House of Commons
Wednesday 3 December 2008
The House met at twenty-five minutes past Eleven o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
message to attend her majesty
Message from Her Majesty delivered by the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod.
The Speaker, with the House, went up to attend Her Majesty; on their return, the Speaker suspended the sitting.
I wish to make a statement to the House about the arrest and entry into the offices of the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) last Thursday, 27 November, which raises a subject of grave concern to all Members of the House.
In the past few days there has been much pressure on me to make public comment about these matters, but I felt that it was right and fitting that I should make no comment until Parliament reconvenes, because it is this House and this House alone that I serve, as well as being accountable for the actions of its Officers. I should emphasise from the start that it is not for me to comment on the allegations that have been made against the hon. Member or on the disposal of those allegations in the judicial process.
I should also remind the House, as stated in chapter 7 of “Erskine May,” that parliamentary privilege has never prevented the operation of the criminal law. [Interruption.] Order. The Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege in its authoritative report in 1999 said that the precincts of the House are not and should not be
“a haven from the law”.
There is therefore no special restriction on the police searching the parliamentary precincts in the course of a criminal proceeding—nor has there ever been.
On Wednesday last, the Metropolitan police informed the Serjeant at Arms that an arrest was contemplated, but did not disclose the identity of the Member. I was told in the strictest confidence by her that a Member might be arrested and charged, but no further details were given to me. I was told that they might be forthcoming the next morning.
At 7 am on Thursday, police called upon the Serjeant at Arms and explained the background to the case, and disclosed to the Serjeant the identity of the Member. The Serjeant at Arms called me, told me the Member’s name and said that a search might take place of his offices in the House. I was not told that the police did not have a warrant. [Hon. Members: “Ah!”] Order. I have been told that the police did not explain, as they are required to do, that the Serjeant was not obliged to consent, or that a warrant could have been insisted upon. [Interruption.] Order. Let me make the statement. I regret that a consent form was then signed by the Serjeant at Arms, without consulting the Clerk of the House.
I must make it clear to the House—[Interruption.] Order. I must make it clear to the House that I was not asked the question of whether consent should be given, or whether a warrant should have been insisted on. I did not personally authorise the search. It was later that evening that I was told that the search had gone ahead only on the basis of a consent form. I further regret that I was formally told by the police only yesterday, by letter from Assistant Commissioner Robert Quick, that the hon. Member was arrested on 27 November on suspicion of conspiring to commit misconduct in public office and on suspicion of aiding and abetting misconduct in public office.
I have reviewed the handling of this matter. From now on, a warrant will always be required when a search—[Hon. Members: “Oh!”] Order. If the hon. Gentleman will let me finish—I have waited for four days. Some have been able to go on television; I have not had that luxury. I have not been able to speak to the media. A warrant will always be required when a search of a Member’s office, or access to a Member’s parliamentary papers, is sought. Every case must be referred for my personal decision, as it is my responsibility. All this will be made clear in a protocol issued under my name to all hon. Members.
Lastly, I have decided, myself, to refer the matter of the seizure by police of material belonging to the hon. Member for Ashford to a Committee of seven senior and experienced Members, nominated by me, to report as soon as possible. I expect the motion necessary to establish this Committee to be tabled by the Government for debate on Monday. I also expect a report of the Committee to be debated by this House as soon as possible thereafter.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I thank you for your statement, thank you for the debate and welcome your decision to set up the Committee. You, Sir, will readily appreciate the outrage that was felt on both sides of the House about the attack on the ability of one of its Members to do the job he was sent here to do—to represent his constituents and to hold the Government to account.
You will be aware, of course, that what happened last Thursday was not simply a search of his premises, serious though that was, but the removal of his computers containing his constituency casework, the removal of his mobile telephone and the disconnection of the telephones at his constituency home. This attack was entirely without precedent, and is—
Order. I am very reluctant to interrupt a right hon. and learned Member, especially a former Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, but those things can come up in the debate on Monday. [Interruption.] May I help the right hon. and learned Gentleman? Obviously, when any hon. Member is in any difficulty, I feel that it is my duty to try to help as best I can. With regard to the computer equipment being removed, when I discovered that, I instructed the Serjeant at Arms to ensure that the police had that equipment back in the office on Monday to allow the hon. Member concerned to function properly as a Member of Parliament. Please remember that this is a point of order and not a debate.
Well, Sir, may I ask about the debate? Will you make it clear that any Member who takes part in that debate will be free to question the conduct in this deplorable affair of Ministers, of civil servants and of the House authorities?
It is up to the Government to table the motion. I do not have powers to table the motion. [Interruption.] Order. I only have the powers that this House has given me. It is up to the Government to table the motion, and I have made that clear. The terms of the motion will determine the nature of the debate. That is the best that I can say to the right hon. and learned Gentleman at the moment.
Mr. Speaker, you were right to acknowledge that there is a serious issue at stake here, which is why I would like to ask whether you are in a position to be more specific about the remit and the powers of the Committee that you have proposed. Surely it will be right for that Committee to keep account of the fact that none of us is above the law, but that that principle applies to the police as much as to any of us. What you have said about the absence of a warrant raises a number of very significant questions for the Committee, and I am pleased to hear you say that you intend to produce, by your own hand, a suitable protocol. However, the law includes not just the criminal law but the rights, duties and privileges of all Members of this House, as evidenced by the constitution under which we serve. Will you give the House an assurance, so far as you can, that the membership of that Committee will be such that it will be entitled to have access to information from every source—Government, Opposition if necessary, police, and indeed Officers of the House of Commons?
Let me say to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that I will seek to allow a situation whereby that Committee, which I have set up, will have as much power as I can possibly allow. I thank him for raising that matter—and I take it that that was an application to join the Committee.
This is not an application, Mr. Speaker, but can you assure us that, during the considerations of that Committee, as well as during the debate that is to surround these issues, which are grave issues and raise concerns on both sides of the House, four principles, not one principle, will be discussed? The first, of course, is the rights and privileges of Members of Parliament, but the second is the principle that, outside those particular rights and privileges, we are all, as citizens of this country, subject to the law as well.
Thirdly, whether or not Ministers should have been consulted, the principle of the independent operation of the police should be reasserted, as indeed it was during the investigations into the previous Prime Minister and his staff. [Interruption.] Some of those points would carry a little more weight if they had been raised during that period.
Finally, the principle of the political neutrality of the civil service will also be—[Interruption.]
Thank you for your statement, Mr. Speaker, and for granting the debate. I also thank the hon. Members in all parts of the House and the very many members of the public who expressed support for me over the weekend. May I make it absolutely clear that I believe that Members of Parliament are not above the law? Those who have the real power in this country—Ministers, senior civil servants and the police—are not beyond the law or beyond scrutiny, either. An MP endangering national security would be a disgrace; an MP exposing embarrassing facts about Home Office policy that Ministers are hiding is doing a job in the public interest. The day when exposing facts that Ministers would prefer to keep hidden becomes a crime will be a bad day for democracy in this country.
Further to those points of order, Mr. Speaker. First, there is widespread concern across the House about everything that has happened. Secondly, thank you for saying from the Chair that from now on, a properly executed warrant must be presented to you, and it will be your decision whether the police come into the House of Commons for any reason—we can debate the extent of parliamentary privilege later. Thirdly, as a former Minister, a systematic breach of confidence in a Minister’s office destroys confidence in democratic government, especially when it involves collusion with one of the Opposition parties. That, too, must be discussed.
Thank you for your statement, Mr. Speaker, but may I press you a little bit further? You have directed the Executive to draft the motion, but many of us are concerned that they are party to the whole issue that took place with the arrest of my hon. Friend—[Interruption.]
I say to the right hon. Gentleman that the motion will be amendable. [Interruption.] Order. Mr. Penning, when I am trying to address a right hon. Gentleman, it is not helpful when you throw in your tuppence-worth. Try to be quiet. The motion will be amendable. I have given more than a hint about the type of motion that I want the Government to lay down.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I can well appreciate your frustration at having to wait for four days, but you were absolutely right to make your comments to the House, as you have done, which we appreciate. All that you have said makes me all the more convinced that what took place—the raid and the arrest of the hon. Gentleman —was totally without justification. There was a breach of parliamentary convention, and I would like to see those responsible—the most senior police officers involved—come to the Bar of the House and explain their conduct. That would be quite apart from the Committee that you have suggested should be set up by the House. We need an explanation—and we need it promptly—of why the police acted as they did. [Interruption.]
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Would you be kind enough to confirm that the police are not above the law? What has happened here is that they have entered this House without a warrant. They failed to tell the Serjeant at Arms that she could refuse that entry. That is a scandal, and the police have behaved deplorably. Could you advise the House, Mr. Speaker, about what powers we have to call those senior police officers to account for what is a scandal?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman clearly read my statement that the police did not convey to the Serjeant the fact that she would have had an opportunity to refuse the document of request to search. It was not a search warrant. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is a learned lawyer and Queen’s counsel, and will know that they also had an obligation to say that a warrant could be demanded. They did not do that and they were wrong, and that is why I put that in my statement.
Let me say to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that that is why I am seeking seven experienced parliamentarians to look into this matter. I have already said to the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) that I hope and pray that their powers will be very strong indeed.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I thank you for your statement. I listened to it carefully, and I wonder whether I can ask this question about what is not clear: at what time was the Clerk of the House of Commons—the chief executive of the House—or the Clerk Assistant informed, and when did they speak to you? Were they available?
Mr. Speaker, I think that there has been a general welcome in the House for the mechanism that you have suggested for dealing with a very grave and serious matter that goes far beyond party. It is about whether constituents and others can communicate with Members of Parliament safe in the knowledge that the information will be held in confidence, and for the use for which they have directed it.
However, the procedure that you have outlined differs in one respect from the procedure that would have been used if it had been entirely and only a matter of privilege. A Standards and Privileges Committee report gives the House an opportunity to vote quite specifically on what measures should be taken. Are you satisfied that following the procedure that you have described, the House will have an opportunity—as a whole, and with the full support of the House—to say to its officers, “We direct and will support you in the robust defence of the right of constituents to communicate with Members”? The House as a whole needs to say that if these important rights are to be protected.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Notwithstanding the details of this particular case, would it be in order for you to reassert on behalf of the House the right of Ministers to expect 100 per cent. loyalty and discretion from their staff, and to say that we are proud of the professional and independent civil servants—[Interruption.]
Mr. Speaker, in thanking you for your statement, could I ask you whether it is your intention that the debate on Monday will be a full day’s debate? Could you give the House some idea of when you expect the Committee of seven to report?
Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Given that next Monday’s debate has within it the potential to be used to prejudice any future prosecution, would you, Mr. Speaker, give consideration to issuing some guidance as to the terms in which the motion that is laid down should be debated?
I am sorry, but I am not taking any more points of order. [Interruption.] Order. There will be no more points of order on the matter.
A Bill for the more effectual preventing Clandestine Outlawries was read the First time, and ordered to be read a Second time.
I have to acquaint the House that this House has this day attended Her Majesty in the House of Peers, and that Her Majesty was pleased to make a Most Gracious Speech from the Throne to both Houses of Parliament, of which I have, for greater accuracy, obtained a copy. [Interruption.] Order. Could I ask hon. Members—[Interruption.] I am reading out a statement, and they must be quiet.
I shall direct that the terms of the Gracious Speech be printed in the Votes and Proceedings. Copies are available in the Vote Office.
The Gracious Speech was as follows:
My Lords and Members of the House of Commons
My Government’s overriding priority is to ensure the stability of the British economy during the global economic downturn. My Government is committed to helping families and businesses through difficult times.
The strength of the financial sector is vital to the future vibrancy of the economy. Therefore, legislation will continue to be taken forward to ensure fairer and more secure protection for bank depositors and to improve the resilience of the financial sector.
My Government will also bring forward proposals to create Saving Gateway Accounts to encourage people on lower incomes to save more by offering financial incentives.
My Government will bring forward legislation to promote local economic development and to create greater opportunities for community and individual involvement in local decision-making.
A Bill will be brought forward to reform the welfare system, to improve incentives for people to move from benefits into sustained employment and to provide greater support, choice and control for disabled people.
My Government is committed to protecting the public and ensuring the nation's safety.
A Bill will be brought forward to increase the effectiveness and public accountability of policing, to reduce crime and disorder and to enhance airport security.
My Government will also bring forward a Bill to deliver a more effective, transparent and responsive justice system for victims, witnesses and the wider public. The Bill would also improve the coroners service, and the process of death certification, and provide increased support for bereaved families, including the families of servicemen and women.
A Bill will be brought forward to strengthen border controls, by bringing together customs and immigration powers. The Bill would also ensure that newcomers to the United Kingdom earn the right to stay.
My Government is committed to ensuring everyone has a fair chance in life. My Government will bring forward a Bill to promote equality, fight discrimination and introduce transparency in the workplace to help address the difference in pay between men and women.
My Government will enshrine in law its commitment to eradicate child poverty by 2020.
Because the health of the nation is vital to its success and well-being, a Bill will be brought forward to strengthen the National Health Service. The Bill would create a duty to take account of the new National Health Service Constitution that will set out the core principles of the Service and the rights and responsibilities of patients and staff. The Bill would also introduce measures to improve the quality of health care and public health.
My Government will bring forward a Bill to reform education, training and apprenticeships, to promote excellence in all schools, to improve local services for children and parents and to provide a right for those in work to request time for training.
My Government will continue to take forward proposals on constitutional renewal, including strengthening the role of Parliament and other measures.
My Government will bring forward measures to protect the environment for future generations. A Bill will be introduced to manage marine resources and to create a new right of public access to the coastline.
My Government will continue to work closely with the devolved administrations in the interests of all the people of the United Kingdom. My Government is committed to the Northern Ireland political process and will bring forward further measures for sustainable, devolved government.
Members of the House of Commons
Estimates for the public services will be laid before you.
My Lords and Members of the House of Commons
My Government will work towards European action on economic stability, on climate change, on energy, enlargement and security.
