Before I call the mover and seconder, I shall announce the proposed pattern of debate during the remaining days on the Loyal Address: Thursday 19 November—education and health; Monday 23 November— Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Ministry of Defence; Tuesday 24 November—Energy and Climate Change and Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; Wednesday 25 November—Home Office and Department for Work and Pensions; Thursday 26 November—Her Majesty’s Treasury and Business, Innovation and Skills.
I beg to move,
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, as follows:
Most Gracious Sovereign,
We, Your Majesty’s most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, in Parliament assembled, beg leave to offer our humble thanks to Your Majesty for the Gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament.
I confess that I was puzzled as to what had prompted the Chief Whip to choose me to move the Humble Address, but glancing through the current cinema listings I came across a film title that might have brought me to mind. Obviously, it was not “Bright Star”; nor, I hope, was it “The Men Who Stare at Goats”—they are in the House of Lords—but it might well have been a film at the Science museum entitled “Dinosaurs Alive!” Mock ye not—dinosaurs were around for 65 million years and remain very popular with young people. A couple of years ago, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), the Leader of the Opposition, was reported in the newspapers as saying that he would not be voting with that “dinosaur Frank Dobson”. Imagine my glee a day or two later when I found myself in the same Lobby as him. I took the opportunity to welcome him to Jurassic Park.
I am honoured to be invited to open this debate and I am not the first from my constituency to do so. In 1906, this task fell to Sir Willoughby Hyett Dickinson. Conservative Members will be pleased, but not surprised, to be told that he was an old Etonian. Liberal Democrat Members will be pleased to know that he was a Liberal MP. Labour Members will be even more pleased to learn that he later saw the light and joined the Labour party.
My constituency, Holborn and St. Pancras, is an extraordinary place. It includes three mainline railway stations: Euston, the first in London, King’s Cross, and St. Pancras. The new St. Pancras International station is a great success. That pleases me, partly because its high-speed link demonstrates a sensible, sustainable alternative to short-haul flights and partly because I was the first person to suggest it. I am pleased for the staff at King’s Cross, with the return of the east coast trains to public ownership following the failure of successive private operators.
My area contains the British Museum and the British Library, Sir John Soane’s museum, the Foundling hospital museum and the Jewish museum. It is the home of world-famous academic institutions, including University college, the School of Oriental and African Studies, the Institute of Education, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the Royal Veterinary college, of which I am privileged to be the Privy Council governor.
The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, which is also in my constituency, has trained generations of actors, few more brilliant and famous than my hon. Friend—and my good friend—the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson). Birkbeck college was and remains unique, a top-flight college that serves part-time students. The Working Men’s college in Camden Town gives a chance to people who previously missed out, and our local schools do a remarkable job for local children and young people. We also have the headquarters of the TUC and many trade unions, great and small. For political balance, we also have the headquarters of the CBI.
My constituency contains hospitals of world renown: Great Ormond Street hospital, the national hospital for neurology and neurosurgery, and the new University college hospital, in which I had a bit of a hand when I was Secretary of State for Health. It includes the institutes of neurology and child health, the Royal College of Physicians, Cancer Research UK, the Wellcome Trust and the British Medical Association.
Time does not permit me to mention many of the famous people who have lived in Holborn and St. Pancras, but I am proud to represent my fellow Yorkshireman Alan Bennett and to have represented the late great Kenneth Williams. A few weeks ago, I helped unveil a plaque to Kenneth Williams. Following the first burst of applause at the ceremony, the curtains of a window further up the house were parted by a man woken from his Sunday lie-in and clearly puzzled by all the noise. As befits an event to commemorate a star of the “Carry On” films, the puzzled neighbour was stark naked.
MPs have embarrassing moments, but for me one stands out from all others. I went one day to the Bengali Workers Association Surma centre, where I was met by a young woman I had met several times before. She was wearing a shalwar kameez and to my surprise she was on crutches. So, in the way one does with young people on crutches, I jovially inquired, “What have you been doing?” “Don’t you know?” she asked. “No,” I said. “You really don’t know?” “No, honest I don’t.” “I’ve had my leg amputated,” she said. My jaw dropped so far that she laughed at my discomfiture.
The character of Holborn and St. Pancras is coloured by the radical, often revolutionary nature of people who were born, or who lived, died or are buried, in my constituency. They include Captain Coram, who established the Foundling hospital and who is described on his statue as “Pioneer of Child Welfare”. What better obituary could anybody want?
Mary Wollstonecraft, author of “A Vindication of the Rights of Women”, lived in Somers Town. She died there giving birth to her daughter, later known to the world as Mary Shelley, whose character Frankenstein is better known than all the images created by all the famous male authors and poets who patronised both her and her mother.
Marx and Engels both lived in Holborn and St. Pancras. Marx is joined in Highgate cemetery by one of the greatest scientists and inventors the planet has ever known, Michael Faraday. The Elizabeth Garrett Anderson hospital for women, named after the first English woman doctor, was in my area, and the Marie Stopes clinic is still giving advice on family planning and sexual health.
Regrettably, I have to report that one Holborn resident in 1812 took what we must all agree was unacceptable action. He was called John Bellingham and he shot the Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval, here in the Lobby of the House of Commons. I know that the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) is a descendant. However, in shooting him in the House of Commons, he rendered Spencer Perceval the only man in history who has been assassinated on Lobby terms.
A much more recent victim of assassination was Ruth First, the anti-apartheid campaigner murdered by the South African secret police. She lived in Camden Town with her husband, Joe Slovo, who went on to become a member of President Mandela’s Cabinet. I had the honour to preside over the unveiling of a plaque to both of them by Nelson Mandela himself.
On an earlier occasion, I had had an appointment with President Mandela at the South African high commissioner’s residence. I had met him before that, but only as part of a group, so I did not expect that he would know me from Adam. He greeted me with the words, “Hello, Frank. It’s good to see you again.” The “again” was clearly a product of the briefing supplied by the high commissioner, but then he put his hand on my shoulder and said, “You do remember me, don’t you?”
I take particular pride in my constituency’s association with the anti-apartheid movement. It was founded 50 years ago this year, at a meeting in Holborn hall. Its first leafleting took place outside Camden Town underground station, and its headquarters were always located in my constituency.
There are great privileges in being a Member of Parliament, but the greatest for me was to be able to sit with my wife and see Speaker Betty Boothroyd help Nelson Mandela down the steps in Westminster Hall for him to address both Houses of our Parliament as the democratically elected President of multiracial South Africa.
Another source of pride is the house in Guilford street where Nye Bevan lived with Jenny Lee, and where there should be a blue plaque describing him as the founder of the NHS and her as the founder of the Open university—a family double unlikely to be rivalled ever again. When it was the 50th anniversary of the NHS and I was the Health Secretary, I wanted to have Nye Bevan on the commemorative stamp, but the establishment would have none of it.
That takes me on to another MP who should be an example to us all—my predecessor, Lena Jeger. She never got ministerial office but she achieved more than most Ministers do in a lifetime. The causes that she espoused are now part of a general consensus, but they did not start that way. She was derided and made the subject of vicious personal attacks when she took up campaigning for causes that, over the years, included equal rights for women, equal pay, abortion rights, Cyprus independence and anti-apartheid, and she also campaigned against the death penalty and the dangers of smoking.
I have to say that Lena did not let those things distract her attention from the day-to-day needs of her constituents. She used to retell the tale that at her by-election in 1953 she was canvassing the top flat of a block in Camden Town. She launched into the great left-wing issue of the day—German rearmament and the threat it posed to international security. She stopped for breath, and the woman at the door asked, “Did you come up in the lift?”, and Lena says, “Yes.” “Stinks of pee, doesn’t it?”, says the woman. “Yes,” says Lena. “Can’t you stop ’em peeing in our lift?”, says the woman. “I don’t think I can,” says Lena. “Well,” says the woman, “if you can’t stop ’em peeing in our lift, how can you expect me to believe you can stop the Germans rearming?” A timeless lesson for us all.
The population of Holborn and St. Pancras is the product of centuries of migration. People from all over Britain have moved into our area for centuries and still do, just as I did. Black slaves who had jumped ship congregated in Covent Garden. They were followed by Irish people. Refugees from revolutionary France crowded into Somers Town. Jews fleeing oppression in eastern Europe were followed by others escaping from Hitler’s Germany. Italians came to Holborn and Clerkenwell in the 19th and 20th centuries. Waves of Irish came to Camden Town and Kentish Town, followed by Greeks and Turks from Cyprus and people from the Caribbean. In more recent times, large numbers of Bangladeshis have settled in the area, and the most recent arrivals are refugees from the war-torn Horn of Africa.
Over the decades, many of those groups have displayed a remarkable degree of self-help, none more so than the Hopscotch Asian women’s centre—once mocked from the platform at a Tory conference, until it was embarrassingly revealed by yours truly that the centre had a large annual grant from the then Tory Government and had Princess Anne as its patron.
The word “multicultural” is inadequate to describe the area and the people I represent, but by and large we manage to rub along together, even in the face of the bomb outrages of 7 July at the underground at Russell square and the bus on Tavistock square. The response of the emergency services, the staff of London underground and local people was quite magnificent. The murderous outrages and the response to them left me both deeply saddened and very proud.
As you know, Mr. Speaker, it is not my job to go through the measures announced in the Queen’s Speech, but I would welcome any Bill to clamp down on bankers’ pay. Some say that we must not be too hard on the bankers. I agree—it is impossible to be too hard on the bankers. Their industry only exists today because of taxpayers’ bail-outs or taxpayers’ guarantees—or both—and that should give taxpayers a permanent say in what happens from now on.
Finally, this has been a bad year for the House of Commons, but I remain proud to be a Member. There is no greater honour in politics than to be an elected representative of the people. Sometimes I am asked what is the best thing that has happened to me in my political life. I always say, “Being elected to represent the people who live in Holborn and St. Pancras, to try to further their interests, meet their needs and reflect their concerns.” When I say that, I mean it. Being an MP is a demanding and difficult task. It is impossible to please everyone. It is hard work. It can be fun, but at other times it is dreary. It can be rewarding, but more often it is frustrating.
It is more than 30 years since I gave up a much better-paid job to stand proudly as the Labour candidate for the area I live in. The people of Holborn and St. Pancras have elected me to represent them in seven successive Parliaments and I am hoping they will do the same for an eighth. We must all always remember who sent us here and why they sent us here. They want us all to tell the truth, to say what we will do and then do what we say. If we stick to that, we cannot go wrong.
It is an honour and a privilege, not only for me but for my constituents in Islington, South and Finsbury, to be asked to second the Loyal Address. I was also delighted to hear that I was to be doing a double act with my good friend and western neighbour, my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Frank Dobson).
It is very strange to be a Back Bencher and to speak in this Chamber when it is so packed—and when everyone is so well behaved. I am used to being in this Chamber when there are only about half a dozen of us present, and even then, things can get pretty heated. I was fully expecting a parliamentary punch-up when I advocated the rights of lesbian mothers, but I was amazed at the passion I aroused during the fisheries debate. All I said was that the sea belonged to the children of the inner cities, too. I had been visiting Islington schools to talk about the Marine and Coastal Access Bill and some children had written to me about it, so I took some of their work into the Chamber. I took, for example, a new version of the Pink Floyd hit “Another Brick in the Wall”, which went like this—do not worry, Mr. Speaker, I am not going sing; I know that, even under the new modernising regime, I am not allowed. It went:
“We don’t need no grilled fish fingers,
We don’t need no cod ‘n’ chips,
No pointless murder of the dolphins,
Dredgers leave them fish alone.
Hey! Dredgers! Leave them fish alone.
All in all they’re not just another fish in the sea.
All in all they’re not just another fish in the sea.”
For some reason, it was not a universal hit with the salty old sea dogs in the fisheries debate, but I do not believe that we can complain about kids not engaging in politics if we do not make the effort to listen to them.
I recently asked a group of 10-year-olds how they thought I got my job. “Did you apply for it in writing?” No. “Did you go on a course?” No. “I know, miss, I know—did you marry Tony Blair?” No, that arrangement really would not have suited either of us. However, it was for a school visit to Parliament that I cycled in early on the morning of 7/7, unknowing as I did so that I cycled through Russell square just after the first bomb exploded and just before the second. I had only been elected a few weeks previously, and I will never forget that day. In the next few weeks, I worked closely with my right hon. Friend and leant on him heavily, as I did on my good and hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn); I shall always be grateful to them for their help. We visited the sites of the bombings and did our best to hold our communities together—and they did hold together, because in Islington and Camden, our diverse peoples not only get on with living together, but they like it that way.
Islington is home to people from all over the world and from all backgrounds. We are not just cappuccino bars and Georgian squares, awash with the chattering classes and the birthplace of new Labour; we are more than that. At my recent surgery, people from 17 countries came along. We have a large gay population and gay weddings are held at the town hall every Saturday. We are a tolerant community. We tolerate the bankers living among us; we tolerate the journalists living among us; and my constituents even put up with the large number of the biggest social pariahs of all: Members of Parliament. Believe it or not, there was a time when four Labour women MPs lived in my ward, and famously, for a few hours in 1997, the new Prime Minister lived there too.
