asking—I do not think that anyone is—for the information to be released on the day decisions are made, but, historically speaking, I do not understand why such information should not be made available. When we worked on the Cabinet committee 41 drawing up the White Paper, we published it and, afterwards, all the factual papers that had been presented to the committee. That did not cause any problems. Such information must be available.
We have an historic opportunity to move from being in the rearguard—we are one of the most backward countries in the western world about sharing information with our citizens—to being in the vanguard. We should not miss that opportunity. If we moved forward, we would enhance the reputation of a Government to whom I have been completely loyal and whom I fully support. However, we need to strengthen the draft Bill.
The theme of the Queen's Speech was enterprise and fairness, and rightly so. For all my political life, I have believed that one cannot be successful economically without social fairness. I also believe that over-regulation and red tape are damaging. They inhibit entrepreneurs, and I am delighted to see that a measure in the Queen's Speech addresses that problem.
I fully acknowledge that the new deal programme has been successful and that the Government have created thousands of new jobs. We have more people in employment than ever before and across the nation unemployment is low; I hope that it will get lower. I would be wrong, however, not to draw attention to pockets of the country that have not shared in that prosperity. My constituency is in the north-east of England. We used to mine coal, build ships and make steel. All those industries have gone, along with the industrial age. We are trying now to build a knowledge economy.
My area has good local government: South Tyneside district council was judged by the Audit Commission to be the most efficient unitary authority in England for the past two years. We do all that we can to encourage innovation and enterprise and to bring industry to the district. However, while the national unemployment rate in September was 4.2 per cent., my constituency's rate is almost four times as high, at 15.1 per cent. I concede that the figure is lower than in May 1997, but it is 1 per cent. higher than it was 12 months ago. Amid the national prosperity, pockets of the nation remain in economic difficulties. We do not have the social fairness that we need.
I draw to the Government's attention an early-day motion signed in the latter days of the previous Session by me and several of my north-eastern colleagues. I ask the Government to consider whether the Barnett formula, particularly as it applies to Scotland, could also apply to the north-east of England. Our problems will not be solved by the regional development agencies unless more money is made available. I hope that the Government will consider suggestions that the indicative projections of the amount of money available for the north-east next year could take a new Barnett formula into account.
§ Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)
Does my right hon. Friend agree that where objective 1 money is available, as in the north-west, the Government should be encouraged to support that money so that we may incur expenditure necessary for infrastructure to replace that of the ancient industries which, in my constituency as in his, have gone because of the passage of time?
§ Dr. Clark
As we approach the new century, there is growing acceptance that the old industrial society has 42 gone. If we are to survive, as nations, regions or districts, we must attract different jobs with different and changing skills. I am encouraged by the fact that the Government are trying to provide fairness based on a new knowledge economy, as the Prime Minister and the Queen's Speech have emphasised today. The Government have succeeded in linking schools to the internet, in increasing money for training and enterprise councils and in ensuring that children of former shipyard workers and miners should work—I emphasise work—in different industries.
I applaud the Queen's Speech for combining fairness with enterprise as its main thrust. Getting that balance right would bode well for everyone in the United Kingdom in the next century.
§ Sir Michael Spicer (West Worcestershire)
I agreed much more with the right hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) when he went off message than I did when he stayed on message. When he suggested that the Queen's Speech would somehow bring the Government back into contact with people outside Parliament, I thought that there was not a cat in hell's chance of that happening, but when he discussed the Barnett formula, the House listened keenly. He is not alone on the Government's Benches in thinking as he does on that matter.
For instance, several Labour Members who share the right hon. Gentleman's view serve on the Treasury Select Committee, where they have expressed it. We will not leave the matter. Lord Barnett appeared before us seven or eight months ago and the right hon. Member for South Shields was right to say that it is nonsense that, for all sorts of phoney reasons, twice as much money per head goes towards some types of expenditure in Scotland as is the case across the border in England, where there is often greater poverty. I hope that the right hon. Member for South Shields pursues the matter. The Select Committee will return to it, much to the Government's concern. I laud and support the right hon. Gentleman's comments.
I find so much that is distasteful in the Queen's Speech that it is difficult to know where to begin. However, I shall restrict myself to three matters: I shall tackle two of them briefly and one in more detail. First, the undermining of the jury system, which the Queen's Speech proposes, is disturbing. I believe that I know what lies behind the proposal. It is part and parcel of a conversion to a European legal system, in which juries do not feature in the same way as in this country.
Most European systems are based on Roman law and are inquisitorial. The wording of the Queen's Speech suggests such a system when it states:A Bill will be introduced to give the courts themselves the power to decide whether certain defendants should be tried by jury or by magistrates.Most European systems are magisterial. The proposal calls into question Government statements that such a change to British law was not on the agenda, as the Prime Minister claimed two weeks ago in answer to my question about corpus juris. It manifestly is on the agenda. 43 Even the Government accept that, on matters such as fraud, a move to a form of European criminal legal system is being considered.
§ Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)
Does the hon. Gentleman find it surprising that, in more than 50 per cent. of cases that elect for trial by jury, the plea is changed to guilty before they go to trial?
§ Sir Michael Spicer
I am sure that people can use all sorts of facts and statistics to support the view that juries should play less of a part. I simply make the point that the Queen's Speech proposes the undermining of a basic principle of the British legal system, and that the underlying reason for that is to make it converge, to use the current phraseology, with the European system. The current presidency proposes that with great vehemence—it is at the top of the list of matters that it believes that the European Union should accept. If one wants to establish a federal Europe, it is logical that there should be a single legal system. In the presidency's view, it is logical that the system should be inquisitorial. The tendency is disturbing and worth drawing to the House's attention.
Secondly, my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) said that he was worried about the proposals for a so-called reform of the way in which financial campaigns—especially referendum campaigns—are funded. It is wrong to put a restriction of £5 million on all political parties in the House, and provide that that limit will be imposed on any party that has two or more members when limits outside the House will be much tighter. Under those circumstances, the Conservative party, which is the only party that is specifically committed to opposing the single currency in a referendum—if it happens—could receive £5 million, whereas all the other small parties, which support the single currency, could receive five times as much money. That is a complete imbalance.
The other consideration manifestly missing from the draft legislation that has been trailed so far, and is now confirmed in the Queen's Speech, is: who will set the questions for referendums? Many factors that have nothing to do with money as such are being side-stepped.
§ Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)
My hon. Friend will know that, like him, I have carefully studied the Neill recommendations on referendums. The limit of £5 million for each party with two or more members has been plucked out of thin air by the Government, as a way of rigging any future referendum. It is as simple as that.
§ Sir Michael Spicer
My hon. Friend knows more than I about that matter, because he introduced an admirable Bill in the previous Session, which unfortunately did not get through Parliament. [Hon. Members: "Shame."] It certainly should have got through. What my hon. Friend says on the matter therefore carries enormous weight, and of course I agree with him.
§ Mr. Maclean
My hon. Friend will wish to point out to the House that it was not simply "unfortunate"—nor was it an accident—that the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) did not get through. It was one of more than 50 admirable private 44 Members' Bills blocked by the Government Whips on 23 July. All those Bills were stopped by the wreckers on the Government Benches.
§ Sir Michael Spicer
My right hon. Friend is right about that; it fits into a pattern. That point also answers the right hon. Member for South Shields: any attempt that we have made to try to bring about fairer elections—so that, in the words of the right hon. Gentleman, the people would be more associated with the Government—has been blocked. The reverse has happened, certainly with regard to the proposed utilities Bill.
That Bill has been trailed in some detail in two White Papers, and it had a precursor, or paving measure, in the Competition Act 1998. It promises to be arguably the most interventionist legislation since the second world war. Using words such as "markets", "competition" and "service", the Bill will bring about the co-ordinated and detailed central regulation of every major sector of the British economy. Energy, transport, telecommunications, finance, water and many other sectors will have their own regulators, who will link arms to provide a common regulatory strategy.
The Financial Services and Markets Bill now before Parliament—for some strange reason, it has been allowed a clear run between Sessions—gives us a foretaste of the powers that, if the trailing has been correct, will emerge from the utilities Bill. Following the precedent set by the Financial Services Authority, the regulators will be able largely to set their own rules, fix their own penalties and interfere as and when they wish with such crucial matters as pricing and investment policy. In other words, they will be in day-to-day control of much of the economy of this country.
If those powers were intended merely to further the cause of competition, there might be a reasonable defence for them—but they are not. If they were intended simply to encourage competition, they would fall away as more competition was introduced—yet that is not to be the case. All the evidence shows that, using the consumer as a human shield, a new and totally undemocratic form of government is being introduced. Once in place, the new mechanism will be able to deliver a mass of policies that have nothing to do with competition or better services.
The embryonic regulatory regime, guided by the Competition Act 1998, already does precisely that. For instance, the gas and electricity regulators concern themselves with protecting coal—the opposite of competition—and with questions of income distribution in the form of fuel poverty programmes. In Scotland, they concern themselves with ensuring that there is a separate Scottish market for electricity—everything to do with Scottish politics, but nothing whatever to do with competition.
Oftel is concerned with something that it calls "universal coverage"; Ofwat with water investment strategies; the Financial Services Authority with what it conceives is the reputation of the City of London; the Post Office regulator with questions related to privatisation; and the rail regulator with something called an "integrated transport industry". Although all those policies may be worthy causes, they have nothing to do with competition. They are all properly the concern of the House of Commons and of elected politicians. However, it is precisely those elected politicians who will be excluded 45 under the new regulatory regime, as they have been from monetary policy under this Government, thus rendering a large chunk of government totally undemocratic and unaccountable.
It gets worse. Under proposals set out on page 57 of "A Fair Deal for Consumers", the idea is mooted that there should be appointeda single cross-utilities panel of perhaps 8-12 with broad-based expertise amongst its membership in the water, telecommunications, gas and electricity industries.Under paragraph 7.69, it says that the Government are inclined towards that option. In other words, not only is there to be a new and unelected form of regulatory government, but it is to have its own cabinet, capable of setting a national intervention strategy. We are back to central planning, especially of prices and investment. In effect, we are talking about parallel government, to be conducted largely in secret.
One can trace historically how that system of industrial commissars came about, just as we know the process by which, in the name of democracy, we have graduated to an entirely appointed House of Lords. All that is historically explicable; the question is whether it is defensible. In the case of the regulators, when monopolies and semi-monopolies were placed in the private sector, it was necessary to ensure that they were subjected to competitive pressure. In the case of the electricity and gas industries, for example, the answer was gradually to break up the industries and to introduce strict laws against anti-competitive action. In that respect, the 1998 Act was a good step.
However, as competition becomes genuine, as is the case with gas and electricity—a genuinely competitive market really is emerging there, or at least that was the case until the Government messed around with those industries recently—so the need for regulation should decline. In reality, it has moved explosively in the opposite direction.
I hope that the Conservative party will make it a major feature of our platform to oppose all that, not just to stem red tape and the burdens that that puts on industry, but as a matter of fundamental philosophical divide between ourselves and the Labour party.
Through this new regulatory regime, we are seeing the introduction of socialism on the cheap—pervasive and detailed central control, without the need for re-nationalisation of the means of production. If continued, it will destroy Britain's currently strong economy. One consolation is that it would eventually, therefore, destroy the Labour Administration. However, unnecessary havoc would have been wreaked meanwhile.
The pretence that new Labour was new Conservative was never a reality. In the beginning, the disguise was pretty good. Words such as "consumer", "competition" and "confidence" were used by the Labour party as if it meant them. The utilities Bill will show that it does not, and never did, and that the consumer has been used as a human shield to bring back socialism under another name. Competition is the smokescreen for all that. If this really were about competition, there would be many more references to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, but there never are.
We in the Conservative party must do everything in our power to resist the process. It requires of us a commitment to introduce tough, genuine competition laws of the type 46 that they have in the United States. That would be the opposite to what we are being given by the Government and it would move away from the central direction and control that are the thrust of this Queen's Speech.
§ Mr. Ted Rowlands (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney)
I listened, as always, with great interest to the hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Sir M. Spicer). I think that I share one belief with him—the jealously of accountability to this House of Governments and their activities. As I listened, I reminded myself that the whole paraphernalia of regulation was invented in the past 20 years. Ofwat, Ofgas and Oftel were the beginning of, not deregulation, but the creation of alternative regulation. Mr. Simon Jenkins has been writing forcefully about that sort of development under the previous Administration. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman should scrutinise the events of the past 20 years to find out where some of that regulation has come from. Indeed, many of the regulatory organisations to which he referred were part and parcel of the invention of what was hoped would be the acceptable face of certain privatisations.
§ Sir Michael Spicer
I pointed out that there was a reason for introducing some of the regulatory regimes at the beginning of the lives of some of the privatised industries, but that as they became—I mentioned electricity and gas—genuinely competitive, the then Government always intended to withdraw that regulation in favour of a competitive environment.
§ Mr. Rowlands
I saw evidence of the creation, but I never saw much evidence of the withdrawal. The hon. Gentleman referred to the United States experience but the US also has regulatory bodies and organisations to underpin the anti-trust legislation.
The language of Loyal Addresses has changed enormously over generations and, indeed, centuries. However, despite the passage of decades or centuries, uncannily similar messages occasionally come forth. Recently, I came across this Loyal Address to the House, 280 years ago:All Europe as well as these Kingdoms are on the point of being delivered by the influence of British arms and counsels … So far as Prudence can foretell, unanimity of this Session of Parliament must establish, with the Peace of All Europe, the Glory and Trade of these Kingdoms, on a lasting foundation. I think Every man may see the End of our Labours! All I ask of you is that you will agree to be a great and flourishing people".Sadly, the language of the present Queen's Speech is not of the quality of that quotation, but I found some amazing echoes. The "influence of British arms" in Europe might be Kosovo. The influence of British counsels is echoed in:My Government will take a leading role with our partners to shape the future development of the European Union.The hope thatEvery man may see the End of our Laboursmust surely be an 18th century equivalent of social inclusion, of our intention to govern for the many and not the few. The exhortation to bea great and flourishing peoplemust be the equivalent of the Chancellor's call for us all to become budding entrepreneurs through the various incentives that he is offering.
47 That is where the comparison between 1719 and 1999 should end. The optimism of the 1719 speech was followed within a year or two by the South Sea Bubble. After the boom came the bust. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has rightly said that the holy grail of Governments is ending the boom and bust that has so bedevilled our economic development. Having said that, my right hon. Friends look to the United States as a model, as did the hon. Member for West Worcestershire. I understand the importance and value of its economic experience, but I hope that we do not buy the extreme claims that are being made for its combination of policies.
I have read recently of the belief in the Goldilocks economy—neither too hot, nor too cold, a new economic paradigm. It is believed that the combination of a federal reserve bank, opening global markets, controlling inflation, creating a flexible labour force and weak trade unions will, with the widespread use of information technology, eliminate the business cycle. Gone will be the old biblical seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, if we are to believe the new economists.
The sad thing is that I spent some of the recess reading Mr. Edward Chancellor's interesting book, "Devil Take the Hindmost: A History of Financial Speculation". I do not know whether the Chancellor or other members of the Government have read it, but it is good bedside reading and I recommend it all. We have heard all this before. The book reminds us that the same arguments were being peddled just before the 1929 Wall Street crash. A federal reserve bank had only just been created. It was claimed that the combination of scientific corporate management, declining inflation and the extension of free trade would lead to everlasting expansion of the economy. That was on the eve of the worst crash and most disastrous depression, which affected not only the United States but Europe.
I watch such matters with great interest because I represent a society that understands boom and bust all too well. At the beginning of the century, if the term had been invented, south Wales and my constituency would have been called the tiger economy of the western world. This century, that tiger economy went from boom to bust and from full employment, or apparent full employment, to 65 per cent. of men being out of work. We have painfully rebuilt our economy at least twice since the war. I therefore share entirely my right hon. Friend the Chancellor's wish to eliminate boom and bust, but I worry sometimes that we depend far too much on the belief that we can organise our monetary affairs so as to eliminate them.
From where I sit, the monthly meddling of the Monetary Policy Committee has not done much for our economy. I have one modest suggestion for my right hon. Friends. The monthly MPC meeting should be quarterly, so that we do not have to go through the nonsense of pretending that we can manipulate interest rates, inflation and the rest of it on the basis of such fine tuning. I hope for some evolutionary development of that aspect of our economic policy.
I passionately agree with my right hon. Friends, especially the Chancellor, about the tremendous combined effort to transform the welfare-to-work situation. The policies of the new deal, investment in education and 48 training, the working families tax credit and the national minimum wage put together are utterly relevant to the communities that I represent. I believe that their development is the equivalent at the end of the 20th century of the Beveridge plan for full employment in the 1940s. I am glad that, at a difficult time, when all the global forces are in play, Ministers are talking again about full employment as a desired goal.
I represent communities that know all too well what unemployment and economic inactivity means. I do not wish to rub it in or make partisan political points, but it is a sheer matter of fact that Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney is now joined by more than a third of the Welsh economy in qualifying under European rules for objective 1 status because we have the lowest rate of economic life within the European Union. We qualify as one of the most deprived regions in the EU, so we are entitled to extra special funding. We have qualified because, in the past 20 years, our GDP per head has fallen from 76 or 77 per cent. of the average for the United Kingdom and Europe—not satisfactory by any means—to 67 per cent. In my community, GDP per capita is less than 70 per cent. that of the United Kingdom and European average. Whatever the merits of the previous Government's economic policies, no Opposition Member can be pleased or proud of achieving such.
The Queen's Speech says:More people are in work in Britain today than ever before".My right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) referred to what he called his pocket of unemployment. In the past 20 years, in communities such as those which I represent, the number of people in employment has fallen by 15 per cent. It has not stayed about the same; it has not grown. It has fallen by 15 per cent. The combination of that decline in the number of people in employment, growing economic inactivity and a large increase in the number of workless households has led to the appalling situation in which we wear the badge of shame of qualifying as one of the poorest regions in Europe.
I do not come to the House with any joy or pleasure to plead. We have to spend a disproportionate amount of time going to the European Commission to have some of the money that we pay to Europe repatriated to regenerate our economy. It has to be done, so we shall have to do it. The policies that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has introduced on the new deal, the national minimum wage, the working families tax credit and new investment in education and training are the real economic policies that will make a real difference to our communities.
We know why our GDP has fallen. We have had falling earning power. We have a much slower economic activity rate and, as a consequence, we have poor skills. I hope that, in the coming Session, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor and other Ministers will devise, alongside the National Assembly for Wales and local authorities, a means by which matching funding can be made available to support the money that has come to us through objective 1 status. I hope and pray that all parties will remember why we are where we are and that the only purpose of such money is to enhance our GDP. I am worried that we are dancing round objective 1 status like a totem pole. We are going round in circles, hoping that, somehow, everyone will get a little piece of the action. I fear that that money will be dissipated and scattered here, there and everywhere, whereas we should be concentrating our efforts.
49 Chancellors, Ministers, National Assembly Secretaries and local authorities must pass the simple test, which is to show how such money would enhance the per capita GDP of the communities in this position. We must apply that qualification. I hope that, as a consequence of a concerted effort at the turn of the century, we shall restore our sense of prosperity, so that hon. Members such as me do not have to come to the House to plead for more public expenditure from central Government. In the words of the 1719 Royal Address, I hope that we will again becomea great and flourishing people".
§ Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)
I would not like to be the research assistant of the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands). Researching for the Queen's Speech debate starting from the year 1719 is a daunting prospect.
§ Mr. Kirkwood
The hon. Gentleman's contribution will repay careful study. I acknowledge that his constituency has had enormous difficulties. His experience is valuable, and the House is grateful to him for his passionate speech. We shall read it with interest in days to come.
Merthyr is a particularly bad area for social security claims. I think that about 19 per cent. of his constituents are on incapacity benefit.
§ Mr. Kirkwood
It is 17 or 19 per cent.—I cannot remember. It is a very high figure. I hope, therefore, that the hon. Gentleman shares my concern at a press report in The Guardian on Monday, which suggested that people will soon have to prove that they are unfit for work after only six weeks of sickness leave, not six months. I am sure that he will watch developments as carefully, as I will, so as to prevent the Government from introducing further draconian measures for problem areas where people have genuine difficulties. I hope that I can enlist his support in monitoring that situation carefully.
