I beg to move,
That this House requests the Prime Minister to seek a dissolution of the present Parliament.
It is an honour to move the motion in my name and the names of my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru, the party of Wales. The case for the dissolution of the House of Commons is urgent, compelling and of greater importance than any party political interest.
It is clear that the public believe that this Parliament is without legitimacy, credibility or trust. The expenses scandal is the most recent cause of this public concern, but there are other causes that have undermined faith in the political process, including the decision taking us into an illegal and immoral war in Iraq that was based on a lie. We in the SNP and Plaid Cymru believe it is only by demonstrating our trust in the people through an immediate general election that we can begin to rebuild trust in parliamentary democracy.
Those who doubt the seriousness of the situation need to ask themselves how it has come to pass that fascists and neo-Nazis have been elected in the UK. I am certain that the good people of the north-west of England and of Yorkshire and the Humber are as horrified as the rest of us that holocaust deniers and anti-Semites now hold elected office. This aberration is a by-product of the crushing lack of credibility that affects the established UK political system at present.
Although I welcome the Ministers responding to the debate and congratulate them on their continuing and new responsibilities, it is noted in sorrow that the Prime Minister has chosen yet again not to be present. We hear a lot from the bunker at No. 10 Downing street about the need to reconnect with Parliament, but when it comes to debates about whether the people should be trusted, the Prime Minister is not here. In contrast, we are making the case for a rebuilding of trust, and we are happy to let the people decide.
It goes without saying that we in the SNP and Plaid Cymru wish the governance of our countries to take place from our national capitals, not the Palace of Westminster. Although I am certain we will secure further self-government shortly, this House of Commons will still play a role, in the short term at least, making laws over Scotland and Wales. So long as that is the case, we will demand the highest democratic standards in this place, as I am sure do Members in all parts of the House.
The hon. Gentleman makes his point about a very successful and popular SNP Government in Scotland, but rather than get involved in a party political partisan ding-dong on these issues, I ask him and his hon. Friends to listen to the argument that I shall make, which is about the credibility of this House as a whole. It is not about the Government, in my view. The case that I shall make does not involve the Government or the Prime Minister. [Interruption.] Perhaps the Secretary of State for Scotland would like to listen to that, rather than chuntering from a sedentary position.
The hon. Gentleman makes the point that the Prime Minister is not here, and he also talks about the credibility of this House. That is at the very root of his motion, which I totally support and on which I congratulate him. Will he also note, however, that the Tory Benches are pretty empty right now? Perhaps that is because so many MPs have second jobs. If the House is dissolved, there will be an election, and at that election candidates should declare what proportion of their time will go to, and what proportion of their earnings will come from, this place rather than second jobs.
The hon. Gentleman has made his point and it is on the record, but I want to return to the point that I want to make. At this stage, we want to make it clear that the motion affects the whole House—every party and independents, too. It is not a motion of no confidence in the Prime Minister or the Government, and that is why I appeal to Members from all parts of the House to support it.
The evidence supporting the case for a general election is compelling, and the feedback that we have all heard on doorsteps throughout the country in the past few weeks has been overwhelming. It has been borne out in a series of recent, independent surveys. In The Guardian on 22 May, a poll conducted by ICM showed that two thirds of voters now say that the Prime Minister should call a general election before the end of the year; that more than half of voters believe that the Prime Minister should go to the country before the process of constitutional change can begin; and that only 30 per cent. think that the election should be delayed until 2010.
It is not just ICM and The Guardian, however: PoliticsHome conducted a poll on 20 May showing that 70 per cent. of respondents want an election now or within a few short months; Populus showed something similar for ITV; YouGov showed something similar for The Daily Telegraph at the end of May; and a YouGov poll for Channel 4 showed that 63 per cent. of respondents do not trust Members of this House of Commons much or at all.
Does my hon. Friend agree that Labour Members, who earlier this week wanted their own election in respect of the Prime Minister, should extend that courtesy to the rest of the country? If they want an election in the Labour party, they should make sure that the voters of the UK also have an election.
The hon. Gentleman has clearly missed the point that I have been trying to make. This is a motion for the dissolution of Parliament; it is not a motion of no confidence in the Government or the Prime Minister. On that basis, I return to the point that I want to make. Sorry, before I do, I should have said that I was in primary 7 rather than primary 8, of course.
I return to the issue of the public’s view on whether there should be a general election. The BBC commissioned a poll by Ipsos MORI at the end of May, and 48 per cent. of respondents said they believed that half or more of MPs are corrupt. Asked whether they trusted MPs to tell the truth, 76 per cent. said that they did not and only 20 per cent. said that they did. The public tend to be more positive about their local MP than they do about MPs in general, which will be a relief to many of us. That was a finding in the BBC survey, but 85 per cent. of those surveyed want an independent judicial body to scrutinise MPs’ affairs.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and also for clarifying the point that confused us about primary 8. Many of us rather suspected that he had been held back for a year.
On the point about statistical evidence and listening on the doorstep, the hon. Gentleman’s logic is that people should vote for people as long as they are not MPs, but, if two thirds of the country want to see a massive change, why did two thirds of the country sit on their hands last Thursday?
There are many reasons why people voted for all kinds of things. What I pointed out just now was that the overwhelming majority of public opinion is in favour of Parliament’s being dissolved. That is one of the important reasons why we should vote for the motion.
The hon. Gentleman has made an interesting point about the difference between how MPs are viewed locally and how the corporate body of politics is viewed nationally. Does he agree that although individual Members of Parliament have earned credibility and support in local communities by working in them, the great malaise to which he refers has come about because there has been a fracture in the relationship of trust between the people who elect us to this body and us as a corporate group?
Does the hon. Gentleman not also feel it is important that we should have a transparent discussion about constitutional change? The Prime Minister of the UK—not the First Minister of Scotland, who is here—alluded to some of that. We have a collective responsibility, beyond even what the hon. Gentleman has mentioned, to try to make sure that we win that trust. That will take a lot of effort.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and I shall come back to that point shortly; there is a job of work to be done on that important issue.
I return to the BBC survey on public opinion on this important question. Some 62 per cent. of respondents said that they believed MPs put self-interest ahead of the country and their constituents. Only one in five, or 20 per cent., of the public is satisfied with how the Westminster Parliament is doing its job. The figures are damning and if we do not grasp the thorny nettle and deal with the issue, we will have a huge problem.
The recent expenses scandal is the biggest single recent reason for the crisis of confidence, and we should put a lot of effort into getting it sorted. However, it comes after years of House of Commons prevarication and resistance to openness and transparency. The Daily Telegraph revelations exposed a totally unacceptable state of affairs.
The public are right to be very angry about the flipping of properties, the avoidance of capital gains tax and the claims for phantom mortgages. They rightly ask how it is that there appears to be one rule for the public and another for MPs who have been caught out. They also ask how a tainted Parliament with tainted Members can find a trusted, credible solution to the crisis.
Of course it was right to do radical, immediate surgery. That has happened in a number of individual cases, and it has been approached by the different political parties that have finally grasped the nettle of transparency. At the recent meeting of party leaders called by Mr. Speaker, I pointed out that our parties have already committed to a higher standard of transparency—namely, that used in the Scottish Parliament. Years ago at Holyrood, the Labour party, the Conservative party, the Liberal Democrats, the SNP and others agreed to that better system. I suggested to the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, the leader of the Liberal Democrats and others that we should simply emulate that system. They agreed and we are now on the right path with the plans that Parliament should publish our claims regularly. In the meantime, many MPs, myself included, have proactively put their details up for public access on our own websites.
I am listening with great interest to the hon. Gentleman. One would think that he and his colleagues were a race apart in respect of the expenses difficulties that we face in this House. As well as taking the credit for putting his details on his website, will the hon. Gentleman accept some of the responsibility for the situation that we all face as parliamentarians? Also, will he advise the House that the Scottish Parliament had to go through its own expenses trauma before it got to its current situation? That was dealt with under a Labour and Liberal-led Administration.
The right hon. Lady is right to suggest that under Presiding Officer George Reid the Scottish Parliament reformed the processes that were used, and all political parties were involved in that process. That was welcome then, and it is welcome now that the lessons have been learned. The record will show her that I have not held any party to be better or worse, in this debate or in any other. If she has evidence to the contrary, she can present it at any stage.
Improving transparency has been the right thing to do, as has agreeing to a series of other measures, including the ending of flipping of second homes and introducing independent scrutiny of all second home claims by all MPs. It is in the public interest, and in the interests of many hard-working and honest parliamentarians in all parts of the House, that this process be accelerated. It is right that we set great store by the Kelly commission, which later this year will give independent recommendations on structural changes in allowances and expenses. It is also right that all party leaders have accepted the principle of an external Parliamentary Standards Authority. That means that regardless of which party is in office, we have a guarantee that the system overseeing MPs’ and peers’ conduct, including allowances and complaints, will be delegated from Parliament. That is a good thing and a huge step forward.
The hon. Gentleman says “regardless of which party is in office”. Could he give us his valued opinion on which party would win a general election, Labour or the Tories?
I said that I am going to make progress, so I will.
After all, the Kelly commission reports in the autumn, the Parliamentary Standards Authority proposal is still at the discussion stage, and all parties are signed up to these structural improvements. There is no reason why we cannot have an election; it would not delay a single thing. We should embrace the opportunity of an historic, reformist election—not the poor second of yet another presentational relaunch of a tired Government. Let us imagine a general election campaign based on the various ideas for democratic reform—the ideas of the Prime Minister and of others, galvanising public interest and support, if that is what there were.
Of course, we in the SNP and Plaid Cymru would argue for decision making closer to home, but we would also make the case for wholesale Westminster reform, such as electoral reform. One can imagine a Parliament properly reflecting the views of the people—with, of course, the necessary safeguards of a minimum electoral hurdle. How about a fully democratic Parliament, ending the grotesque farce of a Second Chamber in the self-styled mother of all Parliaments without any democratic mandate whatsoever? How about fixed-term Parliaments, ending the whip hand of the Executive over the democratic process? How about strengthening Parliament with stronger Committees, the proper scrutiny of legislation, and less curtailment of detailed oversight, ending the travesty of undebated amendments? How about a proper constitution? Those are all exciting ideas, some of which are supported in all parts of the House.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way; he is most gracious. Can I assume from what he has said that he will be supporting the Prime Minister in his plans to reorganise Parliament and to give more to the ordinary people? It would be nice to see him do that because our problem with him, as he knows, is that he is always voting with the Conservatives, and never with any other party.
This is a good stage at which to put on record the fact that halfway through the debate I will have to leave to meet the Secretary of State for Justice to discuss the Parliamentary Standards Authority, because there is all-party involvement in moving these proposals forward. No doubt some or most of those proposals would find support from other parties. Whichever party wins can then take them forward, and the reform process will have a mandate.
The second argument that I have been hearing in opposition to a democratic election is that, because of the economic crisis, we somehow cannot let the public decide. If that is the case, how is it that the world’s largest democracy, India, has managed a general election in recent months? How has the world’s biggest economy, the United States, managed through an economic crisis with the historic election of Barack Obama, and how has the country with the closest parliamentary system to the UK’s, Canada, similarly managed a general election in the middle of testing economic times? The list goes on and on. The argument against having a general election in testing economic times is just not credible.
It is true to say, however, that we need an election to rebuild confidence in UK economic policy. Not only have this Government taken no responsibility for their role in our economic difficulties, but they are overseeing a catastrophic rise in unemployment. More than 200,000 people have been thrown on the dole in the past three months, and there is a forecast balance of payments deficit of £93 billion and a national debt expected to reach £1.6 trillion.
The hon. Gentleman is well liked in the House, and he is showing his customary charm, but may I say to him, first, that the United States and India have fixed-term Parliaments, so there is not a direct read-across? Secondly, at the risk of sounding like an over-anxious primary age child, I say to him that when the expression “mother of Parliaments” was first used in this very Chamber by John Bright, it referred specifically to England, not to Parliament. That may not sit comfortably with the hon. Gentleman, but it is accurate.
I am grateful for the history lesson, and we will be glad to return this Chamber to the good people of England so that it is their Parliament, while we make better decisions at home in Scotland. I see next to the hon. Gentleman his colleague from the Social Democratic and Labour party, the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), who no doubt would also like to see a united Ireland making decisions for itself and no Northern Irish Members in this Chamber, but that is a matter for the people of Northern Ireland to decide on.
I have already given way to the hon. Gentleman, and I want to allow other Members to take part in this important debate.
I return to the current economic challenges. It is of immense concern that under Labour, we now have a debt of more than £60,000 for every household in the UK. I remember election leaflets being put around stating, “Don’t vote SNP, it’ll cost every family £5,000.” Was it in the 1999 election campaign? [Hon. Members: “It was 2007.”] Oh, it was as recent as 2007. My goodness, how much more expensive it has been. There is now a £60,000 price tag for Labour’s mismanagement of our economy.