My Government will work for a coordinated international response to the global downturn, including by hosting the next G20 Summit on financial markets and the world economy in the United Kingdom in April next year and reforming financial institutions. My Government will continue to work as part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation including at its sixtieth anniversary summit.
My Government will press for a comprehensive peace settlement in the Middle East, for continued progress in Iraq and for effective measures to address concerns over Iran's nuclear programme.
My Government will work with the Governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan for security, stability and prosperity.
The Duke of Edinburgh and I look forward to receiving the President of Mexico.
Other measures will be laid before you.
My Lords and Members of the House of Commons
I pray that the blessing of Almighty God may rest upon your counsels.
Debate on the Address
Before I call the mover and seconder, I want to announce the proposed pattern of debate during the remaining days on the Loyal Address. Thursday 4 December—home affairs and justice; Monday 8 December—employment, universities and skills, and housing; Wednesday 10 December—foreign affairs and defence; Thursday 11 December—health and education; Monday 15 December—economy, pensions and welfare.
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.
When I was asked by the Chief Whip to move the Address, I was extremely proud and honoured, not least for my constituency of Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill, and to be seconded by my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Liz Blackman), who, among other issues, has an excellent reputation for bringing autism to the fore.
Christened Thomas, I have throughout my life been instinctively suspicious of well-meaning gestures, even one such as this, so naturally I pondered, “Why me?” All was revealed when my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham), a man of great wisdom and knowledge, met me in the Lobby. The tone of our conversation reminded me of the fact that as boys we both attended St. Mary’s school in Coatbridge. In his own inimitable style, he said, “I hear you’re moving the Address.” “That’s right, Jim.” “Do you know why you were selected?” “No, Jim.” “Do you want to know?” “Yes, Jim.” He said, “According to Alex Salmond, you’ve the safest seat in this House and you will be the only Scottish Labour MP to be re-elected.” Responding, I replied, “The right hon. Member for Banff and Buchan claimed Labour would lose the Glenrothes by-election, and we didn’t, so we’re all still here.”
There are three distinctive areas within my constituency of Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill. Historically, the one common feature that connected all three was the contribution to heavy industry. Ironworks, steelmaking and coal mining were once the main sources of employment. I want to pay tribute to those who worked hard to look after their families, as many of them died far too prematurely because of associated illness and disease, often linked with those heavy industries. A special tribute is due to all the women, who, as a consequence, were widowed and left to raise a family single handed.
Today, the older heavy industries have almost disappeared, and newer light industries are taking their place. Coatbridge has a new £10 million redevelopment project at the Summerlee heritage park, which graphically illustrates our history and, just as vitally, our potential.
Chryston embraces communities such as Moodiesburn, Muirhead, Stepps, Auchinloch and Gartcosh. One of the darkest days that that community suffered was 18 September 1959 when an inferno raged deep below in the coal mine. It became known as the Auchengeich disaster, in which 47 men lost their lives. We are approaching the 50th anniversary, and many people still turn out to show their respect each year.
With the utmost humility and poignancy, I wish to add my father to the endless list of men who died as victims of pneumoconiosis without a penny in compensation. My late mother, Mary Gordon, born in Armagh, was left to raise a large family with nothing like the benefits that are rightly paid to widows and families today. That is why I will be eternally grateful that, under this Labour Government, the largest ever financial compensation—nearly £7.5 billion—was paid out to miners and their families who had been affected by diseases through working in such appalling mining conditions.
Among the many improvements in my constituency is a large site, formerly the Gartcosh steelworks, which is now well on its way to being redeveloped as part of a multi-million pound regeneration programme. Such investment has laid the foundations for Gartcosh to be completely transformed socially and economically, which is very welcome given the traditions of my industrial constituency.
Bellshill boy Billy McNeill captained Celtic, the first British team to hold aloft the European cup, in Lisbon. Another proud son of the town was Sir Matt Busby, who became the manager of Manchester United—for the record, the second team from Britain to win the European cup.
My predecessor, the late and much loved Jimmy Dempsey MP, lived in Bellshill and his wife Jane still closely observes political events here at Westminster. Jimmy was renowned for his tireless work in helping to bring jobs to the county of Lanarkshire. He would marvel at the volume of employment opportunities in the Bellshill area. Between the business park and the food park, there are approximately 8,500 jobs.
Bellshill also gave birth to one of the finest and most outstanding parliamentarians of our time, Robin Cook.
I do not wish to claim that I am alone in working hard for my constituents. In my experience, hon. Members of all parties are genuinely committed to their work in Parliament and their communities. For example, it would be remiss of me not to pay tribute to hard-working hon. Members who supported victims of pleural plaques. Tragic sufferers of asbestos-related diseases need a compensation package similar to that paid out to the miners.
During my time here I have served both as a Back Bencher and on the Front Bench. One particular highlight was the time that I spent working under the leadership of the late John Smith, my neighbouring MP, who was destined to become Prime Minister before his sudden and untimely death. When I was shadow Cabinet spokesperson for disability under Tony Blair, I worked closely with the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). His Disability Discrimination Act 1995 stands, no matter what else he does, as a considerable achievement. I hope that my praise for him does not damage his future prospects—or, perhaps more importantly, mine.
It would also be remiss of me not to pay a warm tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty), who later served as my Parliamentary Private Secretary and who, in my view, would make an excellent Minister himself. The House also appreciates his hard work as Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee.
In my time here I have always tried to work closely with members of other parties, including the Liberal Democrats, such as the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Mr. Kennedy). Just last week I was speaking in a debate at Glasgow university, where he is the distinguished rector, and I can assure him that he is held in the highest esteem. Indeed, more recently, on a flight down here, I overheard that there might be some imminent vacancies on the Lib Dem Front Bench. If he finds himself back there, I wish him well.
During debates here I often follow my namesake, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke). Occasionally, we also receive each other’s mail. Not long ago, I read a postcard from a woman who wrote:
“Dear Mr. Clarke,
You are an absolute disgrace. Having betrayed us on Europe, I will never vote for you again.”
I took that as a compliment and I urge the right hon. and learned Gentleman to do the same.
Since becoming a Member of this House, I have set myself three priorities: first, and most importantly, to represent the interests of my constituents. Secondly, I feel as passionately about supporting disabled peoples’ rights today as I did when I helped to steer the Disabled Persons (Services, Consultation and Representation) Act 1986 on to the statute book, and that will never change.
Thirdly, in the year of the Make Poverty History campaign, and with the unanimous support of the House, I succeeded with another private Member’s Bill, which became the International Development (Reporting and Transparency) Act 2006—incidentally, I acknowledge the role that the then Secretary of State for International Development, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Hilary Benn), and his ministerial team played. That is why I welcome the Government’s—and especially the Prime Minister’s—determination to achieve the millennium development goals. The figure of 0.7 per cent. of gross national income is still our objective for 2013. I have every confidence that the Government will deliver, and I have noted the support of those on the Opposition Front Benches.
There is much to welcome in the Gracious Speech. The banks’ responsibility to consumers, the Bill reforming training and apprenticeships, and ensuring an end to child poverty by 2020 are among the priorities that my constituents will find practical and helpful.
In this debate on the Gracious Speech, the dominant issue is the fragility of the global economy, but let us not forget that thousands of UK troops, from almost every constituency, are sacrificing themselves in a war against extremism. In the Congo and Darfur, displaced people face a violent non-future. Here, and across the developed world, people face the threat of losing their jobs and homes. People who are in poverty, people with disabilities and the people dying in the third world have to overcome many more hurdles than we face in this global downturn, and we should look to their example for inspiration. I passionately believe that, whatever their circumstances, British people have the character to be creative and confident. Working together, we will, we can and we must succeed. In that positive spirit, I commend the Gracious Speech to the House.
It is with great pride that I stand to second the Loyal Address. It is a huge honour for me and my constituents, and I am particularly pleased to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke). On every occasion that our paths have crossed, I have thought what a charming man he is, with his soft Scottish lilt, but people should not be fooled: whenever he sets his sights on a target, he goes after it with utter determination and deadliness. During his 26 years in the House, he has campaigned to improve the lives of disabled people, their families and their carers. He has done so with awesome determination and massive success, and I pay tribute to him.
Another charming, and some might say deadly, man is the Chief Whip. I am still in a state of shock because he has invited me to speak today. First, because I have been a Government Whip, I have not spoken in a debate for more than two years—so no pressure there! Secondly, I do not exactly fit the profile of the young, up-and-coming Members who are usually called on to perform this honour. My hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Mr. Roy) put it another way when I confided in him, in the Tea Room. He said, “That’s great,” and added, after a pause, “No offence, hen, but they normally pick ’em younger.” Whatever the reason that I have been chosen, I am incredibly honoured.
In 1997, I found my way here, as the proud Member of Parliament for Erewash after 25 years in the classroom. “So, what exactly is the difference, Miss?” asked one of my pupils. The only comment from my dad, who does not hold politicians in high regard, was, “Well, at least you’ve done a proper job first.”
My constituency is pronounced “Erreywash”, not “Airwash”, and certainly not “Earwash”, and it is found between Nottingham and Derby. Most of its people live in the market towns of Long Eaton, to the south, and Ilkeston to the north. Sandiacre sits between the two and has a sizeable population. There are also a number of villages stretching out towards Derby. I wonder how many Members were brought up watching “Citizen Smith” from the Tooting Popular Front. I am glad to say that Robert Lindsay is a local lad.
Coal, lace and heavy engineering are at the heart of Erewash’s industrial heritage. At one time, Stanton Ironworks employed 12,500 people. One of its products are manhole covers, which can be found all over the world, even on my walk into the Commons. In fact, last week, in preparation for this speech, I was crouching down in the middle of Horseferry road, forensically examining one of those engineering masterpieces, when a certain Leo Beckett, the husband of the Minister for Housing, my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett), suddenly appeared. I did not explain my strange behaviour, and he was certainly far too polite to ask what I was doing. However, I did catch him looking at me rather oddly as we walked along. He was clearly thinking, “What is this woman on?”
The old industries in my constituency have now all gone, but niche engineering and light manufacturing are holding their own. Members’ three-piece suites—perhaps from John Lewis; perhaps not—could well have been made in Erewash. The area has seen other changes, too. There have been vast improvements in health and education, and there is a vibrant voluntary sector. There is a newly formed credit union to protect people from doorstep lenders, and more people are in work. One thing that we need, however, and which we do not have, is a station at Ilkeston. With that in mind, I am currently stalking my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport. I remind him about the need for the station every time our paths cross—which, funnily enough, I find happening less and less often.
Given the industrial background of my constituency, Members will not be surprised to learn that the people there are pretty blunt. In 2005, the perma-tanned leader of a political party called Veritas put himself up as a candidate for the constituency in the general election. A local radio station conducted a vox pop, seeking people’s reactions. The broadcast ended rather abruptly when a woman said, “Kilroy-Silk, my MP? Kilroy-Silk, my ar—”. At that precise moment, the producer pressed the “silent” button, so the “s” never arrived, but the woman’s sentiments certainly did.
It takes a lot to impress the youngsters in my constituency, too. “Have you met the Queen?” asked one small child. “Yes,” I replied. “Ooh! Have you met the Prime Minister?” “Yes.” “Wow! Have you met David Beckham?” “No.” “Oh.” I dropped right down in his estimation after that, and never recovered.
The best thing about the people I represent is that they give me advice, and plenty of it, without charge, wherever I go. They tell me when they are happy, and they tell me when they are not. They are good, hard-working, decent people with a strong sense of community.
The subjects that I have concerned myself with in the House have mainly been rooted in the constituency that I represent, but I was honoured to be the chair of the all-party group on autism for several years. The group pushed the agenda on, but the provision of better services for adults with autism is still work in progress. The great strength of an all-party group is that it does exactly what it says on the tin: it puts party politics to one side in the interests of progress.
Putting party politics to one side was not the mantra of the Whips Office, but I enjoyed my time there, too. I would like to take this opportunity to thank my former east midlands group for being so approachable, my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) for enriching my vocabulary, and the wider membership for the innovative reasons that they gave for being unable to do statutory instrument Committees on a one-line Whip on Thursdays. Echoes of my teaching past flooded back at such times. “The dog ate my homework, Mrs. Blackman.” “My mam says I can’t stop ’cos I’ve to be home early.” Colleagues offered those traditional excuses in a modern setting. However, even my dad was proud when I became Vice-Chamberlain of Her Majesty’s Household. So was I. It was an honour that I will never forget.
I must now return to the people whom I represent. It is these same communities of these people who are looking to this Government and this House at this time for all the support that we can give them. It is a particular pleasure to second the Address as so much of it is relevant to what most concerns my constituents. They want to know that the financial system is as robust and responsive as we can make it and that their hard-earned savings are totally safe. The banking Bill will help here. Poorer people want more for their children and a safety blanket of knowing that there is a little put by, so the child poverty Bill and the savings Bill will respond to them. They want to be able to take advantage of opportunities wherever and whenever they arise. Measures in the children, schools and learning Bill will develop and improve their skills, and the welfare reform Bill will offer more support to those on benefit, those with mental health problems and those with disabilities. My constituents will also welcome the measures in the policing and crime Bill that clamp down on the pockets of mind-numbing, alcohol-fuelled yobbish behaviour that ruin their neighbourhoods. We live in tough times and I believe that all these measures will make a difference.
To conclude, I have now come full circle and back to education, my first love, as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Minister for Schools and Learners—and I am loving it. However, as a born-again Back Bencher, I feel that I must warn my Whip that on a distant Thursday on a one-line Whip where a statutory instrument is on offer, I may have to say to her, “The dog ate the notification and, anyway, I can’t stop ’cos I’ve to be home early.”
It is the greatest honour, Mr. Speaker, to second the Gracious Speech.
Let me start by congratulating the proposer and seconder of the Loyal Address. The right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke) gave a moving speech about his constituency and about his family. If I may repay the compliment he paid my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), the right hon. Gentleman, with his excellent work on disability and international development, is indeed admired on both sides of the House.