We must be careful about incapacity benefit. There are difficulties with it, most of which this Government have inherited. However, some of the welfare reforms introduced in the previous Session were not the right way to go.
I ask the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney to support me on another matter. I am a little anxious about the degree of emphasis being placed on young, innovative, enterprising, economic, e-commerce. That is all right, but he will know the problems better than I do. I represent a traditional manufacturing textile area, where businesses have to fight hard to export their goods against a background of high exchange rates and other difficult competitive circumstances.
Governments cannot do everything at once, and I agree with most of the measures that the present Government have taken, such as the new deal. However, I wonder whether enough has been done to help traditional manufacturing industries and mining and shipbuilding communities to diversify. Our regional experiences will be different. I want the new Labour Government to encourage entrepreneurial e-commerce opportunities, 50 but they should not forget that people in areas such as south-east Scotland still rely heavily on traditional industries that must be modernised if they are to succeed in the future. Although the Government are right to place emphasis on enterprise, I hope that they will not forget that point in the coming 12 months.
Fairness is the other main rubric in the Queen's Speech. Again. I hope to persuade the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney of a view that the Government should consider. It is fine to contemplate what the Government have done: I acknowledge that much has been done on child poverty and child benefit. However, I should like to remind the House that the national insurance fund balance is now £12 billion. As we learned from the Chancellor's pre-Budget statement, there is a Department of Social Security underspend of £7 billion projected for the next three years.
Fairness is fine, but against that background and the economic progress achieved by the Government, which I freely acknowledge, it is difficult to argue that uprating social security benefits by 1.1 per cent. is fair. It will be difficult to tell pensioners in the constituency of the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney whose pensions are to rise by 75p next Easter that that is fair with a capital "F".
That is not to detract from the Government's achievements, but they have an opportunity to do far more. My suspicion is that we are all being asked to mark time for 12 months until not next year's Budget, but the one after—the one that, coincidentally, will be announced before the next general election—for things to change. Time will tell.
I intend to discuss three aspects of the Queen's Speech. First, I shall run through a checklist of my concerns about social security matters other than incapacity benefit. I am worried that welfare reform, which I agree is clearly needed, is being discussed entirely in terms of monetary cuts or monetary additions. The Government have done some good things, such as introducing the severely disabled persons allowance, and some bad things, such as the changes to incapacity benefit; but I am anxious to learn what future structural changes to the social security system the Government think are needed.
Are we watching the death of the national insurance contributory principle by stealth? Are the Government committed to the concept of contributory benefits? Much of what emerges from the Treasury is good—for example, the working families tax credit; but it is difficult to square that with the national insurance contributory principle. I fear that, without any discussion taking place, the House of Commons is witnessing a seismic shift in the way we deliver benefits. Perhaps I am wrong, but I believe that the House should be concerned about structure of the benefits system in five to 10 years' time. The Queen's Speech tells us nothing about that, which causes me concern.
I am also worried about the emotive, Daily Mail language being used by No. 10 in respect of the Child Support Agency. The CSA is submerged in difficulties and has been ever since it was set up in 1993, but nothing is made easier by the Prime Minister and other Ministers forcing the agency to adopt the role of moral policeman and making criminals of fathers who do not fill in forms. The Daily Mail-style headlines include, "Blair's welfare reforms to hit absent fathers", and "Absent fathers must pay up in Blair's war on the shirkers".
51 Even though many of the changes to the CSA, such as making the forms simpler, are sensible and designed to make the rules easier to enforce, it will be very difficult to reform the agency. I have great fears about the transition process—for example, that it will take too long. Some of the benefits of the new system, such as the £10 child maintenance disregard, which will become available to new cases but not to old cases until they have been moved to the new system, will cause enormous problems of which hon. Members will learn in their surgeries.
The last thing the CSA needs is to be made into a moral bogeyman, because that will make it even more difficult for it to become a user-friendly, sensible organisation that everyone accepts. Ministers must take care not to invest the agency with a moral purpose, when it should simply be an accepted fact of everyday life that people pay to support their children.
§ Mr. Bermingham
I agree with the hon. Gentleman's remarks about the Child Support Agency. Does he agree that by stigmatising the few—the "won't payers"—we stigmatise the many, who willingly pay, and that that is counterproductive?
§ Mr. Kirkwood
I agree, and I hope Ministers will reconsider.
To be fair, the Government allowed the Select Committee on Social Security to carry out a form of pre-legislative scrutiny. We would have preferred proper pre-legislative scrutiny, but it is difficult to do that without a draft Bill, and we have not seen one yet. Nevertheless, the Government tried to give us as much access as possible and Baroness Hollis gave us a great deal of her time. Nevertheless, I think that we should be careful. There should be no question of stigma; this should be a straightforward, mutually agreed process.
I am also worried about the stigmatising of those who do not turn up to carry out community service orders through the removal of benefit. I am as aware as any other Member that it is enormously difficult to trace payments in the benefits system at present, simply from a practical point of view. Huge logistical difficulties are involved in making the system work. I know that pilot schemes are being mounted, and I am sure that Ministers will study the results carefully, but I consider the proposals morally objectionable.
I do not think it right to use the benefits system to inflict additional penalties on people who should be dealt with by a criminal justice system that, given proper resources, is adequate to deal with them. If we start using the benefits system to penalise people for this, that and the other, it will be the thin end of the wedge. Already, people aged between 18 and 25 who do not turn up for jobs after interviews may find that their benefit is docked. If that begins to apply across the board—if the benefit of those who refuse to apply for or take jobs while receiving jobseeker's allowance is immediately docked—we shall be on a slippery slope, which may have serious and untoward consequences.
I am disappointed that the Queen's Speech makes no reference to long-term care. Sir Stewart Sutherland produced what I considered to be an excellent piece of academic work, which provided some pointers for reform. 52 Many people out there are still having to sell their houses to pay for care, and it is high time that the Government told us how they will respond to their needs. The Government could at least have announced that the thresholds would be reviewed, enabling people to retain a much more realistic amount of capital and income. We consider that to be a grave omission, and we shall expect early answers from Health Ministers about what the Government have in mind.
Additional resources are certainly needed for the improvement of the take-up of benefits. If the Government are to continue to rely so heavily on pensioner income guarantees, they must understand that not every retired person applies for what is, in effect, a means-tested benefit. Again, I know that pilot schemes are taking place in some areas with the aim of establishing why people who are past retirement age are not claiming benefits, but the need for extra resources is urgent. If we were able to spend the amount that we spent on promoting working families tax credit, surely it must be possible to organise nationwide television advertising so that people understand that means-tested benefits are available to those beyond retirement age.
I am also worried about the capital thresholds for access to other means-tested benefits. The Government keep saying that they will do something about it in the current Parliament, but we are half way through the current Parliament. Again, I suspect that the Government will wait until the election approaches before suddenly pulling a rabbit out of a hat. Meanwhile, people are suffering. The thresholds have not been indexed for many years, and should be dealt with now as a matter of urgency.
The Queen's Speech contains nothing about housing benefit reform. Housing benefit represents the biggest remaining hurdle preventing people from moving from welfare into work. We all agree about that, and I congratulate the Government on the new deal and the way in which it is working—although I think that there are problems, especially in areas where the employment market has collapsed completely. I am thinking of, for instance, Merthyr, Liverpool and Glasgow. In inner-city centres there are no jobs to be had, and a supply-side solution—better training enabling people to apply for jobs—is useless to those who cannot move because they are locked into a housing benefit system that will not allow them to do so. Housing benefit is an important element in finishing the job begun by the new deal.
§ Mr. Rowlands
In fact, despite employment problems, the new deal is working in our area. It is making a major contribution not only to the employment, but to the employability of our younger people.
§ Mr. Kirkwood
I am pleased to hear that. The experience is different in different areas, but, if the hon. Gentleman says that in good faith, that is good news and I welcome it. The scheme is not working too badly in my area, but in a rural area that is hugely spread out, with 25 miles from a place of residence to a place of work, there are different problems. However, if it is working in Merthyr, that is good news. The House will be pleased to hear that.
Looking at the experience with welfare in Merthyr, Liverpool and Glasgow, I am beginning to come to the conclusion that it is impossible for any Government to 53 have a unified United Kingdom benefits system that responds adequately to the different circumstances that apply. It is not just a north-south divide; it is intra-regional. There are pockets of wealth within some less well-off areas, and vice versa. We are getting to the stage where we can analyse statistical factors, circumstances and criteria within postcode areas in a sophisticated manner. Perhaps it is time that we did so within the new unemployment zones; I welcome the work that is being done there, too. Perhaps it is necessary to think about legislating for local needs in two different ways, depending on circumstances in the localised circumstances of the job market. That is something that Governments will need to look at.
I am getting nervous about the state second pension and stakeholder pensions becoming increasingly technically incomprehensible to the ordinary person in the street. I have been studying these proposals. The Government are trying to simplify them as much as they can, but we are going to end up with a system that only half a dozen people in the country will thoroughly comprehend and understand.
I was privileged to be at a focus group research session last night that was staged by Pearl Assurance. I was behind a glass screen. The focus group of young men were all in the stakeholder pension target income group.
Hon. Members think that people who earn £9,000 a year are people like themselves who merely earn less. They are not at all. Their attitudes and approaches to life are entirely different. They have credit card debts coming out of their ears. They have store cards with debts of up to £7,000. They live from day to day. They apply for bank loans for house improvements and to buy cars and boats.
When one says to those people, "Are you making any provision for the future?" they reply, "No, we don't need to do that. We will all die before we reach 65", or the like. We need to understand that, if we are going to make stakeholder and state second pensions work, we will need to make them much more accessible and simpler.
I am coming to think that our retirement age may be a Victorian idea. Perhaps we should start thinking about a lifetime of work, where people have bits of leisure towards the end of it and do not have the huge life change as they approach 65, 70 or whatever. People should expect to live and to work during periods of change and to take part in lifelong learning—again, it plays in with the Government's agenda. There should be an integrated saving system that allows people to deal with such changes throughout their lives, using ISAs and all the rest of it. They should not face that huge psychological brick wall when they retire aged 65 or 70. That would allow people to work a bit longer.
Some of the people to whom I talked last night said that the state pension would be worth only 6 per cent. of average male earnings by the time they retired and that they would have to work, even if only cleaning windows or delivering papers, until they were 70. They said that that was the only way in which they were going to succeed. We will have to understand how people in that income sector think if we are going to make fundamentally important pension reforms work.
Representing a rural area, I am deeply worried about the Post Office Bill and its effect on rural post offices. I do not believe that the Government, although they say that they will put a lot of investment into automation 54 before 2003, will make anything like enough substitute income available when benefit transaction payments are removed between 2003 and 2005. A total of 19 million people use post offices for benefit transactions. They produce income to the post offices—the postmasters and postmistresses who run those businesses.
I do not care how many automated teller machines are standing in the corner of the post office in Ettrick Bridge: it is impossible to foresee how, between now and 2003, the income that my postmistress gets in Ettrick Bridge will be able to survive that change. By 2005, she will get next to no income from the Department of Social Security; it will all be done by automated credit transfer. The Government must be careful about that. I notice that the Prime Minister has set up a performance and innovative unit review of the social value of post offices to the communities they serve. It is essential that that report is thorough and that proper attention is paid to the non-economic benefits that rural post offices provide to areas such as mine. If not, we will destroy a valuable network which, once destroyed, will never be brought back into being.
The transport provisions are fine as far as they go, but in a rural area it is impossible to conceive of ever getting an integrated bus service serving every village community. It is not feasible. I note with interest and applaud the fact that the Chancellor has said that he will look at the fuel escalator year on year. I hope that when he looks at it for the next Budget, at the front of his mind will be the rural communities throughout the length and breadth of the United Kingdom. People in such communities face enormous difficulties as they try to get to work and get around by car in areas where there will never be an alternative or substitute form of public transport, as there is in cities. If the Government do not bear that in mind, they will be unfairly penalising huge swathes of the landward area of the United Kingdom.
I wish the Queen's Speech well but it is difficult to accept that it is about fairness and enterprise when we look at the beneficial financial circumstances facing the Government and consider some of the difficulties facing our citizens throughout the country in constituencies such as mine and Merthyr. If the Government do not look at what is happening on the ground, they will fail with the Queen's Speech and that would be a lost opportunity and a shame.
§ Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside)
I am glad to follow the thoughtful and relevant speech of the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood). He presented some realistic points which had terrifying implications. I am glad to be able to support the Gracious Speech. I am glad that it seeks to provide more opportunities for people to realise their potential, and that it seeks to build a fairer society and drive against social exclusion. Those are the issues that I wish to mention.
I want to make a brief constituency point. My airbus workers are seeking £530 million repayable investment launch aid for the giant jumbo jet project, the A3XX. If given the go ahead, that project would mean 1,400, or perhaps as many as 1,700, new jobs with high wages and high skills, for my constituency and north-east Wales. It is a truly European project. It is possible that during this Parliament, Her Majesty's Government may see various 55 reasons for not espousing the euro, but they could display their European commitment by sanctioning that £530 million investment. That project is the greatest European project since the channel tunnel.
§ Mr. Jones
I am glad of that intervention. My hon. Friend speaks with great expertise on this matter.
As I have said, it is the greatest European project since the channel tunnel and to turn it down would mean turning the United Kingdom's back on the Europe of the 21st century. My plane makers at Broughton are so skilful and resourceful that they could take mighty Boeing to the cleaners in any month of the year. We, at Broughton, are at Her Majesty's Government's disposal in this project.
In 1998, the aviation industry employed 180,000 people in the United Kingdom, including 6,000 in Wales, and 4,000 in my constituency. In that year, the industry—our last great manufacturing industry; an industry of skills and achievement—made £6.5 billion of exports.
I am beginning to think that some men and women at the heart of the Treasury are seeking, for the first time in its history, to use the levers of economic power to enhance the lives of the poor, the dispossessed and the unemployed. If the Treasury's influence in the Whitehall and Westminster complex has consequently grown, at the expense of what might have become satellite Departments, I shall not complain.
I welcome the Gracious Speech—just as I welcomed the historic minimum wage, which has ensured fair play for tens of thousands of women who previously were on wretchedly low pay, and the working families tax credit. Some people earning £200 a week have found themselves with incredibly increased weekly and monthly wages, and I welcome that.
I welcome the extension of the new deal to the over-50s and lone parents, just as I welcome free television licences for the over-75s, free eye tests, an annual £100 fuel allowance, the new children's fund, improved child benefit rates, plans to modernise thousands of our schools, and free museum and gallery entrance for all our children across the length and breadth of Britain. If that is redistribution by stealth, I ask Ministers, please, for more.
There is much to be done for the millions of our fellow citizens who fell behind in the Thatcher years. Only today, in a John Smith Institute lecture at Downing street, Professor Layard exposed the consequences of failing to invest sufficiently in the United Kingdom's post-war school service. At last, the underclass, the dispossessed, the poor—or whatever term is used now to describe the millions of our fellow citizens who are getting nowhere, and whose lives are a desperate scramble to exist and subsist—are on the agenda. They are on the agenda of arguably the most powerful Prime Minister of modern times.
The Government are not ideologically driven, but how could they be? In the west, since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, no political party of the left has trusted 56 itself to promulgate certainties in manifestos. I am not complacent, but ask the Government for even more action. I accede to the Downing street objectives of social justice and economic growth. Although Mr. Kinnock might have listed his objectives as social justice and economic efficiency, I simply want more social justice—and I want it urgently, for the many.
Labour's shrewd management has steered the economy to better health. In these improved times, we may achieve a better deal for the many who are not doing very well.
It is my sad conclusion that, in the tumultuous years since the 1970 general election, when I was first elected to the House, there has emerged in Britain an underclass that is millions strong. Their lives are blighted by poverty, disability, loneliness, hopelessness, illness, anger and frustration, whereas all around them is prosperity, change and fulfilment, the like of which Britain has never seen before.
I conclude that our society is very seriously divided, and that there is a chasm within British society. In the south-eastern valleys of my own country, Wales, there is worrying deprivation, which was described with expertise by my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands). I want that cancer within British society to be tackled and eliminated, and am glad that the Gracious Speech states that doing so is part of the Government's agenda. Helpful policies have already been implemented, and more such policies are being espoused as the drive for fairness continues.
The Government's election occurred in the nick of time, after an era in which even the concept of community was denounced. In his able speech today, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis) made a tangential reference to that earlier era.
The Gracious Speech—like the preceding ones under the current Prime Minister—proposes sound and practical measures. The clarion call that I have heard from leading Ministers—"for the many, not the few"—is not a claptrap soundbite, but a statement of noble objectives. I should like to think that the Administration are on course to restore a sense of fairness to the governance of Britain.
§ Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim)
The Queen's Speech contained two sentences concerning the constituents of Northern Ireland:In Northern Ireland, my Government will continue to work closely with the political parties and the Irish Government to secure the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. A Bill will be presented to implement proposals from the Independent Commission on Policing, following the completion of consultation.Today, I was amazed that both Front-Bench leaders and the leader of the Liberal Democrats saw fit to say that we were making great progress. The Liberal Democrat leader said that the pace had quickened and both Front-Bench leaders said that things were going well. It was the result of a statement—which, for the first time, was given credence by the Government—from the IRA itself.
We have heard it preached in the House—not by Unionist Members, although they agreed with it, but by spokesmen for the Government, the Opposition and the Liberal Democrats—that Sinn Fein-IRA were inextricably bound together and that there was no difference between them. Now, it seems that the three main parties in the House have swallowed the great falsehood, recognising that the IRA is not Sinn Fein and Sinn Fein is not the IRA.
57 What did the IRA say? First, it issued a statement signed by a person who does not exist—P. O'Neill. Who is P. O'Neill? P. O'Neill's signature has appeared in reports of all the worst atrocities ever committed in Ireland by the so-called IRA.
The hon. Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis) spoke very eloquently today about children. I should like to speak eloquently about children, but let us remember that the IRA not only murdered Protestant children, but wiped out children from the Roman Catholic population. Above the signature of P. O'Neill have appeared attempts to justify every atrocity ever committed by IRA insurgents in Northern Ireland. The most gruesome tortures were justified under that name, as were the worst attacks on society and families. Some of those who have spoken in this debate believe that we are making progress because P. O'Neill has spoken.
What did P. O'Neill say? Did he say, as we were told that he would, that the war was over? Did he tell us that the beatings would cease and had to be condemned? Did he tell us that the IRA had come to the conclusion that now was the time to make peace? His statement was very short. He said:We acknowledge the leadership given by Sinn Fein throughout this process.I do not need to remind the House of some of the statements made by Sinn Fein during the process, particularly Gerry Adams announcement at City Hall that the IRA had not gone away. The statement continues:The IRA is willing to further enhance the peace process and consequently, following the establishment of the Institutions agreed on Good Friday last year, the IRA leadership will appoint a representative to enter into discussions with General John de Chastelain and the IICD.We are told that the people of Northern Ireland should be blowing trumpets and rejoicing about that statement, but there is no hope in it. The IRA says that it backs what Sinn Fein has said. Can we find anything in the Sinn Fein statement? The only new element of it is a condemnation—although not a very vigorous one—of punishment beatings. The IRA has said that it will not do anything until—until when? Until the Executive is formed? Oh no. It will not do anything until the institutions are established. There are more institutions than the Executive. There are all the cross-border bodies that cannot come into existence under the terms of the agreement until an Executive is set in place and members are appointed to it. If that happens, will the IRA appoint a representative to enter into negotiations? Oh no.
§ Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)
We have had a statement this week from General de Chastelain on how things might move forward. Is it not a fact that Martin McGuinness was the representative of Sinn Fein-IRA to the decommissioning body, just as Billy Hutchinson was the representative of the Progressive Unionist party and the Ulster Volunteer Force? What have they been doing that requires their replacement—or at least one of them?