Of course, we have a Government, a Prime Minister and a Chancellor who dithered and delayed over Northern Rock, taking five months from the start of the run before eventually nationalising the bank.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I have already signalled that I want to make progress to allow other Members to get in. If the hon. Gentleman wants to make a speech, no doubt he will attempt to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker.
We have a Government who delayed when the banking crisis started, refusing to guarantee sterling deposits across the banking system, and who took a year to get a banking Act on the statute book, but who even now have not introduced changes to the very banking regulations that led to many of the problems in the first place. We have a Government who failed to understand the impact on the poorest when they abolished the 10p rate of tax, who failed to act to temper the rise of fuel prices and whose VAT cut protected less than half the jobs that direct capital investment would have protected.
That last point is vital. While the Prime Minister talks the talk of fiscal stimulus, he has failed to walk the walk. While President Obama is delivering a real fiscal stimulus—a state such as Maryland, which is the same size as Scotland and larger than Wales, will have £2 billion of extra resources to spend in 2010—this Government are planning to cut £1 billion from the Scottish budget. [Interruption.] They are cutting £1 billion from public spending in Scotland and directly threatening 9,000 jobs. [Interruption.]
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. In truth, the Government’s case against an election has nothing to do with the need to pursue parliamentary reform or manage the economy. It is pure, naked self-preservation in the wake of the worst electoral showing by the Labour party in 90 years.
Labour Members of Parliament have been told by Government Whips that a vote for the motion or an abstention means the end of their careers. That is perhaps understandable for many in Scotland, where the SNP, a mid-term party of Government, were up 10 points on the last European elections, while the Labour party slumped and votes for the Tories, Liberal Democrats and the UK irrelevance party went down. The SNP won the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s seat while Labour came third in the seat held by the Secretary of State for Scotland. The SNP won two thirds of all local authority areas in the country, including Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Dundee, Stirling, North Ayrshire, South Lanarkshire—the list goes on. Perhaps Lord Mandelson has been right to back the Prime Minister; after all, the latest polls show that it does not matter who is in charge of the Labour party. Today’s ComRes poll shows that in Scotland the SNP would win an election against Labour, regardless of who is in charge.
However, such partisan considerations should come second in the context of a profound crisis in democracy. We should all put trust in democracy before our own party interests. I therefore conclude with some words of cross-party consensus from another Member about the need to restore trust in politics. He said earlier today: “In the midst of all the rancour and recriminations…let us seize the moment to lift our politics to a higher standard. In the midst of doubt, let us revive confidence. Let us also stand together because on this, at least, I think we all agree—Britain deserves a political system equal to the hopes and character of our people. Let us differ on policy—that is inevitable—but let us stand together for integrity and democracy. That is now more essential than ever”. The Prime Minister’s fine words were correct, but they lacked the delivery mechanism, which is holding a general election. That is why we must dissolve Parliament and hold a general election. I commend the motion to the House.
I thank the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) for praising the Prime Minister—we can do much more of that in the debate. I also thank the leader of Plaid Cymru for his earlier welcome of my reinstatement as Secretary of State—I am grateful. I apologise to him and the House for having to rush off after I have spoken to get my seals of office. I have to stand the hon. Gentleman up for the Queen.
I shall respond to the hon. Member for Moray shortly and urge hon. Members to reject the motion, which calls for a dissolution of Parliament. However, first, I want to ask why the motion is not in the name of the Leader of the Opposition. He calls for an immediate general election every time he gets out of bed and every time he goes on television. He has said virtually nothing for the past few weeks, except to demand an early election. So why does not he table the motion instead of trooping dutifully behind the nationalists? Is he just playing to the media gallery, as usual, because he knows that the House of Commons will not back him? Is it a case of bravery before the cameras, cowardice before Parliament?
Perhaps the Leader of the Opposition has followed the example of the Prime Minister. We have a debate in which the Prime Minister could have explained why he does not want an election, yet he has not bothered to turn up. He has sent a Minister who is not available for the whole debate. When we have a three-hour debate in the Chamber, the least the Government can do is find a Minister who can be here for it.
Where is the leader of the Liberal Democrats? Where is the leader of the Conservative party? I see that the leader of the SNP has dutifully travelled down to do the Tories’ work for them, as he so often does.
Plaid Cymru and the SNP are the Tories’ little helpers. In 1979, the SNP voted to destroy a Labour Government and usher in 18 years of miserable Tory rule. In the European elections, voting Plaid Cymru allowed the Tories to top the poll in Wales—albeit on a pitiful vote of just over 6 per cent. of the electorate. Voting SNP will allow the Tories to get in at Westminster.
Not that it matters a great deal—although the right hon. Gentleman has apologised once to the House, a few seconds ago—but just to be accurate, he said that Plaid Cymru voted to bring down the Labour Government. We did not.
Actually, I did not say that at all. I said that the SNP voted with the Tories to bring down the Government in 1979. However, let me remind the hon. Gentleman and the House that we remember well that Plaid Cymru came to the rescue of the besieged Conservative Government under John Major, by doing a grubby deal in 1993.
In a moment. The SNP—the hon. Gentleman’s party—has a history of seeking to inflict a Tory Government on Scotland. It did that in 1979 and it is trying to do it again now. The SNP’s real agenda is not about an election; it is about wanting to get a Tory Government in Britain to undermine Scotland’s link with the rest of Britain. The SNP would love to have a Tory Government in Westminster, inflicting mass unemployment, education cuts and hospital closures in Scotland again, so that it could try to ride a wave of revulsion towards independence for Scotland.
I agree with the Secretary of State: the last thing that Scotland needs is a Conservative Government. We remember all too well the scorched earth policies and being the testing ground for the poll tax, but does he not agree that the reason that we will get a Conservative Government in Scotland is the failure and futility of his Labour Government?
Let me make some progress. We now have the hon. Gentleman on the record as being indifferent to a Tory Government, and the people of Scotland will note that.
People who back the nationalists get the Tories on their coat tails, just as the Tories are on the nationalists’ coat tails in voting for today’s motion. That is what the nationalists are: tartan Tories in Scotland and daffodil Tories in Westminster.
I thank the Secretary of State for giving way, but we need to respect history. We had Tory Governments throughout the ’80s and ’90s not because of the actions of the nationalist parties, but because the Labour party lost the election—and then lost and lost and lost. That is the Labour party’s responsibility, not ours.
I agree with the Secretary of State’s comments about what happened in 1979. The people of Scotland have good memories and they will never forgive the separatists of the SNP for what happened in 1979, which was an unmitigated disaster for the people of Scotland. I am sure that the Secretary of State will remember that, following 1979, the SNP—the separatists—were dubbed the tartan Tories by the people of Scotland. Is he also aware that, given that the official Opposition are totally devoid of any policies at the moment, the people of Scotland currently dub the separatists of the SNP the political wing of the Conservative and Unionist party?
How can the Secretary of State have the gall to accuse our parties of being Tories when on virtually every major issue of the past 12 years—whether the Iraq war or the privatisation of Royal Mail—our parties have been to the left of his?
What about the statutory minimum wage? I do not remember massive support for that from the nationalists.
To dissolve Parliament now would be to walk away from the necessity for the reform that voters are demanding, as the hon. Member for Moray rightly said, and that we are delivering in the form set out by the Prime Minister earlier today. I heard the hon. Gentleman waxing lyrical—and being very persuasive—about the need for democratic reform. Virtually every one of the proposals that he advocated was enunciated from this Dispatch Box by the Prime Minister a few hours ago.
To dissolve Parliament now would be to turn our backs on the British people in their time of economic need and insecurity. Neither of the two great challenges that we face—the political challenge and the economic challenge—would be solved by an election. Playing with parliamentary motions might be a priority for Opposition parties. Cleaning up politics and getting the country back to work is Labour’s priority.
Does the Secretary of State not believe that a Labour victory in a general election would clearly reinforce the strength and competence of the Government to address the issues that confront this nation? Is that not a case for holding an election now?
When the time comes to call an election, we will indeed get a renewed mandate to take the country forward and to meet the challenges of the future. That will be the choice that is put before the British people at that point. They would not forgive us, however, for abandoning the job of implementing parliamentary reform and economic recovery now. They want the Government to sort things out; they want us to do it quickly, and then, and only then, to call a general election. There will be one soon enough—within a year—and only then will it be right to go to the country and ask who should take us forward to the future, once we have addressed the pressing concerns of today.
The Secretary of State says that these things need to be done quickly, and I entirely agree with him. So why, after 12 years, have we still not got a fully elected House of Lords and a proper democratic system for this Chamber? This is expediency on the part of the Government; they are not taking decisive action. Their argument is facile beyond belief.
The reason that we have not been able to get our reform through the House of Lords is that the House of Lords blocked it. Labour has only about 30 per cent. of the votes in the House of Lords, and the Conservative party—despite now advocating a policy of an elected second Chamber—cannot deliver its own peers in the House of Lords in such a vote. Sooner rather than later, however, we will put that question to the House of Lords, and we will hope to carry the House with us in getting full reform for a democratic second Chamber.
Meanwhile, there is a lot to do. Of course the European elections were terrible for the Labour party. But, far more significantly, they were an alarm call for all the parties, and for parliamentary democracy itself. For every party, a low turnout at elections is the clearest sign that the British people are not engaged with the political process. That is our fault, not theirs. We seem obsessed with procedure and tribal party politics—as we can see this afternoon—and now the public also think that MPs are all in it for our own ends.
If this motion were carried and Parliament were dissolved, all that the poll would amount to would be another referendum on MPs’ expenses. The low turnout and the rising support for fringe and extreme parties show us one thing: that people used their vote last Thursday to protest, not on the finer points of European policy, but on the story of the day—indeed, the story of every single one of the past 30 days: MPs’ expenses.
I thank the Secretary of State for giving way on a point on which the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) would not give way. I want to ask my right hon. Friend a simple question. Does he honestly believe that, if the motion were successful and there were to be a general election in the coming weeks, the question of Members’ expenses would go away? Would it not stay with us for the following four years as well? Would not The Daily Telegraph and all the other newspapers revisit the issue and find some other reason to print the same story?
I could not agree more, which is why we need to lance the boil now, and why we need this Parliament, on a cross-party basis, to sort this out here and now. Then, within a year, we can have an election to decide who should take the country forward—not how we should reform parliamentary expenses, because that will have been done, but who should take us forward to meet the big challenges of the global economic crisis, of climate change and all the other issues before us.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that what has effectively happened, in summary, is that the general public and the media have become obsessed with the process of politics rather than the outcomes that we are meant to create, part of which is our own fault? The people of Montgomeryshire are less interested in process than in getting out of this recession, so if we are not to have an election, will he explain how he envisages the Government responding in the months ahead to the need of the citizens of Montgomeryshire and across the country for outcomes to make their lives better, their jobs more secure and to reduce the sort of social tensions that led to the reaction we saw in the European elections last week?
I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman that the media are far too obsessed, almost to the exclusion of all else, with process. It is process, process, process rather than substance, substance, substance. That is why we will carry on with delivering our policies to get the housing market going again, to build more social housing, to tackle the lack of confidence in business and to ensure that business is supported so that we can recover from this economic crisis brought about by the global financial collapse and move the country forward. Then there will be a choice—a very clear choice—at the next general election.
We do not need a referendum on expenses because we have just had one. We were all given a real kicking by the voters and we understand the message: “Clean up, shape up, get on with the business of Government and come back to us when the problem is fixed”. Where the Opposition parties posture, we deliver. We are determined to take the necessary action, not to walk away.
Just imagine what might happen to the economy if Parliament were dissolved and we had an election. In the middle of probably the worst financial crisis the world has faced in living memory, Britain would face weeks and weeks of instability and uncertainty—just when there are reports of rising consumer confidence, just when business surveys show the pace of decline is slowing, just when mortgage approvals have risen for the third month in a row and just when the poison infecting our banks has been stemmed. Why, just at this critical moment when the global economy is still volatile, do the nationalists want to trigger instability in the markets and in the British economy?
Let us imagine for a moment pursuing this nationalist-Tory alternative. We dissolve Parliament, then spend the next three weeks fighting each other rather than the global crisis, and the nationalists do not have a clue what to do about it. The hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price), who rather fancies himself as an economist, praised Iceland as an inspirational model. No sooner had he done so than its economy imploded, while his other small country model, Ireland, has sadly had its own serious difficulties, yet Plaid lauded both Iceland and Ireland as an arc of prosperity.
As for the Tories, the real reason they want an election now is that they cannot go on for ever dodging the questions. They have no policies at all except for multi-billion pound cuts in public investment.