Of course, it is not just MPs on the Labour side of the House who live there. I see a number of Opposition Members looking slightly uncomfortable at the turn my speech has taken, but they can be assured: I am discreet and I will not out them as members of my constituency. However, I say to them, “The next time you are invited to a coffee morning, please come—you’re very welcome and you can be assured that the coffee will be fair trade.”
Alongside those from a range of backgrounds, we have extremes of rich and poor. My constituency is the poorer half of the eighth most deprived borough in Britain. That is why areas such as mine need a Labour Government on their side. All the social housing has been done up under the decent homes programme; all my secondary schools are new or have been rebuilt; we have new buildings for the best sixth-form centre in London; and we have world-class hospitals—several of them—looking after my constituents.
The assumptions made about Islington, South are only part of its story, and sometimes the assumptions made about its MP are only part of her story, too. They say that I am posh, and to a certain extent, I am. I worked for 20 years as a barrister, I am married to another barrister and, of course, I am an MP. Quentin Letts says that I am “magnificently county” and has even called me “scrumptious”, but I was pleased to be Lettsed, because you have not really made it as a Labour woman MP if you have not had Quentin Letts be really rude about you in the Daily Mail.
It could be said that I am county, but it is true only insofar as the large council estate on which I was brought up was 4 miles outside Guildford. Having been thrown out of our house by the bailiffs in their bowler hats, we were homeless and destitute, and we were saved by social housing. My mum was a single parent who was caught in a poverty trap. She struggled on benefits, bringing up my brothers and me when we were little. It still would have been hard, but without doubt, the minimum wage, tax credits, nursery provision and flexible hours would have really helped my mum get out of the trap that she was in. Of all the things that Labour has done, that is what I am most proud of.
Later in life, my mum became a Labour councillor—one of the few in Guildford—and the Tory council kindly named a road in her ward after her: Thornberry way. It runs from the sewage works to the dump, but we were chuffed. The two secondary schools I went to have both had fresh starts as academies. The first—a secondary modern—never really expected a lot of us 11-plus failures. I remember asking my careers teacher what he thought I would do with my life. He said that he was not really sure, but perhaps I would spend some time visiting people in prison. Whatever he meant, I am sure that he did not expect that I would become a criminal barrister and do an awful lot of prison visiting that way. I qualified as a barrister during the miners’ strike, and I found myself going up and down on the train to the coalfields. I represented good men and women who were criminalised by the strike. I read a lot about solidarity as an earnest young radical, but it was my experience of the miners’ strike that taught me what solidarity really means.
My early life informed my politics, and I have always been driven by a desire to make life fairer. The only party I could ever have joined was Labour, so here I am—posh or not—proud to serve my community as a Back-Bench MP of a Labour Government. The MPs who represented Islington, South and Finsbury before me have been as remarkable and varied as the constituency itself. Finsbury elected the first Asian MP 117 years ago: Dadabhai Naoroji, who was elected with a majority of just five. In Parliament, MPs found “Naoroji” too difficult to pronounce, so they called him “Mr. Narrow Majority”. I think I have a bit of an affinity with him, and although he was a Liberal, I forgive him, because the Labour party had not been invented then. More recently, Chris Smith was the first openly gay MP—he was our MP—who later became a Cabinet Minister: the first out Cabinet Minister in the world.
Although I am the constituency’s first woman MP, there is an eastern corner of my patch where that is nothing new. In the 1920s and ’30s, Islington, East elected three women in a row. They liked their women representatives so much that the third one—Thelma Cazalet—was even a Tory. I do not think that she was a real Tory, however, because she was a member of the Fabian Society and, during the war, she successfully amended a clause of Butler’s Education Bill, so that women teachers could be given equal pay. Churchill was so furious that he got rid of the whole clause, so the House can see that she was not really a Tory. In fact, these days, she would probably be on our side, being attacked by Quentin Letts as one of Harriet’s harpies.
I like to think that Thelma Cazalet and Dadabhai Naoroji would have voted with us to tackle bankers’ bonuses, to look after our elderly, with social care for the most vulnerable, and to right international wrongs, compensating British citizens injured in terror attacks overseas, and banning cluster munitions. These are bold and optimistic plans in the Queen’s Speech, and I welcome them. Above all, however, we must safeguard our world from climate change, yes, with support for new ways of tackling the problem such as carbon capture and storage, but the most serious work in the next six months that the Government can do will not be in Parliament but in Copenhagen. It will be a challenge to broker a deal—and we may not get what we hope for immediately—but our children will never forgive us if we do not fight for it. I am sure that the whole House will wish the Prime Minister a successful outcome to the summit this December. We must face these challenges with courage and optimism, and we will do so. I commend the Gracious Speech to the House.
Let me start by congratulating the mover and seconder of the Loyal Address. It is traditional for the mover of the Loyal Address to be serious, wise and loyal. At any one time, we can always count on the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Frank Dobson) to be at least two of those three. I think that today, he was all three and, into the bargain, extremely amusing. I was always told that his jokes were the sort of thing that could never be told until long after the watershed, but today he proved us wrong. I particularly enjoyed his reference to the former Member of Parliament, Bellingham, whose ancestor sits on the Conservative Benches—[Hon. Members: “Ancestor?”] Sorry. When it comes to assassinating sitting Prime Ministers, he had a much better aim than the current Foreign Secretary.
The right hon. Gentleman demonstrated a passion for politics and a love of his constituency. He was once briefly tempted to give up representing that one part of London, and instead to try to represent all of it. We all know what happened next. It was a two-horse race and the right hon. Gentleman came third. I gather that once Ken Livingstone announced that he was to become a candidate, it was a very tense time for new Labour. I have done my research about what happened. Apparently, there was a desperate search for
“a glamorous figure who could stop ‘Red’ Ken”.
They approached Joanna Lumley. She turned them down, so naturally the next choice was the right hon. Gentleman And so it was that Labour went from absolutely fabulous to absolutely disastrous.
To give the right hon. Gentleman credit—I thought his speech today was great—he has never let anyone change his image. Labour spin doctors tried to get him to shave off his beard, and with characteristic modesty he said, “If it was good enough for Abraham Lincoln, it is good enough for me.” He may not have given us the Gettysburg address this afternoon, but I thought it was pretty good stuff.
The hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) also did an excellent job. The Schools Secretary, even in the friendly bit of her speech, had to chunter all the way through. It is a good example which, I am sure, will be in his educational guarantees.
The hon. Lady, seconding the address, showed her passion for the issues that really matter to her in politics. I have done my research, and she has always had a keen sense of timing. As she indicated, she saw Tony Blair heading to Islington and she moved into the same street. Just as Tony Blair’s star was fading, she switched to the Prime Minister. More recently, I thought I had started to notice something different. I saw her in New Palace Yard, cycling to work. More than that, I gather that she has been to the Arctic circle and taken a sledge ride with huskies. The move to Notting Hill can only be months away, though given what she said, I know that I will be extremely pushed to get her to second the Loyal Address next year.
However, the hon. Lady needs to brush up on her geography. I did my homework and I found this on a BBC website: she spent the day campaigning in the Norwich, North by-election, rushed on to the television and said how much she had enjoyed canvassing in Ipswich.
Both the proposer and the seconder of the Loyal Address rightly mentioned the 7/7 atrocities. They paid tribute to the emergency services, and we should all pay tribute to the incredible resilience that their constituents showed. We should never forget what happened. The politics of the hon. Lady’s constituency is, I understand, a vicious dogfight between Labour and the Liberal Democrats. I understand that she was so fed up with what many of us have had to put up with—the inaccurate leaflets, the false claims, the bitter attacks—that she took legal action, forced them to apologise and received a four-figure sum in compensation. For that result—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I was about to say that for that result she would have the support of hon. Members on both sides of the House.
The hon. Lady will need some of that steel as she defends that wafer-thin majority, given that her appearance at a recent climate change concert may not have been wise. It was a very good idea to go; it might not have been such a good idea to sing. I thought she was about to sing again this afternoon. The choice of song at the concert was John Denver’s—this is at a climate change concert—“Leaving on a Jet Plane”. It gets slightly worse, as the opening lyrics of the song are, “All my bags are packed I’m ready to go”. But whatever happens, we all wish her well following her great speech today.
I take the opportunity to welcome to the House the new hon. Member for Glasgow, North-East (William Bain) and to congratulate him on his election success. I remember asking the wizards in Conservative central office what our prospects were in Glasgow, North-East. They consulted one of those Experian databases and found that the sum total of people in Glasgow, North-East who share the Conservative outlook was 97, so I was rather pleased that we got 1,000 votes. I expect that we will see the hon. Gentleman back in the House after the next election. I am sure there are many things that we will disagree about, but one thing on which I hope we will always agree is that we should never do anything to break up our United Kingdom.
Before turning to the Queen’s Speech, let me turn to two international matters: Afghanistan and Copenhagen. Last weekend, we had two further reminders of the sacrifices that our armed forces are making on our behalf, and we will all want to pay tribute to Rifleman Andrew Fentiman, from 7th Battalion the Rifles. He was a member of the Territorial Army who volunteered to serve in Afghanistan. We should also pay tribute to Corporal Loren Marlton-Thomas, from 33 Engineer Regiment. They both died serving our country; we should honour their memory; we should look after their families; we should never forget what they have done for all of us.
We not only support our forces in Afghanistan but we support the reason why they are in Afghanistan, and that is to help deliver security and to stop Afghanistan from once again becoming a haven for terrorists. But we must be clear about the future and about the different options that we face. One option, favoured by some, is an immediate withdrawal. I do not believe that that would be in our interests. The Taliban would take a large part of the country; there would be a danger of new terror training camps; it would imperil Pakistan, which is, after all, a nuclear power; and, it would be incredibly damaging to NATO and to our vital alliance with the United States.
The second option, the status quo, is also unacceptable. We cannot go on as we are, taking ground, sometimes at great cost, only to relinquish it later to the Taliban. Over a year ago, the Prime Minister told us how our troops had heroically delivered a generator to the Kajaki dam, but 15 months later that generator is still not working and, frankly, that dam is almost as dangerous as ever. So, more of the same—two steps forward, one and a half steps back—is just not tenable. We cannot carry on doing for the next eight years what we have been doing for the last eight years. Is not the right option, as General McChrystal recommends, a military surge to protect the populated areas and increase the rate at which we train up the Afghans, that is combined, vitally, with a proper political strategy?
That political strategy must place a much greater emphasis on dealings with provincial and district leaders, and involve a much tougher approach to President Karzai. The strategy must be accompanied by the appointment of a strong international figure to help drive it forward, and it should be combined, in our view, with the establishment of a permanent group of Afghanistan’s regional neighbours. Last week, the Prime Minister said that he expected an announcement from Washington within the next few days. That was immediately corrected by the White House. I hope that the Prime Minister will tell us when he now expects that announcement to be made, and that he is fully involved in all the consultations.
On the vital matter of climate change, we desperately want the Government to succeed at Copenhagen. I believe that the Prime Minister is right to go personally to Copenhagen, and I hope that other world leaders will do the same. Does he agree that what is required is not a partial accord or a political declaration, but a full agreement with immediate, practical effect?
Let me turn to the Gracious Speech. There were some good things in it, such as home school contracts and transparency over pay, not least because they were proposed from these Benches. The Gracious Speech even says that the Government will “respond to proposals” on high-speed rail. I was glad to see that, because they were our proposals in the first place. What is most striking about the speech, however, is what is missing from it.
The Prime Minister has just made a great long speech about immigration, but where is the immigration Bill in the Queen’s Speech? Last year, he promised regulatory budgets to relieve the burdens on business. He told us that they
“could transform the culture of Whitehall”.
Well, where are they?
The highlight of last year’s programme, once again taken directly from the Conservatives, was directly elected police representatives, whom the Prime Minister promised us would
“give local people more control”. —[Official Report, 14 May 2008; Vol. 475, c. 1388.]
Where have they gone? They are not in the Queen’s Speech. What about the three letters that should be in any Queen’s Speech: NHS? Not a mention. It is clear that the national health service is not this Government’s priority.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give a cast-iron guarantee, like his shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury on Sky News today, that anyone suspected by their GP of suffering from cancer will be seen by a specialist within two weeks?
Everyone wants people to be seen by specialists within two weeks. Everyone wants to see hospital treatments happen quickly. We support the NHS constitution—indeed, it was suggested from these Benches. Basically, the Prime Minister is trying to legislate on a whole series of ideas, saying that virtue is good and then daring his opponents to vote against them. Well, we are not falling for that one. So his election campaign has just collapsed—perhaps we could now get on with the election. If this dividing line is so important, why is it not in the Queen’s Speech? There is no mention of the NHS, and no mention of this vital dividing line. This Prime Minister is so incompetent that he failed to put his own dividing line into his own Queen’s Speech.
