HL Deb 01 December 1993 vol 550 cc544-54

3 p.m.

Lord Richard rose to move to resolve, That this House has no confidence in the policies of Her Majesty's Government.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am told that I am entitled to speak for 20 minutes. Perhaps I may say at the outset to the noble Lord the Leader of the House that I expect to take somewhat less than 20 minutes. Therefore, if there are a few minutes left and if the House thinks it right, I shall be happy to give the Leader of the House those additional minutes for him to seek to justify the policies of the past 14 years.

I am told that the Motion is somewhat rare. I have been unable to discover a direct precedent on when it was last moved in the House. Although rare, from time to time similar Motions have been moved. However, we believe it appropriate that the House should have an opportunity for a little stocktaking so far as concerns the Government's record. It enables the House to express a judgment on the policies of the Government after no less than 14 years of Conservative Party rule. At the end of the debate, of course, there will be a vote. I understand the pressures of time on many speakers in the debate. Indeed, it is interesting that the debate has attracted so many speakers; there are about 47. I understand the pressures on some noble Lords. The last volume which the noble Lord, Lord Archer, produced contained some 420 pages. It would be an act of unwelcome self-discipline on his part to have to condense his remarks to four-and-a-half or five minutes. We look forward to his speech with interest.

Perhaps I may say at the outset that I wound not expect the Government to fall if the Motion were to be carried.

Noble Lords


Lord Richard

My Lords, it would be an appropriate expression of opinion, but the precise constitutional effect of the Motion being carried is, to put it mildly, somewhat unclear. As I see it, there are three possible votes at the end of the debate. Those who have no confidence in the Government will of course vote for the Motion. Those who have confidence will of course vote against it. But there are bound to be many in this House—I do not refer only to the noble Lords sitting on the Cross Benches—in an intermediate position. When I considered that position before coming to the House today, the couplet from Belloc came to my mind which states: Always keep a-hold of Nurse For fear of finding something worse". The debate is not upon the policies of the Labour Party. In many ways I wish that it were. Had we been in office for 14 years I would have welcomed a debate on the policies of the Labour Party. Nor, indeed, is it a debate in detail on yesterday's Budget. However, to those who take the Belloc position, Always keep a-hold of Nurse For fear of finding something worse", perhaps I may say this. That is a doctrine not of confidence but of resignation. At best it is a doctrine of reluctant acquiescence in a Government about which one is extraordinarily unenthusiastic. As such it seems to me that if one is in that state of mind, the proper vote at the end of the debate should be an abstention.

I believe that the Government are culpable on four main grounds. In considering, as we are, the quality of government, if any one of those charges were proven it would be sufficient to justify a vote in favour of the Motion. If all four were proven it would make that an even more acceptable proposition.

We indict the Government, first, on their lack of integrity and veracity, their inconsistency, incompetence and the irrelevance of many of their policies. Let us go back to that day in 1979 when the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, got to Downing Street. Standing on the doorstep of No. 10, she set out the objectives of her Administration. In somewhat unlikely fashion she quoted from St. Francis of Assisi. I quote the words again. She said: Where there is discord may we bring harmony. Where there is error may we bring truth. Where there is doubt may we bring faith. And where there is despair may we bring hope". I am content to take that as the text for the debate today. Is there more harmony and less discord in Britain today than in 1979? I fancy not. Is there less error and more truth? I shall come to that in a moment. Is there less doubt and more faith? Finally, is there more hope and less despair? I think not.

Fourteen years after that day in 1979, Britain is a more divisive and divided society. Certainly it is a much less law-abiding society. There is now an underclass in our society which did not exist in 1979. I do not recall hordes of people sleeping on the main thoroughfares of our capital city. Noble Lords on the other side may gesticulate, but I have lived in this city for a long time. In the 1970s I do not recollect the obvious signs of poverty and homelessness that now exist. If they are there now, one is entitled to ask why. In the past 14 years, the ranks of the alienated and marginalised in Britain have grown, not shrunk, and yesterday's Budget will add to that problem.