I will give way in a few moments.
It is good to see that the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) has found time from his millionaire speaking and consultancy contracts to be with us today. He has a vivacious Welsh wife, but sadly she has not managed to educate him politically. He opposed the minimum wage, which has benefited millions of workers throughout Britain. He opposed the social chapter, referring to
“minimum wages, social chapters and all the other job-destroying nonsense”.—[Official Report, 20 January 1997; Vol. 288, c. 606.]
He said that the National Assembly for Wales would be
“nothing more than a talking shop and a terrible waste of money”.
Does he still hold those views? Should he not now apologise to the shadow Welsh Secretary for landing her right in it?
When the right hon. Gentleman was Secretary of State for Wales, at least he learned the national anthem—indeed, his rehearsing it led to him marrying his private secretary—but he blocked billions of pounds of objective 1 and convergence funding for Wales, which a Labour Government subsequently delivered. He is now part of an Opposition who want to implement billion-pound cuts that would decimate those very European programmes right across Wales.
The Secretary of State’s speech is another good argument for an early dissolution. He is obviously out of practice. If Plaid Cymru has nothing to contribute in terms of the economic crisis, why did his party agree to form a coalition with us, and why is the leader of my party, the Minister for the Economy and Transport, coming up with the ProAct wage subsidy scheme, which the Secretary of State has himself praised and described as an innovative scheme that should be copied here?
If we are talking politics and government in Cardiff Bay as opposed to politics and government in the House of Commons, why did the hon. Gentleman’s party chase after the Conservatives in the desperate search for a coalition before Labour helped it out and got it into government?
On the “Today” programme this morning, the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), the shadow Secretary of State for Health, let slip that
“that does mean over three years after 2011 a 10 per cent. reduction in the departmental expenditure limits for other departments. It is a very tough spending requirement.”
Yes, the demand from the Tories is very tough. A 10 per cent. cut would be an utter disaster for housing policing, business support, defence and many other public services. A 10 per cent. cut would amount to cuts of £50 billion across the United Kingdom, £600 million in Wales, and £1.2 billion in Scotland.
The Tory mask is slipping. The Tories want people to vote soon, before the truth is out. They have no positive solutions to the financial crisis, just opportunist spin on the economy today followed by savage cuts to public services tomorrow—cuts made almost with relish, gleefully. The Tories would use the financial crisis as an excuse to do what they have always wanted to do: cut, cut and cut again.
The Secretary of State is absolutely right: making savage cuts in the teeth of a recession is the wrong thing to do. He will therefore criticise his own Chancellor and the Treasury for the £500 million worth of cuts that will be heading Scotland’s way next year in the teeth of a recession.
Is this not curious? The Scottish Government have never had more money than they have now. Their budget, like that of the Welsh Assembly Government, has more than doubled since we came to power in 1997.
What is the real nationalist agenda? Why would the nationalists dissolve this Parliament today? It would not just be for the purpose of an immediate election; they would dissolve this Parliament for ever. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!” There we are. They are cheering the idea. If they were frank, they would admit that they would break up the United Kingdom, cutting off Wales and Scotland from the main markets, population centres, wealth and international influence of the United Kingdom.
That is the sense that the people of Scotland will reject: cutting Scotland’s links with the United Kingdom, just as Plaid Cymru would cut Wales off from the great benefits of sheltering under the umbrella of the United Kingdom and making us all stronger together.
Given that the Secretary of State’s colleagues in the Labour party in Scotland have been deploying these arguments for years—and, I am sure, deployed them in the European election campaign—to what does he attribute the judgment of the people of Scotland in increasing the SNP vote by 10 per cent. in mid-term, and last week’s resounding endorsement of the SNP Government in Scotland?
Does my right hon. Friend agree that people listening to this debate will be appalled by the petty discussions about which party’s votes have increased by what percentage? What concerns the people of this country, and certainly the people of Wales—[Interruption.]
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
What concerns the people of Wales and the people of this country is the memory of being told to get on their bikes and find work—of “hunt the job”. They remember money being sent from Wales to Westminster when it could have been invested in Wales. They remember schools falling apart, and education waiting lists. That is what people want us to discuss here, not whether another party has increased its voting share by 1 per cent. Nobody cares about that; they care about their lives.
My hon. Friend makes that point extremely persuasively, and it reminds me that when the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks was Secretary of State for Wales he endorsed the policy of his predecessor, the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), in sending money back from Wales to the Treasury, which we then had to reverse by more than doubling the budget for Wales since we came to power. If the nationalists were successful in wrenching Wales and Scotland from the rest of the United Kingdom, that would leave Wales with a £9 billion deficit in public finances, and the figure for Scotland would be about £10 billion.
The SNP Administration at Holyrood are propped up by the Tories. Tory votes in the Scottish Parliament supported the SNP’s budget of cuts, and the quid pro quo is that the SNP in Westminster does the Tories’ bidding. People in Scotland whose communities still bear the scars of Thatcherism did not thank the SNP in 1979, and they will not do so now.
Let me make this plain: the Tories and the nationalists would turn their backs on the British people and walk away together. They would dissolve this Parliament because they hope it would suit their short-term political ends. Only Labour will stay the course to do the hard work, to reform, and to give real help to the British people. They can dissolve if they want to; this Government are not for dissolving. We are standing firm, and I urge the House to reject the motion.
I congratulate the Secretary of State for Wales; to hold that office is one of the greatest honours that life can bring, and to hold it twice is a piece of great good fortune. He said that I had in the past somehow landed the current shadow Welsh Secretary in it, but I can assure him that, the Conservatives having won in Wales for the first time in 90 years, she does not feel very “landed in it” at the moment. He should hope to be landed in it in a similar way in future elections. Such a description was therefore not very appropriate, and nor was deriding any other party for getting about a third of the vote when there was no region or nation of the United Kingdom in which his Government received a third of the vote last week, only two in which they received a quarter of the vote, some in which they did not get a fifth of the vote, and some in which the governing party of this country did not get a tenth of the vote.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) on moving the motion, which, it will be no surprise to discover, the official Opposition can readily support. The crux of the question is simple. By common consent across all parts of the House, our country faces enormous challenges. Members of all parties are familiar with them: the challenge of restoring the health of an economy battered by recession and high debt levels; the ever-present challenge of improving public services; the challenge of reducing violent crime and of improving national security at a time of international terrorism; and the challenge of restoring faith in our political system after scandals and revelations that have hit this House hard, and rebuilding respect and confidence in our democracy itself.
The question before us is whether these tasks and challenges are best faced for the next 10 or 11 months by the current Parliament, now in its twilight year, with a large and growing number of right hon. and hon. Members leaving its ranks, burdened with a serious loss of its reputation, with a minimal and diminishing opportunity to pass fresh legislation, with many decisions on hold and with a visibly divided Government, or whether they are better faced by a new Parliament, with new Members and renewed energy, with the expectation of several years of work before it, with a mandate approved by the people of the country, and with the authority that comes from demonstrable popular approval in a democracy—something that the current Government have forfeited and the Government of the current Prime Minister have neither sought nor ever received. One only has to ask the question to see that to most people in this country there is a clear and emphatic answer.
The Prime Minister’s statement to the House earlier was peppered with references to legitimacy, accountability, democracy and engagement, but it never seems to occur to him that one way to bring about those characteristics for any Government is to consult the 44 million voters of this country and let them have their say. He has set up a national democratic renewal council, which turns out to be a Cabinet committee behind closed doors with a title so risible in its grandiose pomposity that it shows a complete lack of self-awareness of the ridicule with which the nation views the Government.
How can we inject vigour, energy and freshness into political debate better than by consulting the people of the country? It is apparent beyond argument that the majority of the people, who are genuinely no fans of holding elections unnecessarily, believe that they now have the right to give their own verdict. Every survey shows it, and every time any of us walk down the street we hear it. Some people feel let down by their elected representatives and wish to have their say. Many can sense, with the sure instinct of the British people, that a crucial decision point is coming and that there is no reason to delay.
Perhaps even more have been watching a bitter battle take place within the governing party about whether one unelected Prime Minister should be replaced with another one. It is not surprising that they should feel that the question of who leads our country is not the private preserve of a dysfunctional Government at the tail end of a Parliament, but a matter for the collective judgment of the nation.
There are many cases in history when Governments have called general elections because they wish to seek a mandate for whatever policies they were putting to the country long before the expiry of a Parliament—[Interruption.] I refer the hon. Gentleman to Baldwin in 1923, before the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), says that it was not a Tory Government. Indeed, many Governments in the 1950s and the 1980s sought re-election before the end of the Parliament, and on some of those occasions, the Opposition were asking for an election—certainly they were in 1923. If the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) has any further historical inquiries, I hope that he will make them.
While the question of the dissolution of Parliament cannot simply be settled by reference to public demand, it has to be accepted by any commentator or participant in our politics that the current circumstances of this Parliament, already in its final year, are without precedent in modern times. Not only is public faith in this House at its lowest possibly at any time since the late 18th century and the mail franking scandal—a historical reference for the hon. Gentleman—but public support for the Government is, by reference to any of the widespread elections held last week, the lowest by some distance for any incumbent Government at any point in our modern democratic history. Such a combination means that this Parliament lacks the authority to embark on new and substantial programmes of policy or reform, even if it had time or if the Government had the energy, purpose or vision.
Vision, of course, was the crucial ingredient promised by the Prime Minister when he suddenly called off the general election planned in the autumn of 2007. He said that he would not call an election so that he could set out his vision. Curiously, he then forgot to do so. Indeed, the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble)—a former Labour Minister—has pointed that out. In her letter last week, she wrote that
“the vision has not materialised.”
She added that the people
“look to the government for high quality public services, and a sense of purpose and direction for the country. The prime minister has to articulate that and, sadly, it hasn’t happened.”
That is what Labour Members think.
Then the reason not to have an election was to set out the vision. Now the reason memorably given by the Prime Minister in his interview a month ago on GMTV is that an election would cause chaos. That revealing insight into the bunker-like mentality of No. 10 Downing street is a further argument that the people in the country should have their say. The Prime Minister feared chaos at the ballot box, presumably in place of the well-ordered conduct of government that we have witnessed in recent weeks. The Home Secretary resigned on Tuesday, the Communities and Local Government Secretary on Wednesday, and the Work and Pensions Secretary on Thursday. Downing street worked for 48 hours, through the night, to save the Prime Minister from being overthrown by his Cabinet. What a relief it is that there was no chaos in this country in the last couple of weeks.
The argument against holding an election on the grounds of chaos possesses three shattering weaknesses. First, it can presumably be used at any time and could be used to justify never asking the people to go to the polls for fear of the chaotic consequences that they might haplessly bring down on themselves. It is an argument of which Ceausescu would have been proud, as he pathetically waved from the balcony at the tens of thousands who had come to remove him.
Secondly, such an argument shows a patronising misreading of the people of this country, who have never in recent times produced chaotic scenes in a general election and have seldom produced a chaotic result. The Prime Minister can rest assured that they will go about their democratic duty when they get the chance without any trace of chaos, but with a quiet and determined efficiency.
Thirdly, it is a comment that says little for those countries that have recently had a full-scale general election, even in the midst of a world economic recession. The hon. Member for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound) pointed out that some of them had fixed-term Parliaments, but they still managed to conduct their elections in the middle of that recession. They include among their number no less a country than India, the world’s largest and most complex democracy, where a respected Government won the authority and increased freedom of manoeuvre that came from a renewal of their mandate. The United States of America is the world’s most powerful democracy, in which elections produced a renewal and reinvigoration of national leadership on an utterly historic scale. The people of India and America managed to have their elections in a perfectly orderly way, and after campaigns that were far longer than a general election campaign in this country, but the Prime Minister believes that an election in this country—from which those countries derive so many of their proud democratic traditions—would be impossibly chaotic. What does that say about his view of Britain and the British people? It is yet further proof that he is incapable of trusting the people of Britain.
To be fair to the Secretary of State, his loyalty to the Prime Minister does not extend to adopting the nonsensical arguments against an election employed by the Prime Minister. The gist of the Secretary of State’s argument was that Parliament has important work to do and that on parliamentary standards and the economy, only this Parliament can clear up its own mess. That, of course, is not remotely true. In each case, the decisions that are to be made are so serious and public approval for them so essential that they would be far better carried out after all the debate, explanation, discussion and transparency that only a general election can bring.
The Government’s argument is that it is impossible to interrupt proceedings for even a month for a general election, but that we can interrupt them for nearly three months for the summer recess. If Parliament is engaged in such important work at the moment, why is there so little business before the House of Commons this month? Why have a last Session of Parliament, beginning this autumn, that can be only a few months in length? If we work it out, we see that perhaps a maximum of 14 weeks might be available in which legislation can be considered. What has happened to the important legislation that was going through Parliament in this Session, some of which has mysteriously disappeared—namely, the Bill to allow part-privatisation of the Royal Mail?