§ Rev. Ian Paisley
They did nothing. When I met General de Chastelain, I asked him who he saw when he looked across the table at Martin McGuinness. He said that he saw a democratically elected Member of Parliament. I asked whether he talked to him as a democratically elected Member of Parliament or as a man 58 with influence in the IRA on decommissioning. He said that he could not talk to him as the representative of the IRA. The talk was for nothing.
The IRA says in its statement that it iscommitted unequivocally to the search for freedom"—so it recognises that there is no freedom—justice"—so it recognises that there is no justice—and peace"—so it also recognises that there is no peace.
When I tried to intervene on the Leader of the Opposition, I heard some hon. Members shouting that a representative from Northern Ireland should sit down. If these things were happening in their constituencies, they would be the first on their feet to raise them, because they are of the utmost importance.
Where do we go from here? The leader of the Ulster Unionist party, who is not present in the House at the moment, intimated in his statement that he would have to be satisfied as to the movements towards decommissioning. The people of Northern Ireland and his party members and public representatives thought that he still believed that if no guns were handed in or no progress was made on the issue, there could be no move towards an Executive. That has completely changed. No wonder there is a call in The Daily Telegraph today for the leader of the Ulster Unionist party to tell us what his policy now is. He plans to ask his party at a special council meeting to overturn its policy of guns before government—but for Sinn Fein-IRA to give up guns before government is a democratic requirement; it is not something to be negotiated. Every democrat should agree that there is no place for those who hold arms. We must remember that these people tell us that they are now committed to the peace process. If they are, why do they want to keep the weapons of war?
The problem is the same on both sides of the fence. The terrorists on both sides are helping one another. When the loyalists say that they will not give up their arms, it is grist to the mill for the IRA. When the IRA says that it is not giving up its arms, it is grist to the mill for the loyalists. We are told that they must come to a mutual arrangement. Are criminals going to decide mutually to give up their war against the police of this country? Not at all. Some may try to tell the House that the criminals of this country should keep their weapons, because after all we cannot take them from them unless they all agree.
As I said in a meeting with the Prime Minister some time ago, he took guns from hundreds of thousands of people in the United Kingdom who never did any harm with them—guns that were used for sporting purposes or target shooting and guns on farms that were used for killing vermin. The Prime Minister said that they all had to be handed in and that there would be imprisonment or heavy fines for those who failed to comply, but criminals in Northern Ireland do not need to hand in their weapons unless they can reach a mutual agreement about it.
§ Mr. Robathan
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees that the intentions behind what Senator Mitchell has been doing are very good. Will he cast his mind back 59 four years to when the senator produced the so-called Mitchell principles? He said that participants in all-party negotiations should affirm their commitmentto total disarmament … to agree that such disarmament must be verifiable … to renounce violence for good".Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, four years later, when there have been all-party negotiations, those principles should be enforced right down the line, as they should have been enforced four years ago?
§ Rev. Ian Paisley
I did not agree with the appointment of Senator Mitchell. He was forced on the parties of Northern Ireland without any discussion or vote. I and my party—and other parties—stated strongly that that was not the right way to enter into negotiations; however, he came along and set down those principles.
Who is telling the people of Northern Ireland that if we do not go a certain way they will return to violence? The very people who signed up to the Mitchell principles and have been discussing a so-called peace process for years. The IRA warned us that we would go back to the darkest days and the loyalists tell us that if we do not do what they say, we will go back to battles on the streets, yet those people signed up and are sitting at the table. I stated that I agreed to the principles but that agreeing to them becomes a farce when there is no sanction to make people keep their word. That is how the situation has deteriorated. There is a very sad state of affairs in Northern Ireland now.
It alarms me that the large section of the Unionist community—going across the divide and including both Protestants and Roman Catholics—that is opposed to the whole matter is being ignored. I speak with the authority of a mandate both from North Antrim and from Northern Ireland as a whole when I tell the House that it had better not proceed along this road and think that there is peace at the end of it. We will not get peace in this way.
There are matters that must be dealt with. It is all very well for the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) to smile. I wonder how many funerals he attended and what he knows of the circumstances of the 302 police officers who were massacred. It is very easy to criticise people in Northern Ireland. Some Northern Ireland politicians have been told by the authorities that they are under severe threat even tonight.
The House must consider to what it is lending its weight. The Prime Minister told us before the referendum that the prisoners would not get out until there was a repudiation of violence. We all know that that promise was not kept. Then there was to be no Executive until violence was given up and guns were on the table; but there are no guns on the table.
The Patten report says that there is to be a complete change in policing in Northern Ireland. I advise every hon. Member to have a look at the report. It makes it easy for those who have been engaged in violence to set up security firms and sell their services to various councils. Councils could buy in security services run by terrorists. Mr. Patten referred to the law on convicted terrorists, but no one has been prosecuted for the vast majority of terrorist crimes; probably about 75 per cent. of all crimes committed by terrorist organisations have not resulted in convictions.
60 These are matters of grave concern. I trust that the House will consider the Patten report carefully. Police officers' families—remember that 8,000 officers were severely injured, as well as the 302 who were killed—and the victims of violence are gravely concerned. The House should consider carefully what is really happening in Northern Ireland and why such a large section of the community is saying that this is not what we want. The people who voted yes at the referendum voted for what the Prime Minister promised them, but they did not get it. Unless those promises are honoured, we cannot move forward to peace.
I know that some do not want to hear this, but I must speak for the people who sent me here. I would be failing in my duty if I did not. It would be nice to be hail-fellow-well-met. I lead the third largest party in Northern Ireland and I could certainly go with the tide and say, yes, everything is well; but when I see what is happening in my country and the despair that people feel about it, I realise that the time has come to take a stand on one issue: there is no place in any Government connected with the United Kingdom for armed terrorists, no matter who they are, who keep their guns. They must hand in the guns and eschew violence by the public act of giving up the power to wage violence against the community.
§ Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)
I feel that I must make a few comments in response to the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley). In my 16 and a half years in the House, I have never spoken in a debate on Northern Ireland. I have not been unconcerned about the problem or underestimated the difficulties, but I have never pretended to know the solution. I am positive, though, that 60 days from the end of the century the majority of people in Northern Ireland, whatever their views or their past, want this opportunity of peace to be seized, not only for themselves but for their children.
The clear message that must go from the people of Northern Ireland, and indeed from the House, to all those with positions of power and responsibility, is that we would be failing the people and the children of Northern Ireland if we did not seize the chance for peace. The other clear message for all those with arms—I give credit to the hon. Member for North Antrim for having acknowledged that both sides still have arms—is that there is no place for those arms and that people want them to be got rid of so that there can be peace in the new year, the new century and the new millennium. We must seize the opportunity to proceed to the future and not go back to the past.
It is incredible that we are now debating the third Queen's Speech of this Government. We are now more than half-way through the Labour Government's period of office before they get re-elected at the next general election. We are already nearer to that general election than to the previous one.
The Labour Government have done a tremendous amount in changing the direction in which the country has been headed since their election on 1 May 1997. Enterprise and fairness are crucial, and I support those principles 100 per cent. For the first time ever, the Labour party will be elected in two successive elections with an overwhelming majority. After the next election, it will be able to build on the base that we have already created in the first two and a half years of government.
61 The phrasethe development of a safe transport systemappears early in the Queen's Speech. It also refers to the transport Bill and to the Government's proposals for the railways.
The Queen's Speech also mentioned plans for the future of National Air Traffic Services. That is one issue on which I agree with the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy). I fire a warning shot: the Government need to reconsider their proposals for air traffic control. I do not understand the financial arguments for the proposals, and the overwhelming issue is safety. We have talked much about referendums in the debate, but, if we held a referendum on the Government's proposals for air traffic control, the public would overwhelmingly say no. I do not suggest that the Government will sacrifice safety, but that is the crucial issue. The service has served us well, and I have grave doubts about the proposal.
The speech also referred to the Government's central economic objectives and to employment and economic growth. Economic growth is crucial. One cannot distribute wealth if one does not create it. Therefore, those measures are an important part of the Government's programme.
During the recent recess, I met members of the North West Society of Chartered Accountants and discussed their view of the economic position in my constituency. Accountants are a good group to meet because they see the economic position of large and small industries and of all sectors of the economy. Therefore, they are able to provide an accurate impression of how the economy is performing and what is exercising people's minds.
My constituency has a strong industrial base, with more than 50 per cent. of the workers still in manufacturing employment. Therefore, one of the concerns raised at the meeting was the climate change levy. We heard what my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer said about that last week and the Queen's Speech referred to the global climate. The revision of the levy is important. In a letter to me, the National Council of Building Material Producers refers to the changes that were made last week and says:Not only have the revised proposals recognised that the proposed level of the levy would have been harmful to industry's competitiveness, but it also now appreciates the greater levels of saving of emissions that industry is capable of through sensibly negotiated agreements.The changes have recognised industry's problems, but they have not lost sight of the environmental objective. That shows that the Government are prepared to listen and to respond positively to representations.
Interests rates are also of concern. It is right that the Bank of England should control them even though none of us is happy that there have been two increases recently. However, it was wrong that the Government of the day could manoeuvre them for purely political reasons and did not consider the long-term economic interests of the nation to be the principal factor.
The value of the pound concerns many people. I want Britain to enter the euro as speedily as possible, but we could not go in with the pound at its current level against the euro.
The Government inherited the fuel escalator and the Chancellor has told us how he proposes to deal with that in future. He will consider its level in every Budget. We have severed the link that we inherited from the previous Government.
62 In a constituency such as mine, the national minimum wage and the working families tax credit are crucial. The Government have delivered much that is important to ordinary people in the past 12 months. I know that they will continue to do that in the years ahead.
I am Chairman of the Deregulation Committee. I have served on the Committee since it was formed, so I am its longest-serving member. Therefore, I welcome the fact that the Government consulted on their proposals for deregulation earlier in the year and that they will introduce a Bill to give greater powers to the Deregulation Committee. When we were in opposition, we opposed the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994 because we were afraid that a short-circuit, quick-track method of getting legislation through could lead to the abuse of power. The Act is now hardly used and that is because most Departments know that their proposals for deregulation get better and closer scrutiny in the Deregulation Committee—it is able to focus on the issues—than they would if they were tagged on as a clause in a much bigger Bill. The Deregulation Committee's work is restricted at present, but I hope that the new Bill will improve the position by giving the Committee wider powers and by removing some restrictions on its work.
I disagree with the hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Sir M. Spicer) about the regulation of utilities. Another Bill will lead to the modernisation of regulation and that is crucial. I have long since changed my view about the need for the public ownership of industry, but regulation of the privatised utilities is essential. Some of the regulatory methods established by the previous Government at the time of privatisation have failed consumers. Consumers must be No.1 and their interests should be placed far above the interests of shareholders. I very much hope that we will consider the consumer aspects of regulation.
The Queen's Speech says that education remains the Government's No. 1 priority. I wish that some whiz kid or spin doctor had not said on the Labour party's pledge card that we would reduce all primary school classes for five, six or seven-year-olds to 30 children. It would have been much better to have said, "We will improve pupil-teacher ratios." I say that because a child cannot get into a school in my constituency because, if he did, it would create a class with 31 children. The headmaster told me, "We cannot break your pledge" and that creates a difficulty.
The Queen's Speech also mentioned the Learning and Skills Council. I look forward to seeing how that proposal will develop. I think that Lancashire should have had two councils rather than one, but that argument was lost. Therefore, we must work with the current proposals. In Burnley, the number of people going on to further and higher education is extremely low, and I hope that we are able to improve those figures.
The Bill to give greater access to the countryside and to protect wildlife is long overdue and I shall fully support it. We gave a commitment to access to the countryside and I want that commitment to be fulfilled. The Bill on hunting should have been included with those measures, because we have made a pledge that must be delivered. However, I am not convinced that dealing with the issue 63 in a private Member's Bill is the right way forward. I would like the pledge to be honoured and fulfilled as speedily as possible.
§ Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)
Does the hon. Gentleman share my suspicion that Labour party managers decided that the Bill on hunting should not be a Government Bill for fear that, even after the reforms, yet another Government Bill would be rejected by the other place?
§ Mr. Pike
The hon. Gentleman may be right. I do not know, because I have never been taken into the confidence of the Government's business managers. We should have pressed forward with the Bill last year. If the other House rejected it, we should have invoked the Parliament Acts and put it through. However, I understand the time difficulties associated with that, which might have prevented other crucial legislation from going through. Several factors must be balanced. When we are in opposition, it is easy to oppose and criticise, but it is somewhat different when we have responsibilities in government, as all Labour Members who served in the House before the general election have found since we came over to the Government Benches.
The electoral commission and changes to electoral law are extremely important. I look forward to the exact proposals. We have had a major problem in part of my constituency, where well over 20 per cent. of the electorate have been claiming proxy votes. Proxy votes are a right, and it would be wrong to do away with such votes because people who work away from home for a long time, such as merchant seamen, need a proxy vote. However, that right should not be abused, and I hope that electoral law will stop some of the abuses and make it easier for people to vote. We should not believe that the system that we have used for years is necessarily the best.
We need to consider how to proceed with the House of Lords reform and move away from the present interim procedure. I await with great interest the outcome of the royal commission. However, although the other place has made certain reforms, we need also to consider their procedures and ask whether they are the best. That is not a matter for the Government or for this House, but there needs to be a review of the procedures in the Lords, just as the Modernisation Committee, on which I serve, is trying to consider the procedures in this House and make progress.
A Bill will be introduced to reform local government to make it more innovative and accountable. I was on the Joint Committee of the two Houses that considered the draft Bill in the previous Session. I await with interest the final results of that process. I believe that people are not taking an interest in local government mainly because its powers were totally eroded during the Thatcher years, when there was a clampdown on local government finances and on its powers to deliver results rather than just scratch the surface of its responsibilities.
§ Mr. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire)
Perhaps my hon. Friend will go on to say that in addition to losing its powers and being treated with unremitting hostility by the Thatcher Government, local government 64 was denied adequate resources to provide to a high enough standard the services that remained its responsibility.
§ Mr. Pike
I agree with my hon. Friend. I have always said that a Government, no matter what the party, have the right, at a national level, to say what amount they will give local authorities to perform their functions. Local authorities should have the means to raise their own money to supplement that amount and they should be judged on the merit of what they do for the people who elect them, who can then show them what they think of them by re-electing them or throwing them out.
I am worried about the question of an elected mayor and about opinion polls in which people are asked whether they want an elected mayor. People are thinking not of the type of mayor proposed in the legislation but of a mayor with a chain who goes to people's diamond wedding celebrations and visits schools. If people are asked whether they want to elect such a mayor, they will say yes, but if they know that they will be electing a person who will have real power on the council and be the leader of it, they may take a different view. I do not want to sit on the Committee that will consider that Bill, but I shall consider it with great interest when it comes before the House.
My right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) is absolutely right about freedom of information. There has been some movement on that issue since the draft Bill was published. I am sure that we will have to squeeze the Home Secretary, whose constituency of Blackburn is very near mine, a bit more, but I am hopeful that he will respond in a positive manner and make the legislation acceptable.
The Government referred to the enlargement of the European Union. I want to argue the case of some of those countries in the second wave that are now under consideration. They include Romania and all those countries that neighbour the former Yugoslavia and Kosovo. They gave strong support in that dispute, at great economic cost to themselves. Their democracies and economies are fragile and they need to be given every possible support.
There will be a Bill to assist viable companies to get over short-term difficulties and to improve the procedure for disqualifying unfit company directors. I hope that that legislation yields results. There have been two companies with problems in my constituency. Bellings, which went bankrupt in 1992, had been deliberately defrauded by the then directors. Seven years later, pensioners are still not receiving their due and the problems have not been resolved. That is absolutely appalling.
§ Mr. Bermingham
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Chancellor of the Exchequer might be persuaded to consider the taxation position of certain companies, particularly with regard to VAT and corporation tax? It is often a petition by the authorities that leads to the bankruptcy of firms that could, under measures such as the chapter 8 provisions in America, have been saved.
§ Mr. Pike
My hon. Friend makes a valid point and I fully support that view. If a company is going through genuinely short-term problems of that nature and the accounts show that the company could be made viable, 65 it is much more sensible to assist the company and allow it to solve those problems than to pressure it and make it go out of business.
In the recent case of Ashworth Diecasting, the director, Mr. Peter Wrinch, took complete ownership of the company and then made it go bankrupt. He was not prepared to sell it to anyone else. I hope that the legislation will prevent Mr. Wrinch from being a director in any other company and will prevent others from doing the same thing.
This is a very positive Queen's Speech. It contains a heavy programme of legislation, and I hope that it is fully delivered. As I said earlier, I am absolutely confident that it lays another stone in the foundation for Labour Governments being elected for many years to come.
§ Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border)
I am tempted to say that I would be pleased if another stone were laid on the chances of another Labour Government being elected, but I do not think that that is what the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) meant.
It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Gentleman. He covered a tremendous amount of material in his speech. I do not propose to follow him down every route that he pursued, except to say that he called on the Government to go further in their promise to ban hunting. However, I read in the second paragraph of the Queen's Speech that the Government want to providepeople with real opportunities to liberate their potential.It seems to me that the abolition, which the hon. Gentleman called for, of one of the fundamental freedoms exercised by hundreds of thousands of people in this country would not liberate their potential. However, we shall no doubt have a chance to discuss that in the coming months.
§ Mr. Bermingham
Did I hear the right hon. Gentleman correctly when he said that the right to kill a defenceless animal is a fundamental freedom?
§ Mr. Maclean
Hunting is certainly a fundamental freedom; it is a freedom of choice which adults in this country have. Hunting is a conscience issue—people can decide whether or not to hunt. In the coming months, if the Government pursue that grossly illiberal measure, they will be pulled up short by hundreds of thousands of people.
§ Mr. Maclean
No, the hon. Gentleman will no doubt have plenty of time to make his own remarks. Hunting was a small point that I picked out from the speech of the hon. Member for Burnley, and it does not constitute the main substance of my remarks.
I want to remind the House of the Government's key aim in the Queen's Speech, ofproviding people with real opportunities to liberate their potential".Those are wonderful soundbite words, but how does the Queen's Speech measure up to them? The answer is: not very far. 66 Today's press has been full of trumpeting announcements from the No. 10 spin unit of 28 Bills in the Queen's Speech—28 measures to help people. I can imagine my constituents in Penrith tonight, sitting in The George, or still at work, or pushing their trolley around Safeway. They are looking at the 28 Bills that will provide them withreal opportunities to liberate their potentialand promote fairness and enterprise. They see that there will be an armed forces discipline Bill. I can imagine that that will appeal to them tremendously. They see that a new partnership between the United Kingdom and the overseas territories is mentioned. Well, some of them are no doubt just gagging for a measure on that subject. And the trustees Bill will excite considerably more of them.
The Government will introduce a regulation of utilities Bill because they want to put consumers first and cut prices. Competition and privatisation have cut utility prices. We do not need more tightening of the regulatory bureaucracy to cut prices further—we need more competition. If the Government said, "We think that we can improve on what the previous Government did because we can see the means of providing yet more competition", I would be the first to go into the Lobby with them. But if the Government think that they can cut prices by increasing the number of regulators, and having a grand regulatory authority, they are sadly mistaken.
What else in this thin gruel of a wasted opportunity of a Queen's Speech can my constituents look forward to tonight? Well, there is going to be an e-commerce Bill, which is the one thing that could stifle the opportunity to liberate their potential. If the Government go too far with this measure, either electronic commerce will move out of this country, or those who wish to use it will register with a server or service provider based in another country which has more liberal and sensible electronic commerce measures.
The Government have already had to back down on their encryption proposals, and rightly so. The proposals would simply have led to massive avoidance and the setting up of encryption regimes, possibly from America, encouraging people in this country to use those rather than British-based systems.
§ Mr. Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East)
Does the right hon. Gentleman remember that the previous Government proposed that key escrow should be mandatory? This Government made it voluntary, and then moved away from it totally. The Tory Government's proposals would have actually damaged e-commerce in this country.
§ Mr. Maclean
The Government have spent two years advocating and promoting the key escrow scheme and encryption proposals, and have abandoned them only in the past few months. It was perfectly sensible for the Government to say, "We have looked at the Tory proposals and other consultation papers. We don't like them, and we will have a more sensible and liberal regime." But to have, very grudgingly, given up some of the key escrow and encryption proposals and to introduce an e-commerce Bill that may still do nothing to improve electronic commerce in this country does the Government no credit.