Then there is the biggest omission of all, and frankly it will infuriate the British people whom we are here to represent. The Prime Minister said—hon. Members will remember this—that the whole reason for delaying the election, the whole reason he could not go to the country in the summer, was that he wanted to clean up the mess of MPs’ expenses. Yet there is no mention of expenses or the Kelly report in the Queen’s Speech. To implement Kelly—to clean up expenses—11 separate measures still need to be passed into law. So where is the legislation? Where are the laws that we were promised? Why are they not in the Queen’s Speech?
Let me make this offer to the Prime Minister: if he brings forward legislation to implement the rest of Kelly we will support it and help him to pass it through this House and the House of Lords. I will give way to the Prime Minister so that he can stand up and say that he will bring forward this legislation and together we can take it through Parliament. Will he do it? No. No one watching will understand why this vital work is not being done in this Parliament. Why do we not show them that we meant what we said? Instead of the measures in the Queen’s Speech—most of which will not become law by the next election—the expenses changes, the Kelly changes, could become law by the next election.
Let me give the Prime Minister another chance, now that he has finished consulting the Leader of the House. Let him stand up now and tell us that together we can pass the laws to implement Kelly in full. He tells us that he is serious about cleaning up politics, but when it comes to the crunch—absolutely nothing. What is the point of this Government? What else has the Prime Minister got to do? This is the shortest Queen’s Speech since 1997. They have run out of money, they have run out of time, they have run out of ideas, and we have just seen from the Prime Minister that they have run out of courage as well.
The background to this speech is that we face the most difficult circumstances for our country for a generation. More than anything else, there is an economic crisis, with the longest recession since the war and the worst public finances in living memory. The budget deficit—[Interruption.]
Order. I apologise for interrupting the right hon. Gentleman, but there is far too much chuntering from a sedentary position taking place on the Government Back Benches and, I am sorry to say, on the Front Benches. The Leader of the Opposition must be heard.
The Children’s Secretary is incapable of sitting quietly in class. It is something that he expects in every class across the country, but he cannot even stick to his own rules.
All that the Prime Minister says about the deficit in the Queen’s Speech is that he is going to legislate to halve it, but there is not a single new measure to make that happen, so how is it going to work?
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can tell me how this is going to work and whether he supports specific measures to cut the deficit.
The right hon. Gentleman has said that he is against big government. Could he give an indication, in terms of Government spending as a proportion of gross domestic product, of what he thinks the right size of government should be in, say, five years’ time?
We face a catastrophic situation at the moment where we are borrowing 14 per cent. of our GDP and our GDP is still shrinking. What is required is some political leadership—not setting some meaningless target as the Prime Minister is doing, but actually saying what the tough decisions are that we are going to take. The contrast between our side and his side is this: on the question of public sector pay, we have said what we would do, and on the question of pensions, we have said what we would do, but this Government, who have the biggest budget deficit in our peacetime history, have absolutely nothing to say, and he should be ashamed of that.
Does the right hon. Gentleman think that it is a tough decision to give a huge tax giveaway to multi-millionaires by cutting inheritance tax? Is that what he means by a tough decision?
If cutting inheritance tax is such a bad idea, why have this Government done it last year and this year?
As the economist who actually served the Bank of England says on the front page of the Financial Times today, the Prime Minister’s plan to halve the deficit simply by passing a law is a complete “con”. To address this issue directly would have been in the best traditions of the Prime Minister’s party. In the past, Labour Prime Ministers such as Callaghan and Labour Chancellors such as Jenkins did in the end try to do the right thing, not the popular thing. They actually started to try to mend the country’s finances after the irresponsible spending spree of a Labour Government. Why will this Prime Minister not do the right thing? Why will he not think about the national interest?
Will the right hon. Gentleman, if he gets the opportunity, keep the promise to increase the number of battalions, and if so, how will he fund that?
We are in no doubt that there are enormous amounts of waste across the Ministry of Defence, which is now bigger, in terms of manpower, than many parts of the armed services. I must tell the hon. Lady that we have made the tough choices on public sector pay, on pensions and on benefits.
What we have in Britain today is an Opposition behaving like a Government, and a Government behaving like an irresponsible Opposition. One Cabinet Minister this week said it himself: he boasted that this was intended to be the most political Queen’s Speech of the past 12 years. This lot are actually proud of the fact that, instead of trying to govern in the national interest or pass laws to improve the lot of the country, all they are trying to do is embarrass the Conservative party. What a pathetic way to run a Government.
The great irony is that the Government are not even very good at these dividing lines. Remember what happened to the last dividing line—the one we had in the summer? Week after week, they boasted about Labour investment versus Tory 10 per cent. cuts. Then we saw their leaked Treasury documents. What did they have plans for? Ten per cent. cuts! Only this Prime Minister could draw a dividing line and find himself on the wrong side of it.
This Queen’s Speech is a time to judge this Government not only on the past 12 years, but on the past two and a half years that this Prime Minister has been in charge, and there can be only one conclusion: this Government have been a monumental failure. Every promise he has made has turned to dust. He promised full employment, but in fact unemployment is half a million higher than when he became Chancellor. He promised to make Britain the great global success story of this century, but our economy has just been overtaken by Italy. He promised 3 million new homes—that was his big boast when he became leader—but house building in England today is at its lowest level since 1947. Think back to those big promises he made on the steps of Downing street—that his Government would be a Government of all the talents; that he would always be prudent on the economy; and that his moral compass would guide him in everything he did. Each of those claims has been completely discredited.
Let us take the Government of all the talents, to which the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras referred. Where are they now? No longer tethered to the Government, they have wandered off. Where is Lord Carter now, the digital guru? He is a management consultant. Lord Malloch-Brown—the great UN expert—is now an adviser to Global Redesign. Then there is Lord Digby Jones. He is now back in business, but at least he is still making speeches. I have, for the sake of greater accuracy, obtained a copy of his latest effort. This is what the Minister that the Prime Minister appointed has to say:
“today we have a tired, stale Government…It’s a big, big six months ahead…a General Election…cannot come too quickly.”
Looking back on his period in government, he had this to say:
“The trouble with Socialism”,
he said, having seen it work from the inside, is that pretty soon
“you run out of spending other people’s money.”
I could not have put it better myself.
Darzi, Carter, Vadera, Malloch-Brown and Digby Jones are all gone. The only jobs that this Prime Minister has created are for his cronies, all of whom have repaid his generosity by leaving his Government at the first opportunity while, of course, keeping their well-upholstered seats in the House of Lords. Never has so much ermine been wasted; never have so many stoats died in vain. Never mind jobs for the boys: under this Prime Minister, it is stoats for the GOATs.
The Prime Minister’s main promise on the steps of Downing street—indeed, his whole qualification for the job—was his economic stewardship, but everything he has told us has turned out to be wrong. He promised an end to boom and bust, but in fact he has delivered the longest and deepest bust since records began.
Ah. Let us see if this one is ready for some ermine.
This Government are committed to halving the deficit over the next four years. If the right hon. Gentleman has a plan to cut the deficit faster, could he tell us when it will happen and by how much?
Let us be clear about the aim of halving the deficit. Next year the deficit is forecast to be 14 per cent. When Denis Healey was Chancellor and Britain nearly went bust, it was 7 per cent. So under this Prime Minister’s magnificent plan to halve the deficit, we will be back to where we were—virtually bankrupt—last time Labour wrecked our economy.
As for who has a plan to cut the deficit, I am sorry to have to repeat myself, but who has made the tough choices on pensions, on public sector pay and on benefits? It is the Opposition who are behaving like a Government—not the Government, who are behaving like an Opposition. The Prime Minister said that we would lead the world out of recession. Do we all remember that one? In fact, the rest of the world—the US, France, Germany and the eurozone—are all out of recession and we are still in it.
The Prime Minister’s specialism is meant to be financial services, regulation and the future of banking, but we have had the biggest bank bail-out in the world; the biggest bank run in Europe; and, proportionate to the size of our economy, more support pumped into the banking system by taxpayers than any other major economy. And after all that, the verdict from the Governor of the Bank of England is that there has been little real reform. What was supposed to be this Prime Minister’s greatest strength has turned out to be his greatest weakness. The financial services Bill in the Queen’s Speech today will not help, as it keeps the failed tripartite system in place. That system needs to go and, under a Conservative Government, it will.
What about the great moral compass we were promised? In the last three years, we have had slogans taken directly from the British National party about British jobs for British workers; we have had the Prime Minister’s personally appointed Downing street spokesman smearing members of the Opposition; and, with the abolition of the 10p tax band, we have had a Labour Government hitting the lowest earners in our country. I have to say to Labour Members that if they thought that the abolition of the 10p tax was bad, they just need to wait for the small print of the Government’s new care service. The Government are planning to scrap the benefits on which millions of elderly people rely—attendance allowance and disability living allowance. We will fight that every step of the way.
The last two years have not only been a moral failure for the Prime Minister. They have been a monumental failure for our country. If we are to ensure that that failure is never repeated, we need to understand the reasons behind it. There is the Labour belief that the answer to every problem is more big government and more spending. We have seen the welfare budget rise, but the poorest in our country have got poorer and there are more of them. We have seen the budget for affordable housing quadruple, but the number of new social homes built in Britain has been cut in half. The next failure is the belief under this Government that Whitehall always knows best, so we have had nearly 50 criminal justice Acts and more than 3,000 new offences, but violent crime is up by nearly 70 per cent. We have seen nearly £1 billion spent on truancy initiatives, but the number of children skipping school is up by 45 per cent.
The greatest failure of all can be traced directly back to this Prime Minister—political calculation dressed up as a moral conviction. When we look behind the curtain of the great, clunking machine of this Government, all we see is someone frantically pulling levers and pushing buttons—not in an effort to improve the country, but in a desperate attempt to relaunch his failing political career and somehow get one over on his opponents.
Instead of some half-baked Queen’s Speech and a delayed general election, we need an immediate election and a real Queen’s Speech. A real Queen’s Speech would acknowledge just how broke this country is and have a proper plan to reduce the deficit. We are not just talking about the deficit: we are setting out what should be done about it. Yes, we will take out the waste—the bureaucracy, the ID cards and all the Labour nonsense—but we have made the tough choices too. A real Queen’s Speech would acknowledge the tragedy of unemployment, with one in five young people not getting a job, and introduce a proper welfare reform, involving the private and voluntary sectors and paying them by results. A real Queen’s Speech would not tinker with the education system, but would break open the state monopoly, allowing new schools to be set up and giving parents more choice. A real Queen’s Speech would mean real reform of our NHS to ensure real choice for patients and real transparency, with health outcomes published online so that doctors are accountable to their patients.
Instead, we have a Queen’s Speech that is just a Labour press release on palace parchment. The Prime Minister is not legislating on the measures that the country needs: he is desperately trying a few tricks to save his own skin. When the country is crying out for change, are we really going to be subjected to six more months of endless relaunches, bogus legislation and these fake dividing lines that he keeps going on about? The simple fact that even this country cannot ignore is that some time in the next six months the Prime Minister is going to have to stop dithering, leave the bunker, go to the palace and finally request what we have been demanding for the last three years: a dissolution and a general election. Instead of wasting the country’s time and inflicting further damage, why does he not just get on with it?
Let me start this speech by paying tribute, as the Leader of the Opposition did, to the two members of our armed forces who have died in Afghanistan in the course of the last week: from 7th battalion, Rifleman Andrew Fentiman, who was on attachment to 3rd Battalion The Rifles; and from 33 Engineer Regiment, Corporal Loren Marlton-Thomas. In our thoughts and in our prayers, we will remember their brave service to our country. Let me speak for all of us who will contribute to the Queen’s Speech debates in the coming days by paying tribute to the outstanding and selfless contribution and the courage of all those who serve in our armed forces, particularly those who serve in Afghanistan. They fight on foreign soil so that we will be safer on British streets. Let us pay tribute also to the families who sustain them, and the communities who support them. Their missions and their sacrifices for our country will not be forgotten.
Let me reiterate our determination to deal with the terrorist threat to our country. Let me explain to the House how the conditions that we have set for the next stage of our work in Afghanistan, in which Afghans will take more control of their affairs, are being met. Let me also explain that, while our strategy is exactly the same—to defeat al-Qaeda and to ensure that the Taliban cannot return to power in Afghanistan—the approach that we are taking after the McChrystal report and after the pressure that we have exerted in the last 18 months for change means that that pressure is being brought to bear in an effective way.
Yesterday, I spoke to President Karzai. He and his Defence Minister have agreed to provide 5,000 Afghan troops, who will be trained in Helmand. They will partner the British forces and be mentored by them. This will allow Afghan forces to hold ground, so as to free our forces for other tasks. Secondly, I have insisted on burden sharing. I am approaching eight NATO and coalition partners to ask them to contribute to the increase in the NATO and coalition forces. Yesterday, Slovakia was the first of the countries to announce that it would double the number of its troops serving in Afghanistan, and I expect further announcements from other countries in the next few days. I expect that there will be fairer burden sharing in the next stage of our efforts.