Lord Mandelson, whom I believe we must now deferentially refer to as the First Secretary of State, has said of the Postal Services Bill:
“It would be irresponsible of the Government to allow delays to the…measures needed to reform Royal Mail and secure the future of the universal postal service…Any delay would merely serve to threaten the sustainability of the network.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 11 May 2009; Vol. 710, c. 848.]
The Government’s case against the dissolution of Parliament would be much stronger if they even knew whether and when they want to proceed with a measure that they have said can stand no delay and that is meant to be before Parliament now.
In mentioning Lord Mandelson, I did not mean to send a chill down the spine of Ministers, but it is now impossible to discuss the operation of government or Parliament without reference to his opinions. The unelected Prime Minister has managed to produce the most powerful unelected deputy since Henry VIII appointed Cardinal Wolsey—except that Cardinal Wolsey was more sensitive in his handling of colleagues than the noble Lord Mandelson is. His personal retinue of 11 Ministers, six of whom attend on him in the House of Lords, is the largest in the Government. The growth of the unelected portion of Her Majesty’s Government is further evidence of the need for the dissolution of Parliament. We also need the fresh air of electoral competition to blow through the dark recesses of several Departments.
The Prime Minister who lectures us all on democratic renewal is appointing peers to positions of power on a scale unknown for decades. There are now more peers attending the Cabinet than at any time since the days of Harold Macmillan. Half the Ministers in the Foreign Office now sit in the House of Lords or are about to do so, including no less a figure than the new Minister for Europe. So after years in which hon. Members in all parts of the House have called for better democratic scrutiny of EU decision making, we have arrived at a situation where elected Members of Parliament will be unable to question the Minister for Europe at all and where, a week before an important EU summit, the Minister is not available to either House of Parliament. That is not democratic renewal, but democratic reversal by the Prime Minister.
The Prime Minister who told us today about the importance of accountability and legitimacy has just managed to appoint an enterprise tsar in Sir Alan Sugar, but no one seems to know whether he will have Government machinery reporting to him. Apparently, moreover, he, too, cannot be questioned in either House of Parliament at all.
The Lord Mandelson, denied the opportunity to become Foreign Secretary by the sad combination of a Prime Minister too weak to remove his Foreign Secretary and, equally, a Foreign Secretary too weak to challenge the Prime Minister, has gone around instead collecting titles and even whole Departments to add to his name. His title now adds up to, “The right hon. the Baron Mandelson of Foy in the county of Herefordshire and Hartlepool in the county of Durham, First Secretary of State, Lord President of the Privy Council and Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills”. It would be no surprise to wake up in the morning and find that he had become an archbishop—[Laughter]. That is exactly what happened with Cardinal Wolsey.
We are left with a Government held together solely by fear. The Prime Minister is unable to remove Ministers in whom he has lost faith, for fear that they will quit altogether; Ministers are unwilling to challenge a Prime Minister in whom they have lost faith, for fear that they will no longer be Ministers; Labour Back Benchers are unwilling to remove a Prime Minister in whom they have certainly lost faith, for fear of having to have an election—and all of them are living in fear of one Minister with a very long title for whom, at the last election, no one in the country ever voted at all.
That is the situation. The Government are locked together in an embrace of mutual terror and diminished legitimacy, but their refusal to face the voters can no longer be defended. There comes a point when democratic renewal is indeed necessary, and the country knows and understands that that is now.
The Prime Minister has made a statement today on constitutional reform in an effort to justify his continuation in office. Leave aside the transparent desperation and sheer unadulterated cynicism of looking to a referendum on voting reform only when he has seemingly lost hope of retaining power under the voting rules prevailing today, the fact that the referendum on the European constitution that he promised in the last general election manifesto has never been held at all and the fact that progress on House of Lords reform has been stymied by indecision or indifference during his term of office so far, whatever the history of these proposals and whatever their merits, a Prime Minister at this stage of a Parliament can command the real authority to implement such changes only by including them in a general election manifesto and asking the country to approve them. But the Prime Minister’s objective is not to strengthen constitutional change by winning a mandate for it in a general election. Instead, it is to avert a general election by coming up with proposals for constitutional change—the exact reverse of true democratic accountability and legitimacy in government.
No set of proposals can now overcome the fact that this is a Parliament that has lost its moral authority, and that the Government derived from that Parliament have lost the unity, authority and confidence to govern in the national interest. The events of the last eight days, in which 11 Ministers have resigned from the Government, have summed up for most voters the sense of decay and division that makes them want to be consulted about the future.
The words of resigning Ministers speak for themselves—they require no embellishment by the Opposition. The right hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy) said:
“I have been unhappy about smears against colleagues, the undermining of colleagues and friends by No. 10”.
The right hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (James Purnell) said to the Prime Minister:
“I am calling on you to stand aside to give our party a fighting chance of winning”.
The right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) said:
“Several of the women attending Cabinet…have been treated by you as little more than female window dressing...you have strained every sinew of…loyalty”.
The hon. Member for Northampton, North, whom I cited earlier, has said that
“the person at the top has to forge a group of strong politicians into a united, coherent team to provide stable government. And that has, painfully, not happened either.”
The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) said:
“Even I didn’t think a Brown administration would be as inept as this one”.
The quotes go on, and they come from Labour Members. It is not necessary to read them all out—it is almost impossible to do so in the time available. It is impossible to recall, even from the dark and dying days of other Administrations, such condemnation of a Government from within their own ranks.
I am deeply grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, whose family of course come from my constituency. He can tell wonderful jokes about Lord Mandelson—I wish he could tell more, because we all love laughing at them—but what is the point of this speech? Why have the Opposition not tabled this motion? Why are they coming in on the coat tails of the Scottish nationalists?
First, I think that the right hon. Gentleman was not just laughing at my joke about Lord Mandelson; he was laughing with it. That is sad news for him, because it means what has in fact already been reflected in the reshuffle: however desperate the Government have been to find new Ministers, they have sadly not turned to him. That is most unfortunate.
I was worried for a moment that the right hon. Gentleman was afraid of the Member for Conwy. I have sat quietly listening to his speech. I was not going to stand up, but then he said that he was coming to the end of it. All I have heard for the past 15 minutes or so is character assassination; I have heard nothing at all about policies. I also listened to the chorus of the boys’ club on the Opposition Benches without hearing a single word about policies and why we should call a general election. Does he agree with the boys’ club chorus from the nationalists? If we call a general election and there is a change of Government, do they think that Wales and Scotland will be immune from the global economic situation in which the UK finds itself? Could he comment on that single policy?
I assure the hon. Lady that I am not afraid of any lady from Wales except my mother-in-law, so she need not worry about that. Secondly, I have not indulged in any character assassination; Lord Mandelson will be most flattered by what I have said about him today—I am simply helping to build him up. Thirdly, both the hon. Member for Moray and I have made the strong and serious case that national democratic renewal—the phrase that constantly trips from the tongue of the Prime Minister—can be achieved only by the renewal of a mandate or the renewal of an authority of Parliament across the range of policies in order to deal with the challenges of the world and national economic situation, of trying to improve public services and of safeguarding national security. It has been the burden of my case from the beginning of my remarks that dealing with those things effectively requires a Parliament with the energy and new authority from the people to carry out whichever policies the people of this country wish to follow.
So as the Prime Minister presides over his national democratic renewal council, let him reflect that the answer to this country’s problems and the unprecedented contempt in which our politics is held cannot lie in another committee led by him. If committees led by the Prime Minister did any good, the country would not be in this mess and the Labour party would not be at its most unpopular since the first world war. What this country needs is a real democratic renewal in which every one of its citizens can take part; a committee with the broadest membership possible—one to include the entire nation; and a long-established tradition called a general election. Such an election is open to all, everyone in the country gets to have their say and at the end of the process our democracy is strengthened and renewed. That is what the country wants, that is what our democracy needs and that is why we will vote this evening for the motion calling for this Parliament to be dissolved and the people of Britain to decide their own future.
In the first part of the debate, I thought that I had intruded on some sort of private feud. It has now become much more fun, and I hugely enjoyed the speech made by the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). I shall be brief, and I am sorry to inject a note of realism into our proceedings. I tried to do so when I asked the right hon. Gentleman whether he could tell me of all the occasions on which Governments had called elections because Oppositions had asked for them. Of course, there have been no such occasions.
I will not give way for the moment, although I shall do so later.
There are two problems with what is proposed. One is that it is dishonest, and the other is that it is dangerous. I am sorry to be rather serious about the matter, but I want to be serious. The proposal is dishonest because the proposers of the motion know that what they request will not happen. It is dishonest because it is part of the game that we play, and the game that we play contributes greatly to the regard in which we are held outside this place.
There is a constitutional illiteracy even in believing that if a party changes its leader between elections, there should be an election. We do not have a presidential system; we have a party system in which parties present themselves to the electorate periodically. Some of the arguments that we have heard in recent times have been preposterous. The fact is that Governments with secure majorities do not call elections other than when they want to.
I seem to remember that in both 1983 and 1987 Governments with healthy Conservative majorities called an election a year earlier than they needed to. The hon. Gentleman may say that the Opposition did not ask for an election at those times, but if they did not, it was probably only because they knew that, as the Government were so hugely popular, they would lose such an election, which is what happened. Governments do go to the country early, and they do go to the country when they want a mandate. The Government could do that equally well on this occasion.
The argument is not that Governments do not go to the electorate early; of course they do. Governments go to the electorate when they think that it is to their maximum advantage to do so. That is a truism of all Governments in all times. That is the truism that I am trying to pass on, in a humble way, to the House. That is why it is essentially dishonest to claim that there is some kind of other constitutional position that demands an election at other times. There is no such position, and there is no such precedent. That is one argument.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is possible that the answer to the question that he asked earlier is 1945? When the wartime coalition broke up, and the Labour party refused to serve in a national Government any longer, it asked for a general election. A Conservative Government were formed, and then the Conservative Government, under Winston Churchill, gave the country an election.
I want to finish this point, if I may, because it is the point that I really want to make. If we were in the opposite position, we would be saying exactly the same kind of things, because that is what Oppositions do. That is the game that we play.
I want to suggest to the House—[Interruption.] May I make the argument before hon. Members have a go at me about it? I suggest to the House that we are in an exceptional moment. There is a tidal wave of anti-politics running through the country at present. Nobody can deny that. The choice before all parties is whether we seek to ride that tidal wave and try to extract some partisan advantage from it—I can see the temptations of doing that; all Opposition parties will get some reward from riding that tidal wave—or whether we try to turn the wave around. If we do not together turn that wave around, we are in deep trouble.
Irrespective of the usual games that we play, we have a particular responsibility in the House now seriously, together, across party to put aside the game and to try and rebuild some faith in the system. [Interruption.] Until we do that, we shall not be able to look the electorate in the eye and ask properly for their support.
I agree in large part with the hon. Gentleman’s analysis, but surely he would recognise that the game is played not just by Opposition parties. One of the great frustrations has been that the Government have been masters of spin, which is very much what he is describing. How does he foresee the Opposition and also the party of government shifting away from the spin that has eroded the confidence of the public in what they hear from us, and replacing that with honesty and content?
I have said a good deal on that over the years, if I may say so, and I do not want to go there again, because I think and hope we have moved on. What I am trying to say—hon. Members may disagree with me, but it is pretty evident from what has happened in recent weeks and what happened last week—is that we have a house that is burning down. It therefore seems a bizarre moment to say, “Shall we have a competition to decide which colour to paint it?” [Interruption.] We have to put the fire out—[Interruption.]
Order. It is only fair to listen to the hon. Gentleman who is addressing the House. If Members want to make interventions, they should do so in the normal way, not from a sedentary position.
The hon. Gentleman, my near neighbour in Cannock, uses the mixed metaphors of an approaching tidal wave and a fire in a house. It seems to me that the tidal wave might put the fire out. In truth, though, is not the whole point that this Parliament is dead? Our democratic system needs renewal. The agenda is in place and the reforms that we seek will be carried out by an independent authority. This is not a party matter. Every party in the House is affected by the hon. Gentleman’s tidal wave. That is the substance behind the argument that democracy must have its say and the people out there must form their new Parliament.
I apologise for the mixing of metaphors, but I do not apologise for the argument. I do think that we are in the condition that I described, and millions of people out there are saying that they want nothing to do with this political system until we put our system in order. Hon. Members may disagree with that analysis, but I think that that is the position that we are in. We have a duty and a responsibility to do that, and to do it now.