I have done my homework and I gather that the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill is a Brownite; I also gather that he paid the ultimate price when he was, of course, sacked by Tony Blair. I understand that from 1997 to 1998, the right hon. Gentleman was the Minister with responsibility for film. It is said that on the day he was caught up in the Blair-Brown blood feud and fired, he was actually having drinks on the terrace with Liz Hurley and Hugh Grant—early membership of the Notting Hill set, perhaps. The next day, the right hon. Gentleman was back in the Tea Room with his mates, so we could say that one minute he was hobnobbing with the stars and the next minute he was starring with the Hobnobs.
I feel sure that the Prime Minister will offer the right hon. Gentleman another job, and I think I know what it will be. As film Minister, he met the Spice Girls, I believe, on the eve of their break-up and he described the departure of Geri Halliwell as
“a little local difficulty that they are perfectly capable of sorting out”.
With PR skills like that, there must be a job for him in the Downing street bunker.
The hon. Member for Erewash (Liz Blackman), who seconded the Loyal Address, also did a great job. I thought she made a wonderful speech: it was witty, human and personal, while also powerful about what matters most in politics to her. She reminded us of the vital service she provided at the last election when she served all parties, everyone in the House and, indeed, the entire nation when she defeated Robert Kilroy-Silk.
The hon. Lady did not tell us very much about her time in the Whips Office, but she did tell us about her important work as a schoolteacher. I think I have the key to what went wrong. She once gave an interview to a bunch of schoolchildren and, when asked what Whips did, explained:
“Whips listen a lot to what other MPs think.”
I am sure that the Whips, who are, as ever, nicely spread out on the Government Benches, will be sitting and listening very quietly today.
We should also today record the passing of some very dedicated Members of this House. John MacDougall was a popular MP and a dedicated servant of the people of Fife. Gwyneth Dunwoody was the very model of an independent Member of this place: she would stick to her guns and challenge authority and she is, I believe, missed on both sides of the House.
Others have also left Parliament, not least Boris Johnson following his election as Mayor of London. I know how much the Prime Minister enjoys working with him and following him as he waves the flag for Britain. Perhaps I can say that I hope one day to be upstaged in exactly the same way.
There has of course been one spectacular return to Parliament: I refer, of course, to the Business Secretary, or, to give him his full title, Baron Mandelson of Foy in the County of Herefordshire and of Hartlepool in the County of Durham—it is good to know he is not taken with the trappings of office. On Saturday, the Business Secretary said that the Prime Minister was like Moses, and was going to lead people
“away from this economic mess to the promised land."
I know that I do not have to remind the son of the manse that Moses never actually made it to the promised land, and he was not responsible for an economic mess, either.
The Peter Mandelson who on Saturday described the Prime Minister as Moses cannot possibly be the same Peter Mandelson who was reported on Sunday in the following way: we read that the late Hugo Young, after long lunches with Peter Mandelson, would write in his diary that senior Labour figures had described the Prime Minister as
“niggardly, brooding, credit-grasping, impossible to work with and fatally flawed.”
I am sure that at some stage the real Peter Mandelson will stand up.
As well as those who have left us and those who have returned, there is of course one person who is here despite the best efforts of the Government, and that is my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green). [Interruption.] I hope there is something—[Interruption.]
I mentioned the Whips spread about the Chamber, and they have already started their shouting. Labour MPs used to shout for free; they now have to be paid to do it. I hope there is something we can all agree on: Parliament is here to call the Government to account, to question, to challenge and to publish information that is in the public interest. That is why we are here. Is not that what the ceremony this morning is all about? When we slam the door in the face of the Queen’s representative and assert the right of the public to challenge the Government and to know the truth about the country we live in, that is Parliament doing its job.
What I have explained over and over again is that the information published by my hon. Friend has nothing to do with national security and everything to do with revealing the fact that the Government have tried to cover up information. Let me invite the hon. Gentleman to intervene again if he can tell me which of the stories put into the public domain the public do not have a right to know. Do we not have a right to know that the security industry is riddled with illegal immigration? Do we not have a right to know that the Home Office is looking at voting figures for Labour MPs that should be in the Whips Office? Do we not have a right to know that this House has been employing people who should not be here? Those are things the public have a right to know and my hon. Friend was entirely right to publish them.
I want to focus—
I want to make a little more progress before I give way again.
I want to focus on one question that I think is being asked up and down the country: where does the Prime Minister stand on this issue? [Interruption.] Does he think it is right for a Member of Parliament to be arrested and held for nine hours, to have his offices searched by anti-terrorism police, and to have his house raided and his daughter reduced to tears?
This is quite extraordinary. The approach that the hon. Gentleman is taking, and that some Labour Front-Bench Members seem to be taking, is that Members of Parliament should not release information that is in the public interest and that they should be pursued and arrested for doing so. If that approach had been taken when the Prime Minister was in opposition, he would have spent most of his life in prison. [Interruption.] Well, he laughs about it now, but he produced leak after leak after leak, all of which he claimed were in the public interest.
Let me just make the following point to the Prime Minister, and then I will give way to all the Members who are standing. It is no good the Prime Minister hiding behind the defence of “I didn’t know” and “I support the operational independence of the police.” People want to know—[Interruption.] People know what I believe; what people want to know is what the Prime Minister believes. He has told us endlessly about the independence of the police; what about the independence of this place and its Members? People want to know whether our democracy, and our right to challenge and to question and oppose, are safe under this Government and this Prime Minister, and I hope that when he speaks’ he will have the courage to get off the fence and tell us what he believes.
The right hon. Gentleman has made a great deal of the control of information and how people should handle information. Will he tell us when it is appropriate for the chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority to ring someone who is under investigation by the Metropolitan police?
What the chairman of the police authority, the Mayor of London, did when the police told him about their plans was give them the trenchant view that that was a mistake, and I happen to agree with him; I think it was a mistake. What I find so staggering is that Members of Parliament, who should be thinking about how we defend the public’s right to know and how we defend challenging the Government, are quite happy to say, “Come and get me.” That seems to be the hon. Gentleman’s attitude.
Let me explain to the hon. Gentleman the approach that we take. What my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford has done is publish information the public have a right to know—about cover-ups in the Home Office, about maladministration and about illegal immigration, all subjects that the Government are not clear about. He has not done anything that is to do with national security; that is the judgment that the Opposition have to make, and I am very confident we made the right judgment. It is exactly the same judgment the Prime Minister made when he was in opposition and lived off a diet of leaks, some of which did concern national security.
The right hon. Gentleman would like to become Prime Minister one day. Is he really telling the House that as Prime Minister he would be perfectly relaxed about a civil servant committed to impartiality entering into an arrangement with an Opposition spokesman to release information on a continuing basis in breach of the civil service code?
Let me tell the hon. Gentleman what I am not relaxed about. I am not relaxed about a Member of Parliament being arrested for doing his job. I am not relaxed and, incidentally, neither is Mr. Speaker, about the police coming and searching offices in Parliament. I am not relaxed about nine anti-terrorism officers going into the house of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford and reducing his family to tears. I used to think that the hon. Gentleman believed in standing up for Parliament. I must say that yes, I do have ambitions to be Prime Minister, and I hope to take his seat in the process.
I am grateful to the Leader of the Opposition. This follows on from the point just made, which is one of fundamental principle. Whatever happened during this specific case—all of us have concerns about that, and they will be addressed—what the Leader of the Opposition is saying from the Dispatch Box is tantamount to the creation of a new principle if he were Prime Minister—[Interruption.] If Opposition Members will listen to me, I shall tell them what it is. He is announcing in advance that, as Prime Minister, he would be perfectly happy for any civil servant, on their own judgment, to release any information other than that classified for national security purposes and that he would support its publication for the public. Is that what he is saying?
The right hon. Gentleman knows that that is absolutely not what I am saying. Of course no Government—I have worked for a Government—want to see information leaked. But the principle that he and others on the Labour Benches now seem to be putting forward is that it is all right for the police to arrest a Member of Parliament for doing his duty.
I have answered the right hon. Gentleman’s question. I have to say that he told us that the Home Office was “not fit for purpose”. What my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford has done with the information that he has published is just prove that it is not fit for purpose. There are many former Home Secretaries in this House. Another one, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), has said that he would have behaved quite differently had he been Home Secretary instead of the one whom we have in post.
I would not want to delay the Leader of the Opposition in getting round to the Queen’s Speech, but I just wish to put it on record that what I said was that I found the way in which the police had operated and behaved very disturbing; I thought it was heavy-handed. At no time have I suggested—nor would I—that the police did not have the right to investigate Members of Parliament.
I listened very carefully to what the right hon. Gentleman said. The term that he used—“heavy-handed”—was exactly the one that I used when I was first asked about this issue. He takes a very common-sense view of these events, and I just wish it was shared more broadly on the Labour Benches.
Is it in order to point out that the Leader of the Opposition inadvertently misled the House when he suggested that I had supported the arrest of a Member of Parliament? I did no such thing; I said that it was subject to inquiry. My point related to the point of principle, and not to the specific judgment as regards the hon. Member for Ashford.
We support the excellent work of our troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, and I would like to pay tribute to the two Royal Marines who were killed in Afghanistan on Thursday, Marine Tony Evans and Marine Georgie Sparks. We should remember once again all those whose names have been read out in this place over the last year, and what they have done to serve our country.
In Iraq, we support the draw-down of troops as conditions allow, and I am sure that the Prime Minister has learned that the draw-down must take place when appropriate and not according to some pre-announced political timetable.
On Afghanistan, the British Government will clearly come under pressure to increase troop numbers as President-elect Obama plans a surge in US forces. Does the Prime Minister agree that any proposal for an increase in British forces should be accompanied by an increase in troops from other NATO nations, an increase in helicopters to ensure that they are properly mobile, and an increase in equipment and protection for our troops? I hope he also agrees that we will not succeed in Afghanistan through military means alone. We need better co-ordination of aid, less corruption and better government. I hope that the Prime Minister will give us a realistic assessment of the situation when he speaks.
The work of our armed forces also reminds us of the threat that we face from global terrorism. We saw it last week with the appalling attacks in Mumbai, and our thoughts are with the friends and families of all those who lost their lives. We should be clear about what the terrorists are trying to do: they are trying to rob India of her rightful place in the global economy, to set one community against another, and to set east against west. We should also be clear that those terrorists will not stop trade and co-operation, and they will not break up the excellent relations that exist between Britain and India. We must never give in to that sort of terror.
One thing that was promised but that did not appear in the Queen’s Speech was the draft floods Bill. The Secretary of State promised it for this Session, and I hope that the Prime Minister will be able to confirm that it will go ahead.
Of course, there are some things in the Queen’s Speech that we welcome, not least because we proposed them. There is the NHS constitution—a Conservative idea. There is the independent exam regulator—I proposed that in 2005. There is a savings scheme with matching contributions—that was in our 2005 manifesto. More security for ports and airports was also in our 2005 manifesto. The Prime Minister likes to accuse me of writing that manifesto; he has now introduced most of it. Welfare reforms and direct elections for police accountability were both in my conference speech last year. The Prime Minister likes to accuse us of having no substance, but without Conservative substance there would be almost nothing of any worth in the Queen’s Speech.
Let me tell the Prime Minister what is wrong with this Queen’s Speech. There is no recognition in the Government’s programme of how the world has changed. We are moving into an age in which there is no Government money left, so we need public sector reform to get better value for money. We are moving into an age of massive debt, so we need to mend the broken society and reduce the demands on the state. But in the Queen’s Speech there is no serious reform, just bureaucratic bungling and technocratic tinkering. It is all about the short-term prospects of the Prime Minister, not the long-term future of the country. It is last year’s Queen’s Speech from yesterday’s Prime Minister.
There is no change. Let us look at the promises that the Prime Minister made when he said—remember the phrase?—
“Let the work of change begin.”
Let us examine them. We were told that there would be loads of eco-towns, but only one is still alive. He promised zero-carbon homes, but there have been virtually zero of them. There are just 15 in the whole country. He promised 3 million new homes, but house building fell by a quarter last year. What about free nursery education for all two-year-olds? That has been abandoned. More maintenance grants for students were granted last year, collapsed in a complete shambles this year and face massive cuts next year. Then there is the Prime Minister’s promise of a new constitutional settlement. We were promised more powers for Parliament to question the Executive. That one ended up down the nick.
What about the statement of British values? Does anyone remember that? According to Government sources, that will never see the light of day. What about British day? Does anyone remember that one? The question is simple—when will it be? How long does it take to set a date for a new bank holiday? Given that the Prime Minister is about to stand up and cancel happy hour, we need cheering up. When will it be?
It would not matter if those ideas were all just gimmicks, but some of them really raised people’s hopes. Whatever happened to social homebuy? The scheme was launched in a blaze of glory and was by now meant to have helped 10,000 families to buy their home—[Interruption.] I know that the Government do not follow these things, but we like to check up on them. It was meant to have helped 10,000 families, but it has helped just 235. With this Prime Minister, it is always about short-term politics and never about long-term change.
Most of the Bills in the Queen’s Speech replace one set of failing quangos with another set of failing quangos. Let us take one measure as an example, the thing that the Prime Minister has banged on about year after year, in Budget after Budget—skills. Seven years ago, the Government set up the Learning and Skills Council. They then created 47 local learning and skills council branches. There were then four reorganisations. In 2006, the 47 branches were replaced by nine regional centres, but with 148 local partnership teams. What was the result? The Learning and Skills Council’s own report this year said that “unnecessary duplication abounds” and that one arm does not know what the other is doing.
What is the Prime Minister doing in this Queen’s Speech? He is scrapping the Learning and Skills Council altogether and he is passing responsibility for education and training for 16 to 18-year-olds back where it came from, to local authorities. What a waste of time, money and effort. The most ridiculous thing about it is that instead of just killing off the quango, the Government are introducing three new ones—the SFA, or skills funding agency; the YPLA, or young people’s learning agency; and the NAS, or national apprenticeship service. Millions are being spent on redundancies, reorganisation and rebudgeting, and administrative costs are going through the roof. In the middle of all that, the number of people being trained has gone down. That is what has happened.