What else have my constituents to look forward to? There is a Freedom of Information Bill which has no teeth, and a Bill on limited liability partnerships. 67 They may like the crime and justice Bill, until they discover that all the Prime Minister's promised radical reformation of the probation service will do is reduce the regions from 55 to about 42—roughly mirroring police districts, I presume—and allow the Government to appoint the head of the local probation service. There will be more central control by central Government, who will appoint local probation heads. That is not a radical reform of the whole probation service; it is merely typical of the Government's wish to centralise and control.
I think that I have mentioned about a dozen Bills out of the 28 contained in the Queen's Speech which will make not the slightest difference to liberating the potential of my constituents. What will make a difference is if the Government start increasing rather than reducing the number of police officers. In Cumbria tonight, there are 40 fewer constables and police officers than when the previous Government left office. Throughout the country, the Government have cut police numbers by more than 1,000. It is not liberating the potential of our constituents if the Government cut police numbers, thereby reducing people's security and making it more likely that crime will rise again in the next few months. If that happens, the Government will have no one to blame but themselves.
§ Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)
The situation is worse than my right hon. Friend thinks. Is he aware that there are now some 2,000 fewer police officers in the Metropolitan district than there were a few years ago? Two police stations in my borough of Bromley, including one in my constituency of Chislehurst, have closed since the Government came to office. What signal does my right hon. Friend think that is sending the public about law and order under this Government?
§ Mr. Maclean
My right hon. Friend is right. On this subject, as on many others, people are coming to realise that they have been conned by all the promises that the then Opposition made before the election, such as being tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime. So far, the Government are being tough on the police service and tough on police numbers. And as far as funding and numbers are concerned, the Government are pushing the Metropolitan police to the limits of viability. I have deep concerns about the viability of the Metropolitan police if the Government continue to squeeze their budget. I have tremendous admiration for the present Commissioner, Sir Paul Condon, and for his successor, John Stevens. He is one of Britain's finest police officers and was a superb police chief in Northumberland. Nevertheless, no matter how brilliant he may be, he cannot run a successful police force if its budget is being cut to the bone. There is nothing about that in today's Queen's Speech.
Of course, there is no harm in increasing the amount of drug testing that takes place, but it cannot be done unless the police have the funding to do it. Will the Government tell us in the next week or so how much that will cost? They will give the police the freedom to do it, but no police force in this country can conduct drug testing on the sort of scale to which the Government pretend, because they do not have the resources. That is one of the reasons why my constituents will be disappointed by this wasted opportunity.
68 On education, class sizes in my constituency have risen despite the Government's promises. Our excellent grammar school is under threat because of the rigged balloting system that the Government have introduced. What is in the Queen's Speech on education? The Government are going to destroy our training and enterprise councils and bring in an alternative system. The TECs have worked incredibly well—[Interruption.] Yes, perhaps they could have been improved and reformed, but they did not need to be destroyed, with control again taken back to Whitehall.
The new system will not work, simply because the Government do not intend the local deliverers of services and education to work hand in hand in the new authorities and boards. There will be central direction from the Department, but very little local input. That is why I think that the new training and skills councils will not deliver as the Government expect.
What else do my constituents have to look to in the Queen's Speech? There is a transport Bill to createa modem integrated and safe transport system, providing more choice for the travelling public.Well, we have a lot of choice in rural Cumbria. Everyone who can do so uses the train. I use it every week to come to London—after I have driven 30 miles to the station, of course. There is no alternative. It is all very well for me—I can claim some of the money back in parliamentary allowances. But some of my constituents—and some of the less well-off ones—have to use cars to get to work, to reach the shops and for all their social business. They have no option but to use motor vehicles. They are being crucified by the Government, and all the talk about an integrated transport system is a million miles away from them.
There may be a few more such facilities in Newcastle, Manchester or London, but for the vast majority of people any talk of an integrated transport system and more use of public transport is a joke. It will not happen, even with the best will in the world. When the Government talk about providing more choice for rural constituents even as they tighten the noose of petrol duties around those people's necks, the joke becomes a sick one.
Can my constituents look forward to the local government Bill? Penrith is represented by Eden council, one of the few genuinely independent councils remaining to us. Politicians on both sides may scoff at the idea of independence, but we have, I think, three Conservatives, two Liberal Democrats and a couple of Labour members. There are more than 30 genuinely independent councillors. Are we to force them into a cabinet system, or an elected mayor system? Are we to give them two classes of councillors—the executive councillors and the "hey you"s who will have no say? All that would be anathema to them and to me. It is quite wrong.
I accept that there may be some merit in a cabinet system for politically controlled councils, but my constituents demand another option—the status quo of a committee system under which all the independent councillors have an equal say. Nothing in the local government Bill will liberate the potential of my constituents. Indeed, it will stifle their potential as it increases both the power of the bureaucrats and central control.
§ Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)
Does my right hon. Friend relish the prospect of polling booths in 69 supermarkets, which may release the potential people have to vote, but which will provide yet another unwelcome competitive advantage for the supermarket over the small rural shop?
§ Mr. Maclean
My hon. Friend makes another good point. I may be misjudging my constituents, but I believe that when they read in the Queen's Speech about online voting, or out-of-area voting, or mobile polling booths rolling around the largest constituency in England or Wales—there are 1,500 square miles of it—or their forthcoming ability to vote at Safeway, they will not be saying what a wonderful speech it is. They will not cry, "This is exactly what we have been waiting for."
The Government have cut our 2b funding. Agriculture is going down the plughole and the Government do not care. Motoring costs are going through the roof, and the Government are obsessed with looking after only urban constituents. Class sizes are increasing, and it is taking longer and longer to get on to waiting lists for the real waiting lists for operations. My constituents will not be saying, "Those are the issues that affect us, but—thank God—the Government, through today's Queen's Speech, are giving us the chance to vote at Safeway, and, indeed, if we go up to Carlisle, we could even vote at Tesco."
I have read the Queen's Speech. I have heard all the Government spin and propaganda about the 28 measures coming before us, with more to come, no doubt. Will those measures make a difference to people? They will make a difference to the bureaucrats—there will be more jobs for them. There will be more central control in Whitehall, too. But there will be no positive difference for my constituents, who struggle to make a living in a rural area that is suffering because of the Government's attempts to destroy the countryside and their failure to get adequate 2b funding for the areas that suffer the most.
The Government are failing to concentrate on the real issues. They were elected on education, education, education, but that pledge has been abandoned. They promised genuine improvements in the health service rather than the rhetoric that we have heard. I will not support the Queen's Speech because few of my constituents will find anything in it of substance or worth.
§ Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough)
The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) has stolen my first line. I was going to say that I could not imagine him supporting the Queen's Speech after all that we have heard from him. We have heard several comments today about football clubs: my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis) mentioned Manchester City, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) mentioned Newcastle United. I should give Sunderland a mention, if only because Len Shackleton wrote in his autobiography that the average director's knowledge of football could be expressed by a blank piece of paper. Well, I took out a sheet of paper to make notes as the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border was speaking, and it, too, is a blank piece of paper. What he said may appear in Hansard tomorrow, but his speech was a blank. No doubt his constituents will hear and read his speech with interest, then wonder whether they should cast their votes at the next general election in the same way as they did at the last.
70 The right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy) talked about the voting system, one-party rule in local government and fair votes. He took the Government to task for not committing themselves to a referendum in this Parliament on proportional representation. He omitted to make the point that the Prime Minister appointed Lord Jenkins to produce a report on alternatives to the first-past-the-post system. Lord Jenkins offered four options, but did not use the time munificently offered by the Prime Minister to produce a proposal. If he had produced a single alternative to the first-past-the-post system, we might well have had the referendum in this Parliament. Lord Jenkins' failure to make a proposal meant that we could not honour the commitment.
When the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West talks of fair votes for local government, he means proportional representation. He seems to feel that one-party rule in local government may be a way in which to change the system so that proportional representation can be introduced to let in more Liberal Democrats. If there is something wrong with local government, we should respond to it, but, as Bernard Shaw said, if one has a dirty face, one should wash it, not cut off one's nose.
§ Mr. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington)
The hon. Gentleman says that PR would let in more Liberal Democrats. In my borough, Sutton, 46 of the 56 councillors are Liberal Democrats, and PR would let in many more Conservative and Labour councillors.
§ Mr. Bell
That is an exception to the rule. The Liberal Democrats are trying to gain more representation by changing the voting system. There will be severe resistance to such change in the Labour party and the Labour movement both in the House of Commons and beyond. We do not believe in letting the Liberals in through some parliamentary or local government back door. We do not believe in letting them achieve that way what they cannot do in their own right.
§ Mr. Purchase
Does my hon. Friend find it perverse that proportional representation, or, under the new term for it, fair votes, would mean that the person with the most votes would not win?
§ Mr. Bell
There is a lot of perversity in the proposed system. I am reminded that George Orwell wrote an essay in the 1930s suggesting that people would talk not about mass extermination or murdering people, but about cleansing. That proved correct with ethnic cleansing in the Kosovo war. The example may be extreme, but we should note that the Liberals no longer talk about proportional representation, but about fair votes.
§ Mr. Bell
No. The Liberal Democrats were upset about losing seats in the south-west to another party through the voting system. However, I give the hon. Gentleman a categoric assurance that the voting system for the last European election will not be used again. It was a total disaster for the electorate and it cannot be repeated.
I shall refer briefly to the remarks of the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) who made an eloquent and strong statement of his beliefs and those of the people whom he represents. He said that, when he tried to intervene on the Prime Minister, some hon. Members told him to shut up and sit down. I share Voltaire's view that I maydisapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.The hon. Gentleman has been elected to put his point of view as forcefully as he might.
On Northern Ireland, the Gracious Speech states clearly that the Governmentwill continue to work closely with the political parties and the Irish Government to secure the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.We all understand the depth of feeling that the hon. Member for North Antrim expressed, but there is no way of cutting the Gordian knot of conflict and dissension in Northern Ireland; it can be disentangled only little by little. The Government are trying to do that with the support of all parties in the House.
The hon. Member for North Antrim also spoke about the future of the RUC. Again, the Queen's Speech states clearly:
A Bill will be presented to implement proposals from the Independent Commission on Policing, following the completion of consultation.We should all be part of the consultative process to consider how the RUC can come into the modern world, while preserving its ethos and traditions. We should also bear in mind the many RUC officers who have lost their lives or been severely wounded in the conflict.
I want to consider the economy, especially an aspect of it that is not treated with generosity in the House. I am not aware of any great debates on trade in the past two years and I would like to attempt to put the record straight by considering exports, the Export Credits Guarantee Department, and the arrangements to allow China to join the World Trade Organisation.
Notwithstanding the high value of the pound, the value of our exports is the highest that it has ever been. The figure for August is £20 billion—a 7 per cent. rise, which is the biggest increase in two years. We have been aided and abetted by a return to growth in the so-called Asian tiger economies. Our car manufacturers and our chemical manufacturers have been at the forefront of creating the increase.
It may not be opportune to mention the F word—French—which is unpopular because of the French attitude to our beef exports. However, the French have followed a successful franc fort policy for many years. 72 Their currency has been strong and they have ended up being the fourth largest exporter in the world with a balance of payments surplus. Therefore, it is important to get right our strategy on exports in relation to the review of the Export Credits Guarantee Department, and to understand the importance of China's possible entry into the World Trade Organisation.
China has a market of 1.2 billion people. Our exporters need to know that the Export Credits Guarantee Department will act as their partner in the global marketplace. My right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) referred to that earlier. The Export Credits Guarantee Department is a Government Department, and Britain is the fifth largest exporter in the world. We must maintain that position. We need an innovative Department that considers new ways of financing and acts as a partner to our business community.
I have seen it written somewhere that there is a move to privatise the ECGD. Notwithstanding a new Labour Government that are capable of privatisation, it is not in the interests of our exporters to privatise the ECGD. The ECGD gives sovereign, triple-A guarantees, which a company that took over might not be able to provide. It gives a Treasury guarantee, and it is not feasible or in the interests of the taxpayer or the exporter to privatise it. As the CBI pointed out, the ECGD remains crucial to United Kingdom business. For businesses to be successful in international markets, they need the ECGD to act as a partner. A review of its mission and status is currently taking place. It should take into account the new development of China's entry into the WTO.
I shall give an example of how we can support business and manufacturers in Britain. The Philippine Government are currently rebuilding their port structure and will require 10 roll-on/roll-off ferries. The Transport Investment Group Ltd., in partnership with Cammell Laird, will tender for the contract, which is worth the equivalent of $2.3 billion. However, companies from France and Japan are tendering for the contract and their respective Governments have offered soft loans at 4 per cent. over 20 years. Can we match that? I hope that we can and will.
On 28 October, the Transport Investment Group Ltd. wrote to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to ask for information about assistance on the soft loan terms and whether we could compete with overseas Governments' treatment of soft loans. I am sure that the Government want to be as helpful as possible in meeting competition in the global marketplace. Shipyards on the Tyne and the Tees would benefit tremendously from the contract as a large proportion of the work would go to that area.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry for meeting a delegation of Members of Parliament and union representatives on 22 September to discuss the implications for module yards on Teesside where orders for North sea modules are drying up. The Secretary of State was courteous and helpful in his responses to the anxieties that were presented to him. Oil costs $25 a barrel, and I hope that oil companies will understand that it is appropriate to stoke up their investment programmes. That would have the knock-on effect of creating work on Teesside and Tyneside for skilled workers in our module yards.
73 Earlier, I referred to an important event—the signing of an agreement between China and not only the United States, but, hopefully, Canada and the European Union. The agreement between China and the United States means that the millennium will end with China entering the global village and the global economy to the benefit not only of its people but of all trading countries. The agreement covers all goods, all services, all agriculture, a variety of rules on import surges, technology transfers, state trading enterprises, dumping, investing, subsidies and other issues. The agreement is in the interests of the Chinese people because it means that China will continue its policy of economic reform and development, that its markets will be opened up and that the efficiency of Chinese companies will be improved as they become more competitive between themselves and in the trading world.
We need a rules-based trading world, single market and WTO. Such rules should apply to those who work in our trading communities and should be based on the principles established by the International Labour Organisation.
I am told that a large Government delegation will go to Seattle at the end of the month for the World Trade Organisation conference, and that we are not in a time of crisis. The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border spoke of wasted opportunities. In trade terms, this is a time, not of crisis, but of opportunity. The World Trade Organisation must aim to build a world economy with greater prospects of growth, jobs and rising living standards.
We live in a more technologically advanced and progressive world, as the right hon. Gentleman noted. There must be institutional reforms and improvements to make the WTO more effective and to broaden its base of public support. It must concentrate on how best to promote the integration of the developing countries. It must also work to help the least developed countries and to bring them into the world economy. In that respect, the Ministers in our delegation will take with them to Seattle the aims of Oxfam, which are to ensure that the outcome of future World Trade Organisation negotiations will be judged, among other things, on their contribution to poverty reduction.
I have set out a large agenda. As I reach my peroration, I am reminded of what Jim Callaghan, the former Member of Parliament who represented the Manchester constituency of Heywood and Middleton, told me. He said that, when hon. Members appear to be listening most intently, at the end of a speech, it is only because they are waiting for the speaker to sit down so that they can stand up. That is the feeling that I have now.
I like to end a speech with Browning's dictum that a man's reach should exceed his grasp, and that is why I always around look to see whether my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) is present, as he will correct me if I get it wrong. I hope that I have it right this evening.
The trade conference in Seattle is a time of opportunity. Our reach must exceed our grasp. We must seize this moment, the beginning of a new millennium. We must seize the opportunity of a world market opening up for the benefit of all our exporters. Through the Department for Trade and Industry and the Export Credits Guarantee Department, we must give those exporters the help that 74 they need so that all our constituents—even those of the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border—will benefit.
§ Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)
It is disappointing that the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) should have finished so soon, just as we were savouring his speech. However, I must admit that, as much as anything, I savoured the number of clichés that the hon. Gentleman managed to include. I hope that he is able to seize the cliché when he reads his speech later this evening or tomorrow: a cliché count might provide him with some amusement. I might try it myself.
I have sat through the whole debate so far, but I regret that I will not be present for the winding-up speeches, as I shall be attending—
§ Mr. Forth
I am surrounded by good advice, which is not something I usually get.
I am surprised that the debate has not yet touched on the reference in the Queen's Speech to the establishment ofa new Learning and Skills Council to improve standards for Post 16 education and training.That brief phrase contains a contradiction in terms. It assumes that setting up yet another bureaucracy—the new Learning and Skills Council—will somehow lead to improved standards in post-16 education. For a while, I had the honour to be an Education Minister in the previous Government, and I learned the bitter lesson that bureaucracies do not improve standards in education.
Some of us learned another lesson as well. I now believe that one of the biggest mistakes that the previous Conservative Government made in their many years in power was to abolish the so-called binary line. In doing away with polytechnics and, at the wave of a wand, creating universities from all institutions, that Government made a tragic mistake.
I address my comments to right hon. and hon. Members on both Front Benches, even though there is to be no reply to the debate tonight. My fear is that we shall perpetuate that error in a blind and unquestioning way. We base our reasoning about post-16 education on a number of propositions that are becoming less sustainable as time goes by.
For example, it is assumed that the more universities that we have, the better. That seems a simple and straightforward proposition, but I do not believe it to be true. The assumption is that the more graduates that we have, the better—regardless of what a graduate is. We have redefined a university degree to be something that one person in three can attain and the Prime Minister has told us, with pride, that the Government intend to ensure 75 that 50 per cent. of people will be graduates. That means that a university degree will be redefined as something that can be attained by one person in two.
I have my doubts about that. Instead of increasing the educational quality in our society, the Government's objective will merely devalue the concept of a degree. That will benefit neither those who receive what will be an increasingly worthless qualification, nor society as a whole.
§ Mr. Purchase
Does not the right hon. Gentleman agree that opening up educational opportunities to our population is of itself a good thing? I agree that it is vital to maintain standards, but would not the nation be better off if 50 per cent. of our people were able to attain the educational standard embodied in a degree, simply because they had had the opportunity to do so?
§ Mr. Forth
No, I do not agree with that. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the education process, including lifelong or lifetime learning, should be opened up to as many people as possible, but that objective is not achieved simply by creating more institutions called universities and giving more people something called a degree. I consider that approach to be counterproductive. People who have been accepted into university have to be given remedial classes, and that shows that something must be very wrong with the system over which we have presided over the past few years.
§ Mr. Fabricant
Is my right hon. Friend aware that, before the move to turn polytechnics into universities, countries such as Malaysia and Singapore sent students to the United Kingdom university of their choice? Now, white lists and black lists are produced. Sadly, most of the former polytechnics are on the black lists. Moreover, because the black lists have not been updated, some of the good, older universities appear on them too. Is it not a condemnation of the present system that other countries can detect this country's irregular standard of further education?
§ Mr. Forth
In so far as what my hon. Friend says is true, it is an illustration of another truth: we may have thought that we were going to convince the vital global education market when we redesignated our educational institutions as universities, and in that way attract more business, but the tactic has been rumbled. As my hon. Friend suggests, the real sadness is that it will be counterproductive to persist in that approach.
What is the answer to the problem? I believe that we should free up the world of post-16 further and higher education, permit institutions to develop as they wish and allow individuals to make choices about what qualifications they want to achieve at different times in their lives. I want there to be a spectrum of institutions and of qualifications. Qualifications should range from the very academic level of what used to be called degrees to the practical training that polytechnics provided so well. I regret to say that such practical qualifications have become less attractive to young people.
The other danger that we run into is that by offering people degrees that are less and less practical and useful, and giving them inducements to seek such qualifications, our education system is producing fewer and fewer people with practical and useful qualifications.
76 We now have the worst of all possible worlds—falling standards, institutions being designated by names that they neither need nor deserve, and qualifications that are less and less useful in this great competitive world about which we have already heard so much in the debate.