I am trying to listen patiently to the hon. Gentleman’s contorted logic. Does he think for a minute that the public want this Parliament—this manure Parliament—to resolve some of these important issues? Surely it is right that we have a new group of people in this place to decide how we go forward, not the present degraded House and establishment?
That argument has been put repeatedly, but curiously the situation is not unique, because often out of some great scandal, disaster or catastrophe an opportunity presents itself. I am struck by the fact that, although I and others have made arguments over the years for improving the way in which this Parliament works in a variety of ways, we have made little headway. I mind the reasons why, but there happens now to be an opportunity to do something and it is an opportunity worth taking, because they do not come along very often. It is a shame that this opportunity has come out of the circumstances in which we find ourselves but, my goodness, it is a real opportunity and we should take it.
I wish very much that the nationalist parties had today come forward with a different proposition—a motion for fixed-term Parliaments—because I would have supported them with enthusiasm. When we set up the new Parliaments in Scotland and Wales, it would have been thought preposterous if we had given to those people in office the power at any particular moment to decide the timing of an election.
The hon. Gentleman’s comments are more thoughtful than those of some of his colleagues, but would he go beyond the idea of a fixed-term Parliament and consider the fact that proportional representation is a key part of the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments and would strengthen this place, because it combines the party and the individual?
The time has come to look at various voting systems, and we have a chance to look afresh at the most appropriate voting system for Westminster, but the hon. Gentleman will not lead me into the whole constitutional agenda, because, although I am tempted, I do not want to go there and the House does not want me to, either.
The nationalist parties should have come forward with that single, sensible proposition: fixed-term Parliaments. As I said to the Prime Minister earlier, the proposition was in our party’s manifesto when I was elected in 1992, and I have tried to promote it ever since. Suddenly, however, everyone seems to be in favour of it, including—possibly—the main Opposition party, although we are never quite sure about that. It would be a genuine constitutional innovation of great merit, because we could dispense with debates like this and with the games that we play all the time—the constant nonsense of calling for elections. And I can tell the House something: that would bring huge relief to the electorate.
As always, it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), but I must tell him that if he had wanted a fixed-term Parliament Bill, he could have had one—in this Session. My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) introduced such a Bill and I supported it, but the Government and Conservative Front-Bench teams rejected it, so the impression that they are the people who can lead us through to the reforms that we so urgently need is a mistaken one. That is why I am very happy not only to congratulate the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) on his proposal but to support it in my own name and on behalf of my party.
May I give glad tidings to the nationalist Members? Their sister party, Mebyon Kernow, the Cornish nationalist party, contrived to secure 92 votes in Somerset for the independence of Cornwall. That is a significant achievement. The bad news, I am afraid, is that it did not beat the Labour party in my constituency. The Labour party came sixth, but Mebyon Kernow did not beat it on that occasion.
There are two reasons why we should support the proposal. The first, which has already been touched on of course, is that this Parliament—this House—is catastrophically compromised. It has suffered a monumental loss of respect, and each and every right hon. and hon. Member now needs a new mandate from the people we represent. We need to know that we still enjoy the support of those who sent us here.
The second reason is that the Government are tired and rudderless and do not know what they are doing. Their Prime Minister has no credibility and is not providing leadership. That cannot go on. We cannot, for the best part of another year, have a kind of zombie Government—deceased but not yet interred, stumbling on, uncomprehending and without vision. That is not in the interests of the country and that is why a general election is necessary.
In its heart of hearts, none of the parties represented here wants an immediate election. No matter what they say, they do not desperately want to go straight back to the doorsteps of the nation so soon after a long and bruising campaign for the local and European elections. Judging by the turnout, that campaign did not result in an overwhelming sense of enthusiasm among the general public. Nor do we desperately want to go back to the doorsteps to hear the comments of some of our electors, who have not been universally complimentary about politicians of any hue. They have judged the House and found it wanting because of what they have been told by the press.
Furthermore, none of the parties is entirely prepared for an election. The Conservative party, for instance, would have to find some policies if it were to fight an election next week; it is palpably not prepared. However, the crucial point is that those are all essentially self-serving arguments about the policies and politics of the parties in the House; they are not about what this country and the people of this country need. Whether we are ready for an election or not, I believe that the public are.
Respect for Parliament is a crucial factor, and the collapse in respect for the House is a major reason for letting the public have their say. It affects all hon. Members, including those who have not done, or ever been accused of doing, anything wrong. Unless we are unnaturally purblind in this respect, we know that we need to give the electorate the opportunity to back or sack each and every one of us. As Robert Louis Stevenson once said:
“We all know what Parliament is, and we are all ashamed of it.”
I am thinking not of what Parliament can be but of what it is at this moment.
There has been a collapse of confidence in the Prime Minister. If there is one clear conclusion that we can draw from last week’s results, it is that the Prime Minister no longer has the confidence of the people of this country—indeed, he no longer even has the confidence of members of his own party. I hate to quote too much in a speech, but in the immortal words of the Hollies:
“He’s not the man to hold your trust,
Everything he touches turns to dust.”
I shall sing it to the hon. Gentleman later, if he makes an appointment.
I have explained why we need an immediate election. There is, of course, a counter-argument, and we have heard it—rather inadequately, I may say—from the Secretary of State for Wales. He said that we faced unprecedented economic difficulties, and that is absolutely right. This is a crucial time for this country, but that is why it is so important that we have a mandate for the difficult policies involved. The Government have done some things that I support, and some have been bold policies. However, they cannot say that they have the support of the British people in carrying them out, and the consequences will be with us for a long time. I do not buy the notion that we cannot have an election in the middle of an economic crisis because, as the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) said, major democracies across the world have done so, and prospered as a consequence.
A second argument for not having a general election is the one put forward, to some extent, by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase—that this Parliament has got us into a mess, and therefore this Parliament, and this Government, need to clear it up. That is like the “polluter pays” principle, but the trouble is that it is the taxpayer who pays and the polluter who stays, and that is what so many of our fellow countrymen find so difficult to accept. It would be easier to accept that argument if there were a clear, and very quick, timetable for some of the improvements that are being talked about, but every time I hear the Prime Minister I fail to hear the urgency that is necessary if we are to do this job quickly and clinically, enabling us to go to the country at an early date.
I have heard this a few times. People say that things are going to change and be structurally different, and that we are waiting for it to happen. My understanding is that a document was sent to every single Member saying that the House has decided—led, I believe, by the Prime Minister—that there will be no more allowances for anyone to purchase any furniture, so even Members who had to give back the price of their trouser press will not be tempted to buy another one and ask the taxpayer to pay. The sum of money available for rent or paying a mortgage on a second home, which I believe should be a home in London, will be reduced to £1,250, so the Leader of the Opposition will no longer be able to claim £1,700 per month for his mortgage. These things have already been done. They are in place and have been ruled on by the Members Estimate Committee, so they are binding at this moment. No Minister, or anyone else, will be allowed to have a house outside London—
Order. I think that the hon. Gentleman has made his point.
The hon. Gentleman has not only made his point but undermined his own argument. If we think that everything in the garden is rosy, then there is no obstacle to the general election that some of us believe should be held, but that is not the case. We have done some very basic things that some of us called for a long time ago, but they are far insufficient in meeting what is needed. If he really thinks that that is enough to regain the trust of the electorate, I can only suggest that he has not been on the doorsteps in recent weeks with enough assiduity.
The third argument against having a general election concerns the point that the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks made so amusingly about chaos theory—the Prime Minister’s idea that we would somehow be plunged into irremediable chaos were we to have a general election. I do not buy that for one moment. However, let me share something that I seem to remember from a long time ago in the days when I was attempting to do physiological sciences. There is a sort of chaos that is often observed at a microscopic level among very small organisms within an aqueous medium: it is called Brownian motion, and that is what we have seen from the Government recently.
So what has been the Government’s response to this crisis of confidence in the House and in the Government? We have had yet another of the Prime Minister’s regular relaunches. Sadly, he is getting into a situation similar to that of the former right hon. Member for Huntingdon—he has been relaunched almost as many times as the Padstow lifeboat. It never really does the job, because one can only relaunch one’s boat so many times when it is leaking below the waterline, as is the case at the moment.
We have had a re-engineered Cabinet. A Department that was created only a year ago has been subsumed by another one—purely, it would appear, for the greater glorification of the noble Lord Mandelson. I will not go through the whole of his nomenclature, as the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks did, but it occurs to me that this new Department will need very wide doors if his name is to be displayed appropriately.
We have a new Cabinet. Is anybody excited by it? Does anyone feel it will supply the answers to the country’s problems? As the right hon. Gentleman said, there will be seven people attending Cabinet who are not elected Members. I would have thought that that situation would be familiar to the 3rd Marquess of Salisbury rather than to a Government in the 21st century, yet that is what we now have. It suggests that there is a conspicuous lack of talent in this elected House if that is what the Prime Minister has to rely on. Or perhaps those who will serve in his Cabinet do not have the talent, and those who have the talent will not serve in his Cabinet. Either way, it does not suggest a Prime Minister with the confidence of either his colleagues or the country.
Today, we heard a cobbled-together programme of constitutional change. It picked up bits and pieces of what other people have suggested over the years, but was all developed in the secretive and obscure way that is always the modus operandi of this Prime Minister. It tells us everything we need to know about him that his idea of consensus is to have this Committee of Public Safety, or whatever it is called, with no Opposition parties invited to contribute. Do not invite anyone who might disagree—that is the way to build consensus, is it not? It establishes immediate consensus.
Today’s statement was issued to the leaders of the other parties a quarter of an hour before Prime Minister’s questions. The Prime Minister then challenged them to establish a consensus by agreeing with what he and his cronies had put together as a proposal for a constitutional change. Then he had the gall to say that that was the new politics, the change, the way we were now going to do things to establish democratic renewal based on the agreement of all parties and people across the country.
The Prime Minister has said repeatedly that he is the man to cure Parliament of its ills. However, he is the man who, when the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean) was trying to exempt the House from freedom of information legislation, could not be bothered to turn up to vote. Members can look it up in Hansard for 20 April 2007. That was the sort of leadership that the Prime Minister showed. He allowed Government Whips to do their job and help the Bill to go through, and he allowed them to vote, but he absented himself. So did the Secretary of State for Wales.
The Prime Minister is the man who, on 3 July last year, when there was a perfectly proper proposal from the House of Commons Commission to bring in independent auditing of Members’ allowances, was again not here. He was not present to support that proposal, and he allowed it to be amended out of the Commission’s proposals, so this House managed to escape proper independent auditing of allowances for yet another year. He now says that he is the man to reform the system in this House. He is not the man, because he is not a leader. He is in fact an obstacle to reform, and has been for 12 years now.
I am not sure that that is exactly the statistic that I would have used had I been the hon. Gentleman; nevertheless it is immediately apparent that there is a lack of leadership. That leadership is not coming from the front of the Prime Minister’s party, from the back or even from behind home lines. This Prime Minister is failing in his duty to provide leadership. Personally, I therefore have no confidence in the Prime Minister or his Government.
I do not believe that my constituents have any confidence in the Prime Minister or the Government. My worry is not that they have no confidence in the Labour party and its doings, but that they have no confidence in Parliament. That is enormously dangerous for our democracy. If our electors do not have confidence in the House to do the job for which it is elected, the House is doing democracy an enormous disservice. That should be a matter not for any one party but for the public to sort out.
It should not be for the Prime Minister and his gang but for the people to decide whether there should be a general election. We do not have fixed-term Parliaments in this country; we have a system whereby the Government of the day choose the date of an election. So be it, but they must listen. At the moment, they are not listening to what the public say. There is only one solution to the predicament in which we find ourselves: we should let the people decide through the ballot box. They should do so forthwith.
It was a great pleasure to listen to the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). I feel somewhat deprived in that I was never able—doubtless because of my political affiliations—to attend one of his famous after-dinner speeches. It has therefore been a great privilege to hear today an outstanding example of a pre-dinner speech for free, on which I congratulate him.
I would give the right hon. Gentleman’s analysis of the reasons for calling for an early general election more credence if he had not been part of a Government in 1997 who hung on to almost the last minute of the last hour of the last day. I appreciate that a week is a long time in politics, and we can all have selective memories, so I enjoyed the contribution, if not the analysis.
Many women say that to me.
It is not a case of selective memory on the part of my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). Indeed, he and many of us think that we should not go through it all again precisely because of the memory of what happened in 1997.
My hon. Friend is right. The hon. Gentleman makes a valiant attempt not at seduction but at producing an argument out of very little.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) who gave a considered analysis of where we are now and why we should reject the motion. If hon. Members have no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government, we should debate a motion on that, not some camouflage about calling general elections. As my hon. Friend said, it is the tradition in the British system—it may change; we may move to a system of fixed Parliaments, to which some of us are attracted—that deciding when to call a general election is the prerogative of the Prime Minister of the day. Some spurious arguments have been made this afternoon to try to justify an unjustifiable position.