Nor is it any answer to say that it is happening elsewhere —as though that could ever be an excuse. The policy of blaming everyone except themselves—whether it is single parents, scroungers and now apparently even the Churches—is no answer. Responsibility for the state of Britain today lies fairly and squarely on the party that has been in government for 14 years. Even the Prime Minister recognised that when in an interview to the Los Angeles Times he said, We have been here for 14 years. There is no-one else we can blame for anything that has gone wrong". How he must regret that moment of uncharacteristic candour.

The responsibility for the current state of affairs in this country is that of the Government—no excuses, no evasions. Let me therefore consider the first of my charges against the Government: that they lied to the British people; they lied about tax; they lied about public expenditure and thereby have grossly misled the electorate. On 28th January last year, Mr. Major said: I have no plans to raise … the level of national insurance contributions". What has happened? From next April, national insurance contributions will go up by 1 per cent. to 10 per cent. for employees and to 7.3 per cent. for the self-employed. That will cost a typical family more than £3 a week. The majority in another place has still to vote for that tax hike. When it does, we shall take some pleasure in reminding Members that they are voting for an increase in income tax by another name.

Page 33 of the Conservative manifesto—we study those somewhat arcane documents in detail—states: We will maintain mortgage tax relief". That is a straightforward, clear and unequivocal pledge put before the country at the last election. What is to happen? From next April mortgage tax relief will be cut from 25 per cent. to 20 per cent.; and in the Budget it is to be cut further to 15 per cent. Those are all taxes on home owners. Was that an honest prospectus to put before the country?

On 27th March 1992, the Prime Minister said: We have no plans and no need to extend the scope of VAT". That seems specific, clear and unequivocal. The Tory Party 1992 Campaign Guide stated: Following a series of unfounded and irresponsible scares from the Labour Party, the Prime Minister has confirmed that the Government has no intentions of raising VAT further". So we were being irresponsible, and scaremongering. We had said that the Government would raise VAT. What has happened? VAT is to be put on fuel bills at the rate of 17.5 per cent. by 1995.

The Conservative manifesto states: We are the only Party that understands the need for lower taxation". In Channel 4 News on 31st March 1992 the previous Chancellor, Mr. Lamont, said: We will not have to increase taxes. I cannot see any circumstances in which that will be necessary". Honesty? Veracity? I venture to suggest that rarely at any British general election has a prospectus been put before the country in such specific terms which have turned out quite so quickly to be quite so mendacious. On expenditure before the election, what did the Government say? They promised to maintain spending. After the election, they cut it. Again, I have a quotation from the Prime Minister: If we were going to cut public expenditure, we would have done it before and I don't believe it's economically right. I have said that in the past, and there is no need to do it whatsoever. So you can rule out any prospect of that". He said that on 30th March last year. It is common knowledge that legislation announced in the manifesto of a prospective government will get an easier ride than legislation thought up later, almost on the hoof. It is equally common knowledge that what a government promise to do in their manifesto, they should adhere to. It is a matter of honour and a matter of integrity and on both those criteria this Government are wanting.

When the electorate vote for a particular package they do not expect it to be changed immediately after the election. The Government have broken promises on a number of important issues and yet still they expect the electorate to trust them. They have taken shamelessness almost to the bounds of incredulity. I think, too, that we should be rather careful about accepting yesterday's Budget at its face value.

Secondly, I now turn to the Government's consistency. I do not need to spend much time on this. The memories of the Criminal Justice Bill and the Railways Bill are fresh in the House's mind. The main characteristics of this Government's legislative approach seem to be that it is short term, ill-thought out and bulldozed through Parliament and is then repealed later on when the defects of the legislation have become apparent. In one respect, however, the Government have proved consistent, and did so again yesterday. When in trouble they go for the vulnerable, and yesterday's Budget is no exception. The relief for pensioners is approximately half the VAT increase on fuel. The unemployed will have their entitlement to benefit cut from 12 months to six months, although I gather the benefit will have a new name. There have been a number of new names for various benefits over the past 14 years, but the effect is the same. The benefit will be cut and that will impose increased burdens on the most vulnerable section of our society. There are to be harsher qualifying conditions for people on invalidity benefit and they are to be taxed. When the details become clearer, the savagery in these cuts will begin to appear.