Surely it would be better if we did away with all the bureaucracy that bedevils education—all those hundreds and thousands of worthy and hard-working people in the Department for Education and Employment, whose job is supposedly to monitor universities and other institutions, to interfere and intervene, and to try, with, I regret, less and less effect, to maintain standards.
Instead of all that, we should allow institutions to determine what they will offer, the length of their courses and the nature of their qualifications. We should allow them to charge whatever fees they think appropriate for the different qualifications. At one end of the spectrum there could be the four-year full-blown degree course as we used to understand the idea in the old days, and at the other, the six-month or one-year practical, focused course that would be appropriate for other sorts of people.
Students would make their own judgments about which qualifications were appropriate for their time of life and their aspirations. They would then apply to a proper loans system run by or on behalf of the Government, to pay the fees that the institutions charged. That would enable institutions to make their own decisions about what they wanted to offer, and, more importantly, it would enable students to make their own decisions about what they thought appropriate to their needs. We would not force people into the straitjacket of something called a degree, or force them to study for three or four years when that was not what they wanted or needed at that stage in their lives.
In other words, we would allow the student as consumer to determine what happened. That would enable us to do away with all those bureaucracies—yet in the Queen's Speech we heard that yet another bureaucracy was to be set up to interfere further in the education process for the sake of chasing that will o' the wisp, standards. It should be the users and the consumers—the students and those who employ qualified people—who determine standards, not some bureaucracy trying vainly to impose a straitjacket of qualifications on students and institutions alike.
I hope that I can persuade my Front-Bench spokesmen of at least some of my argument, but I do not know whether the Government will ever be open to persuasion. My argument should go very much with the flow of what they claim to be doing, and what is, I hope, instinctively attractive to Conservative spokesmen, because it is about reducing or abolishing bureaucracies and giving individual people more and more choice—freeing up the world of education to do more of what it, rather than the Government or politicians, thinks appropriate.
All those propositions should be attractive; I would have thought that they were almost self-evident. Yet I suspect that they will be seen as the sort of dangerous heresy and outlandish radicalism that the world of education cannot possibly handle. However, when I was responsible for such matters and had discussions in private with senior people in education, especially in higher education, I always found them rather receptive to such ideas. They thought that being given more control over their own affairs would benefit both their institutions 77 and their students. I believe that that is true, and I hope that it is not yet too late for all the parties in the House seriously and radically to reconsider their education policies. Let us have a complete change of direction.
§ Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East)
I welcome the business friendly measures announced today, which will proceed through the House in due course. First, however, I must tell the House that I am a Labour and Co-operative Member of Parliament, and at the general election the Co-operative party paid almost a quarter of my election expenses. I gladly and proudly declare that interest.
It was disappointing for me, and for several of my hon. Friends who are also Labour and Co-operative Members, that room could not be found in the Queen's Speech for a comprehensive Co-operative Act, which would have assisted the defence and advancement of mutuality in its many different forms. Many Members on both sides of the House regret the tactics used by some carpetbaggers in connection with the demutualisation of building societies. A comprehensive approach to mutuality, through a Co-operative Act, would have been welcome at this juncture, and would have sent a message to people working not only in the building societies and the large co-operative societies but in credit unions, worker co-ops, and producer and consumer co-ops of all kinds.
§ Mr. Bermingham
My hon. Friend makes a valid point and demutualisation is now spreading to insurance, too— I too declare an interest, because I have policies with Canada Life, which has just demutualised. There will be other such demutualisations in future and, ultimately, it is the policyholders who suffer. They may make an initial gain, but they suffer a loss in the end.
§ Mr. Purchase
I agree. Like other people, I am worried that if we witness many more attacks on mutuality on the present scale, there may no longer be a critical mass of mutual organisations to act as a competitive alternative to banks and the other financial institutions based on share trading. I fear that that track may lead to great disappointment. I believe, perhaps simplistically, that if we lost mutuals to the extent that they were no longer an option, they would have to be reinvented because they play a valuable role in our lives, both monetary and social.
§ Mr. Fabricant
Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that unusual organisations such as the John Lewis Partnership, which is also—to use a bit of jargon—a stakeholding organisation as all the staff are owners, have also lost out because the tax break on bonus payments has been removed? Does he agree that the 40,000 partners in John Lewis could benefit if the Government restored the tax break for organisations that genuinely allow profit sharing by their employees?
§ Mr. Purchase
I am so pleased that that point has been raised, because it enables me to speak about taxation as it affects co-operatives in general, especially the larger ones. Co-operatives do not have tradeable shares or equity, in the sense of being able to gather risk money to reinvest. Reinvestment for them must be made wholly through the medium of a loan, a bond or internally generated surpluses.
78 I was disappointed in my right hon. Friend the Chancellor last week because he did not do as the hon. Gentleman suggests and restore the tax breaks. Why not let the larger societies and other organisations qualify for the small firms rate of corporation tax, which would give them the opportunity to reinvest and—to use the Government's catchword—modernise? They need money to do that, but they cannot replace the money that is taken from them in the way that other companies based on equity and tradeable shares can. I therefore hope that, at some stage, there can be a comprehensive review of how we could assist mutual structures and deal with the tax side of their affairs.
I welcome the Government's attempts to be more friendly to business and to ensure that business has more opportunities to develop. Not least among the measures announced today is the modernisation of Companies House. Those of us who have dealt with that organisation over the years believe that modernisation is well overdue. Some of the measures that have been announced will be extremely helpful. However, as with any measures that the Government introduce to assist industry, it is how those affect the firm that matters in the long term. I am concerned—at the level of the firm—that the measures announced today should comprehend properly the problems that small and medium-sized businesses experience in the marketplace and within their organisations.
I shall deal with two particular Bills. The first relates to business rescue and unfit directors, and the second allows partnerships to benefit from limited liability status. The news on business rescue in today's Gracious Speech was welcome. Many small and medium-sized businesses find themselves unable to meet their liabilities in a timely fashion. They may have a perfectly sound balance sheet when examined at any point in the year, but because of cash-flow difficulties they cannot satisfy, in a timely fashion, all their creditors as they would wish.
There are a number of causes, although the problem does not always arise within the company. Obviously, the poor collection of invoices is a problem within the company, but other causes include inadequate procedures for chasing up the payment of invoices so that the next round of payments can be made on time. Small companies often have to deal with larger companies, and trying to get them to pay their bills on time is like wringing blood from a stone. Indeed, some large companies employ people with the simple task of delaying to the maximum the payment of invoices. That causes great difficulty. Both sides of the House were keen to introduce the payment of interest on late payment. However, many small companies that depend on a portfolio of only half a dozen companies with which they do business simply cannot insist on timely payment. When they look a buyer in the eye and say, "Pay my bill", the buyer says, "Sure—and we'll pay it with interest. But by the way, there may not be too many orders coming your way in future."
Any small company faced with a larger company determined to bolster its own cash flow by delaying payment faces a formidable obstacle. Although the introduction of interest payments was welcomed by both sides of the House—perhaps not by all hon. Members, but generally by the business world—more is needed. Perhaps we should move towards a kitemark of British standards in accountancy. That would carry a legend from the auditors showing that invoices in a particular company 79 were paid promptly. A small company would then know the payment record of a larger company with which it wanted to do business. It could then choose either to finance the cash flow of that larger company for a period, or not to do that business. That information is vital.
There are other causes of untimely payment. Some companies overstretch themselves or overtrade while trying to build up the business. They may take on loans that become onerous because of other payments that have to be made for materials or work in progress. Poorly structured overdraft facilities can cause major problems for small companies. Someone may go into business without much experience. Things may go well at first, and the person may accept more work and take on an overdraft. Before he knows it, however, the overdraft is inadequate and the bank manager is then anxious to pull the rug from under him.
Banks always lend money when the sun is shining, but when it starts to rain they take away the umbrella that gives a bit of protection. Overdrafts are often inadequate and poor advice is given by professionals who should be helping small companies to deal with those problems. The first duty of a bank is to protect its customers' deposits; it is not to finance struggling businesses. Banks must ensure that everything is done properly to protect those interests. The business world seems wrongly to believe that banks are wholly responsible for loaning money and structuring overdrafts for the development of small businesses. Although banks have a major role to play, we must remember that their first duty is to their depositors, not to their borrowers.
§ Mr. Fabricant
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is also a deficit? High street banks are prepared to loan money up to a certain amount—perhaps £100,000—and merchant banks are prepared to do risk assessments, but only find it worthwhile to loan more than £5 million. There is, therefore, a huge gap. Organisations like 3i are few and far between. Britain suffers because Germany and the United States of America have institutions that are prepared to lend money in the middle ground.
§ Mr. Purchase
The hon. Gentleman sets out that case particularly well. We miss the middle stratum, whereas Germany, with its regional banking system, does not. I commend the Midland bank report, published a few years ago, on that very problem. We have not been able to cover the gap between modest banking loans and the merchant bank approach to the same problem on a larger scale. I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman and can only endorse his remarks. That matter should be dealt with as quickly as possible.
On the whole question of rescue, I did a great deal of work some years ago with the late Derek Fatchett, who was mentioned earlier today. I add my personal tribute, having worked with Derek in education, trade and industry and, latterly, the Foreign Office. He was a grand man and I am very saddened by his passing. We did an awful lot of work on the first draft of Labour's ideas on small firms. We found that there was widespread support for an American-style approach to bringing creditors together to check whether a company was viable—whether it really needed to close or go into liquidation, or whether work could be done to ensure that debts would be paid.
80 In business, one must pay one's way and those who lend money or supply the business with goods and services are entitled to be paid. The supplying of goods and services is not a benevolent action; a return is expected. However, by pulling the rug too quickly, nobody gets anything worth while. The American system—it is chapter 11 rather than chapter 8—allows the bringing together of creditors to examine whether a company could be managed out of a position that would otherwise lead to liquidation, and therefore to the end of the company and the jobs that go with it.
At that point, many things must be looked at—the volume of orders, profitability, the margins expected and whether the company is running its business effectively and efficiently. It is certainly true that many people in the west midlands are marvellous when they are working on their tools, drawings or whatever, but when it comes to running the business they find themselves in difficulties simply because of their lack of knowledge and experience. Whether in the polytechnics, universities or colleges, we simply do not do enough to ensure that people know how to deal with business procedures.
Banks can play a bigger role. I regret the fact that bank managers have become more and more remote from the businesses that they serve. Not that long ago, bank managers would expect to know a great deal about all the small businesses that they were servicing and could give valuable advice, often free of charge—one does not get that with a bank nowadays as nothing is free. A bank manager with local knowledge could often help a company trade through and manage itself in a difficult period.
Really, we are telling banks, "Get your act together." They should recognise that job creation is strong in small companies and that helps the local economy. It is a virtuous circle of developing local products and selling locally, with the money staying in the local economy. Help, help, help is what is needed for small businesses in the early years. Often, an experienced person from the bank, or an accountant, can see his or her way through a simple muddle and clear it up, getting the company through a difficult time.
The legislation to help the rescue of viable businesses is welcome. The detail will be important. Therefore, every member of the Standing Committee should be under a duty to ensure that the Bill is appropriately worded and that it will assist rather than hinder in those difficult circumstances.
The previous Government introduced a worthwhile disqualification procedure for directors who were clearly shown to be inadequate or worse, but regrettably this has turned out to be an extremely long process. Often, disqualification leads on from insolvency proceedings, during which one finds that directors have not behaved as they should. Only at the end of that process can one start the next step of disqualifying a director who has behaved inappropriately.
We need a new process that will protect both the company concerned and other people who may be unaware that the director is involved in insolvency proceedings that may lead to prosecution. We should shorten the time that the process takes—it can take up to five years to get a director disqualified. I would not want to transgress the rule that someone is innocent Until 81 proven guilty, but that procedure leaves many other business people open to the wiles of directors who are perhaps less scrupulous than they should be.
The few get the many a bad name. Those directors and owners of companies whom I know detest people who go about their business wrongly or dishonestly. Such behaviour does so much damage to confidence and to trading between many smaller companies.
§ Mr. Pike
Does my hon. Friend think that we should also study the procedures whereby people stand as directors of mutuals? Often, there is no substance to their nomination, but they have to get only a relatively small number of signatures. I realise that the number is being increased, but there is a considerable danger of people being nominated and elected when they do not have the right qualifications.
§ Mr. Purchase
My hon. Friend speaks with great knowledge of the subject; I have heard him do so before. It is too simple for carpetbaggers to get into these positions. It is not a criminal offence, of course, but by golly it ought to be. The way in which such people behave once elected is a disgrace. However, I have already spoken about that matter and the need for comprehensive legislation and so I should press on.
The proposals on limited liability partnerships are another important step forward. This is a long-standing problem for partnerships. One can have a good partnership agreement that regulates the internal business of a company well, but which, in our increasingly litigious society, can lead to exposure to unlimited damages that are exceedingly hard and expensive to insure against. A small unlimited liability partnership of eight or 10 people could be paying tens of thousands of pounds to get the appropriate insurance.
Many companies, particularly accountancy firms, are finding ways to strip out parts of the business—in particular the audit function—to ensure that they are made into a limited company. That is sensible, but they should not need to have to find the ways and means to do so. We should bring them into the broad stream of limited liability and ensure that companies in our litigious society can protect themselves properly. Obviously, there is a danger that there may be some reduction in the sharpness with which these accountants, lawyers and others look after their own businesses and think of their clients. That is not a huge danger, but we could try to guard against it in any legislation. It would be easy to lose some of the edge that most partnerships now have when defending their pockets and their livelihoods. However, that legislation is welcome.
I am sorry to have detained the House, but there was another notable omission from the Queen's Speech. It is important that we simplify accounting and reporting procedures for small firms. What do I mean by small? In this case, I am talking of those with a turnover of £1 million to £1.2 million and with fewer than 20 employees. Consider the accounts that companies have to produce, mainly to satisfy the banks, which want belt and braces. They want to be assured that everything is okay and they demand more and more information—pages of notes, interpolations and so forth. That places a silly burden on small companies. Frankly, they could simply produce a profit and loss account or a balance sheet as we 82 used to do years ago—what we used to call source and application, but is now called a cash-flow statement. That would be adequate for thousands of small companies. When all that information is brought together—much of it is due to European accounting conventions—the poor bods who are paying for the accounts often have not got a clue what they mean. They really want accounts that they understand and that will let them run their businesses.
In a radio interview, Sir John Harvey-Jones, the troubleshooter, was asked what he thought about the way British business was run and why it was always in trouble for this, that and the other. He was asked if he thought we would be better off if we had as many MBA courses as they have in the United States—every small town has such a course there—to which he replied, "Never mind the MBAs, I'd just be pleased if some of my directors could read a bloody balance sheet." It was as simple as that. He was talking about large companies. In small companies, information that is clearly stated and properly understood is vital to success.
I hope that there will be an opportunity for us to introduce simplified accounts for small companies. It would cost the Treasury little, but would lighten the burden on small developing companies. The Government deserve a welcome for these prospective Bills. They will increase employment opportunities in a vital sector of the British economy.
§ Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase). His was a thoughtful speech and it is sad that such contributions are rarely broadcast on BBC or ITN, which prefer the hurly-burly of Prime Minister's Question Time rather than saner, more intelligent contributions. I am not sure whether I can continue in that vein.
Earlier today, I was speechless when I was called to Abingdon Green, as one is from time to time, to appear on Sky News with the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell). With a Liberal representative, we were commenting on the Queen's Speech. I was quite prepared to say what I thought about it. It is a shame that the hon. Gentleman is not here because he started by saying that the Queen's Speech was rather thin. He said that it contained measures on e-commerce that he did not think that many people would be grabbed by but that the important issues of health and education were not addressed. I did not know what to say because he had taken the very words from my mouth. A growing number of Labour Members now speak the truth and their own minds. He ceremoniously dropped a large Labour briefing of about 100 pages, including questions and answers, on to the grass and said what he truly believed.
At the general election two and a half years ago, a song was sung: "Things Can Only Get Better". I wanted to give the Government the benefit of the doubt. I thought that at least things might stay the same, but they have got worse. What have we heard in this Queen's Speech? There is the Freedom of Information Bill, with 21 exemptions on issues that prejudice the Government. In the White Paper, there were only seven such exemptions. Not satisfied with that, the Home Secretary has powers at any time to use a statutory instrument to increase them further. That is very sad.
83 Both in the previous Parliament and in this, I have spoken in favour of a freedom of information Act. Some hon. Members will know that I was brought up for a while in the United States of America. Its freedom of information legislation creates difficulties for the Government but also a transparency by which democracy is well served.
§ Mr. Fabricant
I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman, who also spent some time in the United States.
§ Mr. Fabricant
The hon. Gentleman says that the Government responded positively, but they have increased the number of exemptions. I do not think that that was positive. They are making the operation of Government more opaque with their Freedom of Information Bill. That is unfortunate.
I also said in the previous Parliament and in the current one that, in principle, I am not against a minimum wage. One operates in the United States, but with many exemptions and regional variations. There is not a national minimum wage in the sense that we understand it in the United Kingdom. If the Labour party is looking towards the United States of America, it should not pluck headings like "minimum wage" or "Freedom of Information Bill" and then degrade the legislation when it is translated into an English environment. They should learn from the United States and see where United Kingdom legislation could be improved if it echoed that which operates in the United States.
There are some good points in the Queen's Speech. One item caused me some surprise. It will be made unlawful for public bodies to discriminate on racial grounds. I and Labour and Conservative colleagues were surprised that it is lawful for public bodies so to discriminate. That loophole needs to be closed. I am pleased that it will be.
We all applaud the general principle of stamping out abuse in the social services. I only hope that that does not mean in practice that people with disabilities who are on the margin will be prevented by the Government from claiming disability benefit that they previously could have claimed. Where there is genuine abuse, it should be stamped out because it deprives those in genuine need from accessing money from the social services and social security budget. It all depends on the fine print. I suspect that hon. Members on both sides of the House will examine that closely when the Bill is published.
Another good point is mandatory drug testing in the criminal justice system. We all know that drugs pervade many of our prisons. If mandatory drug testing means mandatory drug testing of prisoners, I will applaud it. There has always been a problem with that because it has been the general view of the European Court of Human Rights that prisoners have the right to refuse drug testing 84 and invasive examination by doctors. I applaud the Government, if—and it is a big "if'—they are going to resist that and allow the testing of prisoners.
§ Mr. Fabricant
If that is the effect of such examination, it is detrimental. Some day, in many, many years' time, perhaps there will be a sensible debate about cannabis, but we will not get into that now.
I also welcome the interesting prospect of a measure on commonhold. The danger with such legislation is that if it is too one-sided, it could drive leasehold property off the market. I well remember the Rent Acts of the 1970s and how they drove rented property from the market and much increased the cost of acquiring property. However, if the Bill is introduced sensibly, I suspect that it will have the support of the whole House.
So far I have been positive and embracing, but let me say now that the majority of the Queen's Speech will be disapproved of not only by most Opposition Members but by the country. It is wrong to clobber the driver yet again. Three new taxes are being introduced: a congestion tax, a motorway tax and a parking tax. I wonder whether the parking tax will apply to us in the House of Commons. Will we be taxed for using the car parking facilities in the Palace of Westminster?
For many people, including those in rural areas such as the constituency that I have the honour to represent, there is no alternative to the motor car. There is an answer to congestion on our major trunk roads and motorways. That answer is not achieved by simply imposing tolls. That answer involves modern technology. The Transport Research Laboratory and the sister body in the United States have proved that it is possible to increase the density of traffic on existing roads sixfold. That would require an act of vision by the Government and sadly, the Government are not a Government based on vision. They are a Government based on soundbite. If some of the new technologies were introduced, we would find that it would not be necessary to build roads such as the Birmingham northern relief road or to increase the width of the M1 or the M6. If the new technologies were slowly introduced, we could increase the amount of traffic on existing roads sixfold.
Such an increase would allow more than the population of Britain to be on the road simultaneously. If every person over 16 drove, the amount of traffic would increase only threefold. So there is huge capacity if we use current available technology. That is an exciting prospect, but the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions has not even begun to explore it, let alone include it in the Queen's Speech.