I have also pressed the Karzai Government, and two days ago, they announced an anti-corruption taskforce. In the next few days, we will have the inauguration of President Karzai, and I am determined that that Government should prove, by their actions at the centre, that they are tackling corruption. I am also determined that our Afghanisation strategy should mean, first, that there are Afghan troops on the ground in Helmand, and that there is an Afghan police force that is free of corruption and trained up to do the job. Secondly, I am determined that we can transfer control to the Afghans, district by district, so that they can take responsibility for their own affairs. In that way, over time, we will allow our troops to be able to come home.
Our strategy on Afghanistan is the same as will be announced by President Obama in the next few days, and I am determined that it should be a coalition-wide strategy that everyone supports.
I am very grateful to the Prime Minister for giving way. On Iraq, he will know that the Government refused to give out the number of Iraqi civilian casualties who died in that war. Will he be prepared to give out the number of Iraqi civilian casualties who have died in this war?
If my hon. Friend’s question is about Afghanistan, the action that we are taking—and the action proposed in the McChrystal report—is designed to minimise the number of civilian casualties in Afghanistan. Our strategy is not counter-terrorism; it is counter-insurgency. It is to win the support of the Afghan people and then to ensure that the Afghan people can run their own affairs. This is not an occupying army; this is an army that is determined that the Afghan people can run their own affairs. I believe that that is the right strategy for the future, and I am grateful that there is all-party support for it. We will move it forward with announcements in the next few days.
We are just 20 days away from the UN climate conference in Copenhagen, and I want to respond to the Leader of the Opposition on that matter as well. I hope that the whole House will support me in calling on countries round the world to act with vision and resolve to achieve an ambitious, comprehensive and binding climate agreement.
The two issues that have to be dealt with are, first, that countries announce intermediate targets that they are prepared to follow and, secondly, so that we can have those intermediate targets announced by the developing countries and cut carbon emissions, we need to have a climate change finance deal similar to the one that we have proposed, which we will continue to push.
Let me turn now to the speeches of the proposer and the seconder of the loyal address. The seconder, my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), enjoyed many years as a human rights lawyer working to achieve greater justice, equality and human rights. As a legislator, a campaigner and a charity fund raiser, she has carried into this House her commitment to supporting families, children and people.
What is less well known is that when my hon. Friend was 10 years old, she was a member of the girls church choir. There was a boys choir in a rival church in the same parish and Emily was outraged to learn that the boys got paid twice as much as the girls, so when the Equal Pay Act 1970 came in, a very young future Member of Parliament wrote to the rector of her church to demand that there be equal wages for girls and boys. Unfortunately, the complaint not only fell on the deaf ears of the rector, who did not bother to reply to her letter, but the next day he took the assembly at her school and his theme was “the sin of greed”. Redress follows in the equality Bill that we are now bringing to the House of Commons.
In 2007, as the Leader of the Opposition mentioned, my hon. Friend joined a cross-party group of MPs raising thousands of pounds for charity. She did trek across the Arctic, slept in reindeer herder huts, subsisted on the fish she had caught, and she froze as a result. On that trip, she was pulled along, of course, by a pack of huskies, but history does not tell us whether they were the same huskies which, in that same year, had a close encounter with the Leader of the Opposition, and the passing cameraman.
I should also highlight the valuable role my hon. Friend has played as vice-chair of the all-party cycling group, which she mentioned in her speech. She does much work to make cycling easier and safer. I am pleased that so many Opposition Members are fellow members of the group, but she does assure me that when she travels to Westminster by bike, she does not add to, but cuts pollution—there is no car travelling behind her.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Frank Dobson) is such a strong and respected campaigner against apartheid that he is respected—many people will not know this—as one of the people who in 1964 stood in protest outside the South African embassy when Nelson Mandela was imprisoned, and he was there again in 1990, celebrating the day on which Nelson Mandela was released. My right hon. Friend has been a consistent campaigner on behalf of the anti-apartheid movement, who makes us very proud indeed of what he has achieved over these many years.
When my right hon. Friend first became Secretary of State for Health, plans were already advanced to stage the Buckingham palace garden party to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the NHS, as he mentioned. Having heard his speech this afternoon, I know that he has such famous constituents that we could be forgiven for thinking that he would have invited them to Buckingham palace to celebrate that event, but the new Secretary of State for Health caused huge offence by insisting on holding a ballot of all the million NHS staff to decide who should attend. As a result, hundreds of NHS porters, cleaners, ancillary staff, nurses and technicians found themselves with the Queen at the garden party, and there for the first time. Some colleagues warned the Secretary of State for Health that the palace might frown on such an idea; what they did not know was that the Secretary of State had cleared the idea in advance with Her Majesty, who also supported it.
As a lifelong friend of the NHS, including my right hon. Friend’s successful period as Health Secretary, he was once invited to Great Ormond Street hospital in his constituency to be Father Christmas—and not to put too fine a point on it, who better for the part? When my right hon. Friend walked in to greet the children and hand out the gifts, one child burst into tears. The staff had to comfort her and when they asked what the matter was, she pointed at Santa and declared, “That’s not Santa—he’s got a false beard.”
Coming from a Yorkshire railway village, my right hon. Friend was the first from his primary school to pass the 11-plus exam before a council grant enabled him to go on to the London School of Economics. I believe that my right hon. Friend’s whole life as an MP and a Minister has been driven by a determination to give the same opportunities that he was able to enjoy in education and health to other people in his constituency. We are very proud of what he does.
I know that both proposer and seconder are passionately committed to building on the national health service’s successes by creating the new personal rights and guarantees that we have promised. We have invested heavily in cancer services, in the right to see a specialist within two weeks and the right to diagnosis within one week. We would like to have the all-party support that was not forthcoming this afternoon in the response of the Leader of the Opposition.
I heard a speech made by the Leader of the Opposition a few days ago, on exactly the same day as his withdrawal from his iron-cast—[Laughter]—his cast-iron commitment on Europe. What did he say about the national health service on that day? He spoke to the Royal College of Pathologists—and this must make people very worried—of
“a cast-iron determination to… improve the NHS”.
People should worry indeed when they hear that being said.
There is to be a social care bill that will ease the anxieties of thousands of elderly people and give new rights to them. There is to be the first-ever digital economy Bill, the first-ever legislation to abolish child poverty, and a second historic climate change and energy Bill. For pupils, there is to be the first guarantee of catch-up tuition. Parents will also be made responsible for the antisocial behaviour of their children. There is to be an equality Bill, and legislation banning cluster bombs. There is to be a draft Bill to put the 0.7 per cent. development target in legislation for all time. There is to be action on bank bonuses. There are to be regulations so that agency workers are never again denied the rights that other workers have.
When we propose these measures, we are speaking up not in the party interest but in the national interest. We are responding to new national needs relating to social care, climate change, economic restructuring and high levels of education. We are standing up for Britain. I say that the one party that had the policies enabling it to make the right decisions to deal with the recession is the one party that has the policies that can build a long-term recovery.
The Leader of the Opposition has promised to support some of these Bills. Let me thank him for that, but let me also tell him that promises from the Conservative party—guarantees from the Conservative party, particularly cast-iron guarantees—are not what they used to be.
There were, of course, some good measures in the Queen’s Speech, but there was not a single word about housing. May I ask the Prime Minister why, after 10 years during which wages have risen by a third and house prices by 150 per cent., and when the number of people waiting for social housing is higher than it has been in any decade since the 1940s, there was nothing to show the sort of the commitment that people would have expected from a Labour Government to deal with the massive housing crisis that is being experienced in every constituency in Britain?
That is because we announced in July new measures to put £1.2 billion into social housing and building new houses. We gave local authorities power to build houses again, and at the same time we said that we would build new social housing for people in this country to rent. I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that in first 10 years we modernised 2 million houses, repairing and refurbishing them for the new generation. Now we have to build new houses, and we have committed ourselves to doing so. That is in the statement that was made in July to move the housing programme forward.
The Prime Minister is proposing a Bill to cut public spending by between 6 and 7 per cent. of GDP over, I believe, a four-year period. What are the main ways in which he would recommend that we do that?
The first thing that we have done is raise the top rate of tax. I have not heard the Opposition parties say that they would support us in that course. Perhaps the Leader of the Opposition will indicate that he will support us. We have taken action to remove the tax reliefs for pensions. We have taken action to raise national insurance by half a per cent. from next year. We have taken the action that is necessary to cut the deficit in half over the next few years. I do not think that we have heard similar announcements from the Leader of the Opposition.
I want to talk about the economy, and about—
Will the Prime Minister give way?
I am grateful to the Prime Minister. Would he say with the benefit of hindsight, given the world recession, that there was too much intervention and too much regulation, particularly in the financial services sector, and that government was too big, or would he say that there was too little regulation and too little intervention in that sector?
For 12 years the Conservative party asked us to deregulate. It asked us to have less regulation. It opposed the Financial Services Authority. It wanted us to deregulate, but I believe that the answer we must take from the crisis of the last few years is that we need to have global supervision of our financial institutions, and that is what I want to talk about today.
Last year, we were prepared to take unprecedented action to support our banking system. We nationalised Northern Rock, and we took action to buy shares in RBS and Lloyds TSB. We also took action to underpin the whole banking system with emergency legislation that was repeated throughout the world. Let us be clear: the banking sector is vital to the future of our country, helping supply the money that is needed for homes, businesses, investments and protecting savings, but the banks and financial institutions must understand that a return to their old ways is impossible. Our financial services Bill, which we will publish in the next few days, will ensure that the salaries and bonuses paid to bankers are now consistent with the effective management of risk and the rules set out by the Financial Stability Board internationally, and are fair to the general public of the United Kingdom. Our Bill will automatically make any remuneration contract that contravenes the rules void and nullified.
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman’s question is about the European Union, although I rather suspect that it is so, but his argument is not with me; it is with the Leader of the Opposition.
My argument is emphatically with the Prime Minister, because he is responsible for this policy. How does he think he will improve the financial regulation of the City and also improve the economy of this country and maintain GDP by handing over the whole arrangement to majority voting and ensuring that the ultimate decisions are taken by countries such as France and Germany, which do not have our interests at heart?
You see, Mr. Speaker, they are back to the old ways. The Conservative party cannot stop arguing about Europe; and far from the Leader of the Opposition being able to hold his party together, it is rent asunder by the very issue of European union. [Interruption.] The financial services—[Interruption.] Mr. Speaker, this is the Leader of the Opposition who gave a cast-iron commitment to hold a referendum and then tore it up one day, much to the chagrin of the hon. Gentleman.
The financial services Bill—[Interruption.] Opposition Members do not like hearing about what we have got to do. The financial services Bill will allow us, for the first time, to require companies to publish the remuneration of their most senior executives. It will give us the powers to reform the running and the boards of banks, not least where there have been potential conflicts of interest. In the last few weeks, we have removed £300 billion-worth of potential liabilities on the Government, and let me state that when the pre-Budget report comes in December, we expect there will be a reduction in the debt that we have to write off because of the banks. As I have said before, when the crisis is over, it will not be the public who have paid money to the banks; it will be the banks repaying money to the public of this country. I will continue to argue for globally co-ordinated financial action. Whether through an insurance premium, contingent capital, resolution funds or a global financial levy, there has to be a new contract of trust between the banks and the society they serve, and I hope that all Opposition parties will support the need for that action at a global level.
We are the Government who were the first to act on restructuring our banks. We are the Government who took action on Northern Rock, who recognised we had a problem of capitalisation and liquidity, who delivered a fiscal stimulus, and who delivered help to the unemployed, and we are the Government who worked with Europe to tackle recession. Not one of these measures was supported by the official Opposition party. I hope that it will support us this time when we move further to improve our economy, because this Queen’s Speech is also about removing the fear of unemployment for thousands of workers and their families, about creating thousands of new employment opportunities for young people now and into the future, and about securing our future by building stronger manufacturing and service industries for the long term. So, to those of us on the Labour Benches, in this low-inflation environment it is right to say that, as a nation, we will go for growth. We will maintain the fiscal stimulus until the economy is strong enough to withdraw it, and for that we have the support of every country in Europe and every major economy of the world.
We will also do more to equip ourselves for the future. The legislation we announce today will create new jobs so that Britain can have high levels of employment in the years to come. The energy Bill promotes clean coal, offers financial support for carbon capture and storage projects and makes Britain a vital leader in this new technology. We believe that, over time, the measures in this Bill could create between 30,000 and 60,000 jobs. We expect that over the next five or six years the number of people employed in the low-carbon and environmental goods and services sector could rise to more than 1 million people, and as a result of the digital economy Bill, skilled jobs will flow from investment in world-leading digital infrastructure.This will advance the delivery of a new super-fast broadband network reaching every home, as well as take tough action against those who abuse copyright online.
Does the Prime Minister believe that it is acceptable to take money from the BBC’s licence fee to pay for some of these Government policies or does he share my view that doing so would undermine the independence from Government of the BBC?