Thirdly, let me look at the Government's competence—their economic competence. A once proud and prosperous nation is now industrially virtually on its knees. We are the only member of the Group of Seven major industrial nations where output is lower now than it was in 1990. Ponder that for a moment, before noble Lords heckle me. The Conservative boast is that inflation is now less than it has been for years. The last time inflation was at this rate was in 1967, when we had a Labour Government. Not only did we have a Labour Government and that rate of inflation, but the economy was growing at 2.2 per cent. a year. We had a manufacturing trade surplus and unemployment was less than 350,000. I would not describe that as a golden age, but it was certainly much better than the one we have now.

Although, of course, I welcome the recent fall in unemployment, it still stands at almost 2.9 million, well over 1 million more than it was when the present Prime Minister took office. Investment in Britain as a share of national income is at a 40-year low and since 1979 the economy has grown at an average of only 1.7 per cent. per year. Every Labour Government since the war has had a better record than that.

Even I am beginning to weary of these depressing figures which, in the final analysis, rob too many people of their humanity and individual worth. The human cost of this economic failure is, frankly, too high. We have housing estates in this country where 60 per cent. of males now have no jobs. What effect will that have upon the children of those people out of work?

Finally, there is the ethos with which the whole of the Government's policy seems to be imbued. The Conservative Party's appalling record on law and order, their attacks on the welfare state and the divisiveness of much of their approach have placed a terrible strain on the social cohesion of the nation and, at the end of the day, that perhaps matters more than any other single issue. The greater the number of our people who feel themselves detached and alienated from society as a whole, the greater the dangers. It is this that is the most damning indictment of 14 years of Conservative rule.

So what have they produced after those 14 years? A country more, not less, divided—perhaps more so than at any time since the 1930s. So much for St. Francis! Conservative rule over this time has been characterised by high unemployment, a high rate of crime, de-industrialisation, a collapsing infrastructure and the gradual dismantling of the welfare state and the National Health Service. The effect and the impact have been devastating and the full extent of the effect on our people is only gradually beginning to emerge.

Inevitably, when a new Prime Minister takes over, he receives, and is entitled to receive, a period of probation. I have to tell the Prime Minister that his probationary period is now more than up. He has broken promises, isolated this country within the European Union and cast miners and others onto the scrap heap. He has backtracked in principle on reforming the criminal justice system and, most seriously, he holds ultimate responsibility for damaging the country's economy and damaging the social cohesion of our nation. We have no confidence in him and his Government. I beg to move.

Moved, That this House has no confidence in the policies of Her Majesty's Government.—(Lord Richard.)

3.15 p.m.

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, I almost always enjoy the speeches of the noble Lord, Lord Richard, and he has not disappointed us on this occasion. He has put before the House an interesting, even curious, Motion—so curious that I racked my brain and, indeed, the more expert brains of the House authorities, for a precedent within living memory. The nearest I can find is a Motion moved by Lord Wells-Pestell, deploring the Government's social and economic policies. That was on 9th March 1983. It was not a Motion that found favour with your Lordships. It was followed, less than three months later, by a general election in which the Government increased their majority by more than 100 seats. In slightly longer order, the years after that saw seven years of uninterrupted growth which led to a huge rise in the average family's living standards and the creation of 1,300,000 new jobs in this country—more than any other European country.

Today, with that same impeccable sense of timing, the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition has moved his Motion when the economy has been growing for 18 months; when that growth is due to be the fastest of any big league EC economy; and when unemployment has fallen by 137,000 this year while it is rising virtually everywhere else in Europe. I am happy and proud to speak to any aspect of this Government's policies. But, in the time available to me, I would like to concentrate on three major issues. The first is the economy and employment. This is not a matter of narrow party politics. It is vital that we do not fall into the trap of short-term solutions which will simply throw the problems, accentuated and multiplied, into the laps of our successors. That means building on the supply side changes this Government made in the 1980s, which enabled the economy to emerge from the recession with firm foundations for recovery.