The Government have abandoned public sector reform, there is no social reform and the promised change never happened. Labour was on the verge of getting rid of the Prime Minister, but the party now clings to the one thing that it thinks that it has left—the economy. So let us look at the state of the economy after the Prime Minister has been in charge of it for a decade. So far, we have focused on the claims that he has made over the past 10 years and on how hollow they sound today. One of his claims was prudence, when we entered the recession with the largest budget deficit in the industrialised world. Another was stability, when unemployment is rising more quickly than in any other major economy. Another ridiculous claim was that he abolished boom and bust. That was ridiculous because under him we had the most unsustainable debt-fuelled boom followed by one of the biggest busts in our history.
So much for the claims of the past 10 years—let us now take a look at the claims of the past 10 weeks. They are just as threadbare. He told us that Britain is better prepared for this recession—he says that it is true—but it is now forecast by sources that include his own Treasury that we will have the worst recession in the G7 next year. That is how well prepared we are. He told us that Britain’s debt is more sustainable, but just yesterday Britain’s credit-worthiness slipped behind that of Portugal, Belgium and even HSBC.
The other claim of the past 10 weeks is that the whole world is following the Prime Minister’s plan for fiscal stimulus. This weekend, the German Finance Minister said—[Interruption.] He is following my plan, as Labour Members will find out if they listen. He said:
“Since I’ve been dealing with economic stimulus packages, that is, since the end of the 1970s, they’ve never had the real effect that was hoped for. In the end, the state was just more in debt than before”.
He also said:
“Just because all the lemmings have chosen the same path, it doesn’t automatically make that path the right one”.
One would have thought that the Prime Minister might listen to a fellow socialist, but he is too much of a lemming.
I am coming to exactly that point, but let me tell the hon. Gentleman what we will do. Let us freeze the council tax for two years for every family in the country. Let us give small businesses a £10 billion VAT boost by letting them pay their bills late. Let us cut national insurance for the very small companies so that they do not have to fire people. Let us have a £3 billion jobs plan to use the money that will be spent on unemployment benefit to get people off the dole. Above all—and this is absolutely fundamental, although the Prime Minister does not understand it—let us have a truly massive Government-backed insurance scheme to get the money out of the banks and into small businesses. Those are five good reasons—perhaps the hon. Gentleman will listen to them and cross the Floor so that he does not have to lose his seat.
Everything that the Prime Minister has told us, not just in the past 10 years but in the past 10 weeks, has completely fallen apart. His latest claim—and I want to be fair to him by taking it apart—is that the political division is between action and inaction. That is typical of his approach. He cannot handle a real argument with a real alternative, but can only ever set up a straw man. We see it week after week at Question Time: he takes a set of beliefs that nobody holds—a set of propositions that no one agrees with and usually a set of things that nobody has said—and then proceeds to attack them.
That is a sign of his weakness, not of his strength. This recession was brought about by runaway borrowing and a massive failure of financial regulation, yet the Prime Minister’s answer is more discretionary borrowing and a complete refusal to admit any mistakes in the regulatory system that he created.
The real solution, which we are putting forward, should lie in lower interest rates, massive Government-insured guarantees for bank lending, and support for families and businesses that does not permanently impair the public finances and the chances of recovery. That is the answer, and it is contained in the five points that I just outlined to the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris). Only some boneheaded Whips’ plant could argue that that is inaction; even the hon. Gentleman is nodding his head in agreement that what I have set out is not inaction—it plainly is not. The real division is between the right and the wrong action, between our long-term action that will really make a difference and the Prime Minister’s short-term action taken just to get through tomorrow’s headlines.
Let us take the situation with the banks. When will the Prime Minister accept what the whole country now knows—that his bank recapitalisation is not working? It rescued the banks but not the small and medium-sized firms. They cannot get the loans or overdrafts that they need, and the charges being levied on them are frankly outrageous.
The Government’s response is to hold endless meetings with bankers that are conveniently briefed to tomorrow’s newspapers to try to make the Prime Minister look good, but it is not making any difference. That is why we need, in this Queen’s Speech, a Government insurance scheme to get the banks lending. That is long-term change, not short-term politics.
Now let us take the cut in VAT. The Prime Minister wanted a stimulus so a stimulus we had to have—the only problem being that borrowing money when we are already virtually broke to cut prices when they are already falling and then warning of tax rises that are coming down the road is not exactly stimulating. Instead, what we need in the Queen’s Speech is a plan to reduce the future growth of public spending to show how we can keep taxes down in future—again, that is long-term change and not short-term politics.
What is the long-term consequence of the Prime Minister’s failed Budget and short-term approach? It is a black hole in the public finances that everyone knows means taxes going up under Labour. The Government have already told us about the national insurance change, but that is not just a tax rise on anyone earning over £19,000—it is also a tax rise on every job in the country. Can anyone think of anything more stupid than putting a tax rise on jobs when the economy is going to be struggling to recover?
We all know what the secret tax rise is—VAT will first be raised to 18.5 per cent. and then to 20 per cent. [Interruption.] It is no good Labour Members shaking their heads, as we have all seen the Government order. This was not some leak to the Tory Front Bench; this was the Financial Secretary to the Treasury signing a document and putting it on the Treasury website. Who is the Prime Minister going to arrest for that one?
The Prime Minister’s approach of making endless announcements to try to win short-term advantage depends on one crucial assumption, and it is one that I think he always gets wrong. He assumes that the British people are stupid and that they will not realise he will have to fill the black hole with higher taxes. He assumes that they do not notice when the Government present a tax-con rather than a tax-cut Budget, and that they will believe it when he tells them that all the problems come from America.
The Prime Minister thinks that British people are stupid, or that they do not see through him when he wanders off to Iraq to visit the troops in the middle of a Tory conference. However, he has to realise that if he takes people for fools, they will never take him for their Prime Minister.
A proper Queen’s Speech would be honest about the state that the country is in. The truth is that the Prime Minister is borrowing so much because he has spent so much, and that he has spent so much because he has done so little to solve our social problems. Let us just look at those problems.
Welfare dependency is worse: there is more youth unemployment in Britain today than there was when the Government took office in 1997. That is why we need the Conservative plan for radical welfare reform, by giving the voluntary sector the power to go into our most deprived communities. On family breakdown, we have one of the worst records in Europe. That is why we need the Conservative plan to strengthen families, to end the couple penalty and to back marriage in the tax system.
What about health inequality? Surely a Labour Government would do something about that. Wrong. The gap in life expectancy between the richest and the poorest in our country is greater than at any time since the reign of Queen Victoria. That is why we need the Conservative plan to scrap the top-down targets and to stop doctors answering to Whitehall and get them answering to patients. All that needs to be underpinned by our plan to reconstruct a battered economy.
The Leader of the Opposition said earlier that there were no social policies in the Queen’s Speech, but will he ensure that the Conservative party supports the legal target to eradicate child poverty, which is the biggest social ill that we have in this country? Will he do so—yes or no?
Yes, of course we will support it, but the problem with the Government’s approach is that they keep legislating for things that they are not achieving. Child poverty is getting worse. [Interruption.] Yes, and if they wanted child poverty to improve, they would take up our plan to abolish the couple penalty that would lift 300,000 children out of poverty.
We need a new powerful independent office of budget responsibility, so that the Government never end up in such massive deficit. We need a debt responsibility mechanism, so that the Bank of England can call time on levels of private debt in our economy. We now live in a country with national debt doubling under Labour to £1 trillion, putting us on the brink of financial bankruptcy. We live in a country with more than 1 million violent crimes a year—almost doubled under Labour—on the brink of social bankruptcy. We live in a country where counter-terrorism police are used to arrest MPs who hold the Government to account, and that is what I call political bankruptcy.
The Prime Minister is wrong in recession; he is wrong for the recovery. Largely responsible for the collapse of our economy, he is absolutely clueless about the collapse of our society. He is yesterday’s man, so will he get on and call an election so that the people of this country can put this dreadful Government out of their misery and start the long-term change that our country needs?
I know that the whole House will wish me to start by sending our profound condolences, as the Leader of the Opposition did, to the families and friends of Marine Tony Evans and Marine Georgie Sparks of 42 Commando Royal Marines. They were killed in action in Afghanistan last Thursday. We owe them our gratitude for their service and their sacrifice to our country.
It is also a noble tradition to remember Members who have served the House and who have died during the year. I am sure that all Members will want to join the Leader of the Opposition in remembering two Members who deserve the title, “House of Commons people.” The sad death of Gwyneth Dunwoody last year robbed the House of its longest-ever serving woman MP. First elected in 1966, Gwyneth was the third generation of a family dynasty of political women who have perhaps done more than any other to give voice to women in politics today. She was the granddaughter of two suffragettes, and she was the daughter of one of the first female Ministers. If she challenged the Government, she was always critical of the Opposition. She will be sorely missed from her place in the House—a seat located close to the officials’ box— from which, during decades of Transport questions, she was heard to shout “Nonsense” and “Rubbish” to officials, as Members on both Front Benches spoke. On her role as Chairman of the Transport Committee, foolish was the witness who had not prepared fully for an evidence session. Legendary was the loud tapping of her pen if witnesses dared to speak from notes: grown men made weak at the knees. Always formidable, always her own person and fiercely independent, she is already sorely missed. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]
When during his long and fatal illness, John MacDougall arrived in Westminster for a vital vote last year, he was given a standing ovation by Members who came to meet him. Such was his popularity with fellow MPs. He was an apprentice in the dockyard at Rosyth; an engineer; then in the coal mines; then leader of the council; then convenor and then provost of Fife council—one of the first in Britain, three decades ago, to provide free bus travel for the elderly. His constituency was next door to mine, and he embodied the values and ethos of Fife. I met John only a day before he died. I thanked him for all his endeavours on behalf of the people of Fife. I told him that his achievements were great and would be remembered for many years to come, and he gave me one instruction: to ensure that Glenrothes was safe for the future.
John’s campaigning on behalf of sufferers of asbestosis and mesothelioma, from which he himself suffered, has helped to raise awareness of that terrible illness, and as hon. Members know, the Government are examining how we can provide better support for both them and their families. John never wavered in his understanding that his first job was to serve his constituency, and he will be sorely missed.
I thank the proposer and seconder of the motion. Few Members have the distinction of having piloted one private Member’s Bill through the House; even fewer have the distinction of having piloted two groundbreaking Bills, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke) is a member of that elite group, the first Bill giving rights to people with disabilities and the second holding the Government to their overseas targets. Those are formidable achievements of which he and his constituents can justifiably be proud.
Once, my right hon. Friend spoke at an international conference about international development and worldwide poverty and about the difficulties faced by people suffering in so many countries. So successful was his speech that, either because of a failure of translation or for some other reason, food parcels started to arrive in Scotland for people there.
More than 25 years ago, I had the pleasure of campaigning for my right hon. Friend when he was first elected to Parliament. I remember that the constituency name then was Coatbridge and Airdrie. I found on the streets that he was known by everyone as a former councillor and provost of the area. His opponent was a young Conservative, who was so keen to make himself popular that he said that, if elected, he would buy a house in Coatbridge and marry someone from Airdrie, or vice versa. Needless to say, my right hon. Friend was returned with a huge majority.
When, during the last election campaign, I visited the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Liz Blackman), who has spent all her life serving the public as a teacher, a councillor, a deputy council leader and then an MP, I found, as the Leader of the Opposition mentioned, that her most notable opponent was not the Conservative party or the Liberal party, nor even her other opponents representing the Monster Raving Loony party or the Church of the Militant Elvis, but someone well known to the House: Robert Kilroy-Silk. Hon. Members may remember that after defeating Mr. Kilroy-Silk, she was returned to Parliament with an increased majority. As we know, Mr. Kilroy-Silk has found a more appropriate place for his talents: eating insects in the celebrity jungle—although he was the first to be voted off as a result of his behaviour.
In paying tribute to the outstanding and selfless contribution of all those who have served in our armed forces, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan, those who have lost their lives, those who have been wounded, and those who risk their lives daily in the defence of our security and to bring peace and stability to the peoples of those countries, I can confirm to the House that we are looking anew at the Afghanistan policy. The review takes into account the dangers that now exist on the Afghan-Pakistan border. It also takes in the need to complement military action with enhanced protection by helicopters and the new fund for asking other countries to provide helicopters, as well as proper burden sharing, with help to train the Afghan army and police, to strengthen their systems of governance and to develop their economy. We have recently increased our forces beyond 8,000, but I repeat that with 41 countries involved, there must be fair burden sharing.
Afghanistan is our front line against the Taliban; it is also our front line against al-Qaeda. The reason why 41 countries are pledging support for action in Afghanistan is that they know that what happens in Afghanistan can directly affect what happens on the streets of London and major cities and towns in our country and others.
It is, however, right that there is proper burden sharing. I agree with the Leader of the Opposition that in the next few months, as we discuss the need for more troops in Afghanistan, we will look to other countries to make their fair contribution to that burden.
Does the Prime Minister accept that there is widespread concern among the armed forces that there is dislocation between various Government Departments? I very much welcome his review, but will he say who is in charge of it; and will he put a Minister in charge of Afghanistan policy, to answer on the totality of that policy? I promise him that, at the moment, one gets very different perspectives from the different Departments involved on the challenges that we face in Afghanistan.
The review, which I am leading, will bring together, as it has over the past year, all the Departments that are responsible: the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development in particular. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we have led the way in telling America and other countries that military action must be complemented with special help so that people have a stake in the future of Afghanistan, with training of police and of the armed forces, and with reform of government in dealing with corruption and other issues in the government of Afghanistan. If he were being fair to us, he would understand that we have led the way in asking our allies to look at a co-ordinated strategy that is comprehensive in dealing with the issue.
