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The Executive (Powers)

Volume 130: debated on Thursday 31 March 1988

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2.30 pm

I welcome the Minister of State, Privy Council Office. I understand that there has been some difficulty in rustling up a Minister to respond to the debate and that the buck has been back and forth between the Minister of State, Privy Council Office and the Minister of State, Home Office and has finally come to rest with the right hon. Member for Shoreham (Mr. Luce) in the Chamber. In the absence of the Prime Minister, I welcome him.

The "Powers of the Executive" is a title that I alighted upon after sound advice from the Table Office. My preferred title would have been, "The drift towards a one-party state". I understand that that would not be entirely in order. I am seeking to draw attention to the growing trend towards authoritarianism in the government of this country over the past 10 years. That has become a matter of concern to people of all political persuasions, including some Conservative Members, and was recently the subject of a debate in the other place.

There is concern that the Government have used their office to dismantle or neutralise legitimate opposition to them and that respected institutions have been reduced to instruments of the state or, in some cases, instruments of the Tory party. There is also concern that the interests of the state and the Tory party are, to some extent, becoming synonymous. There is a growing tendency among persons in office to denounce dissenters as mad, loony or the enemies within, without addressing the issues that such people raise. That is an unhealthy trend and it reverses the long, but by no means complete, journey to democracy in our country over the past 200 years.

Contrary to what has sometimes been alleged, democracy in this country was not a gift from the Conservative party. Indeed, it was seized from long periods of Conservative government after a lengthy period of popular uprising. I and others are under no illusion. We know that the power of the ruling power party in this country is unmatched in the industrial world and probably unmatched outside the countries of the Stalin system. Most of us recognise that, although hon. Members come up for re-election every four or five years, our ruling class does not come up for re-election, any more than does the ruling class in the Soviet Union.

Although from time to time the Conservative party is obliged to concede control over the House of Commons, Tory control over most other institutions in this country is permanent and overwhelming. I do not seek to be controversial but that is a statement of fact which probably would not be disputed, at least in private, by many Conservative Members. Our judiciary, senior levels of the police force, the officer corps of the armed forces, leading elements in industry and finance, many senior civil servants and diplomats, the media, the board of governors of the BBC and, of course, the other side of the House are dominated by persons whose political persuasions are those of one party. That is how it has always been for as long as anyone can remember. It has become more so rather than less so in recent years, despite the appearance of several accountants and estate agents on the Conservative Benches.

Regardless of who is in control in the House of Commons at any given time, the commanding heights of our society have always been run by people whose loyalty to their class has taken precedence over their loyalty to the elected Government. I accept that there are exceptions and that there are persons of integrity in all walks of life. As I said, I do not seek to be controversial because, privately, many Conservative Members would recognise what I say.

Despite all their rhetoric about their love of democracy, many Conservative Members have a deep distrust of the democratic process. When the electorate fails to deliver, they never hesitate to call upon the vast array of extra-parliamentary forces that are always at the disposal of the Conservative party. Labour Governments have been tolerated as long as they posed no threat to the class interests of those who have ruled us since time immemorial. Anti-democratic forces have never been far below the surface. For example, all of us can remember the attempted coup by Cecil King in 1968 to set up a business men's Government, presided over — I am sure reluctantly, in the face of his objections — by Lord Mountbatten. We can all remember, during the time of the 1974–79 Labour Government, General Sir Walter Walker's efforts to set up some kind of private army, and the rather more sinister operation by, I believe, the founder of the Special Air Service, Colonel David Stirling, and a organisation called GB75. Although General Walker was the subject of some ridicule at the time, he was, after all, a former commander of NATO forces in northern Europe. Of course, more recently, we have learnt from the memoirs of a former senior member of the intelligence services of an attempt by up to 40 members of the intelligence services to destabilise the Government of Lord Wilson.