There are, of course, still dangers and problems. It would be complacent to deny them. One of the biggest dangers to our recovery is the weakness in the economies of our major trading partners across the Channel. The noble Lord, Lord Richard, as a distinguished former commissioner, knows better than many how interdependent our economy is with that of the rest of Europe and how similar are the problems which face all European governments.

Perhaps I may remind your Lordships' House of how we fare compared with our European colleagues. Inflation is lower than in almost every other EC country. Unemployment here is below the EC average and falling. Our industrial relations are excellent. Our unit wage costs—a key determinant of competitiveness—are falling; elsewhere in Europe they are rising. In France, with a similar sized working population, unemployment is 3.25 million and rising; nearly one in four of that country's young people is without work. In Germany some 3½ million are out of work. In Spain, the unemployment rate is 23 per cent.; 1,000 more people are joining the dole queues each day. Against that background I think that many of our European partners would view the Motion moved by the noble Lord today with some puzzlement.

The second set of problems which faces all European countries is the high and rising cost of social provision. That is why the Netherlands is reducing disability benefits, France is raising contributions, Italy is raising its pension age, and Germany is proposing to reduce unemployment benefits. The current social disorder in Belgium illustrates the magnitude of the task which that government face. Other countries have taken even more stringent action. Australia, Canada and New Zealand are moving from a universal to targeted family benefit. Sweden, long heralded as a model for welfare states, is having to cut benefits radically.

Oppositions have the luxury of being in favour of all being for the best in the best of all possible worlds; or perhaps delegating their responsibilities to the Commission for Social Justice. But governments do not have that option. They have a duty to make difficult choices to protect those most in need.

Edmund Burke said that it is necessary to reform if we are to conserve. Our programme of modernisation of social provision rests on three principles: first, to ensure that help is increasingly focused on those in need; secondly, to discourage dependency—in that respect I fully share the concern of the Opposition's official spokesman in another place who acknowledged that one of the tragedies of the present system is that it does encourage dependency; and thirdly, we must develop and improve the welfare system to improve incentives to work and save, and to take responsibility for our own families.

We have taken action to protect the most vulnerable through the recession. The amount that the taxpayer spends on social security has risen by £24 billion since 1990. Even excluding increases directly related to the recession, expenditure has risen over that period by around £20 billion. It now amounts to no less than £80 billion a year. That is £13 for every working person every working day. And it will rise significantly over the coming years.

The Government remain committed to a strong, modern welfare state. Yesterday's Budget, and the far-reaching reforms that is contains, will take that commitment forward. The Budget has tackled the rising cost of our social security system. In particular, it has set out our plans for equalising the pension age at 65. My right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced reform of the present, complicated, system of unemployment benefit. The Government's reform will keep the unemployed in touch with the world of work, tackling that terrible and debilitating social evil, long-term unemployment.

The Budget also put forward measures to reform invalidity benefit, the cost of which has continued to grow significantly, even as we as a nation have become healthier. And the Budget tackled—imaginatively—the problem of single parents trapped at home, unable to work, by creating a new childcare allowance, within family credit, worth up to £28 a week. The Budget was also a reaffirmation of the basic economic values for which the Government stand: sound money, prudent public finance and the encouragement of enterprise. That is the basis for sustained growth in the long term.

Reductions in interest rates alone are worth some £12 billion a year to the cash flow of businesses, and some £40 a week to the average mortgage payer. My right honourable friend's measures provide another boost to business, especially small businesses, and to exports. They reduce the cost to firms of taking on new workers. The new apprenticeship scheme will further develop the skills Britain will need in the coming century. The Budget has clearly addressed the question of putting the Government's finances on a sound footing for the rest of the decade and beyond. The successful restraint of public spending has contributed as much as the resource side to restoring sound public finance.