The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East mentioned chapter 11. I have been looking at my notes on the insolvency Bill. Unless my notes are incomplete, it seems that the Bill will not contain any provision such as chapter 11. When a company gets into difficulties—small companies often do as a result of cash flow problems—it is difficult for it to trade out of difficulty in the short term. Here again, Britain could look to the 85 United States. Under chapter 11, a receiver is appointed not to liquidate a company but to protect it, if it is viable, and allow it to trade out of difficulties.
§ Mr. Purchase
I have no special knowledge about whether the Bill will contain a provision such as chapter 11, but if we are to bring about the changes envisaged there will have to be an American-style approach. It will not necessarily be a chapter 11 provision.
§ Mr. Fabricant
As with so much of the legislation, we shall have to wait and see and read the fine print of the Bill. I hope that there will be some such provision. So many good companies go to the wall as a result of temporary cash flow difficulties. If only they could be protected for six or 12 months, they could survive. TWA, which some would argue is not a good company because it is still making losses, was protected for six years. I believe that United Airlines—no doubt I will receive a brisk letter from it tomorrow if I have got it wrong—is still under chapter 11 protection. Nevertheless, it is bad for the viability of business in Great Britain that good companies go out of business simply because they have short-term cash flow problems.
I was sad to see that there was no mention in any depth about the state of agriculture in the Queen's Speech. Three or four months ago, the Prime Minister stood just a few feet from where I am standing and said, "We have lifted the beef ban." As far as I know, not one kilogram, not one gram, or should I say not one ounce, of beef has been exported to France or Germany yet. Not one ounce of beef has yet been exported on or off the bone to Europe. So how the Prime Minister can boast that he has lifted the ban, I do not know. The matter has still to be addressed.
The health Bill is non-existent. I guess that all I can report is what is happening in Lichfield. The Victoria hospital faces, if not closure, having most of its services taken away. This is a good opportunity to give a little plug. I commend the Lichfield Mercury, which in just three weeks pulled together a petition to save our Vic. I have just sent today to the Secretary of State for Health a petition of 15,146 names, which is out of 28,000 adults who live in Lichfield—more than half the adult population. They sang the song, "Things Can Only Get Better" at the election. Well they ain't getting better on the health front in Lichfield or Staffordshire as a whole.
On the law and order and policing front, things have got considerably worse. I had the opportunity at Prime Minister's questions to bring to his attention the current state of policing in Staffordshire. Due to lack of funding from the Government, in the next three years the Staffordshire police force will be reduced by 250 police officers. That is literally a decimation of Staffordshire police. The Government will have to deal with that. It is happening not only in Staffordshire but up and down the country. If one goes to Lichfield police station after 5 o'clock, one finds the doors locked and shuttered. It has become a nine-to-five business. Things have not got better under Labour.
What about education? I saw a cartoon in Private Eye a few weeks ago that showed the Prime Minister looking at a piece of paper that said, "Education, education, education". The Prime Minister turns to a colleague and says, "Education, education, education—that's all I hear about nowadays." The promise was made before the 86 election that areas such as Staffordshire and other parts of the country that were not getting a fair allocation in their standard spending assessment would have their allocation equalised with that of Hertfordshire. That has not happened. It was a broken promise. For all the promises that the Prime Minister has made, he now tells us that the Government will not even attempt to achieve a fairer assessment for Staffordshire and other counties until after the next election. I have been told in a written answer that he cannot guarantee when the matter will be considered. He certainly makes no guarantees about the result.
§ Mr. David Taylor
I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern about the SSA for primary and secondary school pupils in Staffordshire because Leicestershire shares those difficulties, but does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that the SSA formula that creates widespread anomalies was produced by the Conservative Government and that the key difficulty is the supplement given to authorities in the south-east to reflect their apparent additional costs, which are in dispute?
§ Mr. Fabricant
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the formula existed under the previous Government. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was on the Opposition Benches when I was on the Government Benches, but he may recall that I raised the matter with the previous Prime Minister, as I have done with the current Prime Minister. At least I get full marks for consistency. The hon. Gentleman is wrong when he says that the rate for Staffordshire and Leicestershire is not high compared with that for southern England; it is also low compared with that of Manchester and the north-west. I suspect that the problems that he ascribes to the previous Government with regard to the south-east are now the problems that apply to his Government. The Labour Government also want to appeal to the south-east. Many people in the north-west and north-east feel that they are being neglected by the Labour Government for the benefit of the south-east.
At the end of the day, the promise was made. At least I received an honest answer from the previous Prime Minister. He said that the situation could not be changed, and made no promise at the general election. So that is another broken promise from Labour. I confidently expected something in the Queen's Speech to address that problem. Like so many other important issues that should have been in the Queen's Speech, that one was also missing. That is another example of how things can only get worse.
I do not know why I went to hear the Queen's Speech. I was in my office in Norman Shaw North and I switched on the internet to look at BBC Online. At 9 am most of the Queen's Speech was already on the internet. Parliament is becoming increasingly sidelined. I am trying to be in reasonable mode following the example of the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East. Of course, in the past, drips of information were released before statements in Parliament, but not in such detail as happens now.
In the not too distant future, we will not be traipsing to the other place through Central Lobby. We will all traipse into Downing street. The Head of Government, nay the head of state, will stand on a balcony specially erected in Downing street—assuming that the Prime Minister's office is still in No. 10 Downing street, as he has deemed 87 it too small for his operation. We will all have to look up as god himself, the Prime Minister, gives the word down to us. That is the state of affairs that we are fast approaching.
The Queen's Speech was supposed to be about enterprise and fairness. Instead, as the hon. Member for Great Grimsby said, it was a thin speech. I am a great admirer of the Her Majesty the Queen, and my estimation rose still higher when she read this empty speech with a straight face worthy of the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson). The Queen deserves an Oscar for her performance this morning. The Queen's Speech was sadly not about enterprise and fairness. As ever, it was all about spin and hype.
§ Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)
Having listened to 22 minutes of constructive criticism consisting of thin air from someone who cannot string three phrases together without a cliché, I have to ask myself about the purpose of opposition. For a number of years I sat on the Opposition Benches, and I listened to Queen's Speech after Queen's Speech. I tried to be critical and analytical, to find what was good and what was bad. I often found an awful lot that was bad, but occasionally found something good. That which was good I praised, and that which was bad I criticised. When I studied this Queen's Speech, I applied the same test.
§ Mr. Fabricant
The hon. Gentleman said that I spoke for 22 minutes. I think that he was present the whole time—if not, he will see this when he reads Hansard—so I am sure he will agree that I spoke for seven or eight minutes at the beginning about what I thought was good in the Queen's Speech.
§ Mr. Bermingham
If the hon. Gentleman had left it there, he would have done the House a service. I do not propose to take 22 minutes on my speech.
I read the Queen's Speech and asked myself what it does for my constituency. That is the test to which any Queen's Speech must be put. Many measures have been introduced. We have heard about tax credits and other proposals, and I shall not bore the House by repeating comments on them. I endorse what my right hon. and hon. Friends have said.
St. Helens is an old area. I am reminded of the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), who represents an equally old industrial area. My hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands) also referred to his constituency where industries are dying. We need to bring new industry, training and development to those areas.
In my area we have lost the coal industry, the glass industry has been scaled down—we have lost United Glass and others—we have lost the chemical industry in SmithKline Beecham, and we have lost large parts of the clothing industry. I hope that the Government will reconsider the textile agreements, which we have not yet entered into, that would protect the textile industries in my constituency and in the rest of the United Kingdom.
When those industries go, what will we be left with? In St. Helens we are left with the training industry. Our college has some 20,000 students. The tragedy is that it 88 trains them and they develop—but where do they work? They have to move away. The young cannot work in their home town. Every year, thousands of people are trained for the hotel and catering industry and then move away.
Some industries are developing in my area. There are now nearly 5,000 employees in the transport and distribution industry. Why? Because we are conveniently placed at the crossroads of several motorways: the M56, M6, M62 and M57. Lorries travel back and forth. I am glad that the escalator tax has slowed down. If it had continued at the same rate, the transport industry in the north-west would have been in extreme difficulty.
I am concerned about taxation on transport vehicles. Eddie Stobart has already set up in Belgium, with his first company moving abroad. My experience and background in Ireland tell me that Northern Irish transport industries are moving south. Why? Taxation and diesel costs are lower. Lorries can take 1,000 gallons. The rules have now changed, so that lorries can travel through entire countries without picking up fuel. They deliver in transit and pick up and transfer on again. I am worried, and I make no bones about that.
I am worried about certain rules on the taxation of vehicles. What is defined as a goods vehicle? Mobile cranes are not goods vehicles, but according to a ruling in a court case mobile pumps are—the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency in Swansea said they were not, but the judges said they were.
If society is to develop sensibly, we must consider those matters as of grave concern. They affect my constituency, but are not dealt with in the Queen's Speech. If we are to have a fair and just society, we must consider these issues with some care. I am not being critical of the Government. Members of Parliament must take these matters on board and bring them to the attention of the Executive. Court judgments are made because the politicians and legislative draftsmen do not always envisage the outcome of the legislation they produce. I welcome the development of the second Chamber, where these issues can be speedily aired rather than having to find time in an overcrowded timetable in the first Chamber. I am hopeful that important matters will be considered. Only three or four Members of Parliament may have an interest in mobile pumps, but they are important to the industry, and thus to society.
The Queen's Speech contained various measures on the development of enterprise. I shall not repeat the points made by my hon. Friends the Members for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase) and for Burnley (Mr. Pike). I endorse what they said about the measures for business. This is positive and progressive legislation, and it should not be political. I do not think that it will be, but we must be careful that what we do not adversely affect other interests.
That leads me to the point about which I got up to speak. I declare an interest, as a practising lawyer. Certain matters in the Gracious Speech cause me some anxiety. I put on record my concern about the reference in the Queen's Speech to the fact that those on community service who do not comply may lose their benefit. We should think that through. If a thief does not do his 80 hours' community service and his benefit is taken away, what will he do? He will become a thief again. That is not productive. We already have in place procedures 89 whereby he can be called back for breach of his community service, brought before the court and re-sentenced. There is already a sanction.
§ Mr. Don Foster (Bath)
As a lawyer, will the hon. Gentleman advise the House as to whether, in addition to the concerns he has already expressed, there is a potential problem with double jeopardy?
§ Mr. Bermingham
There is indeed, and that is another matter that will have to be examined against the European convention on human rights, which becomes effective in our law on 1 January.
I welcome the reconsideration of the whole question of the interception of telephone conversations. Some years ago in the House, the then Home Secretary acknowledged that, for some years, every conversation between the UK and America had been automatically intercepted through Government communications headquarters, Cheltenham and recorded, with certain sounds and words acting as triggers. One understands that, but the libertarian aspect must be taken into consideration.
§ Mr. Fabricant
I am sure the hon. Gentleman is correct. However, is he aware that it might not be only GCHQ that monitors transatlantic conversations, but that another country—which I shall not name today—does the same from within the United Kingdom?
§ Mr. Bermingham
I am aware of that, as I am of the various methods used. I am also aware of the 1986 case of Regina v. Preston, which appeared to sort out the issue, but which the Court of Appeal has varied and circumvented ever since.
I understand that surveillance is often necessary in the interests of national security, and in major drugs and other criminal cases. However, intrusive methods have been used or are being developed that have nothing to do with police action, but are privately used, and they cause great havoc in the personal lives of certain persons. It is quite possible to use a boom mike to pick up a conversation taking place behind a window hundreds of yards away, and that is the sort of thing that needs to be examined. I await with interest the details of that legislation. The Queen's speech mentionsthe protection both of the rights of individuals and of society as a whole.The time has come to strike that balance once again. I am not speaking solely about investigations of criminality; in certain cases of investigative journalism, the balance has been tipped the wrong way. In the recent past, we have seen some horrendous examples, which I do not need to spell out in detail.
Similarly, I am somewhat concerned about anti-terrorist legislation, especially in the light of what I have read recently. Of course terrorism must be combated and we have a duty to return to the issue, even though—fingers crossed—it appears that the original cause of the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, starting in 1974, might be resolving itself. I shall not tempt fate by saying any more than that: as one who was born and bred in Ireland, I do not raise the subject without reason.
Tonight, I raise the subject because I read in the newspaper that the scope of the proposed anti-terrorism Bill might extend beyond strict definitions of terrorism— 90 blowing things up for political reasons—into what one might call the land of the eco-warrior and of the protester. We must be extremely careful when distinguishing between terrorism and disruptive behaviour. When does protest cross the narrow line? We must watch that line carefully, and I put down a marker tonight to the effect that I have reservations.
I welcome the extension of anti-terrorism powers, but as I have said many times before, if someone blows another person up, whether it is done for political or personal reasons, the fact is that blowing someone up is a criminal offence. One must be careful not to create a new type of criminality: when a person is injured or personal property damaged or destroyed, an offence has been committed and there can be no justification for it; the ordinary criminal law is adequate to deal with almost every such case. However, I recognise that some exceptional cases, often connected with religious or racial conflict, transcend the normal criminal law and require special treatment.
My final concern arises from the fact that 20,000 trials by jury will not take place. We are going to restrict the right to trial, and that is a matter that should cause concern to any person with libertarian feelings. Let us consider the reasons for the measure. People usually elect trial because they believe that they have a better chance in front of a jury than in front of a magistrate. I shall not debate the merits of that decision tonight—we can discuss it in due course. My question is, to whom should we give that choice?
Are we to have a two-tier justice system? Will a person accused of a certain sort of crime get a jury trial, whereas one accused of mere theft—an accusation that can affect one's credibility, job prospects and entire future—will not? Are we going to tell the accused that if more than £15,000 is involved, he will get a jury trial if he wants it, whereas a person accused of stealing less than £15,000 will not? Where are we to draw such an arbitrary line and how can we justify the decision? How can we create a system in which certain types of people are entitled to a certain type of trial, but others are not?
The example of such a system not causing any problems in Scotland has been trotted out. Trouble is, Scots law is different from English law: there are different burdens of proof and different outcomes are possible—for example, that of case not proven.
§ Mr. David Taylor
As a magistrate, I have seen each-way cases go on to the Crown court, where barristers such as my hon. Friend operate. In the great majority of such cases, the defendant does not sustain the plea of not guilty made to my colleagues and me. Surely something must be done to tackle that phenomenon?
§ Mr. Bermingham
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that point, because it is exactly the one to which I was coming. That has been the perceived problem: it is called a cracked trial, because the defendant pleads to offences different from those on the original indictment.
One of the problems of the system is that, when a case is committed for trial in a magistrates court, one is given a pleas and directions date, usually three to four weeks hence. At that stage, one pleads to the indictment that was drawn for committal. The problem—let us make no bones about the fact that it is the fault of the lawyers—is that, 91 because payment rates for both prosecution and defence are so low at that stage, people take on whole wodges of cases, but do not always do their own cases; therefore, it is extremely difficult to get agreement on possible alternative charges.
There are two solutions to the problem: make the period longer and, to put it bluntly, make it worthwhile for the prosecution counsel to turn up. That way, they will have been briefed early enough to be in a position for the defence to say, for example, that the accused will plead not guilty to theft, but will accept a handling charge. That is often what happens: it is a cracked trial, but a guilty plea is entered and a lot of money saved.
I have made this point time and again in a professional context, and it is understood by the profession. I believe that the savings sought from the proposed measure amount to £100 million or less. That may sound a lot of money, but we run the risk of allowing two types of justice to operate, and we run the risk of being condemned in that regard. We run the risk of allowing people to be convicted when they should not be convicted if we take away the ancient right of trial by jury.
Savings could be made if only people would stand back from the situation for long enough and look at it carefully. I accept that some cases are so piffling that they should never go to trial; my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (Mr. Taylor) knows that too. Such cases, and their disposal, can be dealt with in the present circumstances. However, if we think long and carefully enough, we shall find that considerable savings can be made at the point at which it is decided whether or not to take a case to trial. Some cases—I have been involved in them—are extremely complicated, running to 20,000 or 30,000 pages. Do we really need cases of such complexity?
I attempt no special pleading tonight—others will probably do that far more eloquently than I could at a later stage—but I must say that the proposed Bill causes me some concern, and I therefore put a marker down. No doubt the Whips will note that, but they probably expected it in any event.
I end where I started. Overall, this was a good Queen's Speech. I do not say that because it was written by the Government; I apply the tests that I have applied to every Queen's Speech over the years. It contains much useful, constructive matter. Of course we shall all pick and choose in regard to its contents, but I think that, in a year's time, the law will be that little bit better, and—with a bit of luck—society will be that little bit freer and better off.
§ Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)
I appreciate the opportunity to speak. Like the hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham), I think that there is quite a lot in the Queen's Speech. How it will develop is a matter for the House to decide, but hon. Members on both sides of the House to whom I have spoken today agree that, given the number of Bills proposed, it is possible that the European working time directive may be debated here. Let me enter a caveat: I trust that the Government will not continue to guillotine Bills, and that they will give us an opportunity to examine and expose failures in legislation. Under Governments of both 92 persuasions, the House has often had to deal with 150 or so amendments on Report of a Bill. We really need time to scrutinise legislation properly.
I share the concerns that have been expressed about small businesses. Again, I must enter a caveat. Quite often, the Inland Revenue has allowed PAYE and national insurance contributions to mount up, and then has suddenly closed in. Other small businesses that were trading profitably have suddenly been caught because they were not warned that liquidation was imminent.
Some years ago, I pressed a Foreign Office Minister about the way in which even the Foreign Office presented some of its accounts. I am harshly cynical at times, and I believe that accountants have been trained to conceal rather than to reveal. At times, it is difficult to establish the real substance of reports. I would welcome clarity, especially for the purposes of small businesses.
I did not altogether go along with the plea of the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy) in regard to sexuality. I appreciate that we must make allowances for people's sexuality, but there must be restraints on it at times. After all, only a week ago we discovered that all that Glitters is not gold. It is important for us to protect younger people, and I welcome the reintroduction of legislation for that purpose, although I am not convinced that equalising the position by lowering the age of consent is the best option.
I feel that our society is becoming a bit like the British railways: too many red lights have been passed, and more difficulties and damage are being caused to society as a whole. We should exercise caution, because, whether or not we like to admit it, we are living in an age in which people do what they want without the restraint of law. Most of us have committed the sin of parking in the wrong place, or driving over the speed limit. When a traffic warden approaches us, or a police officer stops us, we say, "It is the first time that I have done it." What we should say is, "It is the first time that I have been caught." Most of us in that aspect of life reflect a dangerous tendency in society.
Having said that, I welcome quite a number of the Bills that are to be introduced, but I wonder whether, in relation to the protection of children, we have completely examined the role that we are giving to social workers. With the protocols and pressures that have been put on them, many of them cannot handle their case load; there are not enough of them. I know that others will say that there are too many social workers, but most social workers with whom I have been involved in Northern Ireland have been of the highest calibre. I readily admit that, as in any society, some do not do their work properly, but I wonder whether we ask them to do too much with all our regulations.
I speak also of the ageing population. Today, some have paid tribute to the free television licence for the over-75s. Perhaps they were being more realistic and had done the accounting. I do not know whether the Chancellor of the Exchequer has worked out the sums accurately, but they were easy to work on because a high proportion of those who are over 75 are in residential homes, where they are already entitled to free television. An interesting point is whether we should look at the 93 pensioners who are younger than that, but living on the lowest income—they should have free television as well.
§ Mr. David Taylor
Would the hon. Gentleman accept a correction? I believe that three quarters of those who are 85 or over live independently and only a quarter live in the type of accommodation to which he has referred.
§ Rev. Martin Smyth
I welcome the correction. The hon. Gentleman said 85, unless my hearing was wrong, but I am talking about those who are over 75. I am dealing only with what was reported to me. It is an aspect that I should like to press. Some of us have been arguing for a long time that free television should be provided for those who live alone, or who have just the bare pension income; sometimes, they have a small pension that is over and above the state pension, which takes them out of the benefit system. They are the folk who are squeezed most.
On terrorism, I share the views of the hon. Member for St. Helens, South about the normal criminal law. Under the prevention of terrorist legislation, some criminals are better off in Northern Ireland than ordinary, decent criminals because they can get out now: they have committed their crime for a political purpose. Again, we are giving the wrong signals to society.