I also want to confirm that our troops are completing the final phase of the task that we set ourselves in Iraq—training Iraqi security forces, building economic development, and speeding up the local democracy that is needed in the Basra area for which we are responsible. In the months ahead, there will be a fundamental change of mission and presence, and we will move to a long-term relationship with Iraq similar to that which we have with other countries in the region. We want a democratic Iraq, strong local government, armed forces who are properly trained, and police who are independent. We want the people of Basra to have a full stake in their future.
A week after the terrible events in Mumbai, the whole country and, I believe, the whole House are in a state of shock at the scale and devastation of the murder of innocent people. It underlines again the threat that a democratic society faces from those who would use terror indiscriminately against ordinary people. I have sent this country’s condolences and sympathy to all who have suffered from this loss of life. Terrorists cross borders to murder innocent people. Our response must be to work across borders to protect them and demonstrate that terrorism will not succeed in undermining democracy.
Our country has offered Prime Minister Singh and India every support in countering extremism. We have sent men and women from the Metropolitan police. We have agreed on the need to generate even closer co-operation against terrorism. I have spoken to President Zardari of Pakistan and urged him to offer the fullest support to India in rooting out terrorism and to show that he will bring to justice any terrorists who seek haven in his country.
We cannot hide from the truth about Zimbabwe, which is now facing chronic state failure. In addition to broken down schools and hospitals and rampant inflation, we now have a cholera epidemic, which is not just spreading within Zimbabwe; it threatens South Africa, too. We have increased our aid to ordinary Zimbabweans. I have called on United Nations humanitarian agencies and non-governmental organisations to mount a new effort and initiative with our support to get help to those who most need it. We are working hard with the region’s Governments, so that they can work together to do what needs to be done most acutely and most immediately to uphold the democratic rights of the Zimbabwean people, to support the bravery and resilience of people still in Zimbabwe and to ensure that they can exercise the maximum pressure on the Mugabe Government and in support of democracy in Zimbabwe.
I want to repeat to the House that in the Democratic Republic of the Congo we will act to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe as we work to facilitate a political solution to the conflict that has already displaced 800,000 people. We are working with partners to get aid through, but I have also written to contributors of peacemakers to ask them to encourage the rapid deployment of the extra forces who are needed to save lives. We have been prepared to put money up. I believe that we will be able, after talks yesterday, to raise the number of peacekeepers from 17,000 to 20,000, so that people can see that there is safety and security for people in the DRC as we search for what is most needed: a political solution.
I can also announce that we are bringing Israeli and Palestinian leaders to London later in December to establish how best we can use 2009 to make real progress towards political and economic solutions in the region.
I can also say that, following the historic agreement between the parties in Northern Ireland, we will bring forward proposals to sustain devolution in Northern Ireland. I thank all parties in Northern Ireland for coming together to make the final part of a devolution settlement possible and now something that can be delivered, with policing and justice devolved in the next few months.
We are finding that the solutions to every crisis require not just action in our country but action internationally. In the challenges to our security and to our economy, and to our environment posed by climate change, the world is having to act together to resolve those problems. We know that climate change, terrorism and global poverty are the problems of a changing global society. The lesson of recent months is that the problems that we face can be met only by acting co-operatively on the basis of our interdependence, not by glorying in isolation. The financial problems that we have require action not just in Britain but in every country. After a year when oil prices have been volatile, the climate change and energy challenge can be met only through action that will lead, I believe, to a settlement at next year’s crucial Copenhagen summit.
The right hon. Gentleman signed the report that said that we should give up regulation in mortgage finance. I criticised a Conservative Member last week for saying that the recession should take its course, but what the right hon. Gentleman said yesterday on his website is even more amazing:
“Living standards in both the public and private sector have to be brought down.”
That is the Conservative party’s answer to the problems that we face, not taking the necessary action.
When the Prime Minister was in opposition, he adroitly used information that public servants gave him, which he believed it was in the public interest to know, and placed it in the public domain. Does he believe that a Member of Parliament doing exactly what he did when he was in opposition should be arrested?
I notice that Conservative Members do not want to talk about the economy. [Interruption.] That is absolutely true. I uphold the right of Members of Parliament to pursue their duties in a way that is necessary for the public interest. Today, the acting police commissioner has said that the police are investigating a substantial series of leaks from the Home Office potentially involving national security.
Earlier this afternoon, Mr. Speaker told us that he regretted the fact that the office of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) was searched without a warrant. Does the Prime Minister share that regret?
Will the Prime Minister answer the question: does he believe that it was wrong of the police to enter this place without a warrant—yes or no?
I shall make some progress, and then I will come back to the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) and the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack).
In the legislative programme, as we did in the pre-Budget report, we are setting out the detail of real help for home owners and families, real help for small businesses, real help for jobs, real help for young people and real help for communities not only for the downturn but for the upturn that will follow. Today, we are introducing for the first time legislation to abolish child poverty in our country. We are also introducing legislation that will give, for the first time, young people who qualify the right to apprenticeships. We are also bringing forward legislation for an NHS constitution that will give rights to patients.
With apologies for going back for a moment, may I ask the Prime Minister calmly and courteously whether or not he regrets that the action was taken without a warrant? Such action might be justified on occasion with a warrant, but does he regret that it was done on this occasion without a warrant?
The hon. Gentleman may be prepared to prejudge everything. The House has consented without demur to Mr. Speaker’s proposal to set up an inquiry into these events. The House has agreed to set up its own inquiry, and the police have set up their inquiry. Surely it is right for us to wait for the results of that inquiry before drawing our conclusions.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it not clear from the Prime Minister’s recent answers, or non-answers, that he is in effect criticising what you told us earlier this afternoon?
On the question of child poverty, does the Prime Minister remember that as a member of the Opposition back in 1993, he leaked information about the potential taxation of invalidity benefit? What would he advise other Members who had been given similar information to do?
I just repeat, in defending the rights of Members to pursue their duties, that what the Metropolitan police acting commissioner has said is that he is investigating a substantial series of leaks from the Home Office, potentially involving national security. That, in my view, is very different.
I am grateful to the Prime Minister, particularly as I have reason to be aware that it is important to preserve the difference between leaks that are about national security and those that are not.
What I wanted to put to the Prime Minister was that earlier this afternoon, in the statement, arrangements were announced that involved the Serjeant at Arms being given instructions not to grant the police the ability to search in these premises without a warrant. Does the Prime Minister support those arrangements?
I thank the Prime Minister for giving way. Does he believe that national security was damaged when my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) found out that the Home Office was seeking to cover up the fact that 5,000 illegal immigrants were working in the security industry in this country? Was that an issue of national security or not?
I am not going to comment on a police inquiry that is ongoing, and I would caution Opposition Members against doing so as well. This is an ongoing police inquiry, and it is right to defend the operational independence of the police. [Interruption.]
Furthermore, there is no dispute that any breach of national security is an important matter. However, does the Prime Minister also accept that the police are themselves accountable, and will be accountable for their statements? Would he not express an opinion that, if it turns out that the leaks were merely matters of confidence—the kind of leaks with which he and I are only too familiar—it would be an abuse of police power to use the police to intervene to try to intimidate either a civil servant or Opposition spokesman who was getting access to confidential leaks embarrassing for the Minister concerned?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman is a senior member of the Bar, and he knows perfectly well that we cannot prejudice an investigation that is ongoing by making comments in this way. I would repeat the statement that has been made by the Metropolitan police saying what they are investigating. I have to go on what they say—it is they who are investigating. Of course the police are accountable, but we also have to recognise that they are operationally independent. Opposition Members cannot pick and choose whether they support operational independence on one occasion or another—they have to support operational independence. I am now going to make progress with my speech.
The Chancellor set out the most comprehensive programme of real help for businesses and families, and now we want to go further. In the past 10 years, 1 million more people have become home owners and there are more owner-occupiers than ever in the history of our country. People who have saved up for a house are proud of what they have achieved, and we are proud of what they have achieved. For many, their biggest fear is that they might face repossession in this world downturn. Today the Government can go further than we were able to go last week, with a new charter for mortgage holders. We want to do what no country has done before in providing new protections for home owners. We will do everything in our power to ensure that no hard-working family who demonstrate to their bank a willingness to pay can or should face the fear of repossession of their family home.
We want to build three protections and put them in place for home owners—three pillars for people worried about their homes. [Interruption.] I know that Opposition Members think that it is funny when we talk about mortgages, home owners and repossession, but this is exactly what the country wants us to be able to do for them. First, having agreed with the lenders that no repossession should be initiated in the first three months after the borrower has moved into arrears, I can announce that Northern Rock and Bradford & Bingley have joined the Royal Bank of Scotland in agreeing that it will not repossess homes for a full six months. I urge all responsible banks to follow their example. Secondly, our new pre-action protocol makes it clear that repossession should be a last resort. Judges now expect lenders to consider what steps and what flexibilities might help to keep hard-working families in their homes. We are backing that up with free debt advice in every court, and we will work to ensure that the protocol is minimising the number of repossessions ever brought to court.
Today I want to offer to families worrying about their mortgages a third protection, which will be an additional guarantee of fairness for all home owners facing difficult economic times. Hard-working households that experience a redundancy or significant loss of income as a result of the downturn will be able to defer a proportion of their interest payments for up to two years while they get their family finances back on track. This measure is in addition to our protection for the unemployed, who, after 13 weeks, can claim help with their mortgage. It will extend protection for those in work as well as those out of work and will be available at a higher level of income. We will make this possible by guaranteeing lenders against the risk of loss from those deferred interest payments. I am pleased that I can announce today that the country’s eight largest lenders have already agreed to sign up and work this new scheme, the detail of which will be published in the next few days. The lenders include HBOS, Nationwide, Abbey, Lloyds TSB, Northern Rock, Barclays and HSBC—already 70 per cent. of the mortgages that are held in this country. The result will be more affordable monthly payments for home owners who need a bridge through difficult times.
We will also—this is in line with the legislation for the savings gateway—consult on how we can create a savings incentive targeted at first-time buyers to help them to save money to get their first step into the housing market. We will continue to take action to improve social housing, with new investment brought forward—an extra £100 million this year and £450 million the year after. That is new public investment that the Conservative party would not fund but we are prepared to fund.
We are, uniquely, buying up surplus stock from house builders—again, a fiscal stimulus that is necessary to meet the needs of our times that we are prepared to do but the Opposition would refuse to do. We are supporting housing authorities and local authorities in building more homes themselves—again, new investment brought forward by this scheme that the Opposition would not support. For 10,000 more first-time buyers, the £1 billion home owner’s support package will mean additional money for housing, which the Opposition would refuse to provide. We are not only providing real help for businesses and families now, but meeting our country’s need for future housing. [Interruption.]
We will also help the construction industry and give communities real help, with new investment in reformed public services. [Interruption.]
It is absolutely clear that the Opposition have no interest in listening to what we are doing about the economy. It is also absolutely clear that they are obsessed with only one thing today, but we have got to get on with the business of helping move from the downturn to higher prosperity.
Let me deal with small businesses. I can announce that we will ensure that the banking codes are put on a statutory footing, and we will give local authorities a greater role in economic regeneration.
I am reassured to hear the Prime Minister speak about housing, because it was not mentioned in the Queen’s Speech. Why did he not take the opportunity of today’s Gracious Speech to update the mortgage law, for which Shelter has argued for some time?
We are taking measures to protect exactly the people about whom Shelter is talking. We are providing a new scheme that not only allows mortgage repossessions to be postponed for six months but lets people recapitalise their mortgage, supported by a Government guarantee, if they are in difficulty. That is exactly what Shelter and other organisations want us to do. The hon. Lady should applaud, not criticise us, for our actions.
One of the big problems is that small businesses are unable to obtain credit guarantees. Will the Prime Minister consider a Government-backed credit guarantee scheme for the small and medium-sized sector? That would free up a lot of industry throughout the UK.
Let me explain that we are doing exactly that. The special liquidity scheme that gives money to the banks is on condition that those that we own put the same amount of lending into small businesses as they did in 2007. At the same time, we have introduced a £1 billion scheme for export credits for small businesses. We have also pushed another £1 billion for the small business loan guarantee scheme. All that is on top of a deferment of the rate of small firms corporation tax, £4 billion of loan capital for small and medium-sized enterprises and a pledge that every bill that the Government owe will be paid in 10 days. We have taken all those steps to help small businesses and we are now in discussions with the banks about how they can move them forward. We will meet representatives of the banks later this week, and I tell the hon. Gentleman that we are making available the necessary money, and he should support exactly what we are doing.
Let me deal with jobs. The first step is to help keep people in jobs and that means more funding for training in work. We will invest more to allow small businesses and others to keep on employees to give them skills they need so that training can be done for the upturn, and vital employees can be kept on instead of losing their jobs. The second step is immediate access to advice and training. People who face redundancy will get immediate practical support. That is possible only because we have a new deal in which we are investing more than £1 billion—investment that the Opposition would always oppose. The third step is guaranteeing a start to securing new skills and help within a month for people who are unemployed. That is possible only because we have a properly financed Jobcentre Plus and a new deal that can do that job.
We are also introducing a Bill in this Session to enhance the rights of people who are looking for work—and their responsibilities. It will include a requirement that those out of work undertake work-related activity so that we help them enhance their skills and increase their confidence, thus giving them the tools they need to invest in the future and make a contribution, instead of languishing on the dole. All that is in stark contrast to the Opposition’s flagship policy on unemployment, launched in the morning and sunk in an afternoon, which the Federation of Small Businesses called a disincentive, not an incentive, to work.
I have already made it clear that I am making progress with the measures in the Queen’s Speech that will help businesses and families in this country. Clearly, the Opposition have no interest in measures that give people jobs, help people with businesses and help people stay in their homes.
Building on our plan to raise education—[Interruption.]
We have just announced measures that get the money through. The difference between us and the Opposition is that we are prepared to put the fiscal stimulus in, whereas they are not prepared to support it. There is no point in talking about extra support for small businesses if one is not prepared to give the fiscal stimulus that is absolutely necessary.