Yet within that restraint we have been able to expand spending on key areas such as health and education. We have virtually met already our target for the end of the century of one in three young people in higher education. We have also been able to maintain the fight against crime. I do not expect to satisfy noble Lords opposite. It is easy to speak with eloquence of public investment. That is taxpayers' money to you and me, my Lords. But being responsible in government means cutting one's cloth according to the nation's ability to pay. That is why we have brought forward new initiatives to involve the private sector in partnership with the public sector in major infrastructure projects.

The third issue that I wish to address is the creation of a safe environment in which we can live. Crime, lack of respect for the law and, as a result, fear of violence, are only too prevalent in our society. Academics can analyse the reasons. I welcome such analysis. It is a matter of concern to us all. At the same time, as my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has made clear, we must also address the concerns of those affected by crime. We intend to take decisive action against crime and the criminal and to make sure that our laws, and the criminal justice system as a whole, protect the public. The balance of the criminal justice system has tipped too far against the protection of the legitimate interests of our citizens. We have responded quickly to rectify those defects. We are taking that initiative forward in a wide-ranging Criminal Justice Bill this Session. In addition, the police will be given new freedom to apply their resources most cost-effectively against the criminal. The administration of magistrates' courts will he reformed. All these measures will yield direct benefits to those most vulnerable to abuse of the law and of the criminal justice system.

We have had four days of debate on the gracious Speech. We have a full legislative programme before us. It is right that our policies should be tested in the fire of debate and that in taking those policies forward we should listen carefully to the voices of experience and wisdom with which this House is so richly endowed. As a government, it is our duty to put such policies, and the choices which we have made, to your Lordships to consider. There is much work to be done. Let us get on with it. I urge the House to reject this Motion.

3.28 p.m.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, this debate provides an opportunity for an overview of the Government's general performance, especially and particularly in the context of yesterday's Budget. The nation regularly gives such a view through opinion polls, local elections and by-elections. That view has been consistent: from within a few weeks of the last election the Government have experienced historically low support. Clearly the nation has already lost confidence in them and we on these Benches simply represent the national view.

Yesterday's Budget was simply a reflection of the Government's failure. The Budget was almost wholly concerned with clearing up the economic mess that the Government had created. The noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, referred to difficult choices, but he must admit that too often those difficult choices were created by the Government's own incompetence.

Some of the financial numbers presented yesterday are quite mind-blowing. At 8½ per cent. of GDP, the PSBR is far, far higher than in 1976 when my noble friend Lord Callaghan called in the IMF. The total tax paid as a percentage of GDP now rises from 36½ per cent. this year to 40 per cent., as forecast by the Chancellor, in 1998. Both of those figures are way above what they were under the previous Labour administration. The total tax increases in the two Budgets this year accumulate to £30 billion over the next three years. So much, we say, for the Conservative Party's 1992 election promise and claim to be the party of low taxation; and so much for its claim to competence in economic management.

I feel that the Government's economic failures are reflected very seriously in the national heritage area with which I am departmentally concerned. I have never known such anxiety and trepidation in the arts world, where fine theatres, dance companies and orchestras are threatened with closure. Yesterday, the grant to the Arts Council was cut by £3¼ million, or 1.7 per cent., in complete breach of the Conservative manifesto pledge. The chairman of the Arts Council said: This is a black day for the arts and a national disgrace". He is not known for frequent criticisms of the Conservative Government—or he would not have been given the job in the first place.

Perhaps even more important to the arts i the terrible squeeze on the local authorities, which overall are the most important supporters of the arts at all levels and especially at community level. The local authorities will now have few resources for discretionary grants to local arts. That is very bleak news indeed. It is a similar story in the sports area. The Sports Council has also suffered a cut in cash terms for next year.

It is not just a question of money. The whole organisation and administration of arts and sports in this country is in constant change, uncertainty and disarray. I believe that the Sports Council has undertaken its sixth or seventh review. The Sports Council is given instructions which are then revoked; it takes measures which are then opposed and it has to renege.