I want to pick up on the nationalists’ decision to table such a motion. I am astonished that they have chosen such a subject for debate when the country, along with the rest of the world, faces the most serious financial and economic crisis in a generation. They have chosen to use their valuable Opposition time to engage in superficial posturing. I would have thought that they might want to have a debate on how this country—this Government and this Parliament—has dealt with the economic crisis.
I suggest that hon. Gentleman should have put down a motion asking us to compare how this Government have dealt with the economic crisis with how it has been dealt with by some of the countries in the arc of prosperity, of which we are all so fond. We could then compare how this Government are dealing with the economic crisis with, for example, how Ireland is dealing with it, where there has been a 25 per cent. cut in public services and where benefits for the over-70s are being cut radically. Let us compare that with what is happening in Britain. VAT in Ireland is now more than 20 per cent. Let us compare that with what has happened in this country, where the Government have cut VAT. The manufacturing base in Ireland has collapsed and the construction industry has all but collapsed. That would have been a valid debate.
It might be useful to look at what the Government did to save the Scottish economy at the same time. More than £60 billion went into saving the two Scottish banks that basically caused the crisis. As Lord Myners said last week in his evidence to the European Scrutiny Committee, we must not forget that the cause of the collapse of the economy lies with the banks, particularly the Scottish banks. We now have £200 billion of toxic debt, which we took on board to save the Scottish economy, which is much lauded by the Opposition parties.
I will come to the hon. Gentleman in just a second, so he might want to keep his powder dry for the moment.
I am sorry that the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) is not in the Chamber now. He highlighted opinion polls and what they tell us. However, he failed to recognise that yesterday’s ComRes poll for the “Daily Politics” showed that the majority of Scots were opposed to a general election and opposed to the Prime Minister resigning. They rejected the alternative—the Leader of the Opposition—as a Prime Minister. According to the poll, in answer to the question, “Should Gordon Brown resign immediately?”, 68 per cent. of Scots said no. In answer to the question, “Should there be a general election now?”, 55 per cent. said no. In answer to the question, “Do you agree with this statement: ‘The Leader of the Opposition has what it takes to be a good Prime Minister’?”, 55 per cent. said no. If we are going to start trading opinion polls, let us put them all on the table, not just the selected few that the hon. Gentleman put before us today.
The SNP is indulging in what it does best, which is playground politics, when the people of Scotland and the United Kingdom are looking to the Government to support them through the challenges that they face in coping with the recession. People are looking to a Government who will continue to invest in our public services through these difficult times. They are also looking at this Parliament to ensure that we deal with a discredited expenses regime that has brought us all shame and embarrassment.
This is the point my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase highlighted: if we had a general election every time the hon. Gentleman, his colleagues or anyone else on the Opposition Benches called for one, then—heaven help us—we would be in and out of general elections more often than the tongue could tell. The constitutional position is that it is the Prime Minister’s and the Government’s prerogative to go to the Queen and ask for a general election. If those on the Opposition Benches want to say that they have no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government, they should have the courage of their convictions and say that, and not try to cloak it in camouflage about a general election that will do for us all.
I am sorry that the right hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) is no longer in his place. He paid us a state visit today for a few minutes, but his time would have been far better spent looking at how the construction industry in Scotland is falling off a cliff because the Scottish Futures Trust is not up and running. I ask the House to consider the political judgment of a First Minister who despises the Union of the nations of the United Kingdom, yet comes to the embodiment of the Union in this Parliament to take part in what is frankly a piece of political theatre while important legislation on sexual offences is being debated and voted on in the Scottish Parliament—a body of which he is the political leader. I am sorry that he is not here in his place to hear this, but he certainly trailed to the whole of the media in Scotland that he was coming here to participate in this debate today.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the theatre that we are seeing here today is based on nothing other than the nationalists’ desire for independence, because Scotland will not tolerate a Conservative Government led by the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron)?
This is a plea to the Conservatives and perhaps even to some of the thinking Liberals: they need to be very careful when getting into bed with the nationalists. The nationalists are not about making this democracy or this House stronger. They are about taking Scotland out of the United Kingdom. That is why we are having this debate today. It gives them another opportunity to pursue that agenda.
We should not be surprised about that, however, because bringing down a Labour Government is part of the SNP’s DNA. It did it once, and it hopes that it can do it again. I challenge the hon. Members representing the SNP in this House to look at what happened the last time they got into bed with the Conservatives—
You got beat!
Order. We cannot have these interventions from a sedentary position. This is serious; they simply spark off interventions across the House. It is only fair to listen to what the right hon. Lady is saying.
I appreciate the right hon. Lady giving way. Does she accept that, in 1979, the Scottish people could see a difference between the Labour party and the Conservative party? Now, they cannot see a difference. On Iraq, Royal Mail privatisation, Trident and budget cuts, the parties are both the same.
In some respects, I wish that I had not let the hon. Gentleman in, because I am going to deal with some of those issues in a minute and give the House some personal information that he might find interesting.
I want to ask the House to reflect on the situation in 1979, when the leader of the nationalists in this House was the late Donald Stewart. I think it was agreed on all sides that he was an honourable and conscientious Member of Parliament. On 28 March 1979, during a debate on a motion of no confidence, he said of Mrs. Thatcher—now the noble Baroness Thatcher:
“The Scottish people will educate her”.—[Official Report, 28 March 1979; Vol. 965, c. 489.]
Well, if there was ever a time when a good man called it wrong, that was it. I often wonder whether, in the 18 long years of the last Conservative Government, Donald Stewart or any of those other 10 nationalist MPs ever stopped to reflect in sorrow on the consequences of their actions that night. As I suggested earlier, some of them had plenty of time to reflect, because nine of them were not returned to this House.
To talk about whether we would have wanted an independent Scotland is such a hoary old chestnut. As the hon. Gentleman well knows, we do not accept that an independent Scotland is the way forward in the 21st century. We believe that we are stronger together than we are apart—[Interruption.] I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman has a fundamental difference of opinion with us on that, and I have no objection to his taking an opposite view, but to be frank, the question he asked is spurious, to use that word again.
Let me deal with the hon. Member for Glasgow, East (John Mason), who I heard saying on the radio the other night that he would bring down any UK Government because he was a nationalist—or words to that effect. [Interruption.] He may well rub his hands with glee, but his constituency is one I grew up in—it was then known as Glasgow, Provan—and my father was a regional councillor in the old Strathclyde region. The hon. Gentleman may well think it fun to bring down a UK Government, so let me tell him that when he and his erstwhile colleagues in those days rushed to bring down a Labour Government, they ushered in some of the darkest days for the communities he now represents. Those communities were almost destroyed by unemployment and deprivation during those years, when a Conservative Government were prepared to stand back and let things take their course. The former constituency of Glasgow, Provan had an unemployment rate of about 35 per cent.
No, I am dealing with an area that I know particularly well. I was saying that the unemployment rate was 35 per cent., and by 1988 some 57 per cent. of working women in Scotland did not have a wage sufficient to support them. There were streets in the community I grew up in where once everyone went out to work, but by the end of the Thatcher years, nobody went out to work. That was the price that the nationalists thought was worth paying in 1979. The hon. Member for Glasgow, East and his colleagues are leopards that have never changed their spots.
But is it not the case that if the Labour Government had not gerrymandered the result of the referendum in Scotland, the people of Glasgow and of Scotland would have had a Scottish Parliament to protect them through the dark days of Thatcherism? The fact that that did not happen was the responsibility of the Labour Government of the time.
The hon. Gentleman should go back and read the debate on the motion of no confidence in 1979—and the lead-up to it—and see what was offered by the then Prime Minister, James Callaghan, in order to deal with some of the issues in the referendum debate. What happened was that a nationalist group decided to put their faith in a Conservative leader and it told the people of Scotland that she would be educated by them. She was no more educated by them than she could fly.
I appreciate the right hon. Lady’s generosity in giving way a second time, having mentioned my constituency. Does she accept that something strange happened last summer when people in an area of this country, even if we call it the UK, who had voted Labour faithfully in council and all other elections over years and decades somehow lost trust with and failed to vote for the Labour party?
I do not want to go into history lessons about the hon. Gentleman’s area, as I am not nearly as good at history as the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks. If the hon. Gentleman looked at the history of his constituency, however, he would find that it was once represented by three nationalist councillors and that he himself represented a third of that constituency, so the suggestion that people in his area had never flirted with other political parties is frankly—I do not want to say untrue—not an accurate reflection of the picture.
Does my right hon. Friend wish to comment on the history created in the constituency of the hon. Member for Glasgow, East (John Mason) last Thursday in the European elections, which demonstrated something quite different from what he has been trying to tell the House?
I did not attend the count in Glasgow, but I understand that the count in one particular district gave a strong indication that the hon. Gentleman might, to use a well-known Scottish phrase, “find his jaicket on a shoogly nail”—and I will translate that later for Hansard.
Let me say a little about my constituency. It contains mining villages that were decimated during those 18 long years. Lives were shattered and people were marginalised by a Government who engaged in a political strategy to smash a mining industry, and failed to provide any alternative employment. My constituency contains rural areas where there was no investment in education or transport. It took the re-emergence of a Labour Government, and then a Labour-led Scottish Executive, to ensure that the schools in my constituency were either rebuilt or refurbished, and to ensure the commissioning of a new hospital which had been a dream for 40 or 50 years—a dream which, I believe, was shared by the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Gordon Banks).
I say to the nationalists, “Put your political posturing to one side. Last time you did this, it cost the Scottish people dear. Tonight many Members will join you in the Lobby, but do not be flattered, because they flatter to deceive, just as they did last time.”
The nationalists are playing political games when people in Scotland and people across the United Kingdom are looking to this Government, and indeed to the Scottish Government, for responsibility and leadership to get us through difficult times. This motion is self-indulgence of the worst kind. It exposes the willingness of members of the SNP and their colleagues in Plaid Cymru—who, admittedly, did not vote to bring down a Labour Government on the last occasion—to be used by a Conservative party which, if it were ever given the chance again, would introduce a spending regime that, albeit cloaked in different and softer words, would make it almost impossible for them and us to deliver the necessary services to the Scottish people and to people across the United Kingdom. The last time the Scottish nationalists played midwife to a Tory Government, they thought that it was a price worth paying. Labour Members will do all that we can to prevent that from ever happening again.
I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) for tabling the motion. Very rarely do we debate a subject as broad as the dissolution of the House. If I may, however, I will not follow the nationalists’ line of argument, and I regret that I am also unable to follow that of the Secretary of State for Wales. I can only reflect that he may have been distracted by the thought that he was securing his position as a new Cabinet Minister and therefore could not really give his attention to the issue.
This is not, in truth, about the popularity or otherwise of a Government; Governments are unpopular from time to time. Indeed, it is not just about the unpopularity of a Prime Minister. Goodness—if we got rid of Prime Ministers just because they were unpopular, we would never have a public policy in this country. This is about more. It is about the dissolution of Parliament, and that means our going to face the people as well.
I do not want either to follow the line that was so adequately—so heroically—addressed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). It is the classic and great spirit of Parliament to mock, to identify and to twist the truths into the nerves of those who face us across the Floor of the House. My right hon. Friend produced a compelling argument and gave a profoundly good performance as a parliamentarian.
What I want to examine is the argument that my right hon. Friend could not address, because at that stage it had not been presented. I refer, of course, to the argument of the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright). If I understand it correctly, the hon. Gentleman’s argument is that this awful time when the House is at its greatest discount—when it is being judged by the public, possibly not even reasonably, because of the extent of their present fury—is essentially not a time for a general election, because the electorate may, in their rage and anger, sweep away that which may be good or right about this House. This is a profoundly important argument.
This House as a collective, and including the Government, has in its time been profoundly unpopular. We only have to think of the long march, of which the Labour party was an integral part, towards reaching democratic and accountable government. In 1832, this House and the other place feared revolution. They wanted to hold to their established ways of doing things. The men of Birmingham and Wolverhampton marched through Walsall, seeking to acquire some very limited form of representation, and there were those who harrumphed that this country hung on the edge of revolution and that that which was good would be swept away. In the event, the moderation and reasonableness of the people of Britain—in this instance, the people of England—prevailed, and that tiny step was taken.
In 1865, an extraordinary thing happened. In 1860, a Prime Minister had set his face against a further extension that would enfranchise a larger part of the nation. Gladstone could not achieve such a thing when he was Prime Minister, but Disraeli, with the co-operation of Gladstone and the voice and arguments of Bright across this land, achieved something that shaped and formed the character of the Chamber in which we sit today. Let us not doubt it: reaction would have seen that off.