The hon. Gentleman should understand that under the arrangement for the rise in the BBC licence fee—when it did happen—the BBC would contribute funds to maintaining and improving the digital infrastructure of the country; when the licence fee was negotiated there was an agreement that the BBC would contribute to people being online and to the digital changes that we are bringing about. We are moving from an analogue to a digital structure, the BBC agreed to contribute to that and it is right, in my view, that the BBC should make that contribution as a result of the agreement that was made. From investing in a digital Britain, a third of a million jobs will be generated over the next few years.
The energy Bill and the digital Bill build on what we are doing to equip Britain for the long-term future. The planning legislation, the new national plans for energy, for nuclear and for ports, the decisions on airports, the start of construction for Crossrail, decisions on rail electrification, investments in science, the new fund for innovation, and our support for low-carbon technologies, allied to our active membership of the European Union, are all long-term decisions in Britain’s interests, are all long-term investments that we, as a country, need to make, and are all long-term investments that cannot be left to the vagaries of the free market alone, but have to be made by a partnership of Governments taking an active and strategic role in preparing our future.
In what vehicle does the Prime Minister propose to introduce a guarantee for under-25s who are long-term unemployed—in other words, those who have been unemployed for 12 months or more?
I was coming to that, so I hope that the hon. Gentleman would just listen to me. The dominant issue is, as he says, jobs; it is helping people be secure in their jobs and it is finding jobs for young people who are unemployed. We must not only act for the future, as we are doing with the digital and energy Bills, but we must do more to act now. In the last quarter, employment has risen. Even during this downturn there are 2 million more people in work than in 1997. There are more than 400,000 job vacancies in the country, 300,000 men and women are leaving the unemployment register every month and more than half of claimants find work within three months. If the experience of the 1990s recession had been repeated, employment would have fallen by 1.7 million more than it has. No one can justify leaving young people out of work, in poverty and without hope for the future, as happened in the 1980s under the Conservatives. Today, in answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question and to others, I want to make four new guarantees designed to ensure that at no point are young people deprived, for any length of time, of the opportunity to work or train or prepare for work.
First, our September guarantee for young people provided funding for 55,000 extra places for young people this September. Today, I can announce that we will offer, for the first time, a January guarantee for young people. So, from January next year—[Interruption.] I know that the Opposition do not like hearing about measures to deal with unemployment, but they should remember that they were the party that created the highest level of unemployment our country has had since the war and we are the party that is acting to bring unemployment down. Today, I can announce that we will offer for the first time a January guarantee: from January, all 16 and 17-year-olds who are not in employment, education or training—who are without a place—will be guaranteed a place in learning. Together, these steps will mean that overall, since last summer, an extra 100,000 young people will have benefited.
Secondly, earlier this year the Work and Pensions Secretary announced that all young people would be guaranteed a job, training or work experience—and would be required to take it—after 12 months’ unemployment. Because of the financial savings we have made from lower than expected unemployment, the Work and Pensions Secretary will announce in her employment White Paper a new guarantee that thousands of additional young people who are unemployed for less than a year will now be able to benefit from there being a guaranteed job or training. But I also want a day-one guarantee to all young people out of work, so that at no point will they be lost to the labour market and to opportunity. So, we will offer online training courses direct, and, at the start of their claim, offer the opportunity of work experience places to young people. I can also announce a graduate guarantee, so that no graduate will become long-term unemployed: all new graduates still out of work after six months will have access to a high-quality internship or to training, or help to become self-employed. For that, I am grateful for the partnership that we announced recently with the Federation of Small Businesses. Together, those four new measures, and those introduced over the past 12 months, will constitute the most comprehensive and effective programme in our country’s history for preventing higher unemployment, and we are determined to see it through.
Will the Prime Minister explain to small businesses in my constituency on the verge of ceasing to trade because of the vast hikes in business rates why, for small businesses in his constituency, rates have either been scrapped completely or severely reduced?
We have helped 200,000 businesses, including many in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, with their cash-flow problems during this recession. That has helped 200,000 businesses, been worth about £4 billion and enabled businesses to keep going. I believe that if he talks to the Federation of Small Businesses and other business organisations, such as the CBI and the Institute of Directors, he will find that they support that. As far as other measures are concerned, he will have to wait until the pre-Budget report, which the Chancellor will bring forward.
We have invested £5 billion in employment support so that young people and adults can get back to work, but the Conservatives opposed it. The new deal has helped more than 2 million people into work, but the Conservatives opposed that too. Our September school-leavers’ guarantee is helping more than 1.5 million 16 to 18-year-olds, but the Conservatives would refuse to give such a guarantee. We have also made available 10,000 additional student places. We have taken such measures so that thousands more will not be unemployed. However, every major policy that we have announced to support young people and the unemployed has been rejected by the Conservative party. Its policy is not a guarantee, but a gamble for people facing the future without the help that they should have.
The Conservative party says that it has moved to the centre, and that it is about helping the poor and supporting public services, but every measure that it announces is simply a repeat of the failed policies of the 1980s and 1990s. Where does the money go in the Conservative economic programme? What is its flagship policy? I have here the Conservative party’s economic policy produced for its annual conference, and it confirms what I did not think possible during a recession—[Interruption.]
Order. I say to the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan), the Opposition deputy Chief Whip, that after 17 years in the House, he knows that he has to set an example to others. He has a responsibility to behave with some dignity, and he ought to start now.
I was explaining that even during these difficult economic times, even after questions about the Conservative party’s priorities and even after the Leader of the Opposition’s speech last week in which he said that the gap between the rich and poor was too great, that inequality was a problem that had to be dealt with and that differences in wealth contribute to our social problems, he has decided to maintain its commitment to give £200,000 to the richest 3,000 people in our country through an inheritance tax cut.
I have looked at those proposals, and the Leader of the Opposition has to face up to the gap between rich and poor and to the inequality that his proposals would create. An estate of £1 million would benefit by £120,000; an estate of £1.5 million by £320,000, and an estate of £2 million by £520,000. Is it not to say one thing and do another to promise, as the Conservative party has done, to attack the gap between rich and poor, but then to be responsible for the most regressive policy imaginable, under which 99 per cent. of the benefit would go to the richest few in our country?
The Conservative party has said that it will cut education maintenance allowance and save money by restricting Sure Start. It has refused to commit to raising child tax credits and will speedily raise the retirement age for women, but will not match our promise to people in need of care in their homes. It will freeze public sector wages and cut the school building programme. Its only definite commitment is to cut inheritance tax for the smallest number of people imaginable. In the majority of constituencies there will be nobody who benefits. The typical constituency will have only five people who will benefit. The biggest group of beneficiaries will be in one area of the country—Kensington and Chelsea, which of course includes Notting Hill.
That must be the only tax change in history where the people proposing it—the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Chancellor—will know by name almost all of the potential beneficiaries. Is this what the Conservatives mean when they say, “We’re all in this together”? Is this what they mean by the age of austerity—austerity for the many, to pay for tax cuts for the very few? I say: poverty and inequality will endure until doomsday if the Leader of the Opposition is all that will confront them.
Are the Conservatives also seriously telling us that the best way forward for the NHS is to remove a cancer guarantee that has saved the lives of hundreds of people in this country? Are they seriously telling us that the best way forward on law and order is to cut policing, through a £5 billion cut in public services this year? Are the Conservatives seriously telling us that they will have a referendum on the treaty of accession for Croatia? Are they seriously saying that they will split Europe over an attempt to repatriate the social chapter to this country? When they have a policy, it is always the wrong policy.
On the subject of Europe, will the Prime Minister tell the House how his campaign to get one of the top jobs in the European Union is going, or is it a case of “nul points”?
That intervention tells us two things. One is the absolute fixation with Europe on the part of the Conservatives. Secondly, they cannot ask questions about policy; it is all about personalities. When will they realise that when it comes to the choice in this country, it will be a choice about the policies that we pursue as a country? At no point during the Leader of the Opposition’s speech did he put forward one new policy that would benefit the country as a whole.
The Conservatives have been wrong on every issue that we have faced in economic policy this year. They have been wrong on the fiscal stimulus and wrong on what we have done on employment, and they are wrong on dealing with the recession, wrong on inheritance tax, wrong on social care and wrong on law and order. We are bringing in a legislative programme that involves substantial restructuring of the financial system and the building of a digital economy in this country. We are leading the world with an energy Bill on clean coal. We are giving guarantees for parents and patients. We have a social care Bill that will help hundreds of thousands of people. We have a Bill to protect against crime and make our communities safer. We have an equality Bill to end discrimination and make life fairer for everyone. We are banning cluster munitions. Our changes are for the many and not the few, and I commend them to the House.
I would obviously like to add my own expressions—[Interruption.]
Order. I do hope that the House will behave in a way that reflects credit on the House. May I therefore appeal to right hon. and hon. Members who are leaving the Chamber to do so quickly and quietly?
I would obviously like to add my own expressions of sympathy and condolence to the family and friends of Rifleman Andrew Ian Fentiman from 7th Battalion the Rifles and Corporal Loren Marlton-Thomas from 33 Engineer Regiment, who tragically lost their lives in Afghanistan this week. It is clear now to everyone, in all parts of the House, that we are arriving at a pivotal, make-or-break moment in the debate about our mission in Afghanistan, as announcements are made here, in Kabul by President Karzai and, most importantly of all, in Washington by President Obama. All of us will need to decide whether those announcements collectively represent the sufficient step change from a failing strategy to a strategy of success. However, throughout all that, we will never forget the professionalism, bravery and sacrifice of all those brave British servicemen and women who are serving in Afghanistan.
I should like to join others in congratulating the mover and seconder of the Loyal Address. The right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Frank Dobson) did a truly excellent job of opening the debate. He is widely admired in all parts of the House for his unbending refusal to follow fads and fashions. He is known as a determined campaigner who never gives up—so much so, I discovered this week, that his “Frank for Mayor” campaign website is still live on the internet. Throughout his long political career, he has often spoken words of wisdom; words that, it may surprise him to learn—it might even dismay him—I have often agreed with. There was the time in 1980 when he said that nuclear missiles were okay, so long as anyone who launched them was compelled to stay above ground afterwards. Then there was the time in 1988 when he argued in favour of televising the House of Commons because, as he put it beautifully, we did not have “any reputation to damage”. There was also the moment in 2003 when he memorably remarked to the Labour party that, if a “Slaughter of the First Born” Bill were issued from Downing street, there was a group of super-loyalists who would vote for it.
Speaking of super-loyalists, I thought that the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) gave a compelling speech. When she recounted some of her life experiences, it was also very moving. As it happens, I had the privilege a few years ago of travelling with her and some other hon. Members on the fund-raising charity trek north of the Arctic circle that has been referred to several times already today. I saw then, as I think that we all did, that she is a force to be reckoned with.
The hon. Lady will remember that we all tried fishing through holes in the ice, but she was the only one to catch anything—which was extraordinary, given her confession just now of an interest in marine matters, fishing and the marine Bill. I can report that, with impressive strength and a little brutality, she bludgeoned the life out of a poor fish right there on the ice. [Interruption.] She did indeed. As we stood watching with a growing sense of alarm, she turned to me and my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, Central (Jenny Willott) and said, “I enjoyed that; I pretended it was a Liberal Democrat fish.” That is true.
I turn now to the substance of the Gracious Speech. All the pageantry in the world cannot cover up the fact that this is a fantasy Queen’s Speech, from a Government who are running out of road and a Parliament that has lost the trust of the British people. It is a Queen’s Speech that will not give people the help with housing, bank lending or adult joblessness that they so desperately need in this recession and that will not fix our rotten politics. After 12 long years, in which this Government have passed nearly 500 different laws and countless thousands of statutory instruments, it is right to stop and ask the simple question, “What is this Queen’s Speech really for?”
When they are backed into a corner and unsure of what to do, this Government have always reached for their pen to start drafting yet another new law. Legislation is Labour’s comfort blanket; it makes the party feel good. Yet in these dying days of the Labour Government, when people desperately need help, the Government should legislate less and focus on getting things done. That means creating jobs—beyond the re-announcements of today—for the 2.5 million people who are unemployed. It means drawing up plans for a fair tax system, closing loopholes at the top to cut taxes for people on low and average incomes. It means getting the banks to start lending again so that businesses can survive. It means setting out a new and workable strategy in Afghanistan. Those should be the Government’s priorities, not fantasy Bills that we know will not even make it on to the statute book.
Of the Bills proposed in last year’s Queen’s Speech, just two had made it on to the statute book by May this year, and this coming year will not be any different. The legislation promised today is just a political displacement activity for real action to help people. How absurd is it to have a fiscal responsibility Bill making it law for the Government to halve the deficit over four years? It is like passing a law promising to get up early every morning—one does not pass a law for that; one just does it. Does the Prime Minister have so little faith in his own self-discipline?
Then there is the Child Poverty Bill: it sets a legal target, but it does not put a single penny in the pocket of a single struggling family. If laws could feed and clothe children, there would not be a single family in poverty in Britain after 12 years under Labour. Another law will do nothing. We need action.