Building on our plan to raise the educational leaving age to 18, the Queen’s Speech brings forward legislation so that every young person has a path to a fulfilling career, by guaranteeing every qualified young person in this country an apprenticeship place, if that is what they want. That means that we will raise the number of apprentices in this country—the Leader of the Opposition said that we had not done anything—from 65,000 in 1997 to 237,000 in 2010. That comes on top of the 40,000 additional teachers in our schools, further action to raise school standards and further legislation in this Queen’s Speech to give more rights to parents and children in our economy.
The Leader of the Opposition’s speech proves that there is no economic problem that this country faces to which the solution is the Conservative party. However much he tries to hide it, he cannot get round the critical mistakes and misjudgments that his party has made and continues to make, including: its refusal to support our rescue of Northern Rock; the shadow Chancellor’s refusal to condemn share speculation a day before we took the action to deal with it; the dogma that monetary policy should act alone and not be supported by real help for families—not even the Governor of the Bank of England, who is in charge of monetary policy, believes that monetary policy can succeed on its own—and finally, the old dogma that any action to be taken has to be paid for by public spending cuts.
Let us be absolutely clear: the real difference between the Leader of the Opposition’s party and ours is that we will invest to take the action necessary for the economy, whereas his party refuses to make the necessary investment. It has no policy for the downturn and no policy for the upturn, either. That is the problem of today’s Conservative party.
Those on our Benches have just applauded action to deal with home owners’ problems, small businesses’ problems and the problem of jobs. It is our side that is leading the way in taking action; it is the Conservative party that refuses to support the action that is necessary.
I am grateful that the Prime Minister has given way. One group of people whom he has not mentioned today is the policyholders of Equitable Life. We recently had a debate in Westminster Hall, which was initiated by the Liberal Democrats. Will the Prime Minister give us a concrete date for when the Government will respond to the parliamentary ombudsman’s report on the issue?
The Prime Minister has announced a series of measures to deal with repossessions, which are of course the consequence of a gigantic recession. On reflection, is he prepared to say today that at least some of that recession is a direct consequence of his decision to over-borrow and mismanage the economy over the past 10 years?
Every country in the world is facing a downturn. Only the Conservative party thinks that it is a national matter, but this is a world downturn that has to be dealt with by world action. I know that the Conservative party opposes action in Europe, but action in Europe is essential to deal with the problem. Action around the world, by calling the G20, is necessary also. It is amazing: nowhere else that I go in the world do I hear politicians saying to me, “Let’s do nothing”, but that is the policy of the Conservative party.
To help people through the downturn, we are also raising the pension, effectively from January, with £60 for pensioners and vulnerable people in the new year. We have brought forward April’s increase in child benefit to January to help people. We have also invested more money in our communities to enable them to regenerate themselves and so that public investment and public works happen through the downturn. In the Queen’s Speech, there are measures to reform our public services, including more say for parents, a new NHS constitution, more help with law and order, more action on alcohol and drugs, and stronger powers to tackle unacceptable care such as that exposed by the baby P case.
When the right hon. Gentleman became Prime Minister, he gave an undertaking that Parliament would be able to scrutinise the Government. Does he, as a parliamentarian, recognise that it is not acceptable for Government Bills to pass through on Report without reaching swathes of grouped amendments which you, Mr. Speaker, have selected for debate, and without debating scores of Government amendments? Will he, as a parliamentarian, undertake to sort that out in this Session?
Of course we will respond to Back Benchers’ amendments, but I must tell the hon. Gentleman that we are changing the royal prerogative and giving more power to Parliament over peace and war, and over treaties. We are also planning to make the Intelligence and Security Committee more linked to parliamentary action and parliamentary decision, and for more reports to Parliament. Let us remember that Labour is the party that brought in the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to enable people to have information—[Interruption.] The Conservatives laugh, but they opposed putting the European convention on human rights into British law. Far from standing up for the rights of the individual, they refused to support that.
Last year, the Opposition said no to education at 18, no to nuclear power, no to planning reform, no to airport development, no to our big investment in skills, no to additional public spending. In the past few months, they have said no to action on Northern Rock, no to action on share speculation, no to our fiscal package, no to our VAT cuts, no to our public works, no to our public investment. When it came to the crunch, they reverted to being what they always were: a Conservative party that did not want to take action, and that was uncaring and unfair about the difficulties that people face.
This is the era, as everybody can see, of “Yes, we can.” All over the world, people are saying, “Yes, we can.” Only the Opposition are saying, “No, we won’t.” They are on the wrong side of the British people in taking action to deal with this downturn, and they are on the wrong side of history. I commend the Gracious Speech to the House.
Many hon. Members are leaving the Chamber, but they would be well advised to stay. After all, the Liberal Democrat party identified the risks of the recession before any other party, and it was also the first party to identify any of the solutions.
I, too, should like to express my sympathy and condolence to the families and friends of Marine Tony Evans and Marine Georgie Sparks, who tragically lost their lives in Afghanistan last week. Later, I should like to ask the Prime Minister about the review of Government policy in Afghanistan and Iraq that he has announced.
First, I should like to pay tribute to the right hon. and hon. Members who have sadly passed away in the past parliamentary year. No one could forget Gwyneth Dunwoody, who was a great servant of her constituency, this House and the country. She is sorely missed by everybody, not least by people such as me who received tongue-lashings from her fairly frequently. John MacDougall will be remembered fondly for his 30 years of unbroken and unstinting service to the people of Glenrothes. His death, from asbestos-related cancer, reminds us of the work that we still need to do to protect the health and welfare of people in the workplace, and of the research that still needs to take place to stop that terrible and cruel illness in its tracks.
I should like to thank and congratulate the proposer and the seconder of the Loyal Address. The right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke) spoke with great affection about his constituency and his family, as well as deftly poking fun at me and other right hon. and hon. Members of the House. He also reminded us of his great track record of speaking out on behalf of people with disabilities. I congratulate him on that. When I did my research on him, I noticed from some of the newspaper clippings that he was described as being both a member of the “Scottish mafia” and “boring but safe”. It is an extraordinary feat to be both those things—although when I look at those on the Government Front Bench, I sometimes think that it might be easier than it seems—but I suspect that he would not wish to be remembered as either.
It has rightly been observed that perhaps the greatest service performed by the hon. Member for Erewash (Liz Blackman) was to keep Robert Kilroy-Silk at bay in her constituency. She did not say—I would love to know whether it is true—whether she had a hand in having him evicted from the Australian jungle last week. If she did, I would like to congratulate her, and also urge her to take urgent steps to get David Van Day sent home as well. Many people would congratulate her if she could do that.
The proposer and seconder have, of course, upheld a great tradition of the House. Today, we are celebrating the democratic traditions of the House and our role in scrutinising the Government and holding Ministers to account. That great tradition has been called into question by recent events, however. Unlike the Prime Minister, I feel unambiguously that it is wrong for the police to gain entry into the offices of any hon. Member of this House without a search warrant, and I cannot understand why he will not say precisely that, too.
It is with comic timing that the Government’s Queen’s Speech has included words about the need to strengthen the role of Parliament, given that this Government show no sign of understanding how much the House has been neutered by the over-centralised, over-secretive and over-mighty Executive that exist under our non-constitution—[Interruption.] The Secretary of State for Justice shakes his head. If he understood the degree to which real parliamentary scrutiny had been placed in jeopardy by the actions of his Government, he would have included three more Bills in the Queen’s Speech. The first would have been a Bill on parliamentary privilege—as was recommended 10 years ago by the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege—to codify clearly, once and for all, the rights of Members of the House to hold the Executive to account, and to set out in what exceptional circumstances, if any, those rights may be infringed.
The second such Bill would have been a civil service Bill to protect and enshrine the impartiality of the civil service and to ensure that undue political influence could never be applied to any civil servant. The third would have been a Bill to restore the protections for whistleblowers that have been systematically removed and demolished by this Government and their predecessors.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. That involves the much wider issue of the lop-sided nature of the information, power and prerogatives of the Executive, compared with the increasingly feeble powers and prerogatives of the legislature.
From the point of view of the public, this matter should not simply topple into an arcane, introspective debate about parliamentary privilege—a concept that the public have probably never heard of, and about which they care even less. This is about defending the simple principle that anyone wanting to unearth information about the way in which we are governed by the Government of the day should not live in fear of the anti-terror police arriving on their doorstep. This is not, and should not be, an argument between parliamentarians. It is an argument on behalf of the public to ensure that every citizen has the right to tell the truth about the Government of the day, however much that might embarrass Ministers at the time.
Before I turn to the Queen’s Speech, I should like to ask the Prime Minister certain questions, if I may. He does not want to listen, but it would be helpful if he would do so. He has made some important announcements this afternoon. As ever, with him, those announcements were not even highlighted, signalled or flagged up in the Queen’s Speech. They related to the Government’s policy on Iraq, on Afghanistan and on repossessions, and I want to ask him three questions.
On Afghanistan, when the right hon. Gentleman conducts this review, will he accept that any lasting stability or peace can be established or maintained only if there is a regional dimension, so that the powers that encircle Afghanistan—Pakistan, Russia, central Asia, China and Iran as well—must indispensably be included in any lasting settlement? Secondly, the Prime Minister has highlighted the fact that we are effectively on our way out of Iraq. Does he not think that it is time to admit that we need a full public inquiry into the circumstances that led to that fatal decision to invade Iraq in the first place? Finally, on repossession, I welcome much of what the right hon. Gentleman has announced today—but if only he had listened to us three or four months ago when we made precisely the same recommendations. Will he tell me how many households that are falling into arrears will be helped by these new measures? The previous measures covered roughly one in 10 of all households in arrears; how many does he think will be covered by the new measures?
Today was a very important opportunity. This has been a terrible year for millions of British families who are struggling to make ends meet, struggling to pay this month’s mortgage bill and this winter’s heating bills, and who are worried about whether they can give their children the sort of Christmas they deserve. People are waiting, anticipating, asking and pleading, “Please help us”. The Prime Minister says that he is Winston Churchill and the Business Secretary, never known to be outdone in hyperbole, says that he is not Churchill, but Moses. People therefore have the right to expect something big from the Government—perhaps a tablet of stone to fix their everyday problems—yet all they get is this meagre document, dressed up as a solution. We are facing an unprecedented economic crisis and people need a helping hand, yet most of this Queen’s Speech is lifted directly from the Prime Minister’s pre-Queen’s Speech announcements in May. Has he not noticed that the world has changed—and changed utterly? This non-stop drum beat from the Government is like a sort of legislative “muzak”, an irritating hum in the background, of no use or no help to anyone.
We see from this Queen’s Speech that the Government are once again to prove to be hyperactive in areas of public policy where they should back off and inactive in precisely those areas where they should do something. They act where they should not act and they fail to act where they should. How on earth can the Government justify the 26th criminal justice Bill without a single mention in the Queen’s Speech or in the subsequent debate on the Loyal Address of the environment or the climate change crisis, which remains the greatest crisis facing us for generations to come? How on earth could the Prime Minister have unveiled legislation that, if reports are to be believed, will give the police the power to check everyone’s identity in this country, so smuggling in the ID card system by the back door, while saying absolutely nothing about reducing fuel bills for those people who cannot pay them at all?
My right hon. Friend’s constituents, like mine, have been seriously affected by flooding in recent years. Does he share my bewilderment that after a year and a half of consultation and deliberation, including the recommendations of the Pitt review, which were widely supported as far as they went, the Government have promised us only a draft Bill and yet more consultation, so almost ruling out the prospect of real action on flooding before the next general election?
I agree with my hon. Friend. I can certainly speak on behalf of my constituents in Sheffield, where a young boy lost his life in the floods, about the intense anger they will feel as they see once again that procrastination has taken over where action is needed from the Government to protect us from future floods.
In other words, this is a Queen’s Speech for a fag-end Government, running out of ideas. It runs to 650 words and 14 Bills, but not a single one of them will help anyone pay their fuel bills this winter. Not a single measure here or in the pre-Budget report last week will put a single penny back in the pockets of people who need help. Rarely has so much been promised and so very little delivered.
We have been living in strange political times. For years now, we have been witness to an extraordinary amount of political cross-dressing between the two Front Bench teams: new Labour was in effect Conservative lite and the Conservative party, for a while, at least, was all cuddly and green. But now they are back in their corners. That is why the public remember quite why Labour and Conservative Governments have failed them, their families and communities for so long. One lot want to do everything and the other lot want to do nothing: it is a terrible choice between a wrong direction or simply going backwards. This Government’s determination to do very little only seems to be outdone by the Conservatives’ determination to do even less. Listening to my right hon. Friend—[Hon. Members: “Oh!”] I am just checking that he is paying attention. Listening to the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), I do not know what he would actually do. He seems to think that public spending should be cut in 2010 when we will still be in the teeth of a recession. He calls this “being responsible”; this from the party that has been responsible for most of the worst recessions that this country has seen in the post-war period, and is trying now to steal the cloak of so-called prudence.
Labour imagines that the recession will look good for its poll ratings. The Conservatives seem to think that it is good for people’s health. Labour seems to be fiddling while Rome burns—the Conservatives would prefer to hide the fire engines in the first place.
The Queen’s Speech should be offering hope where there is fear, reassurance where there is anxiety. The pre-Budget report and the Queen’s Speech should have delivered big, permanent and fair tax cuts to people on low and middle incomes who are struggling to make ends meet, paid for by closing the multi-billion pound loopholes that only benefit wealthy individuals and large businesses. The pre-Budget report and the Queen’s Speech should finally have released local authorities from the restrictions that prevent them from borrowing money against their own assets to buy up unsold properties to provide more social housing to families who have no permanent roof over their heads.
The pre-Budget report and the Queens Speech should finally have signalled that banks will be forced to lend to businesses and, if not, that the Government would start lending to businesses directly themselves. Instead of using £12.5 billion to give a temporary VAT cut that no one has noticed, that is helping nobody and which everyone will have to pay for later, any borrowed money should have been used to invest in our common future; in greener energy, public transport and better and more social housing.