As to revolutionary responses that sweep things away, many people out there, in their understandable rage, want to sweep us away and thereby sweep away continuity. I must address the hon. Gentleman’s remarks by saying that I do not fear that. Half of the Members of this House will probably remain, and half will leave. In that turn of events there will be a natural renewal of the House, whenever an election comes. A previous argument then returns: do we not think that the electorate are making an irrational judgment? Who are we to claim that? Is doing so not a display of self-serving self-satisfaction? Do the people not have the right to do this if they judge that the Government should change? It is pointed out that we have constitutional practice, and a Government are, by statute, in place for five years. The current Government have been in office for four years, and the tradition in this country is that, by and large, a modern Government seek a four-year term. It is said that we can extend that because there are important and necessary things to be done to prepare the new Parliament for, perhaps, a better prospect.
That is where the speech of my right hon. Friend comes into play. What are these important things? Of course, the economy is the issue that grinds away in my constituency, along with contempt for the way in which we as individuals have handled our expenses. It is the economy, in truth; that is where we should justify ourselves.
We on the Back Benches are not the Government. We hold the Government to account, and that function does not belong solely and exclusively to those on these Benches. This House has lost its lustre because people who stood as Labour candidates, were elected as Labour Members and who believe in Labour policies did not think it necessary to insist that the Government’s policies should be argued and reasoned, and that they could go forth and convince the people that the Government’s policies were worthy, because the Government won the argument.
Unfortunately, the evacuation from the Chamber of the Secretary of State for Wales meant that he did not answer the questions put by my right hon. Friend about the conduct of business. As the hon. Gentleman said, we now have an opportunity for this House to revive itself. I believe that profoundly, but with this personnel—with these Members—it cannot have the confidence or authority to sustain a Government. That is what the House does, collectively, but this Government have no purpose now.
The reform of expenses has now been taken out of the hands of this House, effectively, because the people have thrown their derision and scorn at it. Freedom of information was mentioned, and one need only look at the list of those who voted, including Ministers, because they were available on a Friday. Whips were imposed by both parties—I do not pretend otherwise—to defy the very principle of open government and our accountability for our use of public money.
We comforted ourselves with the thought that the system was out of the sight of others and that our integrity was reinforced by the fact that it was authorised. That has been swept aside, and we all recognise that. A process is under way. We look forward to Sir Christopher’s review. We will bear it heavily, perhaps, but it is right that the people should have the response that they wanted and that this is no longer in our hands.
This issue should not be about the Prime Minister outbidding the Leader of the Opposition, or about star chambers. The Prime Minister used the term, but a Star Chamber put fear into this country for 100 years. The king appointed judges to sit in a little courtroom not far from here. He made charges, and strangely enough, his chosen judges found people guilty and he would then say that the verdict was right. That is what we have slipped into in our crisis. It denigrates our tradition of liberty and it is contrary to our sense of process and fair trial. That is what we have reduced ourselves to—to accepting that, when we can do better.
It will not be for us to do better. Our time has passed. This House is dead on its feet and it needs the renewal of authority that, in our tradition and purpose, justifies its being a cradle of democracy and the little Chamber that was once an example to the world. That is the restoration that we can seek through the people. This House has no time left. Whatever initiative is announced or programme proposed, there will be a summer recess and a Queen’s Speech, but we all know that the parties will be working on their manifestos. That is what it is about. Perhaps some still hope that something will turn up, but the public mind knows that we are a busted flush. In truth, we know that too: there should be an election.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd). He speaks with great sincerity, but he and I are coming from opposite sides of the argument. I come from a background where, if something has gone wrong, the duty lies with the individual or individuals who have got it wrong to start to put things right and to mend—[Interruption.] He says from a sedentary position that we have, and, yes, I think we have put interim measures in place to deal with the whole allowances fiasco. An independent reviewer will come to us with their views. I sincerely hope that the whole House would get 100 per cent. behind that and would accept what is being said.
One of the problems is that people in the areas where some of the MPs who have abused the allowances system are standing down will not have any representation. It is not realistic to call umpteen by-elections, which need to happen. In those seats, people will not accept MPs simply standing down but—potentially—getting a salary for another nine months and a pay-off. Those MPs should go now. The only way to do that sensibly, I am afraid, is to dissolve this House and call an election, so that we can get rid of those people who have abused the system in the ways that we have seen over the past few weeks.
I accept, to a certain extent, what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but let me go back to the point made by the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) in opening the debate. There is a clear indication that at the moment people are fixated—justifiably so—on the allowances and the expenditure that falls into the hands of elected Members, and on the way in which some people have abused that. I have committed things to writing in the past on allowances, and I have said things. In the past couple of months, I have voted in a certain way. Never in my wildest imagination did I recognise what was going on. I defy anyone to stand up and say, “Well, I knew that that was going on.” I do not think that the majority of this House did. What the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland) says makes sense. I do not fear for myself, because there was life before this House and there will be life after it, but I do fear that we will sweep away far too many good and decent people. We have a judgment to make. Do we tolerate for another few months those who might have abused the system, or do we run the risk of sweeping away honest, decent people who deserve to come back here to build on the strengths that we have put in place?
May I quote a few words? They are
“to serve our country—that is all we ask.”
Those were the words used by the late John Smith some 15 years ago in a speech he made the evening before, tragically, he passed away. Members—and I would include myself—would do well on occasion to remember why we are in this House. We are here to represent people. We are not here to save our political skins or our necks. We are here to do a job. I fear the results of the hostility towards each and every one of us, which I witnessed during the European election campaign. I witnessed people who would normally support my party saying on polling day that they were not coming out. It was their chance to protest. We all saw what happened last Thursday.
Dissolution would mean an election, and an election is about policies and manifestos. We would be asking people to vote when they were angry, and not really aware of what any party was proposing. Some might say that it is time for change, and we have heard that often enough. It was time for change back in 1997, when my party brought forward a manifesto containing pledges on a national minimum wage, devolved Government, the new deal, cutting class sizes and NHS investment. People who wanted change could get behind that manifesto.
The people who have led today’s debate said that it was time for change two years ago, but I do not believe that they expected to be able to form a minority Administration in Scotland after that election. The Scottish National party’s manifesto contained a number of pledges, but it is important that people who lay out their stall in that way stick to what they propose.
The pledge to introduce a local income tax failed. Up to now at least, the pledge on the Scottish futures trust has also failed, and there have been failures on class sizes, probationary teachers and student debt.
There was undoubtedly significant wheeling and dealing—grown-up politics, but fundamentally different from delivering on pledges and commitments to the people.
The Scottish Administration have failed on police numbers, prison overcrowding and support for first-time buyers. I am only disappointed that I could not get hold of the Scottish National party’s election leaflet so that I could bring it to the debate and say, “Could do significantly better.”
No, as I am not taking any more interventions. People deserve to have policies and manifestos laid out before them, but before I finish I want to take up the earlier reference to 1979.
My late and good comrade Bob Cryer began his contribution to the debate on 28 March 1979 at 8.20 pm by saying:
“That is characteristic of the Tories. They are not acting from principle. Their principle is opportunism. As the Prime Minister pointed out, the SNP put down a motion and the Tories went into action to follow it up. The Tories did not produce their motion for any reasons that they could adduce about the state of the nation or the economy.”
He went on to say:
“The Opposition often betray a duality of standards…the chairman of the Conservative party could be receiving £30,000 per year from Pirelli, a company which is apparently overcharging the Post Office by £9 million a year.”—[Official Report, 28 March 1979; Vol. 965, c. 552-53.]
He went on to talk about the individual responsibility that every hon. Member bears.
Let me say to the hon. Gentleman, above the guffawing that is going on, that I expected a honeymoon period, but it has gone beyond that and what the Scottish National party has had is more than a fair wind; it has been a love-in that John Lennon and Yoko Ono would have thought brilliant. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) says from a sedentary position that the SNP Government are not doing anything. They complain and whinge about a £500 million cut in a Budget, when in actual fact they are getting—people need to know this—£700 million extra this coming year.
No, because, in spite of all this, I wish to finish by paying a compliment to the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). I want to share a secret with him and everyone else in the House—nobody else is really going to know this. At the time his party was selecting its last leader, I was in a room with about 15 other people who were all members of a Conservative association—I did not know that at the time. I said that the best individual to lead their party was him and that he would be the next Conservative Prime Minister. I think his time as party leader came early, because as far as I am concerned he stands head and shoulders above anyone else on the Conservative Benches. That may upset the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) and I sincerely hope that it is not the kiss of death for the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks.
In conclusion, I thought that this evening we might have been able to get an answer from the SNP to a question that it was asked twice: what would it prefer to see after the next election? Would the SNP prefer to see a Labour Government or a Tory Government returned to this House? What is the SNP’s view? We do not get an answer to that.
Can I get an answer from the hon. Gentleman that I failed to get from the right hon. Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire)? Would he have preferred an independent Scotland with a Labour Government during the 1980s or 18 years of a Tory Government from Westminster? What is his answer?
Let me say slowly, so that the hon. Gentleman can understand, that Labour is a party of the Union; we do not believe in independence. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) said, we would much have preferred to see a different form of words used today; the nationalists could have used this Opposition day debate in a much more constructive manner. They have failed, and although the people of Scotland have not recognised it yet, they will do; time will catch up with the SNP. I hope that my Labour colleagues will vote against the motion.
We have had a wide-ranging debate, which started with a fine speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Angus Robertson). He referred to the fact that the public are demanding that we go to the people and ask for a fresh mandate. I believe that what he said was right, and that this whole idea of the British National party was not an aberration; it is not going to go away unless we tackle it head on. One of the reasons why that evil has come into politics is because Parliament is discredited as an institution—that is obvious.
It would have been better if the Prime Minister had been here for this debate, because many of the points raised in it were made in his earlier statement, with which I agreed almost entirely. The timing and the re-announcements perhaps were not good, but generally what he said was good and worthy.
My hon. Friend the Member for Moray referred to the fact that this is not, and is not meant to be, a motion of no confidence. He mentioned the various surveys and opinion polls that have been carried out recently, which found that the vast majority of the public have come out in favour of an immediate election. We are talking not about one or two polls but about several, and the majorities involved have often been very large. We will doubtless be able to read the exact percentages at our leisure. He rightly said that we need to grasp the nettle, because we must sort this out. The expenses scandal has been sorted out in part, but we need to accept what the Kelly commission says, be it good, bad or indifferent. We need to accept it fully, because we cannot cherry-pick. If we do so, we will be back in the same position. My hon. Friend put to rest the idea that it is wrong to have an election during an economic crisis, referring to India, the USA, Canada and other places. The idea that we cannot have an election is preposterous, as was underlined very well also by other speakers, including the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague).
The Secretary of State for Wales is out of practice as a Front Bencher, I have to say. He picked up a speech that was frankly not worthy of him. He did not write that speech, because it was drivel. He would not have written it; I say that because I know that he is an intelligent man. However, as the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) said, we are all playing the game. The Secretary of State played the game but, with respect, not very well. That was not his fault; it was the fault of the speech-writer—[Interruption.] Oh, it was? I beg the Secretary of State’s pardon. I am awfully sorry, but he is out of practice, after all. I welcome him back.
I have very limited time left; I am sorry. The Secretary of State has conceded defeat at the next election, because he said that calamity would follow if the motion were put to the vote and the vote was won. He referred to lancing the boil, but waiting nine months to lance a boil is not, medically, a good idea. Boils need to be lanced fairly quickly. Waiting would only lead to septicaemia; I know that, and I am not a doctor. There was a bit of knockabout, I accept, but at the end of the day, the Secretary of State needs a bit of practice. However, I welcome him back; he is a worthy Front-Bench Member, but he was skewered once or twice by pretty sharp interventions from Members on the nationalist Benches; some pretty accurate darts were thrown, I thought.
The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks, in an erudite speech—which is what we expect of him—referred to the tasks ahead. He spoke of the national democratic renewal council, that wonderful institution, reflective of everyone in the House, that is peopled by Ministers and that meets behind closed doors. No doubt it will be given a great deal of credence and will have a great deal of legitimacy when it comes together. He said, rightly, that the majority of people now believe that an election is necessary. He referred to the polls, and rightly said that dissolution is really in the public interest. He mentioned that Labour support is at its lowest since the 18th century. He referred to the famous time when the Prime Minister bottled an election, and said that the Prime Minister does not want one now because there might be “chaos”.
The reference made by the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks to Ceausescu was interesting. It was meant to be a jest, but there is some rather interesting background to it. No doubt the new national democratic renewal council will be quoted at length on the “Supreme Leader” page of Private Eye. It reminds one of some lines written by Brecht—whom we all read regularly, no doubt—after the anti-Government riots in East Berlin in 1953:
“After the uprising of the 17th of June
The Secretary of the Writers Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?”