Then there are the laws that are simply unnecessary, because the Government could act without them. For example, the financial services Bill is supposedly being introduced to crack down on bonuses, but everyone knows that the Financial Services Authority already has most of the powers that the Government are promising in the Bill. Real, radical action would be to take the advice of the Governor of the Bank of England and finally split up the banks to separate retail and investment banking and so protect consumers. Until that is done, the Government should impose an extra levy on the profits of the banks, so that they pay for the taxpayer guarantee by which they have been propped up and we get a return on our investment. The Bill announced today does none of that, being just more displacement activity to make it look as though the Government are sorting out the banks.
By far the most robust banking system in the western world is the Canadian one, where retail and investment banking are not split, so why are the right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) so fixated on splitting banks into retail and investment, when that is clearly not the problem—as demonstrated by the robustness of the Canadian system?
With respect, I will heed the views of the Governor of the Bank of England on the issue slightly more than I do those of the hon. Gentleman. The Governor makes a simple, compelling case, starting from first principles. Retail banking—keeping people’s deposits safe and lending prudently to businesses and households—should not be mixed up with the high-risk, over-leveraged business model of casino banking. Full stop. It is as simple as that.
We have an improving schools Bill, which is highly unlikely to improve schools. If the Government wanted to improve schools, they would take bureaucracy away from teachers, not impose more. It will be the 12th education Bill in as many years, so why do the Government imagine this one will work when none of the others does.
The policing, crime and private security Bill will yet again tweak the over-tweaked ASBO regime. Is it not time for the Government to accept that passing laws does not cut crime, but that more police officers out on the beat do?
Worst of all, some Bills in the Queen’s Speech cynically raise expectations, yet the Government know that they will deliver far less than they promise. The Bill to outlaw cluster bombs sounds great, but in fact we know that it will outlaw only some cluster bombs. There will be a Bill that—supposedly—delivers free personal care. After the Prime Minister’s media interviews this morning, tens of thousands of elderly people up and down Britain will have been led to believe that they will be properly looked after from now on, yet it will not happen. He has raised the hopes of some of the most vulnerable people in this country, when he knows perfectly well that the Bill will offer free personal care only to a fraction of the people who are struggling to pay for the help that they need.
The right hon. Gentleman did not mention the digital economy Bill. Surely, he will support the measures in that Bill to implement for the first time the recommendations of the Byron report on violent video games. He must accept that there is a need for legislation to deal with such issues—we cannot just talk about expenses all the time.
Absolutely not. Of course, I accept that we shall scrutinise the Bills in the Queen’s Speech and support or oppose them, as is the duty of a responsible Opposition party.
I return to the basic question of what the Queen’s Speech should be doing in the very little time available to this Parliament.
I am grateful to the leader of the Liberal Democrats for giving way. How big a reduction in the deficit would he recommend and what should be the balance between expenditure cuts and tax rises?
We accept that the most important thing is to be credible in any plan to fill the structural deficit. Simply passing a law saying that the Government will halve the deficit over the next four years is irrelevant if they do not spell out the difficult choices. That is why the Liberal Democrats have advocated big, difficult, bold decisions—not renewing like for like the Trident nuclear missile system, ending tax credits for above average income families and ending the child trust fund of £250 for every 18-year-old in the country. That is not because the choices are popular; they are difficult, and we need to spell them out if we are to be credible about the deficit reduction programme that is absolutely necessary.
What should Parliament be doing in these final weeks? The Queen’s Speech should have been replaced by an emergency programme of political reform. After the expenses scandal, this Parliament has destroyed its legitimacy. In the few weeks remaining to it, the one gift that this failed Parliament can give its successor is a fresh start. When we move out of a house, we clean it for the people moving in. That must be the final task of this rump Parliament.
Let me set out in a few words what real reform would look like—what the focus of the last 70 days of this Parliament should have been. We should introduce a power of recall, so that people can sack any MP found guilty of serious misconduct. All candidates at the next election should declare their financial interests, as Sir Christopher Kelly demanded. We should have real action to reform the House of Lords, not yet more delaying tactics from the draft legislation proposed in today’s Queen’s Speech. We need changes to House of Commons procedure to reduce Executive power.
We should agree a total change in party funding, so that big money and the whiff of corruption that it brings are removed from politics for good. We should introduce fixed-term Parliaments, so that voters can never again be toyed with by a Prime Minister planning an election timetable to save his or her skin. Finally, we should have real action on electoral reform, so that every citizen knows that their vote counts.
Of course those changes are a tall order, but with political will, they could transform our threadbare democratic institutions. Instead of being just a sorry footnote to a shameful year at Westminster, these months could have been a moment of important and permanent change in British political history. After today’s Queen’s Speech, however, we know that that opportunity to do the right thing has been squandered, yet again, by this Government.
First, I join the congratulations that have come from all parts of the House to the proposer and seconder of the Loyal Address. Both were entertaining, witty and powerful. I know both well and I think that they did themselves and everybody else credit.
Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for the speech made by the Leader of the Opposition. He has led the most extraordinary attack on the Queen’s Speech, writing in The Times yesterday that we
“will see a Prime Minister playing politics with the biggest constitutional event of the year.”
The right hon. Gentleman’s discovery that the Government’s legislative programme is political is truly bizarre. His stance can surely be explained only by his fear of exposing to debate his own party’s lack of clear policies, programme or philosophy. The fact is that almost all legislation is political—indeed, it should be, as it expresses the values and beliefs that underlie our society. The question is not whether the Queen’s Speech is political, but whether its politics are right.
This legislative programme comes at the end of a Parliament elected in 2005, during which enormous and in many ways unpredictable changes have occurred in our national life. Some, such as the deep challenge from climate change and the reality of an ageing population, are now understood more widely and more deeply than they were at the start of this Parliament. In this year’s Queen’s Speech, the energy Bill and the personal care at home Bill are important and welcome steps towards implementing the excellent low-carbon transition plan and the first-class “Shaping the Future of Care Together” White Paper, both published in July.
It is, however, the world financial crisis and the rocking of the foundations of confidence in the integrity of our politics that represent the most significant changes since this Parliament was elected in 2005. In the economic field, this Government, and the Prime Minister in particular, have already played a leading role in putting into place the measures necessary to address the crisis, but one of the lessons of the past few years is that banking needs more and better focused regulation, not less. That is why, although I welcome the further measures proposed in the Queen’s Speech to regulate banking, I hope that, in addition, the Government will consider including proposals that divide so-called retail and casino banking in the ways recommended by the Governor of the Bank of England and the Treasury Committee and respond more positively to the proposed European Union regulatory regime. I also hope that the Government will strengthen and encourage mutual financial institutions, including by remutualising Northern Rock.
To reinforce the right hon. Gentleman’s excellent point about Glass-Steagall, does he agree with me that the Canadian example offers no obvious illustration of how such a measure would fail, given that the Canadian banks have never been known for their investment banking activity and are, in effect, universal retail banks?
I regret not being as well informed about the intricacies of the Canadian system as I ought to be. My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) is extremely well informed about that subject and I take his judgment very seriously, but I remain of the view that the Governor of the Bank of England and the Treasury Committee are right in urging the separation of the retail and casino elements of banking over a period of time, and I hope that that will be considered in the legislation.
I have visited Canada and spoken to representatives of its central bank. The hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) is right about the type and structure of banking there, but rather than allow ourselves to be diverted into considering whether it is narrow or not, the big question that we should be asking is: is it too big to fail? The answer to that question is still outstanding—it still has to be tackled.
I very much agree with my right hon. Friend. Banking is about more than responding to the injunctions of the European Commission, particularly the European Commissioner to whom we had to respond recently on the question of breaking up banks that are too big. We have to demonstrate our own clear approach, and show that Parliament has taken steps to correct the mistakes of earlier years that have had such a serious impact. That is a duty on Parliament, and we need to get away from the “too big” bank model, which my right hon. Friend has mentioned. I think that the break-up into retail and casino banking is a better way of doing so, and the examples that I have in mind are the landesbank in Germany and Crédit Agricole in France, which are based on a particular industrial function or geographical reality. We would do better to move our banking system in that general direction.
Would that mean that a retail bank could not offer a business customer a forward currency contract?
It might well mean that. If we look at the inadequate finance regimes for many industries in this country, including agriculture, engineering and so on, we can see that we need much more dedicated provision. I can give the right hon. Gentleman the example of Barclays bank, which used to have strong relationship in Norfolk with the agricultural industry from which it emerged. That was gradually eroded by the development of new types of banking, so there is a less intimate relationship than there should be. That is the kind of thing at which we should be looking.
The second major change since 2005 is the impact of the party political funding dramas and the parliamentary expenses crisis on popular confidence in our political system. We all know that it is exceptionally serious and that it is the duty of Parliament to address it before our successors are elected. I am therefore certain that the best and most political use of the limited parliamentary time available between now and April is to do our utmost to rectify those problems. The people of this country need to know that we have put right the flaws underlying the problems that have been exposed over the past couple of years.
For those reasons, the Queen’s Speech should have included proper legislation to regulate the funding of political parties, along the lines of Hayden Phillips’s report, on which agreement was almost reached between the parties some years ago. That should finally resolve the ways in which the pay and allowances of Members of Parliament are set, rather than permitting both the instability and uncertainty that has followed unsatisfactory reports by Sir Thomas Legg and Sir Christopher Kelly, as well as an uncertain role for the new Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. Even if there were no further change in the composition of the upper House during this Parliament, we must reform the highly unsatisfactory arrangements for peers’ remuneration and allowances by the end of this Parliament. That is being considered at the moment, but Parliament has not dealt with those matters properly, and an effective approach of the kind that I have described would go a long way towards rebuilding the trust in politics that has been lost since 2005.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the Labour party has failed abysmally to reform the second Chamber, which is the largest entirely unelected second Chamber in Europe, if not the world? Rather than a draft Bill to tinker with it, if the Government really wanted to be seen as reformers, they ought to get rid of the hereditary principle and have an elected Chamber on the statute book before the election.
I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. I am in favour of an elected second Chamber, but I believe that the Labour party has made major advances in addressing that issue. The difficulty is that there is no consensus on what the change should be. There are some people who, perhaps like the hon. Gentleman and me, favour an elected second Chamber; there are some who favour a unicameral system; and there are others who favour an entirely appointed system. We have not made a change because there is no consensus, and it is not right to criticise the Labour party in that way.
We have not dealt properly with arrangements for peers’ remuneration and allowances, but we should do so. In addition, the public would appreciate knowing that the timing of a general election will not be subject to the considerations and manipulations of crude party politics. That means legislating for fixed-term parliaments, which almost all other comparable countries have. That could still be done in the final Session of this Parliament and, I suggest, could be considered on a free vote. Certainly, we on the Labour Benches have good reason to know, following the experiences of both 1978 and 2007, that for a Labour Prime Minister the ability to choose the date of the general election is not always an unalloyed blessing.
Though I believe that the measures to clean up politics should be pursued on an all-party basis, without partisanship, and that they could be, I believe that they would have a major benefit to Labour since it is Labour, as the governing party, which in my opinion has suffered most from the public’s declining confidence in the conduct of our politics, and it is our job to try and put that right in a non-partisan way.
Finally, it may be claimed that, in the short parliamentary Session ahead of us, there is no space to deal with the additional measures that I have proposed. If that case were to be made, I would suggest dropping some of the other measures proposed—in particular, those that appear to enshrine in legislation and so subject to interminable and expensive legal contention goals and targets that ought to be the normal business of government. Those seem to come from the “new Bill of Rights” or “NHS constitution” school of thought, which would benefit only lawyers’ bank balances and render government more ineffective.
It should, for example, be possible for the Chancellor of the Exchequer to subject the Secretary of State for Education to the normal fiscal disciplines, without having recourse to a fiscal responsibility Act of Parliament. Our correct and important ambitions in relation to child poverty and international development will not be strengthened by statutory requirements, nor will precise performance targets for health or education be helped by statutory underpinning. Those approaches owe less to good government than to a premature expectation of defeat in advance of the general election.
I agree that targets should not be enshrined in legislation. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that a classic case in point is the mandate from the Government to the banks to lend more? Despite all that enormous pressure, the banks still are not lending enough to small businesses. Changing the law will not change that attitude.
Changing the law can and does change things, but we need to improve the conduct of our politics and government to operate that way round, and that is the way to do it. The public justification of this approach by reference to the need to use the Queen’s Speech to highlight so-called dividing lines as we approach the general election is neither the best way to govern the country, nor the best way for Labour to win in 2010.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
No, not for a moment.
The true political purpose of the Queen’s Speech is to address the legislative challenges of the coming year from the point of view of the country, the Government, Parliament and the Labour party. Despite its many positive elements—I believe that the Queen’s Speech does contain many positive elements—it does not do that, and so it is difficult to support. We should have faced this challenge by proposing with confidence and clarity our own programme, without reference to dividing lines or any such thing, reflecting our own sense of purpose and values.
The kind of measures that I would like to have seen included to reflect that would be measures attacking poor housing conditions by licensing houses in multi-occupation, creating better sentencing alternatives to prison for some offenders, permitting more congestion charging in difficult and controversial areas, extending electoral reform or opening more community access to schools. Instead of legislating in a way that sets out a constructive ambition for the future, I fear that this Queen’s Speech shows that we are dominated by political fear of our opponents. That is not the right way for Labour to win and makes it more difficult for us to do so.