Finally, the Queen’s Speech today could have been used to propose legislation to stop the scandal of the way in which energy companies now charge people for their heating. At the moment, the first units of energy are billed at a higher price than any subsequent units of energy. It sounds technical, but what does it mean in human terms? It means that a pensioner on very modest means, scrimping and saving to heat one single room in her house, will be paying more for her energy than a millionaire heating five floors of their mansion from top to toe. That is wrong, it is a scandal, it should have ended and the Government could have done something about it now.
The banking Bill will not restore lending to struggling businesses. The local government Bill will not allow councils to invest money in housing and the education Bill will not stop the loss of apprenticeships. The tub-thumping populism that we have had for 10 years now on law and order will not cut crime, either.
I understand what the right hon. Gentleman is saying, but does he not welcome the proposals in the police and crime reduction Bill to ensure that alcohol will not be freely available to young people as it has been in the past? Does he agree that it is necessary for us to do something to control the number of alcohol-related crimes—the figure is now 49 per cent? Does he welcome those proposals?
I agree that it is an issue but instead of immediately reaching for the statute book, the Government could now, and could have done so a long time ago, prosecute those licence-holders who are still escaping prosecution for selling alcohol to under-age children and for being the direct source of so much disruption in our town and city centres every single week.
The Prime Minister marches round the world, trying to be the chancellor in chief of every country he visits, but he is supposed to be running this country. He is supposed to be providing help to millions of British families, not congratulating himself on the fact that he is having a “good recession.” The Prime Minister is showing astonishing hubris today and we need to see a little more humility. People need less of his arrogance and more of his help.
The present economic crisis shows that not only that our economy is broken but that our politics are increasingly broken, too. As people despair about their own economic futures, they will despair, too, at the failure of our political system to provide the responses that they need. This is dangerous; dangerous for this House and dangerous for anyone who believes in a parliamentary democracy. It breeds discontent, extremism, anger and frustration. People need solutions, yet they look around today and what have they got? Pantomime. This is a Government who received barely 22 per cent. of the eligible vote at the last election, who are stumbling through a crisis of their own making, ramming through laws, deaf to all criticism, and blind to all dissent. People will give up on politics if we are not very careful. It is no wonder that in the last two general elections—those of 2001 and 2005—more people did not vote; more people stayed at home than voted for this Government. If this Government were truly a reforming Government, the Queen’s Speech would attempt to reform our politics as well as our economy: it would move to get big money out of party politics altogether; it would reform a clapped-out, unfair electoral system; and it would devolve power away from Westminster and Whitehall, where it is being hoarded. Yet we have none of that from this Queen’s Speech.
The hon. Gentleman could have done a lot better than that, but I accept that this is a problem for everybody in this House. Anybody who cares about the legitimacy of parliamentary politics today should care that the public have become extremely sceptical and apathetic. That is why we should all work together. The opportunity was there to make sure big money was finally taken out of party politics altogether, but this Queen’s Speech was just pantomime.
The right hon. Gentleman has sufficient time to answer the perfectly reasonable question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew): does his party intend to give back the money from the criminal who now languishes in prison?
Being questioned on donations by a member of the Labour party is a bit like being lectured on customer service by Basil Fawlty. As I have said, we all need to work together in order to make sure that such money is removed from politics, as its presence has seriously damaged public confidence.
This Queen’s Speech was a pantomime: bright colours, bad jokes, little substance. This Government have run out of ideas. It is clear that the country needs a new and different direction—a new political beginning—and that is what the Liberal Democrats will deliver.
It is a pleasure and great honour to be called so early in the debate on the Queen’s Speech, and it is also a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg). He described the Queen’s Speech as a pantomime. I have now attended some 26 Queen’s Speeches and have gone to the other place to follow proceedings, and I have always thought it more a pageant than a pantomime.
It is clear from this debate and the Queen’s Speech that there are difficulties in handling the recession. The Gracious Speech must be set against the background of world economic events; we cannot stop the world and get off. The Government’s goal is to steer the country through a financial crisis that has converted itself into an economic crisis, and that may yet become a social crisis the like of which we have not seen since the 1930s and the time of the Jarrow marches. There are various corollaries to that: deflation, unemployment and recession leading to depression. That is why, as is clearly stated in the Gracious Speech, the Government place such emphasis on workers, families and small businesses in order to alleviate any effects of the recession and to prevent it from being deeper or longer lasting than it needs to be. That highlights the importance of a fiscal stimulus linked to a monetary policy, and that is where there is a clear difference between the views and positions of the Government and the Opposition.
The Leader of the Opposition made a fine speech. I congratulate him on his humour and on the way he conducted himself; in the House of Commons we can congratulate other Members when they make good speeches, like Geoffrey Boycott would always congratulate the bowler who bowled him a good delivery. However, as is clear from today’s debate, there is a clear difference between the views of the Leader of the Opposition and Opposition Members and the views of the Government. The Leader of the Opposition today prayed in aid the German Finance Minister and, in the past, he has prayed in aid the German Chancellor. Although Germany has fallen into a recession, along with the other 12 member states of the eurozone, and although it is committed to a fiscal stimulus as well as to monetary policy, the German response has been hesitant and modest—some €12 billion of fresh spending over two years, or roughly 0.25 per cent. of gross domestic product, triggering €50 billion of investment. The German Finance Minister has set his face very clearly against a fiscal policy only; he gave his approval to the idea of a monetary stimulus and, as the Leader of the Opposition mentioned, he discussed events going back to the 1970s. This always reminds me of a line of poetry:
“And see how dark the backward stream
A little moment passed so smiling.”
It is not possible in the age we live in to go back over things; we have to go forward.
The Leader of the Opposition’s response to the Gracious Speech made much of the situation in Germany, so it is as well to remember that Germany signed up to the G20 Washington statement calling for a fiscal stimulus, even if it is a modest one, and a fiscal stimulus has been declared as the way forward by the International Monetary Fund, the Governor of the Bank of England, the CBI and the Institute of Directors.
The Leader of the Opposition said today, as he has done in the past, that he does not necessarily believe in the fiscal stimulus. He does believe in what I would call the single-club economic policy; he believes that tax cuts should be funded from elsewhere in the budget. He referred to that today, putting forward some of his own proposals: freezing council tax; cutting national insurance; creating 3 million jobs; and, again, he referred to his national loan scheme. That is a modest set of propositions when contrasted with the Chancellor’s proposals for small and medium-sized enterprises—£1 billion-worth of tax cuts, £2 billion in loan guarantees and £4 billion from the European Investment Bank, all building on monetary policy. That is a positive and proactive approach to the present economic downturn and recession, which, again, places the emphasis on workers and businesses. The Government’s approach differs from the Opposition’s on that. The Government believe in a strong dose of intervention at this time to see us through the recession and lessen its impact, whereas the Opposition are content with what I would call a minimum approach—lowering interest rates and letting them take the strain.
I agree with some of those policies, because they are eminently sensible, but does the hon. Gentleman accept that the reduction in VAT is offset for small and medium-sized businesses, especially those involving transport, by the increase in fuel duty? In fact, what was given with one hand has been taken away by the other. Unless fuel duty is reduced, the long-term effect of that will be a net increase in the cost of fuel, which will have a devastating effect in constituencies such as mine.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that, and I would say two things to him. First, I agree with him on fuel tax, about which I have been lobbied by constituents. Road haulage plays a major part in our economy and in the distribution of goods. All the lobbying that has taken place has not succeeded in reducing the fuel tax. Secondly, the VAT reduction, which people tend to overlook, will be in place for 13 months—it is not something for Christmas only—so over the long term, it ought to help our economy and lessen the effects of the recession.
Today, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition both talked of monetary policy and the actions of the Royal Bank of Scotland. Not only is it committing overdraft facilities, but those are to stay in place for 12 months from the date agreed; it is leaving rates as they are; and it is also providing some 500 managers to offer more intensive support to their small and medium-sized business clients. The Prime Minister referred not only to that, but to the RBS and Bradford & Bingley not repossessing for six months. He also said that eight mortgage lenders would defer interest for two years, guaranteed by the Government, if that would be helpful. We are seeing a hands-on approach to helping those individuals in our society who have problems.
Getting back to the face-to-face banker, who deals with cases individually, will be a great help to the 1.1 million small business customers of the Royal Bank of Scotland, and that can be emulated by others. That is the sort of interventionism that we should all welcome, although it does not appear to be supported by the official Opposition—as opposed to the Liberal Democrats, whose views I respect and have listened to carefully for many years.
We have seen interventionism in the recapitalisation of the banks and financial sectors, and now the focus must move to the industrial sectors where the situation is less clear. We are clear that we do not want jobs to be lost or businesses put into liquidation, but what will that interventionism mean for business communities, such as the motor car industry? Are the Government prepared to intervene and put some £2 billion into that industry, or should we take a different view? I heard no reference in the Queen’s Speech to saving Woolworths, for example, and it is unlikely that we will intervene to save that business.
I turn now to the differences between those on the Conservative Front Bench and my party. I was much heartened by the comments of the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond), the shadow Chief Secretary, who declared only two days ago that, if tax increases are required, the priority of the Conservatives—should they come into office—would be to protect those on the lowest incomes. Those on our side of the House who believe in a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of wealth and power to workers and their families will be much heartened by the hon. Gentleman joining our happy band of brothers.
We already have British Financial Investments holding shares in banks on behalf of the state, and the Shareholders Executive will work alongside British Financial Investments. President Nicholas Sarkozy has introduced a strategic investment fund in France, in the national interest, to take minority shares in major French companies, essentially to prevent them from falling into foreign ownership, but also if such acquisition is strategic and in the national interest. Is that the approach that the British Government should take? How should we handle the difficulties of the business sector, including major contributors to our economy such as the car industry? Are we proposing an equity participation in those companies, or giving them loans or guarantees?
The Gracious Speech made it clear that the economy and how we handle it will be at the centre of the Government’s focus over the year. That is not surprising, as the recession will be with us for a long time. Every day, jobs are lost and businesses affected. What will the Government’s policy be? Will the Government assist the car industry or should we emphasise other industries, such as eco-industries—the new kinds of industry that we have been trying to develop for some time?
As Lord Mandelson told the CBI only recently, the next industrial revolution and the low-carbon and post-carbon technologies are what will define the 21st century, including manufacturing areas such as fuel cells, plastic electronics and Bluetooth technology. He hoped that the United Kingdom would be a magnet for what he aptly described as green collar jobs. That sector could be worth trillions of pounds annually by the middle of this century. In June, for example, the Prime Minister said that renewable energy could provide 160,000 new jobs. We did not hear too much about that today, but any review of eco-industry will show that that is where future investment should lie. We need an industry that is diverse, covering manufacturing and services; using new technologies; seeking to minimise environmental damage; supported by public and private enterprise; improving water, soil and air; minimising pollution; and creating a new tier of personnel with commensurate management skills. That idea is at the heart of the Queen’s Speech, at the heart of what the Government are trying to say and at the heart how we deal with our economic problems, how we deal with the future and how we reorient our industries.
The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely important point. May I talk to him about some old jobs that also need to be considered? There was nothing in the Queen’s Speech about the thousands of people employed in the British pub industry; I know that the hon. Gentleman supports pubs. The Government have announced a devastating increase in duty and we have not heard a single thing about plans to reverse that or about how they will support the pub trade through this difficult time.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. As the recession develops, each sector and each segment of our industry must be looked at and dealt with and cannot be swept aside. The trade to which he refers is part of the service sector and employs quite a lot of people, and we have to consider its difficulties as we consider everything else. The Government have to be a listening Government and an active Government. They must be proactive and they must deal with problems, as they come along, in the best way. They ought to do that within the following framework: they should ask whether when they intervene they should intervene within the free market or in a stronger regulatory form; and they should ask how they can protect jobs and small businesses. That was made very clear in the first four paragraphs of the Queen’s Speech, which were the essence of the speech.
The United Kingdom has invested some £600 million in private research and innovation in low-carbon technologies, replicating plans in other European Union member states and in the United States and south-east Asia to create, as the former Chancellor said in March 2007,
“a global network of collaborative sustainable energy research centres”
that will lead to
“the creation of a global research platform and hub.”
Let me return to the essence of how we deal with our industries. I note that Lord Mandelson is assembling a route map to assess those industries that are viable and those that are not, as well as those that need help, which would include the industry mentioned by the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland). Lord Mandelson will not go back to the ethos of national champions and he will probably not go back to the suggestion of an industrial investment fund to take equity participation, but whatever he does will have to fall within the principles of new Labour. New Labour is not a carcase—it is not dead. Its principles of fairness and justice will help small and medium-sized enterprises. We will not look back at the days of the Industrial Reorganisation Corporation but we will look to a future where the emphasis is on new eco-industries and technologies.
Reference was made in the Queen’s Speech to the hosting of the G20 summit on 2 April, and President-elect Obama will be coming. Emphasis will be placed on the financial markets, the world economy and the reform of our various financial institutions. The package will have to be proactive. As I said in the beginning, we cannot simply deal with the problems of the economy on the basis of interest rates. Interest rates might come down tomorrow—they might go down further. In Japan, they went down to zero, but that did not turn the economy around. Interest rates in the US might go down to zero, but that will not turn the economy around. We need the positive input of a fiscal stimulus, coming from every side that we can think of—again, that was mentioned in the Queen’s Speech—to help small businesses, medium-sized businesses, the workers and the workers’ families. Those principles will see us through the recession. They will lessen its impact, although they will not get rid of it altogether.
There has been lots of talk about electioneering and how we handle elections. Those are not the issues that face the British public. The British public must come out of the recession in a better and stronger position than the one in which they went into it. It will take time, but it can be done. As the Prime Minister said, it must be done in the interests of the British people. The Gracious Speech sets the framework for that and as a nation state we all ought to work together for that aim.