I know that there are those who have not been happy with the contribution from the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley), who brought some realism to the expectations. I was interested because the media told us last night that it is the Labour party's standard policy that its members and councillors should abide by its manifesto. Apparently, those of us in Northern Ireland who have abided by our manifesto, on which we were elected by the people, should set that aside.
Significantly, on Monday, a Minister in the Dail announced a pension for survivors of the war of independence and, today, the IRA talks about the continued fight for freedom. There is that mentality. It is interesting to note that the IRA has said that only when the Executive and the institutions of the Good Friday agreement have been set up will it appoint an interlocutor to meet General De Chastelain. In fact, there will be two interlocutors—one is already there and will continue to represent Sinn Fein and whoever represents the IRA will join him. Unless that position is changed dramatically then, as I understand the legislation, the only folk who can put people out of the Executive are the Members of the Assembly. It is done on a proportional basis which means that at least 50 per cent. from the Unionist side would have to vote to put out somebody from a Unionist background who was misbehaving and 50 per cent. from the nationalist side would have to vote to put out somebody from that side who was misbehaving.
I urge the House to treat these possible promises with a degree of caution before becoming too enraptured by the words of those who have not yet delivered. We must remember that the people of Northern Ireland have already been misled by the clear handwriting of the Prime Minister. Perhaps he forgot that there is a decent education system in Northern Ireland and that people can read and understand plain English. He has not abided by his commitment.
§ Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)
Would it be helpful if the Social Democratic Labour party said that, 94 in the circumstances that the hon. Gentleman described, it would exercise its vote to remove Sinn Fein if IRA decommissioning had not taken place?
§ Rev. Martin Smyth
As usual, the hon. Gentleman has been helpful. Some of us have been pressing that argument for some time, even on the Floor of the House. It may be a way forward to say that constitutional nationalists and constitutional Unionists who want to abide by the ballot box rather than terror and the gun should work together.
We must remember that, even in the House there are different parties with different emphases and different ideas. We can come together on some common interests but, on bigger interests, there are diversities. It would be wrong to imagine for one moment that any specific party in Northern Ireland will surrender its basic objective. However, there are those who would work together for a common good.
I have had the privilege this year to work on the parliamentary police scheme and have spent time with the Royal Ulster Constabulary. I recognise that there are things in the Patten report—the independent commission report—for which the RUC has been asking for years. Because finances are restricted, those things are now being used as bargaining points to let the political details take over. The House should pay tribute to a force that has withstood terror from whatever source and that, within its ability, has dealt with law-breakers from wherever they came. That force is having to forgo its title and insignia to placate militant terrorists and the House should keep that in mind in the coming legislation.
I welcome some of the measures in the Queen's Speech, but I advise the House that we should treat some issues with a great deal more care. We have been building up people's expectations. I was given cause for alarm by what I believe was a promise to improve the education facilities for disabled young people. I welcome that but, in the past, we have passed legislation and then left schools to work things out without adequate finance.
Local school management has sometimes seemed to be a tremendous innovation, but some schools have suffered because of new pressures and changing population numbers. The inside of one school in my constituency, for example, has not been decorated for 21 years. There is something wrong with Governments who pride themselves on providing the best for children, but who leave them in such conditions. I trust that, in the coming days, we shall have time to explore those issues.
I welcome the Gracious Speech and its positive note. Nevertheless, hon. Members will all, each from our different perspective, watch with care developments on the matters affecting us most.
§ Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)
It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth), which I often seem to do in the House. He and I sometimes disagree on what are called moral issues. We wrote conflicting articles, in The House Magazine, on the issue of abortion in Northern Ireland, and we hold opposing views on the age of consent. I take a more libertarian stand on those issues. Nevertheless, on social issues—some of which he mentioned—and disability issues, our views are often very similar.
95 I am interested in Northern Ireland affairs. The hon. Member for Belfast, South and I probably agree on some issues affecting Northern Ireland, but disagree on others. I should like there to be considerable advance in the peace process. He not only mentioned the IRA's disappointing response to the agreement made with the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), but rightly said that we needed a statement allowing advances to be made. On other issues and problems affecting Northern Ireland, the hon. Gentleman and I do not always see eye to eye, but he probably has much more experience of them than I do.
Considering the Queen's Speech is rather like looking through a glass darkly. Although we are able to discern some things on the other side of the glass, they are open to interpretation. Some hon. Members have strong views on issues and possible proposals, but the position is not yet fully established. Although we have heard a Queen's Speech that contains headline proposals, in coming days, we shall be hearing statements to elaborate on those proposals.
As we also know, Bills and provisions have already been drafted. Nevertheless, those provisions may still be changed dramatically before they are introduced in the House. That is especially true, in Northern Ireland, of the Patten report. The Gracious Speech states:A Bill will be presented to implement proposals from the Independent Commission on Policing, following the completion of consultation.On one interpretation, therefore, the House may be asked to implement the Patten proposals without cherry-picking. Conversely, based on the results of the consultation, we may be asked to implement very different proposals. In response to an early-day motion on the Patten report that I tabled, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland wrote to me and said—quite helpfully, in the current circumstances—that the matter was by no means closed and would not be dealt with hastily.
§ Rev. Martin Smyth
Before the summer recess, I asked for a debate on that matter in the spill-over period, so that hon. Members might have a chance to express our views on it. We have not yet had such a debate, but I hope that we shall have one before a Bill is introduced.
§ Mr. Barnes
I agree that it would be useful to have a discussion about the Patten report and its complexities. The hon. Gentleman has already mentioned some of the points that the Royal Ulster Constabulary has raised. Parts of the report are consistent with the seemingly more moderate report of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs. On other issues, it is more problematic. Will the local policing bodies merely be local consultative bodies or are they intended to be something more? Some clarification on that would be helpful. I know that there is a feeling that we should not rock the boat at the moment because there are delicate discussions taking place, but sometimes debates in the House can tease out issues and develop positions, resulting in a synthesis in discussions, as we can give matters serious consideration and many hon. Members have a lot of relevant experience.
I was using the Patten report as an example of an area in which we are not sure what the Queen's Speech will mean, because things might turn out to be different from 96 how they currently appear. That is of considerable interest to me, because in the last two weeks of the previous parliamentary Session, I voted against the Government 10 times and abstained on another occasion. I wonder which of the measures in the current Queen's Speech will test my patience too much when it comes to the crunch. I see that there will be measures on the Post Office and air traffic control. They might lead to me being unhappy with what is presented, but there is a long time to go. There will be debate and, hopefully, reflection on the arguments that are put forward and there is a chance for some proposals to be moderated.
§ Mr. Don Foster
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that any attempt to part-privatise National Air Traffic Services should be of real concern to the House, because the entire service is fundamentally bound up in the safety principle and any introduction of the motive of profit would undermine that?
§ Mr. Barnes
That is my traditional attitude on such issues. I am even more solidly behind that attitude than the Liberal Democrats, because I am a democratic socialist. As a young man who wrote letters to the local newspaper, when I was in conflict with others who argued the case for private enterprise, the Post Office was my crunch example of an area that required public control. That seems sensible and logical, and the arguments are very much in my favour. The notion of privatising or half-privatising the Post Office is unacceptable. Some of those details will come out later.
The introduction to the Queen's Speech tells us about the past rather than about future legislation, expressing the Government's philosophy. That presents some problems for me. The second paragraph says:My Government's aim is to promote fairness and enterprise".Those two ideas run alongside each other. I can see some sense in combining them, but a lot of shorthand language is used in the Queen's Speech—and often in speeches from the Front Benches.
Promoting fairness and enterprise really means the third way: the notion that the freedoms of the market and of enterprise can be co-ordinated with social justice rather than having a compromise between two distinctive approaches. I do not believe in that. The Labour party was not traditionally a left-wing socialist party—it was labourite and concerned with trade unions and social welfare—but it offered hope to democratic socialists.
The Conservative party was the party of free enterprise, but not always to the nth degree, as it moderated its policies after the war, following the Attlee Government, and adopted changes under the reports of Butler and others; but under Thatcherism it adopted that policy wholeheartedly.
The party of partnership, trying to square the circle and reconcile the labourite and capital interests, was the old Liberal party. The philosophy propounded under new Labour as the third way is old Liberal. I am not in the old Liberal, but in the democratic socialist camp. As a democratic socialist, I am happy about some aspects of the Queen's Speech.
The speech refers tostable levels of economic growth and employment",and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister spoke of the decline in unemployment and the fact that more people are employed now than ever before. I also applaud the 97 new deal, the national minimum wage and the working families tax credit. That credit is better than what existed before, but other methods might have been considered that did not involve making telephone calls and claiming. The Liberals, in one of their more progressive moves, discussed negative income tax with those of us with democratic socialist feelings.
On the other side of the coin of those measures of social advance are innovations such as 10 per cent. corporation tax—not quite the sort of thing that democratic socialists favour, except that we realise that there are pressures in the era of global competition in capital markets. We would not necessarily have wanted to be associated with measures such as the independence of the Bank of England and the central European bank reforms.
The Queen's Speech will produce much legislation of which we can be proud. It speaks ofbuilding on the establishment of a Disability Rights Commissionand the work done on that has been outstanding, but we need to tease out what is meant. Does it mean merely that we have a commission and it will do some good work, or that we will produce further concrete measures?
To its credit, the speech contains some measures for disabled people, even if they are not spelled out. There will be access to polling stations for people with disabilities. Some of us might want to push the proposals a bit further, but the Bill will represent an advance for the interests of disabled people. They should have the same right as able-bodied people to exercise their right to vote at a polling station if they so wish.
Will the Government's proposals lead further? Ministers have made statements on disability and there are signs that full civil rights for disabled people, which several of us have proposed in Bills introduced in the House, will be on the cards. I hope that they will be on the cards in the coming Session.
Transport has been discussed. The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) said that too much pressure was being used to discourage people from using cars and that people would not be able to get about in rural areas. The Government want to contain the use of cars and proposea modern integrated and safe transport systemWhen I, from my democratic socialist background, hear the termmodern integrated and safe transport system",I think, "That's okay. I want to get involved in that." I just want to see the details so that we can push the proposal further.
Problems in the rural areas of my constituency were created by measures such as bus deregulation. We now face massive problems with the bus service. Sheffield and South Yorkshire are just to the north of my constituency. When South Yorkshire Transport held transport costs down year after year, people were able to travel very cheaply. It was a fantastic system and people kept their cars at home. They could get off one bus and on to another, and it was possible to reach different places. Strategic planning in South Yorkshire was based on that popular bus service. However, the Thatcher Government's measures on bus deregulation attacked that system and, at one stage, bus after bus clogged up the centre of Sheffield while no buses came to the rural areas of my constituency. Providing a service to rural areas was not considered to be profitable unless it was subsidised by the county council.
98 I would have had an Adjournment debate on bus services on the day that the House prorogued if we had managed to keep business going until the Friday, but I lost my debate. However, I hope that I will be able to return to the subject on a future occasion, because traffic commissioners are taking a serious interest in the problems that exist with Stagecoach's operation of the buses in the Chesterfield and Mansfield area. It has 60 per cent. of the bus routes in that area, but buses do not turn up, they are late and they miss out certain areas because drivers have to meet unreasonable timetables. Those points are relevant to the Bill mentioned in the Queen's Speech thatwill contain measures to improve bus services and reduce road congestion.We also face considerable road congestion in the town centres in which bus services attempt to operate.
The speech refers tomodernisation for health and social care".Certainly, my constituency faces problems in that regard. For example, my constituent, Anita Froggatt, had a breast removed in error because of a mistake made at Chesterfield and North Derbyshire Royal hospital. A report has been produced on such untoward incidents at the hospital and I am waiting for a Minister to tell me the Government's feelings on the issue. However, I think that the report's investigation was entirely inadequate and its recommendations fail to tackle the problems that existed there.
I was most enthusiastic about the following part of the Queen's Speech:My Government will also bring forward a Bill to reform our electoral procedures to make it easier for people to participate in elections.The Liberal Democrats should realise the significance of that sentence. While they support the principle that every vote should have the same value, they need to realise that the principle can be achieved only if every person has a vote. That is not the case for the millions of people missing from our electoral register because of our ancient system of registration. What was appropriate at the start of the 20th century is no longer appropriate today.
The Government intend a rolling register, allowing for the registration of homeless people, who currently find it almost impossible. There will also be increased access to polling stations. These important measures are rightly being taken at the mid-point of a Parliament, between elections. If we left it later, it would be too late to get people on to the register. Traditionally, people only begin to take an interest in this problem when an election is due, and it can be difficult to stimulate concern.
I have been involved with this matter since the poll tax was introduced. I realised that the poll tax would adversely affect electoral registration. When I started to argue the point, I realised that much else was wrong with our dated system in a society more mobile and rootless than the one it was designed for.
The hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) mentioned standard spending assessment problems. It is a pity that that point was not covered in the Queen's Speech. Apart from a few amendments, the system is based on the Local Government Finance Act 1988, which introduced the poll tax. The only significant change since then was the replacement of the poll tax with the council tax, which is 99 just a pale version of the poll tax. Arrangements for the national business rate and mechanisms for the methodology that determines SSAs remain.
The Government have said that it will take three years to produce fresh legislation for this complex area. A year has passed since then, and the forthcoming SSA local finance statement will contain only marginal adjustments. We must wait two more years before there will be some change, but massive injustices exist. In education, the top-slicing of money under the area cost adjustment is an example. In North-East Derbyshire, an exaggerated emphasis is given to the enhanced population figures, meaning that much money is transferred to other areas where people work rather than remaining in the residential areas. I argue not that the principle should not apply, but that the weighting is excessive.
The Queen's Speech suggests that we should press for economic reform and enlargement of the European Union. We should look first, however, at political and democratic reform. A body that takes to itself more and more power and authority—despite arguments about subsidiarity—is not adequate as we enter a new millennium in a group of democratic nations. We should have a democratic, federal and social Europe. Enlargement, monetary union and other issues would then become easier to operate because they could be determined democratically. Nations could make decisions about matters that are relevant to them, and the European Union could, through its parliamentary institutions, make decisions about matters with which it should be concerned.
I am sorry that the Queen's Speech does not include some subjects; other items can be extended and developed, and others are worrying. However, I shall not know how many times I shall be tempted to rebel until the parliamentary year is over.
§ Mr. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington)
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes). There will be much common ground between our speeches, but I suspect that that will be more harmful to his political career than to mine. However, I shall not follow him on the path to democratic socialism, however integrated that path.
It is tempting to comment on all the speeches that I have heard in the past six and a half hours, but if I did that I would detain hon. Members longer than they would like. Apparently, an important football match is being played and some hon. Members may want to return to it. I am pleased that the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) is back in the Chamber because I want to comment on his astonishing bout of pathological hatred for proportional representation and fair votes. His hatred is possibly for the Liberal Democrats. Perhaps it is due to something that happened to him in childhood and he would like to talk to me about it in private.
At the time of the next Queen's Speech, we will be only months away from a general election. Therefore, today's Queen's Speech constitutes the last opportunity for the Government to make their legislative mark before their programme degenerates into a snowstorm of pre-election sweeteners and preposterous promises. Have the Government made their mark in their last genuine full 100 programme? In many ways, they have. The Queen's Speech can best be described as the good, the bad and the ugly. Many hon. Members have already identified those aspects of the Speech.
First, let us consider the good. The Liberal Democrats welcome the reference to wildlife protection, which we support. We also welcome the Government's proposals for the Strategic Rail Authority. Now, let us consider the bad—other hon. Members have mentioned the proposals for National Air Traffic Services. Linking the partial privatisation of NATS to other provisions in the transport Bill will create major problems: not only opposition from Liberal Democrats, but from Labour Back Benchers. Another bad aspect of the Queen's Speech is the proposal to tinker with the Child Support Agency. We should not tinker with it, but scrap it.
The ugly is represented by the Freedom of Information Bill, which provides for little freedom and little information. Another example of the ugly is the proposal to reduce access to trial by jury, which other hon. Members have also mentioned. Ugliest of all is the absence of a measure to ensure that, this winter, patients will not be trussed up on trolleys and packed into corridors as they wait for treatment in the local accident and emergency unit at St. Helier hospital in my constituency and other hospitals around the country. The Queen's Speech proposes nothing that will prevent patients from continuing to wait for operations for unreasonable lengths of time, which leaves them in a debilitated state.
There is also silence on what is said to be the Government's priority—education. Last night I visited Wallington high school for girls, which is fighting a hand-to-hand battle with its budget. It finds it extremely difficult to make ends meet, and I am afraid that I see nothing in the Queen's Speech that will change that.
I shall now dwell in a little more detail on the environment. I am glad that at last there is a transport Bill in the Queen's Speech, but I hope that it will not be too little, too late. Like many hon. Members, I have spoken about the need to invest in public transport to reduce the volume of traffic on our roads. The rising number of letters from my constituents who daily are frustrated by the deficiencies of the train and tube network confirm that action is long overdue. Nowhere is that more important than London. It is therefore regrettable that the London underground, the key part of London's transport system, is not mentioned in the Queen's Speech.
It is also regrettable that no action has been taken to change the Treasury's inflexible approach to the funding of services such as the London underground. The Labour-dominated Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs says that that inflexibility hasforced the adoption of this form of public/private partnership, which is a rather convoluted compromise, when other financial solutions might have been more cost-effective.The Queen's Speech should have contained proposals for the establishment of a public interest company or trust that could raise money through the issue of bonds to run the London underground and possibly other systems such as NATS. That has been done in many other cities in the world, so there is no reason why it could not be done here. The proposal to allow the future mayor to issue bonds is supported not only by Susan Kramer, the Liberal 101 Democrat candidate for mayor of London, but by the Conservative candidate and the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone), who appears to be the choice of Labour activists if not of the Millbank hierarchy.
Londoners will be disappointed that action on the tube is so conspicuously missing from the Queen's Speech. I suspect, too, that many Members will be disappointed by the presence, rather than the absence, of another transport measure—the part-privatisation of NATS. Several Labour Members have already expressed their concern about that proposal. I doubt whether the Conservatives agree with it either; I am sure that they would prefer to privatise NATS entirely—a full 100 per cent. privatisation rather than the 51 per cent. that the Government propose.
Other Members, including no fewer than 160 Government Back Benchers, are worried about the safety implications of a NATS sell-off. They have said as much by signing an early-day motion, and I do not believe that they will be duped by any change of language. To me, if 51 per cent. of a public-private partnership is private, a privatisation has taken place; we could describe it in no other way.
The most important requirement for air traffic control is to ensure that new air traffic control centres are built as quickly as possible, whether they use the system being developed at Swanwick or that which will be developed at Prestwick. Both should be brought into operation without further delay. That, not privatisation, is what NATS should concentrate on now, because further delays will compromise safety.
I confess that I am at a complete loss to understand the Government's motive in privatising NATS. I do not think that such a privatisation can be justified on the same ground as previous privatizations—raising revenue—because air traffic services is paid for by the airlines. If the Government's main aim is to allow private money to be invested in the system, they should have considered the option of turning NATS into a publicly—owned company or trust. That has been tried and tested in other countries, and it works. Why did not the Government consider it? If they push ahead with NATS privatisation in the face of strong opposition from unions, pilots, Labour Back Benchers and Liberal Democrats, it could become this Government's poll tax.
The subject of wildlife protection has been debated five or six times in the past 12 or 18 months. I am pleased that the Government have listened to the 349 hon. Members who signed an early—day motion calling for wildlife legislation. However, I am concerned that, if this wildlife protection measure is linked to a wider right to roam or access Bill, the legislation may get severely bogged down—excuse the pun. The fact that there is all-party support for a wildlife Bill would enable such a Bill to progress swiftly. It is also supported by many environmental organisations, such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.
The legislation will need to be comprehensive. It will need to look not just at sites of special scientific interest but at the areas surrounding such sites. It will need to include marine sites for peat bogs. I understand that even if the Government proceed with wildlife legislation, that issue might not be tackled in any Government legislation. That would be a major failure.