I begin by adding my tribute to those that have already been paid to our servicemen who have most recently and tragically lost their lives in Afghanistan. I also add my congratulations to those that have already been offered to the mover and seconder of the Loyal Address.
This is the 27th and last Gracious Speech that I have been privileged to listen to as a Member of this House. Over the years, I have come to realise that the Gracious Speech is often more significant for what is not in it than for what is. That is particularly true on this occasion. To look for what I had hoped to see in the Gracious Speech, I went back to my maiden speech, which I made in the House on the 29 June 1983. On that occasion, I expressed concern that the powers of this House might be emasculated over a period by a combination of the increasing encroachment of the powers of what has since become the European Union and the proposals for regional government that the Alliance parties were then advancing. My concerns over the former have certainly been justified; my concerns over the latter have not—at least, not in the form that I then feared. That is largely due to the good sense of the people of the north-east, who resoundingly rejected the Government’s proposals in the referendum that took place some years ago.
I am sure that the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s memory is very good, so he will remember that in those days we were campaigning for regional, elected government that took powers from London down to the regions, not the exact reverse, which we have now.
I am not entirely sure that that distinction would have been foremost in the minds of the people of the north-east when they came to vote so recently.
However, the intervening period has seen devolution and the creation of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition is quite right to recognise that not all those changes can or, indeed, should be reversed. I fully support, in particular, his approach to our relationship with the European Union, and I am more confident than many commentators that he will be successful in his objectives. But one of the biggest threats to the powers of this House has come from a source that I did not identify or anticipate in my maiden speech. I did not then foresee the extent to which a challenge to the powers of Parliament would emanate from the judges, and it is to that threat that I propose to devote the remainder of my remarks.
Over the past quarter of a century and, perhaps, longer, we have seen a steady shift in power from Parliament and Government to the courts. To begin with, we saw an expansion of the traditional power of the courts to review the exercise of power by the Executive. Traditionally, this power, which is a necessary safeguard to curb the illegal, arbitrary or irrational exercise of power by Government, was exercised with restraint. In particular, the courts would in the past have been very careful not to quash decisions because they disagreed on the merits of the decisions under challenge. That restraint has more recently become conspicuous by its absence. As the former Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, put it as long ago as 1995, in his address to the Administrative Law Bar Association,
“the range of circumstances in which decisions may be struck down has been extended beyond recognition.”
In that address, Lord Irvine called for judicial restraint. Indeed, he referred to what he described as the
“constitutional imperative of judicial self-restraint,”
and he gave three reasons for it. First, he referred to the constitutional imperative, whereby Parliament gives powers to various authorities, including Ministers, for good reasons and in reliance on the level of knowledge and experience that such authorities possess. Secondly, he referred to the lack of judicial expertise which, he said, made the courts ill equipped to take decisions in place of the designated authority. Thirdly, and most pertinently, he referred to what he called the democratic imperative, whereby elected public authorities derive their authority in part from their electoral mandate. He said:
“The electoral system…operates as an important safeguard against the unreasonable exercise of public powers, since elected authorities have to submit themselves, and their decision-making records, to the verdict of the electorate at regular intervals.”
That, surely, is the nub of it. Governments and Members of Parliament are answerable to their electorate, they can be dismissed and they are directly accountable. Judges are unelected, unaccountable and cannot be dismissed.
Despite our difference of view on this matter, does the right hon. and learned Gentleman accept that the flaw in his argument is that when he was born more than 90 per cent. of the country voted either Labour or Conservative, whereas nowadays only about two thirds of the country vote for his party or the Labour party, and Governments are sometimes elected with only 22 or 23 per cent. of the public supporting them? That does not give democratic authority to Governments now, in this century and in this country.
I do not accept that at all. However, there are changes that can and should be made to our electoral system to make it much fairer than it is today—not through measures of the kind advocated by the Liberal Democrats but by equalising the size of constituencies so that the value of the vote that each member of the electorate casts is much more equal.
I am listening to the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s speech with great interest, and I am sorry that there are not more right hon. and hon. Members here to hear it. May I pay sincere tribute to the courtesy that the Leader of the Opposition is showing by being in his place for this part of the debate? The right hon. and learned Gentleman criticises judges. Does he remember Michael Foot saying in the 1970s that if we left it up to the judges there would be precious few liberties in Britain? Is he becoming a secret Michael Foot in his last months in Parliament?
I am always happy to accept endorsement of my views from such a distinguished source. I, too, pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition for doing me the courtesy of being in his place at the moment.
The difficulties to which Lord Irvine referred have, of course, been exacerbated by the Human Rights Act 1998, for which he himself had direct and personal responsibility; political life is full of little ironies like that. To be fair to the judges, they cannot be blamed for this further increase in the power that they now wield—it is power that has been thrust upon them by Parliament at the behest of Lord Irvine, among others. How does this arise? In a nutshell, the Human Rights Act requires our courts to apply the European convention on human rights in every decision they make. The convention was drawn up in the aftermath of the second world war; its authors saw it as a safeguard against any revival of Nazism or any other form of totalitarian tyranny. However, the rights that it seeks to protect are framed in very wide terms. I suspect that many of its authors would turn in their grave if they were able to see the kind of cases that are being brought in reliance on it today.
The point about these rights is that none of them can be exercised in isolation. Any decision to uphold one right may well infringe someone else’s right, or it may conflict with the rights of the community at large. What has to be done, therefore, is to carry out a balancing exercise in respect of these competing rights. Perhaps the most acute manifestation of this conflict arises when it comes to questions of national security and the difficulty of striking the right balance between security and liberty. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has spoken about precisely that challenge. The challenge of getting the balance right between these fundamental considerations is one of the most serious and controversial issues that society faces in the globalised world of the 21st century.
The fundamental question is who will be ultimately responsible for striking that balance: elected Members of Parliament or unelected judges? In the cases on terrorism, Parliament twice, after much anxious consideration by both Houses, reached its view. It was not always a view with which I agreed, but it was the view of elected Members of Parliament who could be held to account for it. Yet twice the judges have held that Parliament got the balance wrong; they thought that the balance should be struck differently. In doing so, let it be said that they were not deliberately seeking to challenge the supremacy of Parliament, but simply doing what Parliament had asked them to do. The question is this: should Parliament have asked them to do it? That is a serious question. It will be apparent from what I have said thus far that I believe that the answer is in the negative. I entirely appreciate that others may take a different view, but what I find particularly disappointing is their failure to engage with this crucial argument.
The latest example of that failure is to be seen in the recent speech of the Director of Public Prosecutions. After listing the rights set out in the convention, he said:
“The idea that these human rights should somehow stop in the English Channel is odd and, frankly, impossible to defend.”
Of course I agree with that statement—I would not dream of defending the ridiculous proposition that he has articulated in order to destroy it. However, to suggest that that is the issue of concern to those of us who are opposed to the Act is nothing short of infantilising the argument. What those on the other side of the argument from me need to do is justify the transfer of decision making on the balancing of competing rights from elected politicians to unelected judges, but the DPP made no attempt to address that central issue.
In arguing for the repeal of the 1998 Act, is the right hon. and learned Gentleman also arguing that individuals in this country should have no right of appeal to the European Court in Strasbourg?
No—I am not arguing that at all, and I will come to that point toward the end of my remarks.
In that same speech, the DPP welcomed the establishment of the Supreme Court, which he said
“presents at least the possibility that we may see a move in time towards perhaps a constitutional court with which other jurisdictions are not only familiar but comfortable.”
The reference to “other jurisdictions” is particularly interesting. I wonder how “comfortable” the DPP and others who take a similar view would be with some of the features that are present in those jurisdictions, and particularly how comfortable they would be with features that have evolved precisely to introduce an element of accountability into institutions that are not composed of elected representatives. Would they, for example, be “comfortable” with parliamentary scrutiny of the political backgrounds of candidates for judicial office? I suspect that they would not. Indeed, I would not regard with any enthusiasm the introduction of the kind of hearings that take place in the United States Senate to confirm or otherwise the appointment of senior judges, but if the current trend for judges to take what are in effect political decisions continues, people will become increasingly interested in their political backgrounds.
My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has indicated his intention to deal with some of these issues if, as I devoutly hope, he is in a position to form a Government after the election. He proposes to replace the 1998 Act with a home-grown Bill of Rights, which I hope will relieve our courts of the duty to carry out the kind of balancing exercise to which I have referred. Such a balancing exercise is better left, in my opinion, to elected Governments.
I am listening to the right hon. and learned Gentleman with great interest and I am very sympathetic to many of his points. Obviously, like him, I have had to deal with many of those issues. However, quite genuinely, I do not understand the difference between a Bill of Rights of the type he is now advocating and the European convention on human rights and, subsequently, the 1998 Act. What different things would be in the two types of measure?
The essential, critical difference—I am speaking entirely for myself and am not privy to the work that has been done on the Bill of Rights that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition intends to introduce—would be to remove from our courts the need to carry out the kind of balancing exercise between competing rights that has been thrust upon them by the 1998 Act. That would be the criterion by which I suggest those proposals should be judged. That is a new element—it was not there before 1998—and has been deliberately put upon the courts by that Act.
Would the rights that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is proposing be in the European convention and outside some kind of UK Bill of Rights, or is it the other way around? He is proposing not different rights, but different regimes. Would that mean withdrawing from the European convention at the same time as having a UK Bill of Rights?
My next remarks will deal with our relationship with the European convention.
I hope that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition renews the efforts made by the last Conservative Government to persuade the European Court of Human Rights to increase what it calls the “margin of appreciation”. That is the extent to which the Court respects the right of institutions in the member states to decide these matters for themselves. If the Court came to see itself as more of a backstop to prevent the infringement of fundamental human rights and freedoms, it would command greater respect. In particular, it should be less prone to intervening in those decisions that reflect the striking of the difficult balance between competing rights and freedoms.
The matters on which I have touched this afternoon do not often hit the headlines. But they are, in my view, fundamental to the rights and freedoms of the people we represent in this House and to our ability to defend them. I believe that that ability has been seriously weakened in the 26 years for which I have had the privilege of serving here, and I hope that the next Government will be able to do something to redress the balance.
It is a privilege to speak in the Queen’s Speech debate, and I welcome the Government’s proposed Bills, especially on financial services and financial stability.
Like others, I wish to associate myself with the remarks made from the Front Benches about our troops in Afghanistan and elsewhere. I also commend my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Frank Dobson), who has an office just along the corridor from mine. As they say in my community, he never leaves you with a broken heart—he always has a quip or funny remark—and today he cheered up the whole House. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) gave a clear analysis of where she comes from, her focus on social justice and why she is here. I commend her on her speech.
The issues that arise from the Queen’s Speech are political issues, and the big issue is the role of Government. The divisions between the Government and the official Opposition are now clearer than ever. From my vantage point over the past few years, I have seen that state action on the economy is working, and we are still all relying on it. There is widespread agreement among economists and international institutions that the fiscal measures have helped to save us from the abyss. Without them, we could have faced not just a recession but a depression. Lord Skidelsky, the eminent economic historian and biographer of Keynes, wrote in September that during the great depression
“the world economy contracted for 12 quarters in a row. Now it looks as if the contraction will be limited to four quarters. The difference is…this time”—
“pumped money into the economy.”
The Leader of the Opposition said in his speech at the Conservative party conference that the economic and financial crisis was caused by the fact that “government got too big”. But there is an international consensus that the crisis was caused by the fact that regulation of the financial industry, among others, was not adequate. No regulator in the world dealt with it adequately. When some of our biggest banks have come close to extinction, almost bringing our economy down with them, because they were poorly run, it makes no sense to say that government needs to be smaller. Indeed, the crisis has come about because government was too small in that area. We saw Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”, but we did not see Adam Smith’s “visible hand”.
What did the regulators get wrong during the banking crisis? After all, they were new regulators, established by this Government with extra regulation. Why did that fail?
I can point the right hon. Gentleman precisely to the Treasury Committee report on the run on Northern Rock. It was the lack of prudential regulation by the regulator. The regulator agreed, and indeed, its self-examination came to the same conclusion. Prudential regulation is very important—
I see that the right hon. Gentleman agrees with me.
The regulator on that occasion was the Financial Services Authority. The Gracious Speech proposes to give yet more powers to the FSA. Is not that a reward for failure?
No, I do not think so. The regulator realised just how moribund it was in that situation. Lord Adair Turner acknowledged that in his report in March. The chief executive of the Financial Services Authority, Hector Sants, has also acknowledged it. I would like to see those powers being used by the FSA. However, the right hon. and learned Gentleman has made a point that was not covered in his speech, about closer co-operation between the Bank of England and the Financial Services Authority. If we want to ensure that we get through this economic crisis, we should not go for wholesale institutional change. Rather, we should bring the two institutions closer together. I well remember when the Governor of the Bank came before the Committee and I asked him who was in charge. He asked me to define what I meant. That is the issue.