It is always a pleasure and a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Sir Stuart Bell), who is my esteemed colleague on the House of Commons Commission and the Members Estimate Committee. I do not speak in this House wearing my Commission hat but, with that as background, it may helpful if I comment on a few Bills in the Queen’s Speech. I shall begin with the one that proposes to strengthen the role of Parliament, but I too regret that there is no Bill on the civil service, as it has long been Conservative party policy that we should have a Bill to restore the civil service’s neutrality and impartiality.
It is interesting that a Bill to make the police more accountable should be in the Queen’s Speech only a few days after the outrage that has concerned everyone in this House. Like nearly all hon. Members, I am appalled at the Home Office’s reaction and the police’s over-reaction.
Let us get to the key point. It does not involve Mr. Speaker, although too many people are focusing on this House as the scapegoat; in fact the House was at the end of the line of action. Instead, we should look at who started this assault on democracy. We were told that the Home Office permanent secretary called in the police, but the Met said today that the police were called in by the Cabinet Office.
I have served in the Home Office, and have always respected the calibre of the staff there and considered them second to none in government. However, if it was Sir David Normington who called in the police, he really is the guilty party whose judgment is so flawed that he is not fit to retain his position. If it was the Cabinet Office driving the affair forward, the guilty person would be Sir Gus O’Donnell, and he too should explain his actions and consider his position. I leave it to people in this House much more distinguished than I am to argue about how much the Home Secretary or other politicians knew, but the point is that David Normington and Gus O’Donnell knew everything. They thought it right and proper to arrest a Member of Parliament who revealed the truth about the Home Office—a Department described by a former Home Secretary as “not fit for purpose”.
In my 25 years in Parliament, I have never attacked or criticised a civil servant, and I deeply regret that I am now forced to do so for the first time. However, the evidence seems to suggest that Sir David Normington and Sir Gus O’Donnell were the ones who brought in the Metropolitan police’s special branch and anti-terrorist squad to track down the leaked Home Office documents. If that is what happened, they are the ones who are not fit for purpose and they should explain themselves rather than hiding behind the Home Secretary, the Prime Minister and other senior members of the Government. Ministers may have their own explaining to do in due course, but we are in danger of losing sight of who initiated this arrest.
Although I regret that there is no Bill on civil service neutrality in the Queen’s Speech, we are promised a Bill on police accountability and I turn now to the Metropolitan police. I was a Police Minister for four years, and it was the greatest and most exciting job in government that I was ever asked to do. I liked it so much that I turned down promotion to something else so that I could stay on as Police Minister. I have always defended the police in this country because I regarded them as the finest in the world. I think that all of us have had our illusions about British policing shattered because of this despicable assault on parliamentary privilege by some officers or a section of the Met.
Who are the senior officers who responded to Sir David Normington’s demand to investigate Home Office leaks? Why did they not tell the Home Office to sort the matter out internally, as they always used to? Of course, the Prime Minister was absolutely right to say today that operational independence is very important for the police, but that also means that they should not act as lackeys of the Home Office or the Cabinet Office when the senior civil servant there picks up the phone and says, “Excuse me, chaps, could you send in your top team to get this politician?” Who thought it right to involve anti-terrorist officers to raid the home and offices of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green)? Where is the sense of judgment or proportionality? Furthermore, have they nothing better to do?
We are very fortunate that the Government withdrew their proposals to hold people in detention for 42 days without trial. Some of us who were sceptical about that have now seen that some sections of the Metropolitan police cannot be trusted with nine hours of detention, let alone 42 days.
The right hon. Gentleman will recall my long campaign to try and get to the truth of what happened to Army recruits at Deepcut barracks. It was claimed originally that they committed suicide, but the truth may not be so clear. One of the greatest frustrations in my campaign was getting the release of a report by Devon and Cornwall police into the actions of Surrey police in investigating those deaths. I now feel that there has been a conspiracy of concealment, involving a Government Department and those police forces, to cover up what may have been murder. Does he agree that a police accountability Bill might help us to get the truth about what happened to Cheryl James and the other dead recruits?
The whole House has heard what the hon. Gentleman has said. I am not expert in that area and would not wish to go down that path, but we will all now wish to examine carefully any police accountability Bill to see what additional safeguards it might require.
The hon. Gentleman mentions an independent inquiry. The Met has called in the transport police to conduct an independent inquiry. Irrespective of how senior the head of the transport police may be, this is a matter of great constitutional significance. Half a dozen people in the other place may be qualified to rule on the constitutional propriety of parliamentary privilege; some in this House will be qualified to do that, but I am certain that the head of the transport police is not capable of conducting a proper independent inquiry into whether the Metropolitan police acted with due care and diligence and proportionality in arresting a Member of Parliament for leaks from the Home Office. It is a farce; it is ridiculous; and it does the Met even more damage.
Today, I understand that the acting commissioner has made a robust defence of the police. He says that they must be able to act without fear and favour—he is absolutely right—but Members of Parliament must be able to do our duty. Using police officers to interrogate a Member of Parliament for doing his duty is a gross abuse of police powers. I regret that I am saying these words because I have liked the Met for years. I had an old uncle who served in the Met many years ago. I greatly enjoyed being the Minister responsible for the Metropolitan Police in my four years at the Home Office. But until the Met police get their act together and sort themselves out, they are casting a shadow on the neutrality and integrity of the whole British police service that the rest of the police service does not deserve.
Finally on this matter, I say to my colleagues that, clearly, some decisions were made in the House—we shall find out more about them—that were perhaps not best advised, but I ask colleagues on both sides to call off attacks on the Chair of the House. Such attacks only feed those in the print media, some of whom sit in judgment above Mr. Speaker and have always held a grudge against him. Yes, we must make it clear that we will defend Parliament from all unwarranted assaults on our rights, but we do not defend Parliament by going along with some in the media who wish to bring down Mr. Speaker. It is interesting that some of those in the print media who now profess to want to defend the status of Parliament are among the first who want to rake in our dustbins to find every derogatory item that they can get. So let us turn the spotlight not on those who are at the end of the chain of accountability, but on those who initiated the action in the first place in the Home Office, in the Cabinet Office and in the Metropolitan police, who did not have the sense to do the right thing and tell the Home Office to sort it out itself.
I have listened with care to an attack on the Metropolitan police and civil servants. The right hon. Gentleman has a very strong record as a former Home Office Minister, so I am surprised to hear him make that sort of attack. Does he understand that the central allegation is serious if not unprecedented? It is that a former Conservative council candidate, after seeking a job from a Tory MP, whom I understand was a spokesperson on the Home Office at that stage, later joined the civil service to act as, in effect, a spy, giving information on political opponents and to steal confidential information.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In part of the last sentence, the Minister was saying why someone had joined the civil service. If that remark does not have any supporting evidence, it should be withdrawn instantly, please.
May I make it very clear that if the hon. Gentleman had listened to the rest of my intervention, he would understand that I am not quite making an allegation but asking a question about the stealing of some confidential Home Office documents? The inducement might have been—and this seems to be part of the concern of the police—the hope of some sort of preferment if the Conservatives won an election.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, we know that no charge has been laid. We have now had a second allegation from the Minister. If he has that information available in his hand in writing, will he provide the evidence, put it in the Library and lay it on the Table of the House of Commons? He has a prepared intervention. Will he lay down the basis for what he is saying now, so that the whole House has it?
I think that the Minister is developing a point of intervention into the length of a speech. I think it is also outside his current ministerial responsibility. Nothing that he said was out of order. It might be a matter of dispute, but I think that the more we delve, the more difficult territory we get into, which would be better reserved, in so far as it is in order, for the debate that Mr. Speaker has indicated will take place on Monday.
I rise just to clarify for you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the fact that we do not know whether any of these allegations are true or not. I am merely saying in response to the point made by the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean), a well- respected Member who is a former Home Office Minister, that those allegations merit a serious police investigation at least. Whether the incident in relation to the House of Commons was right or not is a matter for others to look at. I merely responded in an intervention to the point that he was making. I took the view that his making that point and attacking the police was a matter of great seriousness, considering his experience. We do not know whether any of these allegations are true or not, but they are serious and it is right that the police should investigate them.
Precisely. I had concluded my remarks on that matter, but I respect the Minister and I gave way to him. I simply make the point, which has been made by others, perhaps from a sedentary position, that we do not know whether any of these allegations are true, so why repeat them in this place? I have not made general attacks on the civil service; I have strongly criticised two very senior civil servants. If I am wrong, I will happily withdraw my remarks and apologise in a public place to them, but I am commenting on facts that do seem to be in the public domain—that Sir David Normington at the Home Office and the Cabinet Office have initiated this action. I am commenting on the fact that the Metropolitan police have done what they have done and I said that their judgment was flawed because it was a gross over-reaction which has left me deeply saddened by and disappointed in the Metropolitan police. I hope that this matter can be cleared up because I want my faith and trust in the Met restored. I always thought that they were a tremendous police force, acting under the most difficult conditions, doing an almost impossible job in the capital. I have defended them from many previous attacks. The fact that I in my position now find I am attacking a section of them gravely disappoints me more than perhaps it does the Minister.
I welcome the marine Bill. I believe that it will give access to our coast, which leads me to the point that, if people are going to have the right to walk around our coast line, we must have adequate safety measures for them. The House may not know that in a part of my constituency on the Solway firth we have large mudflats very similar to those in Morecambe bay, with the same sort of tides and highly dangerous access. When one is out on those mudflats, if the tide comes in one has only a few minutes to get to shore before one finds oneself in deep ravines; one can drown.
There is only one sort of boat that can rescue people on those mudflats: it is a flat inflatable dirigible—I think it is called a DIR boat. It is run by the coastguard service. Our coastguard masters in Liverpool have withdrawn the boat because they said that it was not safe enough. They say that the Silloth on Solway lifeboat can do the job instead. The courageous souls of the Silloth on Solway lifeboat thought they would do a test, and of course they got stuck in the mud within minutes; the boat was too deep adrift to go on to those mudflats. I have been protesting vociferously about that.
I wrote to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), whom I deeply respect, although I regret his taking the same line as the head of the coastguard service. In one splendid passage in his letter, he said:
“In practice, for rescues at the upper reaches of the Firth at low tide, Liverpool Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre is more likely to task a search and rescue helicopter or a mud rescue team approaching on foot across the mudflats.”
If someone were on the mudflats and could walk off, they would not need rescuing by a team walking on to the mudflats—the proposition is barking. If we are going to enact the marine and coastal access Bill, we need a proper lifeboat service and must make sure that the coastguards have the proper resources. We need flat, little, inflatable boats, which are not expensive, in areas such as Burgh by Sands in my constituency and other parts of the country, or we will face deaths and catastrophe.
I note the introduction of the banking Bill, which, in the Government’s words, will bring in “fairness”. I support and welcome that Bill, but if we are going to have fairness, the Bill must deal with the iniquitous charges that banks impose on not only businesses that are renewing their overdrafts but ordinary individuals. One of my constituents has informed me that when they went 50p over their overdraft with the Halifax, they got a £39 penalty, which is the routine penalty. Another constituent went 1p over with Barclays, and the fine was £35—Barclays has now reduced it to about £6.
I pay tribute to the wonderful website moneysavingexpert.com, which has been fighting a long battle to limit unfair, ruthless banking charges. More than 3 million people have downloaded letters from the website, which they can send to banks to say that they want their money back from unfair charges. Credit card companies now charge an admin fee of about £12 if one goes over one’s credit limit, so the banks have recognised that charges of £39, £35 or £25 are totally unfair in the case of someone who has technically gone over an overdraft limit.
The Office of Fair Trading won a court case in the High Court in April this year on the introduction of fairness into the regulations. The banks have, of course, appealed, and everything is on hold. The banking Bill is a splendid opportunity to lay down that the OFT shall have the absolute right to determine a fair banking penalty or the cost of sending a computer-generated letter stating, “Oi, Maclean, you’re £10 over your overdraft. Pay it back.” We must build it into the legislation, and not leave it to the OFT, that the banks will refund within six months every penny of the £2 billion that they have ripped off individual consumers over the past few years through unfair charges.
I note that the Queen’s Speech does not include legislation on pharmacies, for which I am grateful. I hope that the Government will withdraw their pharmacy White Paper and plans to change the pharmacy system. There is no problem with pharmacies, as hon. Members will have found in their constituencies. The White Paper includes proposals that would be disastrous for some rural areas, because people would not be able to use the local dispensing chemist in the doctor’s surgery and would be forced to go many miles to another chemist. I understand where the Government are coming from—if a town contains two or three good little private pharmacies, it may be unfair for the doctors to have one too—but the parameters set by the Government would mean GP dispensing being wiped out in many parts of the country, in which case there would be no other convenient dispensary for people to get their medicines.
Far be it for me to defend the Government on that issue—I have made criticisms and written to them on many occasions—but will the right hon. Gentleman accept the correction that, as I understand it, the White Paper proposes ending GP pharmacies only if there is a pharmacy within a mile of the GP practice’s headquarters?
Yes, that is right. However, in some cases those private pharmacies will be open only nine-to-five and on Saturday afternoons; they will not be available during the out-of-hours times that a GP service could manage. If in my town of Kirkby Stephen, for example, somebody needed a prescription late on a Saturday afternoon and GPs were not allowed to prescribe, that person would not be able to get their medicine at that time.
The White Paper lays down the option of doing nothing, and I ask the Government to take that option. Has anyone encountered a huge problem with GP prescribing at our pharmacies before? The Government are shaking the system up for no good reason, except one—GP prescribing is more expensive. It seems that doctors tend to prescribe more expensive drugs, rather than the generic ones that they could prescribe, from their own pharmacies. However, the control method is in the Government’s hands: they could inspect GP pharmacies and impose sanctions on doctors who over-prescribed expensive drugs.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way yet again. The Measham medical unit in North-West Leicestershire is an example of an excellent GP dispensing pharmacy. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the Government’s view that GP prescribing is more expensive. People at the unit would say that such prescriptions are more effective, and that effectiveness rather than cost is the measure by which we should assess how effective GP dispensing is.