I and others of my persuasion are under no illusions. The anti-democratic forces that have always been present have at least, on the whole, been kept below the surface. Over the past two centuries the trend has been towards making this country more democratic, more open, less authoritarian and more tolerant. That was the case until seven or eight years ago. The Government have reversed that trend. They have gone over and above what any of their predecessors in our lifetime have done, and are systematically undermining the means by which legitimate opposition and dissent can function. They have shamelessly degraded our democratic institutions. We have a Prime Minister who talks not of defeating the Opposition, but of eliminating the Opposition.

That has happened most in local government. Vigorous local government was one of the hallmarks of our democracy. Very often, the parties in power in the town halls and civic centres in the country were different from the one that was in power in Government. That remains the case. Some local authorities are good, some are bad, but all are accountable to the electorate that put them there.

Since the Government came to power, they have waged a continual war against local government. That war has been cynically targeted against local authorities controlled by the Labour party. Spending figures have been gerrymandered to penalise local authorities controlled by Labour. Perhaps the most cynical example was the abolition of the metropolitan authorities. It was the first time this century — certainly during my lifetime — that any Government had seen fit to abolish elections. All those seven metropolitan authorities were controlled by the Labour party. If just one had been controlled by the Conservative party the exercise might have been a little more credible. It was impossible to avoid concluding that it was merely an attempt to stifle effective opposition because the Government could not rely on the electorate to do that.

One of the more depressing sights of recent times was Lords—many of whom were feudalists, never mind Conservatives — being summoned from their stately homes and castles to abolish elections in London. I have seen members of the other place lecturing the Soviet Union about the need for greater democracy and openness. That was rather rich coming from people who were in the other place because of hereditary title or appointment. Our masters are nothing if not unembarrassable.

The other major sector in which the Government have abused their power against sources of legitimate dissent has been the trade unions. Any student of history knows that the trade unions have not fared well from Tory Governments or Tory judges over the years. But until 10 years ago, trade unions were accepted within the Tory party as being legitimate and as having legitimate functions. We are now beginning to see a return to the days of effective trade unionism becoming illegal.

The political fund ballots rather backfired on the Government because they were intended—this is what made them different from previous trade union legislation — to undermine the source of the funding of the Opposition party. What undermined the Government's rhetoric at that time was that those ballots applied only to trade unions and what they should do with their political funds. There was no hint of any similar obligation on corporations that donated funds to the Conservative party. That was widely regarded as an attempt to bankrupt the Opposition.

Secondary picketing has been outlawed. In so doing it has struck at one of the fundamentals of trade unionism, because solidarity between persons who are not necessarily directly affected by a dispute is fundamental to British trade unionism. It is interesting to note that the judges are increasingly placing a narrower interpretation on what constitutes secondary picketing, with the result that effective trade unionism is becoming very difficult At GCHQ, trade unionism has been banned —perhaps on instructions from the other side of the Atlantic. For whatever reason, that was the first time for many years that a Government had seen fit to outlaw trade unionism. It is unusual in the industrial world for such a thing to happen.

Strike ballots have been introduced. No one objects to fair ballots, which, if properly carried out, strengthen and legitimise an industrial dispute. In the past few days the National Union of Seamen has been taken to court and threatened with sequestration of all its assets.

I am aware that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, are probably about to mention the sub judice rule.

I was not only about to mention that but to remind the hon. Gentleman that the subject to which he has chosen to address himself is "The Powers of the Executive". I fear that several times he has wandered well away from it.

I shall do my best to keep to what you say is the point, Mr. Deputy Speaker. However, we have seen in the past few days the remarkable spectacle of a trade union being threatened with sequestration of all its assets if it held a ballot, and that exposes the false rhetoric behind the Government's legislation.

In many industrial workplaces today there is a climate of fear similar—I do not pretend that it is the same—to that which prevails in some eastern European countries. With a number of my hon. Friends, I received yesterday a delegation from the train drivers at King's Cross railway station. They spoke of their members being afraid even to distribute leaflets advertising the ballot that they wanted to hold for fear of the sack. There was a recent unexplained break-in into their trade union office, and such incidents have become more frequent. This is an unhealthy trend, which is getting worse.