I draw the House's attention to two glaring omissions in the Queen's Speech. The first is the absence of a carbon dioxide reduction Bill, which would commit the 102 Government to meeting their so-called aspirational target of reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 20 per cent. by 2010. The second is the absence of a warm homes Bill to eradicate fuel poverty over the next 15 years. That would help the 8 million families in Britain who struggle to heat their homes.
Those two omissions reveal the fatally flawed nature of the Government's legislative programme. The Queen's Speech was long on popular soundbites, but short on long-term visionary policies.
§ Mr. Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East)
The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake) started his speech by asking why my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) had made the comments that he made. He then proceeded to demonstrate why my hon. Friend's comments were valid. His churlish speech did not recognise or set in context the Government's many achievements. I could understand his complaining had we done nothing, but we have done an awful lot. He mentioned a warm homes Bill, but forgot to say that one of the Government's first actions was to reduce VAT on fuel by 5 per cent. The hon. Gentleman was simply nit-picking. The Liberal Democrats ask for a certain amount for education; when the Government give 10 times as much they ask for a bit more. That destroys their argument about inclusive politics.
Some of the earlier speeches from Members on both sides of the House were quite positive. I hope that the 21 schools mentioned by the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) do not include the one that I went to.
What I find strange about this place is that we are always ready to rush to make new legislation. The Queen's Speech contains 28 Bills, but many of those correct mistakes made in previous legislation. They are not about ideological splits; they tidy up problems that previous legislation has caused. The Child Support Agency is a classic example, but many of the other Bills are intended to tidy up other problems. The House would do well to review the effect of its legislation so that the tidying-up exercise is more effective—many of those exercises are desperately needed. The legislation in this Queen's Speech will start to transform the country. The Bills, in particular those dealing with local government, transport and crime, are long overdue.
Last year, I contributed to the debate on the first day of the Queen's Speech, and I welcomed the fact that there was to be an e-commerce Bill. For the rest of the Session, I kept quiet to ensure that I could speak on the Second Reading of that Bill. Four internet years have elapsed—one internet year is about three months—which is the equivalent of a whole Parliament in internet time. A vast amount has happened to electronic commerce in that time. Freeserve had only just been introduced then—now it is commonplace.
I plead with the Government to recognise the speed of the change being brought about by e-commerce. I commend them on the way in which they have listened to the business community and on the decision to remove part III of the proposed Bill and make it the subject of separate legislation. They have acknowledged that digital signatures and kitemarks are the way forward. The legislation will deliver what the Prime Minister has asked 103 for—that this country should be the leader in e-commerce business. We were one of the leaders in electronic data interchange. The same could happen with the internet and we have the necessary advantages to make that happen.
I was pleased that the Bill to promote e-commerce was the first legislation to be mentioned in the Queen's Speech as it is the key Bill in the Session. If we get it right, as I believe that we will, it will transform the landscape for many companies. They may not think that the legislation applies to them, but it does and it is very important.
I also appreciate the fact that the Government have linked electronic commerce and electronic government. The targets for modernising government electronically were set when it was reasonable to talk in terms of years. Those targets must be revised in the light of the changes and must be accelerated. The Government's response, with the appointment of an e-envoy and an e-Minister, who is also linked to small businesses, is a positive step forward. The e-commerce Bill is critical and should be introduced at the earliest opportunity.
I am particularly pleased about the investigatory powers Bill and the fact that that aspect of the law is to be reviewed because it is muddled. I also welcome the legislation on the interception of communications, which will take into account the civil liberties issues that my hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham) mentioned and the changes that have taken place. It will protect people who use the internet. All of those issues are critical. The regulation of investigatory powers is particularly important.
The hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) talked of learning from the American experience, which is very relevant to investigatory powers. Some of the tests to which American regulatory authorities are subject before they intercept communications and so forth—the evidence that they must put before judges—are important and should be repeated here.
I was surprised and delighted to see in the Queen's Speech a Bill to deal with Government resources and accounting, which will change Government accounting methods. The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington and my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) mentioned, with varying degrees of scepticism, private partnerships. One problem is that Government accounting methods, the Treasury rules and the Treasury legislation of the 1920s and 1930s all make it hard to innovate in a modern Government. That inhibits risk taking and new forms of enterprise and stops the public-private partnerships. It hurts the private finance initiative.
We must change the rules so that we can compete on a level playing field with other European countries. I often cite the example of Stockholm city council, which decided to cable all of Stockholm and then allow any company that so wished to compete. It set up a private company whose shares were 100 per cent. owned by the city council. The company went to the Swedish stock exchange, raised the billions of kronor needed, cabled the city, opened it up to competition, got the revenue in and repaid the debt. The citizens of Stockholm benefited, and continue to benefit to this day. It was all done in two or three years. If we wanted to do something like that, 104 we would have to set up a company 51 per cent. owned by the private sector simply because the accounting rules dictate it.
§ Mr. White
The hon. Gentleman tempts me into a London debate, but I shall resist, not being a London Member. I emphasise that there are new ways of looking at public-private partnerships. If Government accounting methods were to allow that and the proposed partnerships UK body took it forward, it would benefit the country enormously, at national and local government level and in respect of other bodies. It is critical that we reform accounting methods.
I sat on a trust that was set up as a result of the wind-up of the Milton Keynes development corporation. I and a Tory councillor from a local government background were quite happy with the accounts as presented. A local store manager, an accountant and two or three other business people could not understand them. If there is one Bill in this Queen's Speech that will help the Government's modernising agenda, it is the Government resources and accounting Bill. I commend that, but we need to go further. We must promote innovation and risk taking. Some of the rules that we have inherited have been around since Gladstone's time and need to be modernised to allow that.
I welcome the local government Bill and the fact that the Government have recognised the need to reform the structures of local government. The e-commerce Bill will also mention e-government. The role of e-government in linking Government and local government through electronic means is a vital part of that.
The new roles must reflect local circumstances. What is right for the city of Manchester is not necessarily right for rural Derbyshire or a town in the south-east of England. Local circumstances must not be put in neat Whitehall boxes but must reflect local situations. I welcome the fact that the Bill will deal with outcomes and ensure that the leadership role in that structure focuses on them. Too often, local government has been about measuring inputs.
An essential part of the modernisation of local government is creating accountability, particularly with the electoral changes that my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire discussed. Not only local government but all bodies must be more accountable to the people who put them there. They must focus on delivering services in a much more structured way, although not necessarily directly. That is the key. The Bills all interlink and they allow us to gaze on a new vista of how public services can and should be provided.
I welcome the Bill to establish the Learning and Skills Council. I believe that it will build on some of the work done by good training and enterprise councils. Not all TECs were good, but some were. I hope that the Learning and Skills Council will build on their work. It should recognise the regional dimension and establish a link with the regional development agencies' economic development plans to provide training in the skills that are required in each region.
§ Mr. David Taylor
I believe that my hon. Friend was present when my hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, 105 South (Mr. Bermingham) referred to the difficulties in the north-west. He said that the colleges of further education produced the trained staff necessary for certain types of enterprise, but that those enterprises did not exist in the north-west, so that, in certain circumstances, the TECs were providing students with a one-way ticket out of the region. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is a problem?
§ Mr. White
One of the important things that the Queen's Speech does is to build on work of the two previous legislative programmes. One of the key Acts that the Government have passed is the Regional Development Agencies Act 1998. The Learning and Skills Council will have the chance to work with the regional development agencies in tackling problems such as that in the north-west. The RDAs will create jobs and help to promote enterprise. They will establish a link with the Learning and Skills Council, which will provide training to deliver a work force with skills of which local new enterprises can take advantage.
If we have learned nothing else in the past 10 or 15 years, we have learned that education matters. I do not want to go back to the elite universities that the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) spoke about. He rejected the opportunity for 50 per cent. of people to go to university to learn skills and take advantage of new technologies. If we do not train people, we will condemn ourselves to being a second-rate economy.
Much reference has been made tonight about learning from the United States. One of the key things that the United States does is to link its universities, entrepreneurs and businesses into clusters and build on skills in the work force, while also providing extra opportunities to go to university. It encourages learning. We need to do the same. Some of the points made in the recent Budget statement about clusters, innovation funds for universities and help for people at university to go into self-employment and create companies are particularly useful.
The key aspect of the Learning and Skills Council Bill is that it will build on previous measures. I have expressed a number of concerns to Ministers about the boundaries for my own area; for example, the work of the Learning and Skills Council should be linked to inward investment. It is important to remember that it is not just a question of creating new silos—the policy that we inherited. We must believe in joined-up government and link regional learning and skills councils and local government delivery with regional development agencies and regional assemblies. It is important that all those things come together to create the prosperity that we need. Most of our regions are well below the European average for prosperity. If we do not tackle low productivity and low skills levels, we condemn ourselves to continue in that position. I believe that the Learning and Skills Council Bill, combined with previous legislation, will give us an opportunity to tackle the problems.
I wish to mention a few other Bills in the Queen's Speech that have been dealt with by other hon. Members. Transport has been mentioned on a number of occasions. I want to refer to two particular aspects. The shadow Strategic Rail Authority has been established, and will be a key element of the transport Bill. I hope that it recognises that it has a duty to promote new lines, such as the east-west line from Ipswich to Swindon and 106 Peterborough to Swindon. That is vital and has all-party support. The authority should also create more capacity for freight.
I fear that Railtrack is not capable of delivering the promised investment. I and other hon. Members who have constituencies along the west coast mainline have grave fears that that line will not be upgraded sufficiently over the next few years. I hope that I am proved wrong. If I am proved right, I hope that the transport Bill will give the Strategic Rail Authority the power to take action to ensure that Railtrack delivers not only a safe railway line, but the extra capacity that is desperately needed.
The crime Bill contains some useful measures. The mandatory drugs testing provision must be considered especially carefully. The anecdotal evidence from prisons is that mandatory testing has led to a switch from cannabis use to the use of more serious drugs such as heroin and cocaine, because cannabis stays in the blood longer. There was a report today about a Singapore couple who were randomly tested at Singapore airport when they went back to visit their parents. They have been jailed for a year for smoking joints at the university leaving party.
It is right to have mandatory drug testing, but we should also have referral schemes. The people who fail the tests should not automatically go to prison, but should be referred for treatment if they are on heroin. Before the summer recess, we had a useful debate on drugs policy during which some good points were made. One of the key points was that there are insufficient treatment centres. If we are to have mandatory drugs testing, it is important that extra treatment centres are established so that people can be referred for treatment.
When people fail drugs tests, that is the point at which to intervene and to refer them for treatment. They should be given help to overcome their addiction. Not all drug users are funded by a criminal habit, but all drug users need help to conquer their addiction. Referral is important. I support mandatory drugs testing, but it must be linked to other measures.
I also support the mental health changes that the Government announced a couple of days ago.
I was lucky enough to sit on the Select Committee on Home Affairs, which examined the draft Freedom of Information Bill and made a number of recommendations. The Home Secretary's positive response to those recommendations is welcome. He did not go as far as I would have liked, so I hope that he will reconsider and take account of the Select Committee's second report—its response to the Government's response—which proposes that the powers of the information commissioner should be strengthened and that she should have the power to tell Ministers to release information voluntarily, subject of course to appeal to the courts. That critical enhancement of the legislation would enable the Bill to live up to the promises that the Home Secretary has made.
§ Mr. Fabricant
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He will recall that he intervened on my speech on that very point.
Does the hon. Gentleman share my unease about the fact that yet again we have a Bill before Parliament that gives the Government a blank cheque? The Home Secretary can at any time, if he so desires, through a statutory instrument increase the exemptions on the 107 grounds that the release of the information would be prejudicial to the Government. That provides opacity rather than openness of government.
§ Mr. White
I might be wrong, and I apologise if I am, but my understanding is that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary proposes to remove that provision in response to concerns expressed by the Select Committee. That is one of the reasons why I praised my right hon. Friend for being prepared to listen.
A couple of hon. Members have mentioned that this is the last Queen's Speech before the millennium, forgetting that the new millennium begins on 1 January 2001—I might be a pedant, but I shall not pursue that point. However, it is clear that the Queen's speech enhances the modernisation of government and creates better conditions for innovation and enterprise, not through the Government imposing more regulation, but through the Government working with the business community to draw up proper regulation. Reform is also carried forward, building on the strengths of the legislative programme of the Labour Government contained in the previous two Queen's Speeches.
The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington should remember that much of the first year of the Labour Government was taken up with education reform, with the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 and other measures. However, he appears to have conveniently forgotten that, along with the Government's delivering improvements such as the literacy hour in schools. The Queen's Speech will add to fairness, to modernisation and to reform, and it will help to transform this country for the better.
§ Mr. David Amess (Southend, West)
I am appalled by the overall tenor of the Queen's Speech. Although Her Majesty was, as ever, gracious, there is nothing gracious about the Government—far from it. The Queen's Speech contained nothing to lift the spirits of the British people, certainly not my constituents.
The whole event has been overshadowed by the fiasco surrounding Labour's process of selecting its candidate for mayor of London, which matter was mentioned in another Queen's Speech. Such is the Government's arrogance that they do not appear to believe that there will be an election: they think that they have only to choose a candidate for that candidate to win. I do not want a Labour mayor or a Liberal mayor; I want a Conservative mayor. Judging by the behaviour of the Labour party thus far, I do not think it wants a Labour mayor of London, and if it carries on as it has, there will not be one.
The first paragraph of the Gracious Speech reads:This is my Government's third legislative programme. It aims to build on my Government's programme of reform as they seek to modernise the country and its institutions to meet the challenges of the new millennium.We have just heard the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Mr. White) talk about modernisation. I recently asked a constituent what he thought of the Labour Government; his response was, "Yuk," and I fully endorse that. Who wants to modernise this country? How arrogant of the Labour Government to think that we need to be 108 modernised. The Labour idea of modernisation is not shared by the majority of people. The Labour party has no concept of history and no understanding of our heritage. In less than three years, this dreadful Labour Government have done everything they can to destroy the very foundations of the United Kingdom.
The second paragraph reads:My Government's aim is to promote fairness and enterprise, providing people with real opportunities to liberate their potential.I see no evidence of that in my constituency and throughout the United Kingdom. In fact, the Government's conduct appears to be entirely aimed at encouraging their own friends and cronies, as we have seen in the destruction of the second Chamber. Later in the Queen's Speech, we are told:To prepare Britain as a dynamic, knowledge-based economy my Government will introduce a Bill to promote electronic commerce and electronic government, improving our ability to compete in the digital marketplace.The first thing the Government should do is manage the country far better than they have done hitherto, because it is an absolute shambles.
Many of my constituents are extremely concerned about telecommunications equipment being placed on the top of buildings. I would have liked to see something about that in the Queen's Speech.
One of our councillors in Southend, Mrs. Ann Holland, has brought to the House's attention the complaints of any number of residents about planning laws that seem to allow mobile telephone companies to place their ugly structures on all sorts of buildings. There seems to be no regard to dangers to our children's health.
I do not know whether the Government are turning a blind eye to the use of mobile telephones, but the situation is becoming tackier and tackier. No one conducts a private telephone conversation; everything seems to be public. Regardless of traffic conditions, all of a sudden car drivers are on their mobile phones, completely distracted. I certainly would have liked to see something to deal with that in the Queen's Speech.
§ Mr. Fabricant
My hon. Friend is very gracious. Does he feel as dismayed as I do about the fact that the Queen's Speech did not adopt my ten-minute Bill which would have made the use of mobile phones in cinemas and theatres illegal?
§ Mr. Amess
I apologise to my hon. Friend if I was dismissive of his intervention. Perhaps I can read his ten-minute Bill in greater detail after the debate.
The Queen's Speech tells us:Financial services lie at the heart of a modern economy.My goodness! For 18 years, Labour Members did all that they could to undermine what the Conservative Government were trying to do in financial services; now this is written in the Queen's Speech, as if Labour had just discovered financial services. What hypocrisy.
109 We are also told:As part of my Government's drive to address inappropriate and over-complex regulation, legislation will be introduced to increase the effectiveness of the power to remove regulatory burdens.Day in, day out, week in, week out, month in, month out, the Government are issuing edicts on health, education and so forth. No aspect of our lives is omitted: there will be a bit of paper featuring some rubbish involving the imposition of further duties on people. If the Government are serious about over-complex regulation, they should control it themselves.
We are further told:My Government will introduce a Bill to enable the Post Office to improve its services and to compete more effectively in UK and overseas markets.Labour sat there in opposition, and did nothing whatever to help the Conservative Government as they tried to—if you like—change the Post Office. Labour did all that it could to obstruct that. Now it says that it is going to change the Post Office. I wonder how many Labour Back Benchers who are still obviously trying to get jobs in the Government will remain silent; or will they be consistent, and want to leave the Post Office exactly as it is?
The Queen's Speech states:Education remains my Government's number one priority.That is a good laugh. In my constituency, the education lead—if it can be called that—from this dreadful Government has been a disaster. Children trying to get into secondary schools have not been able to, because there are not enough places. Children trying to get into infant and junior schools have not been able to, because there are not enough places. There have been further difficulties because of the mismanagement of asylum seekers. Of course, every constituency in the United Kingdom must do all that it can to help asylum seekers, but what has happened in Southend, West is a fiasco.
The council admits that we have more than 300 asylum seekers, and I believe that at least a further 300 have come from London boroughs. Many schools cannot cope with the extra challenges that that poses, and the effect on the children of asylum seekers is quite wicked. The arrangements for ethnicity funding mean that Southend, which should be receiving more than Thurrock, is receiving less. The arrangements for the pupil retention grant and the standards fund are also deeply disappointing. Good schools in Southend are being penalised as a result of the Government's misjudgment in regard to education.
Then we learn:My Government's ten year programme of modernisation for health and social care will provide faster, more convenient services to help improve the country's health";but does any Member of Parliament, regardless of party, really believe that the health service is better under Labour? What is going on is a disgrace. I have three examples of constituents who are not getting a decent service. It has nothing to do with our magnificent Southend hospital, and everything to do with a rotten Labour Government.
110 One lady is 93. She has been waiting 18 months for a cataract operation; each year, such operations are at a premium. Another lady is 81. She has been waiting 18 months for a hip replacement operation. She looks after her husband, who is over 90. Just today, I have been contacted by another constituent. He is nearly 90. He has cataracts in both eyes and has been told that he has to wait 18 months.
Of course, when we had a Conservative Government, the Labour party spent all its time with the media. The Conservatives were blamed for every little thing. Now Labour is outraged if we, as Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition, blame the Government for the travesty that the health service has become. I, for one, do blame the Government, and I know that all my colleagues do as well.
In the next item in the Queen's Speech, we are told that the Governmentare determined to reduce crime and improve public protection.Never let us forget that it was the Labour leader who said that Labour would be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime. I would love him to come to Southend, West to see the difficulties that the wonderful police in Southend have to cope with. Ever since we have had Labour, we have had cuts, cuts, cuts, not only in Southend, West, but in the constituencies of my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) and of other Essex Members. What is happening in crime is a disgrace. We know the lie: the Home Secretary told us that there would be more police, but a letter from the Chief Secretary to the Treasury was leaked, saying that there would be not more police, but fewer.
Last week, I was canvassing in Kensington and Chelsea during the daytime. People were unbolting every door that I knocked on. They are afraid to open their doors. There was a good Conservative at every door that I knocked on and they were all saying what a disgrace the Government's law and order policies were.
Then we are told that the Governmentare committed to creating a modern integrated and safe transport system, providing more choice for the travelling public.That is a good laugh. Transport is a shambles. An integrated transport policy?—the Government do not know the meaning of integration. The way they have let the British people down in transport is a disgrace. They have had it in for the motorist since day one. I just hope that all British people who will suffer as a result of that Bill will show their disdain by voting Conservative in local and national elections.
I am therefore deeply disappointed with the Queen's Speech. The Government's programme is wholly lacking in common sense. Britain needs a common-sense revolution to give more power to communities and families, to build a more secure society, to release the country's potential, to protect its integrity and independence and, above all—after the present rotten Government—to restore faith in politics.
§ Debate adjourned—[Mr. Jamieson.]
§ Debate to be resumed tomorrow.