A similar situation exists in the media. The 1990 Broadcasting Act arguably was one of the silliest Acts in our history. It is already being dismantled. The latest announcements about regional television have created fresh uncertainty. So the 1990 Broadcasting Act joins a long line of measures: the poll tax, the criminal justice Bill, the destruction of the coal industry and railway privatisation.

The evidence for this Motion, as my noble friend Lord Richard so clearly set out, lies unarguably, clearly and very sadly in the records of each year of this administration. I believe that to vote against the Motion is to vote against the history through which we have lived.

3.33 p.m.

Baroness Young

My Lords, my noble friend the Leader of the House began by telling us that the Motion before us is unprecedented. I go further and say that it is not only unprecedented; it is totally unnecessary. We have had four full days of debate on the Queen's Speech, four days on which it has been possible to criticise every single aspect of government policy were we so minded. Now we are to have another debate which is simply a repeat performance. This afternoon I have heard nothing which seems to me to have added anything to what has been said over those four days.

However, I accept the challenge of the noble Lord, Lord Richard. I listened with great interest to his speech. He said that we should go back to 1979 when we would see that we had a more discontented state. Did he say discontented? We had just lived through the winter of discontent. Do noble Lords not remember the rubbish in the streets and the people who could not be buried? Practically every industry was out on strike. One could not take a train or go about one's business. We were beset by almost every difficulty that there could have been. I am the first to admit that not every difficulty has been put right, but we are certainly not a more discontented nation.

Indeed, I believe that the effect of 14 years of Conservative government has been to a very large extent to change the opinion of this country. In fact it has shifted opinion right round the world. Even now I recall with astonishment some of the conversations that I had in rather unexpected places when I was a Minister at the Foreign Office about how to privatise national industries. Everyone was looking to us for a lead.

Let us look at some of the things that have happened. My noble friend the Leader of the House set out clearly some of the great achievements in industry. Perhaps I may give one example from the area in which I live; namely, Rover cars. The Rover 800 motor car is made in Oxford. The motor car industry was on its knees. It had vast government subsidies. Having been taken over, it is one of the few manufacturing industries selling and making a profit. I believe that the Rover 800 has an enormous waiting list and hundreds more workers have been taken on in Oxford. That is a success story. Only three weeks ago I visited one of the most up-to-date factories in Europe. It was a food factory —part of Northern Foods—making recipe dishes. We are a European leader in this area.

Looking at one's personal life, one can appreciate the effects of an improved telephone system and the deregulation of long distance coaches, the latter having made travel vastly better, particularly for young people. Take even the privatisation of the water industry, which was fought over so strongly. If my local paper is to be believed, Thames Water has managed to stop the leaks so that it is no longer necessary to build an extra reservoir. When there is privatisation and competition one puts first things first.

Let us consider some of the other areas of criticism. I believe that the National Health Service was mentioned. I hope that I am correct in saying that for every 100 patients who were treated in 1990–1991 we are now treating 116 patients. The idea that there have been cuts in the health service is ridiculous. The money spent on it has increased every single year. The question is how the money is spent. The money has certainly been there.

It is very necessary to realise that we have brought a great deal of common sense and efficiency into industry, so that we now have some of the most efficient industries in the Community. I hope that they will be the basis of our sustained economic growth in the future. We have also taken care of the vulnerable. The health service has been improved and huge efforts have been made with education and training. Raising standards will take a very long time but it is extremely important.

As the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, pointed out, there will never be as much money available as everybody in the world of the arts and sport would like. But we have looked for other sources of money. A sequence of legislative measures has enabled far more charitable giving to take place, much to the benefit of all kinds of organisations. The national lottery will also help both the arts and sport in the future.

Therefore we look to see how we can make the best use of the money that we have, so that we can maintain and support those who need help and at the same time improve the economy and improve the standards of living of everyone. I hope that the Motion will be overwhelmingly rejected.