Many people not necessarily of my persuasion fear that recently the Government have grossly misused the police. Many police themselves are unhappy. They are in the unenviable situation of having to enforce unjust laws. They have been turned, on some occasions, into the paramilitary wing of the Tory party and I know that that is deeply resented by many policemen. Some six or seven years ago, police were obliged, as the result of a court order, to surround an engineering works in Manchester while the work force stood by and watched machinery being evacuated by helicopter to be sold off in Spain.

Order. I find it difficult to see what relevance these matters have to the subject that the hon. Gentleman has chosen for the debate.

The subject that I have chosen to debate is the concentration of power in the Executive and I am alleging, and no doubt the Minister will respond—

Order. The hon. Gentleman is referring to disputes between employers and trade unions and workers. It is difficult to see how the hon. Gentleman can raise these matters, particularly events that happened several years ago.

They arise from legislation passed by the House and I am alleging, although I am sure that the Minister will respond robustly, that the Government have accumulated to themselves many powers which were unusual by the standards of previous Governments, both Conservative and Labour. We saw the use made of the police during the recent coal miners' strike when fantastic violence was unleashed in the coalfields. All of us were struck by a picture that was not published widely in this country, although it appeared abroad, of a mounted policeman attacking an unarmed civilian woman. As far as I know, no action followed that incident, which would have been inconceivable several years ago. After the coal strike, there were mass trials of 80 or 90 people at a time in Mansfield and massive perjuries were committed. Those charged were acquitted, but no charges were laid against those who committed the perjuries. Meanwhile, away from the picket line, crime soared.

Another aspect of the Government's exceptional concentration of powers has been a misuse of the courts, which has undermined the credibility of the judicial system. All of us remember that during the miners' strike a member of the Conservative party, or at least a supporter of it, Mr. David Hart, persuaded a number of working miners to take action under the Government's legislation against the National Union of Mineworkers and the judges moved in immediately with massive penalties, including sequestration of property. This has induced a fear of, but not respect for, the courts, which is regrettable. In 10 years, we have gone back beyond Taff Vale to the Combination Acts and many people now feel scared of becoming involved in union activity. That is an unhealthy development.

The manipulation of the news media has been another hallmark of the present Government. As I think is commonly understood, this country has a uniquely servile media, although there are many honourable exceptions. I recollect that the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd)—who is not a member of my party—described the media as the Hallelujah chorus, and I cannot improve on that description. In many instances, they seem to be here not to protect our liberties, which are under unprecedented threat, but to be used as an arm of the ruling party to trivialise, distort, lie and distract people from the realities of life with a diet of television soap opera and stories about the royal family.

Two of our newspapers are now featuring massive headlines with words like "rats" to describe their enemies. That is unfortunate; it has the ring of Fascism. The newspapers are used remorselessly, and at times cynically, by Ministers to hound enemies of the ruling party.

The BBC has always paid lip service to impartiality, which many Opposition Members regard as phoney. At times of rejoicing or national crisis, it has often become an arm of the state—for example, during the Falklands war or at royal weddings. It has always been possible, and still is to some extent, for dissenters to be heard without a Government health warning such as "hard Left", "extremist", or "terrorist" prefixed to their names, but that is now coming under serious threat. The BBC board has been blatantly stacked with supporters of the ruling party. There was a coup against the director-general, Alasdair Milne; there have been raids on the BBC in Scotland; we have seen pictures in our papers of members of the special branch kicking down—

Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that it is a convention of the House to allow the Minister time to reply.

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall wind up my remarks.

I do not wish to be melodramatic. I acknowledge readily that in this country we enjoy liberties that are unknown in many parts of the world. I merely wish to draw attention to what has become an unmistakable trend over the last 10 years. I thought it right to identify that trend while time remained, and while it was still permitted.