That does make one think about the situation in general. The right hon. Gentleman went on to refer to the huge democracies of India and the USA, which had elections in an orderly manner—no whiff of chaos there, but apparently the Prime Minister believes it is impossible to have an election here because it would be chaotic. That undermines the credence and the intelligence of the British people.
I have no time; I am sorry. If the hon. Gentleman had remained in the Chamber throughout the debate, I probably would have given way to him.
The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks, referred in a very humorous manner to Cardinal Wolsey and to Lord Mandelson—[Interruption.]—or Archbishop Mandelson. That was a tour de force. It was hugely amusing and very effective.
I turn now to the contribution of the hon. Member for Cannock Chase. With respect, I do not think that he got things right—unusually for a gentleman who speaks very well on such subjects. He referred to the motion as dishonest and dangerous, but it is neither. It is called for by the people, and we believe that we are responding to what the people want. He said that we play the game, and yes, we do, but he then said that Governments call elections when they think they can win them. That is playing the game, is it not? That is the worst form of game, in my view.
The hon. Gentleman missed the point. The motion is unprecedented. There has never been a motion of this kind before Parliament before. Oppositions have tabled motions of no confidence, but this is a dissolution motion by Parliament and of Parliament, and it is quite different from any previous motion. Unusually, I find myself completely at variance with the hon. Gentleman’s normally well-informed views.
In a thoughtful speech, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), mentioned two main reasons why he supported the motion—that Parliament was compromised and the fact we have lost respect, and that we should go back to the people to seek a mandate. He spoke of the collapse of confidence in the Government and in the Prime Minister, and said that the economic difficulties made it even more pressing and more important for us to go to the country. He said that if a timetable were forthcoming for the work to be completed and if the date of an election were announced, that might be better, but he referred to the Government’s response to the crisis of confidence. There is indeed a crisis of confidence. There is no doubt that the Prime Minister is failing in leadership.
The right hon. Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire) referred to a poll which supported keeping the Prime Minister in place. It was a poll of fewer than 100 people— perhaps not the most persuasive evidence in support, and not really a poll. She also let slip during her speech that a general election would do for us all. That may be so, but it is not a reason not to go to the country. I am afraid it was rather a self-serving speech, characterised by continuous attacks on the Scottish National party and little else.
The hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) made a very thoughtful contribution, as he always does, referring to history—1832, the long march, the fear of revolution, 1865 and so on. He said that if there were a poll, perhaps half the House would go and half would remain, and that in itself would be renewal. That is absolutely right. Neither the hon. Gentleman nor any other Member should fear going to the people, letting them make their voice heard, and reacting accordingly. It was a very good speech.
The hon. Gentleman described the current situation as a busted flush. That is exactly what it is. People out there believe that this institution is badly damaged. As usual, his logic was unanswerable, and the oratory—I call it that—commanded absolute silence in the Chamber. That silence was eloquent.
From the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown), finally, we had a walk round the trees and the woods, and some insults to the Scottish National party. He came up with several answers to several questions, but one question that he could not answer was that if the Scottish Government, God help them, are so bad, why are they running away with the polls in Scotland?
The hon. Gentleman made his points in a rather theatrical manner. The question that he could not answer was why the Scottish Government did so fantastically well last week if they are letting the Scots people down. In every opinion poll, consistently, their support goes up and through the roof. There we have it. We heard a speech that did not take us very far.
We have had a good debate. It was worth having. The motion is not a no confidence motion; it is about the credibility of Parliament. Many of us in many parties believe, as I am sure in their heart of hearts do many Labour Members, that we have a busted flush. If we went to the country, there would be a renewal. All the procedures are in place. We are waiting for Kelly. Other procedures have been put in place pro tem. There is nothing to prevent us from having an election as those other countries have recently had.
I urge hon. Members to think carefully about how they vote this evening. I urge Members on the Government Benches to join those of us who are democratically concerned about the future of this place, and to join us in the Lobby later.
I apologise to the House for the fact that it is me replying to the debate, but I had been asked to do so before I was moved to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, so this is my sort of final appearance as the Deputy Leader of the House.
We had some interesting speeches this afternoon, and some that were fundamentally misleading. It is a shame that the—[Interruption.] Oh, no, the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) has been able to get back into the Chamber now. I disagreed with almost every word that he said, as I am sure he would expect. The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) tried to patronise the Secretary of State for Wales, which is the hon. Gentleman’s favourite tactic when he is rattled, but I thought that my right hon. Friend made a very good argument, and I hope to return to it.
We then had important contributions from my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire), who made some important points that needed to be heard about the Scottish nationalists’ record. We also heard from the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), whom I like to think of as an hon. Friend these days. When he was lying on top of me the other day—or I was lying on top of him, I cannot remember—on the rugby pitch at Twickenham, he impressed upon me the need for radical reform of Parliament, and, as he knows, I have always agreed with him on those matters.
We heard from the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd), and he always speaks from the heart, with minimal notes and with great conviction. I do not happen to agree with the conclusions that he came to, and, as he knows, I often disagree with the conclusions that he comes to; none the less, I share with him the respect for this House and the importance of our being able to reinforce its value into the future and to restore the reputation in which it is held. He referred to several changes to the constitution which were brought about in the 19th century. One of the most important changes, as far as the Rhondda was concerned, was when the franchise was extended to miners, and, from that day forward, they have had Labour representation.
We need to make further reforms, and the most important question that we need to consider when we consider whether to dissolve Parliament is whether there is anything that we—we—need to do urgently. I believe that there are two very important things that we need to do urgently.
I realise, however, that I have forgotten the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) and his highly illuminating speech. He did, however, mislead us—inadvertently, I am sure—on one fact. He said that he thought that, one day, the Business Secretary, my Lord—[Hon. Members: “Aah!”] Well, the right hon. Gentleman said that the Business Secretary was going to be an archbishop, and, from my former career, I am used to calling archbishops “my Lord”. I am sure, however, that he would not suffice with an archbishopric; after all, archbishops can be fallible.
Most importantly, there are significant things that we need to do as a Government. I believe, as all Members have said today, that we need to take very seriously the message that the electorate sent us last week—a message not only to my political party, but to all political parties represented in this Chamber. There was a significant fall in turnout in many areas and there was a vote for the far right in many areas. In my constituency, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats came in after the British National party. There are very important issues that we need to bear in mind; there are important reforms that we need to make to the way in which we do politics; and, as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome said, we need to make them urgently—very urgently. First, we need to have an independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, because it is important that we do not set our own pay and rations. Our pay, allowances and pensions should be set, monitored, audited and administered completely independently of this House. That they have not been is one of the major things that has brought this place into disrepute.
Nobody should be able to enrich themselves by virtue of being a Member of this House or by virtue of the allowances that they are able to claim. Nobody should be prevented, equally, from being a Member of this House because they do not have an independent fortune. Anybody should be able to represent a constituency in this country, regardless of their background. I note that the hon. Gentleman wants a swift timetable—and there will be one, to bring those reforms forward. We need to see them as swiftly as possible, and that means that it would be ludicrous and inappropriate for us to have a general election now. In addition, we need to make sure that the reassessment—and, if necessary, repayment—of all hon. Members’ claims back to 2004 can be done swiftly. That would surely have to be done before any general election.
We need to look seriously at the issues raised by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister this afternoon about the reform of the House of Commons and its Committees. We all recognise the value of the Select Committee system, which has been around in a changing form for the past 25 or 30 years. However, we need to go a step further in making sure that those Committees have real power and an ability to transform the politics of this country. The changes to which my right hon. Friend referred this afternoon would help.
Likewise, we need to consider timetabling and how we conduct our business. We need to look at all such matters urgently if we are to make sure that the House, which has been respected around the country through the centuries, returns to that key position.
On the hon. Gentleman’s earlier reference to Twickenham, I should say that I seem to remember being hurled rather forcibly by a second row forward at him, rather than simply collapsing on top of him. But that is not the point.
The hon. Gentleman is now articulating a raft of reforms that some Members, on both sides, have been advocating year after year—but those on the Treasury Bench have refused to accept them. Why should we believe now that there is a realistic timetable for introducing those reforms as a matter of urgency? If there is such a timetable, will he tell us precisely what it is?
As the hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well, some of the measures have not been around for ever and a day. Some of them have, and he also knows perfectly well that I have supported them; on many such issues, I have gone through the Lobby with the hon. Gentleman. One of the other issues is House of Lords reform. I believe that it is wrong for people who are not prepared to put themselves up for election to tell people in this country how to live their lives; that is why I believe in reform of the second Chamber.
The most dramatic urgency relates, however, to the issue of the independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. That has not arisen until recently, but we need to proceed with it as fast as we can. It is for my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House to inform the hon. Gentleman when that will happen, but I understand that this afternoon several hon. Members have been in cross-party talks about some of these measures. I hope that we will be able to move them forward as fast as possible.
It is vital that we continue urgent work on a second issue: the recession. Uniquely, it has hit the whole world, and profoundly so. When I was knocking on doors in my constituency during the elections last week, people were constantly raising issues about their family incomes, their savings, their jobs and their future prosperity. Those people would have been expecting the House to be debating such issues in substantial measure this afternoon. The truth is that this Government acted to shore up the banking system—not to protect bankers, but to make sure that individuals’ deposits were protected. Otherwise, people would have lost all their savings.
This Government have been providing support for businesses, which can now defer their taxes at an important time in the economic cycle. We have introduced additional support for mortgage interest, reducing it for the unemployed so that it kicks in for mortgages of up to £200,000 rather than those up to £100,000—and after 13 weeks, not 39 weeks.
The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks did not mention any of those issues; he did not seem to have any interest in the economic situation. Like the Leader of the Opposition, he had no time to mention any matters of substance. The issues that I have mentioned face our constituents, and we need to address them. So I say that now is not the time—
No, I will not give way, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind, because I have very little time.
I want to address some of the issues that have been raised by the nationalists. They pretend in political life, and yet we all know the truth that lies behind it. What is the truth in this case? They do not expect to form a Government if there is a general election. They are not intending to put up candidates across every seat in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. They have no intention of forming a Government of their own—they want to get rid of this Government to put in that lot, the Conservatives, and they should be honest to the House about it. [Interruption.] Yes, absolutely—the right hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) and his friends should look carefully at where they are getting the cheers from.
We know that that is the truth, because the nationalists have a record on this. Just look at 1979—they did exactly the same then. Look at 1993, when they propped up a discredited Government. The truth is that they are so obsessed with independence that that is the only thing they will ever see. Of course, the leader of their party—the leader in Scotland—could perfectly well have been in Scotland today voting on reform of the rape law; instead, he has decided to sit in here and smirk like a Cheshire cat so that he gets on television behind the leader of Plaid Cymru. Where were they when it came to the minimum wage? None of them even bothered to turn up, and yet they try to pretend that they believe in things—[Interruption.]
The truth of the matter is that the nationalists always vote with the Tories. Who was their latest Member to come into the House? I am glad to see him sitting there—the hon. Member for Glasgow, East (John Mason). In his first four votes, which Division lobby did he go through? Not through the lobby with the Labour party but through the lobby with the Conservatives. No wonder this year’s Scottish Conservatives’ conference programme said:
“For the first time in more than a decade Conservative policies are being enacted—and it is here in Scotland.”
Yes—Conservative policies are being enacted by the Scottish National party.
So we know that the nationalists like to ride in on the Conservatives’ coat tails, but the Conservatives like to ride in on their coat tails as well. They do not table their own motion but come running along like Johnny-come-latelies after that little shower. I warn the Conservatives about the nationalists, because they do not share the same principles in some respects—the nationalists want to cut defence jobs in Scotland and in Wales. They want to see the end of Trident in Faslane. They do not support St. Athan and the new defence training academy in Wales, which would mean thousands of jobs in south Wales, including for people in my constituency. What are the nationalists in my constituency doing about armed forces day? They are saying that it is just a gimmick and they are not prepared to defend our armed forces.
On the economy, we know what—[Interruption.] I am about to come to the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price), so he can keep calm. What were his views, along with all the nationalists? They proclaimed the great arc of prosperity that was to extend across the smaller countries—Ireland, Iceland and Latvia. The hon. Gentleman said that
“small country success is everywhere…Iceland…has a GDP per capita some £7,000 above Wales”.
The reality now in Iceland is that inflation is running at 18 per cent. and its economy has shrunk by 10 per cent. So we know that the nationalists’ policy on the economy is absolutely nowhere. They have no suggestions and no way of making sure that this country returns to economic strength—