2.52 pm

Let me start by congratulating the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) on choosing the powers of the Executive as the subject of the debate. That, however, is as far as my congratulations can go. The rest has been thorough entertainment.

I have noted down some of the language used by the hon. Gentleman. He referred to the development of a one-party state; to authoritarianism; to servile media; to extra-parliamentary activities; to anti-democratic forces; to degraded democratic institutions; to a climate similar to that in East European countries; to paramilitary wings; and to the misuse of the courts.

I have been looking at the hon. Gentleman to see how sincere he is. I believe that he is very sincere. I think that he believes what he is saying, and that, to my mind, is the most extraordinary thing of all. My only suggestion to the hon. Gentleman is that he is in need of a very long holiday, and I therefore wish him a very happy Easter. He deserves a holiday after a speech like his. He is living in cloud-cuckoo land if he believes what he has just been saying.

I accept that opponents of the Government are looking desperately for ammunition, which often takes the form of what might be described as hackneyed and mindless campaigns to suggest that the Government of the day—and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister—do not care about democracy, are becoming more authoritarian and dictatorial and are taking more power unto themselves. The hon. Gentleman has fallen into that trap —in so far as I could understand any of what he was trying to say.

For the remaining few minutes allowed to me, I should like to show the hon. Gentleman exactly what we have achieved in the past nine years—and I shall do it in five minutes. It is the very opposite of what the hon. Gentleman suggested.

I shall cite two examples that show that we are not concentrating power in the Executive. First, there are fewer central controls and, secondly, we have dispersed more power to individuals. The hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) is longing for examples, so I shall give him some. There has been a real bonfire arising from the elimination of central Government controls. We have ended the price and dividend controls, a whole range of controls in planning and industrial development, and exchange controls. We have pursued a sustained policy of deregulation. We have removed unnecessary restrictions on business to the particular benefit of small businesses. We have removed taxes that hamper enterprise, such as the development land tax.

During the past few years, all our policies have been geared towards disposal of central Government control over the individual—[interruption.] If the hon. Member for Newham, North-West would listen, he would hear even more examples. It is all very exciting. We have been doing a great deal while he has been concentrating on other issues during the past nine years.

There has been a diffusion of power away from the Executive and towards the people. Our privatization policies have removed 16 major businesses from central control—that is a dispersal of power from the centre. The state-owned sector has been reduced by almost 40 per cent. There has also been a dispersal of power to individuals through the introduction of employee share ownership schemes that allow the individual to participate in business. The number of individual shareholders has increased from 3 million in 1979 to more than 9 million—20 per cent. of the adult population.

There has been dispersal of power to the individual in housing matters. More than 1 million householders have had the opportunity to buy their council homes. We are currently strengthening the rights of occupiers of rented property.

The hon. Member for Sunderland, South mentioned the trade unions. Our legislation has strengthened the powers of the individual trade unionist. There must now be elections of union officials, which gives more power to the individual member. Legislation is going through the House to establish a commissioner for the rights of trade union members.

Our education legislation will strengthen the position of parents who are concerned about their children's education. It will bring more autonomy to schools. We are dispersing power and authority to schools, parents and individuals.

The hon. Gentleman, in his quite extraordinary speech, mentioned local government. The abolition of the tiers of local government does not concentrate power at the centre, but rather gives more power to local authorities, such as borough councils, and makes them more accountable to their electorates.

The Civil Service has a policy of devolution of managerial authority, so that managers can take decisions — although Ministers should, of course, remain responsible.

What did the Government do first when they took office in 1979? They established a stronger Select Committee system that allows the legislature to challenge the Executive of the day. That is yet another example of this Government's interest in and concern for the right of a democratic society to challenge the Executive. As for the hon. Gentleman's views about the judiciary, there is clear evidence of our commitment to an independent judiciary which is at the heart of our system. Much has been done to strengthen that. Altogether, the hon. Gentleman lives in a world of his own, because everything that has happened in the past year has been in the opposite direction to that which he has alleged.