Was not the real problem the fact that both the main parties bought into the myth of light-touch regulation? Indeed, the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) was still making speeches about the need for more light-touch regulation long after it ceased to be fashionable.
Perhaps I will leave it to my hon. Friend eloquently to make the partisan case, while I focus on the rest of my speech.
The Queen’s Speech has highlighted another sharp difference between the Government and the Opposition: the Government are committed to spending money on those who need it most. This crisis has a social dimension, and we have to be alert to that. It is the most vulnerable groups in society who could lose out as a result of it. I welcome the Government’s investment in protecting people’s jobs and in ensuring that there is work or training for the 1.2 million young people who will leave education this year and next. When the general election comes, issues such as the role of the state will play quite a part.
Today, however, I want to focus on lending. A large part of the correspondence that I have received over the past year has focused on that matter. When the Governor of the Bank of England came before the Committee almost a year ago, he told us that lending was the biggest issue facing the economy, and it still is. According to Bank of England statistics, UK banks are still contracting their lending. This is particularly difficult for small businesses, which rely on the banks. The newest member of the Monetary Policy Committee, Adam Posen, recently said:
“I am concerned because the financial system in the UK does not seem to have a spare tyre for the provision of capital to non-financial businesses when the banking system has popped a leak.”
He added that there must be channels for non-financial companies, particularly SMEs—small and medium-sized enterprises—to get capital. Without that, there would be little scope for a private sector recovery. Without a return to lending, the recovery will be inhibited. Here, again, there is a need for the state to intervene. The Government—indeed, Governments globally—are the only show in town. Without Government intervention, to whom would we resort for that lending? Forty per cent. of the lending in the UK, which used to be provided by overseas banks, has now disappeared.
I have called on the Government to establish a public sector bank—for example, via the Post Office—which would be able to lend to creditworthy businesses and individuals when the private sector was unable or unwilling to do so. I welcome the Prime Minister’s initiative on banking via the Post Office, but there is still a need for direct lending to individuals and businesses by the state. In that respect, I have an ally in Jim O’Neill of Goldman Sachs, who has made the very same point. There is a need for this provision, because good SMEs could go out of business as a result of the crisis, and we cannot afford that to happen.
Turning to remuneration and City bonuses, I welcome the Government’s commitment to reforming the bonus culture. However, the issue at the heart of this matter is not just the bonuses but the incentive structures in the City. It is the incentive structures that we have to get right, because we have seen the situation being skewed by short-term rewards, while the long-term interests of companies have been neglected.
When the Governor of the Bank of England came before our Committee, he told us that the remuneration structures in the City of London encouraged people, in his words, “to gamble”. He said:
“It was a form of compensation which rewarded gamblers if they won the gamble but there was no loss if you lost it. It is obvious that if you do that you will give incentives to people to gamble.”
This is not about the politics of envy, but about the implications for financial stability of bonus payments that reward excessive risk taking. It is also about how much money should flow to employees when the financial system is effectively supported by public funding and owners have lost money.
Capital has to be rebuilt. Some try to deny that bonuses played any role, but Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel prize-winning economist, argued that bonuses played a major role in encouraging reckless behaviour. Even bankers such as John Varley of Barclays and Andy Hornby of HBOS, when they came before the Treasury Committee, said that bonuses had been a contributory factor to the crisis.
This is why there is a strong case for granting the Financial Services Authority new powers and legal rights to “tear up” up employment contracts for bankers if the terms of those contracts encourage excessive risk taking or include multi-year guarantees. Such a power would be no more stringent than, for example, the power of the courts to declare a contract unenforceable if it breaks the rules, or indeed the Competition Commission’s power forcibly to split up monopolies.
What we are witnessing at the moment is the possibility of a return to business as usual in the banking sector. We must prevent that return to business as usual. At the moment, policy makers worldwide are busy proposing reforms to make the financial system more resilient. The banking sector today has largely accepted, although not welcomed, the idea that change is coming and the regulatory environment will become tougher. Yet we are already seeing banks challenging that state of affairs.
One message that I have for the banking community—I have been in the City and spoken about this—is that the banks must put their heads above the parapet and discuss the issues now. Whether it be in television or radio programmes or other media appearances, we do not see many chief executives. They are hiding, and the danger that arises from that is that we will end up with inappropriate legislation as a result. If we want to change the system, we must have a vigorous debate in which those chief executives become involved. We have already heard some comments. For example, at an FSA seminar last week, Joseph Ackermann of Deutsche bank was saying, “Don’t interfere. Keep the banks as they are.” That is a danger. What I would say to chief executives and the banking community is that they should not just put money into public relations and promote their image; they should get on the same platform as the rest of us and debate that issue.
I am sympathetic to the right hon. Gentleman’s case for the importance of bonuses in leading to potentially excessive risk taking, but I wonder whether he thinks it necessary to go as far as having new legislation, because the Financial Services Authority already has the power to increase capital requirements for financial institutions that, in its view, are taking extra risks. It could define that risk as including bonuses paid in the way that the right hon. Gentleman describes.
I take the hon. Gentleman’s point, but one of my recollections of the Northern Rock inquiry was the stand-off position that the FSA adopted regarding individual businesses; I mentioned that earlier in connection with the lack of regulation. The FSA thought that business models were not its priority, but I think that they should be, so we need a cultural change. I believe that we will therefore need extra powers.
The hon. Gentleman’s question reminds me of the issue of insider trading. The FSA has been talking to me, and I have been talking to the Government, about the need to examine insider trading. We need to ensure that we have appropriate legislation; at the moment we do not have it. The more pressure we can put on the Government to ensure that the FSA has the powers to deal with insider trading, the better. I believe that in the future, given the cathartic experience we have had, regulation will be a competitive issue for environments in the future. If London develops a good regulatory framework, that will help it to maintain its position.
As for the issue of narrow banking, we must solve the problem of “too big to fail”. If we do not, the status quo will continue. When he appeared before the Committee, the Governor of the Bank of England preferred to use the phrase “too important to fail”. The problem, as he has noted, is this:
“Anyone who proposed giving government guarantees to retail depositors and other creditors, and then suggested that such funding could be used to finance highly risky and speculative activities, would be thought rather unworldly. But that is where we now are.”
Like the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable), I see no reason for us to have a system that socialises the risks but privatises the profits. If a solution is not found, we will have to admit that we have not a free market in financial services, but a system of what could be described as communism for the rich, in which the state underwrites the enterprises and the bonuses of a select group of bankers. Of course we want the market to work—but in that case, the problem of “too big to fail” must be addressed. That is one of the issues on which the Treasury Committee will continue to focus.
Let me say something about mutualisation. One sad aspect of the financial crisis is that all the former building societies that demutualised in the 1980s and 1990s have disappeared. Perhaps there is a case for us to go back to the future. Mutuals have been shown consistently to give better service and better value for money to their customers than banks, and they consistently score higher in terms of customer satisfaction. I have prodded the Chancellor on this issue. He has said that he does not rule out the remutualisation of Northern Rock, but I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) that this is an issue that the Government should take on board.
A big issue arising from the crisis, prompted by the response of the European Commission, is the issue of competition. We need more competition in the banking service. Adam Posen of the Monetary Policy Committee made the same point in his speech. If we do not have that competition—if we are dominated by five or six banks—we will have a monolithic structure. Another big issue is the idea of macro-prudential tools. What that rather fancy term means is anticipating the problems to a certain extent. Can we take risk out of the system? Absolutely not. Can we have a fire brigade that goes to the fire and puts it out before the whole building is on fire, which is what we have experienced? There has been great debate about who does what with the macro-prudential tools, but not about what the tools are. The Committee wants to impress that on the Government.
Public debt is another issue that we must consider as we move forward. I welcome the proposed legislation on fiscal responsibility, but I believe that we must not focus on spending cuts to the exclusion of the social dimension. Accompanying the banking crisis is understandable public anger about the current situation. When we go back to our constituencies and say that we have bailed out the banks, our constituents say, “But we need a new school,” or, “We need more police on the streets,” or, ”We need better buildings and better education.” That is what they think of the recapitalisation of the banks. We need to understand that, and to have a strategy to deal with it, but as yet the Government have no strategy.
If we proceed too quickly with spending cuts, the social costs will be extremely high. I was reminded of that yesterday evening when I went to a seminar involving City of London business people. The view was expressed from the platform that spending cuts, if taken too far, would plunge us backwards. Getting the public finances in order is important, but it has dangers if it is taken too quickly. We ignore the social costs of cutting spending at our peril.
There is a big job for the Government: the job of balancing the budget with a fiscal deficit strategy that is both transparent and realistic. That is the examination that the Treasury Committee is undertaking. At the same time, however, we must ensure that we stimulate growth and keep good companies going through this recession, and that we maintain prosperity and opportunities for our constituents and, not least, the young citizens of our country.
It is a privilege to follow the right hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (John McFall). I commend him on his loyalty in supporting the Government’s programme, but I must tell him that these measures will not achieve their main purpose: they will not put clear blue or even clear red water between the Government and the Opposition in polling terms. I have seen this before, in 1996, when we had a proper Queen’s Speech of real measures that were good for this country. No doubt an element of it was also designed to expose the differences between us and the then Labour Opposition. What happened was that the Labour Opposition voted for most of it, and the public yawned and got on with the decision they had already reached, which was that it was time for a change. I therefore say this to the Prime Minister: by all means hang on and wait for “events dear boy, events,” but it is naive and foolish to think that there are some bits of legislation that will suddenly make the public change their verdict on this Government.
I accept the thrust of the right hon. Gentleman’s argument, but can he therefore explain the following result in a by-election for a council seat a couple of weeks ago, when real British citizens were voting? The by-election took place in south Yorkshire and 2,500 people voted. The result was as follows: 1,500 for Labour, 600 for the British National party, 300 for the Barnsley Independent Group, 92 for the UK Independence party and 88 for the Conservative party. Surely the Conservatives should be doing a little better at this stage than winning the support of merely 88 out of 2,500 British citizens who cast their vote.
In answer to that, I say to the right hon. Gentleman that perhaps he should look at the generality of election results around the country. He need cast his mind back no further than the county elections of last May, or the elections of 18 months ago, perhaps.
I can understand why Labour Members are clutching at straws. I did a lot of whistling in the dark when I sat on the Government Benches in 1997. It did not work then, and I say to Labour Members that it will not work now—and it certainly will not work by passing legislation to enable the Government to halve the deficit in order to prevent themselves from undertaking more financial profligacy. The public will see through that.
It was a privilege to hear the speech of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard). I would hope that in a new Parliament that may not be tarnished with the same brush as this Parliament—unfair though that tarnishing is—Members will, with restored public integrity, have the ability and courage to begin to wrest back to this House powers that currently lie elsewhere. Some of my hon. Friends may think that some of those powers lie in Europe—I also subscribe to that point of view—but over the years I have observed the increasing amount of judicial review, which takes powers away from this House. That is one of the greatest threats that this Parliament faces.
I, too, however, will not waste more time on the legislative programme. Instead, I want to talk about climate change, which was referred to in the Gracious Speech—and also, briefly, by both Front-Bench spokesmen—since what this Government do on that in international negotiations during the last few months of their life will be infinitely more important than their legislative programme.
There is still some argument about the extent, nature and pace of climate change. I accept that climate change is happening, but no one knows the exact rate of that change. However, there is a massive change taking place in the world that is the prime contributor to climate change, and we can measure that to the hectare: day by day and week by week of the year, we burn 32,000 hectares of rain forest—9 million hectares every year, which is the size of England.
Why should that matter? If climate change matters—and it does—the only way to stop it is by stopping deforestation. Saving the rain forest, and other forests, is the key. Forests are critical to regulating climate. Any real solution to climate change requires not only a reduction in fossil-fuel use, but protection of ecosystems like forests, which are critical to regulating carbon. The Amazon rain forest has been described as the “lungs” of our planet, because it provides the essential world service of continuously recycling carbon dioxide into oxygen. More than 20 per cent. of the world’s oxygen is produced in the Amazon rain forest, which also releases 20 billion tonnes of moisture every day, much of it watering crops tens of thousands of miles away.
Let us look at this another way round. I understand that the main thing we have to do to tackle climate change is to reduce carbon emissions, but the burning of the rain forest accounts for almost 20 per cent. of all such emissions in the world—that is far more than is accounted for by all the cars, lorries, buses, planes and ships in the world put together. Of course we in the western world have to do our bit to reduce transport carbon emissions, but if we do not halt the total destruction of our rain forests, we could close down all the transport in the world and we would still, eventually, die. Some say that the rain forests are very large and can easily take the loss of an area the size of England every year, but at the present rate of destruction, they will be totally destroyed in 40 years’ time. In just 20 years’ time, there will be only half of them left and they may then be too small to act as the lungs of the world to give us the oxygen we need.
There is an infinitely greater reason for saving the rain forest than merely reducing carbon emissions, important though that is—the reason being that the rain forests are the “medicine cabinet” of the world, to steal another phrase from the Prince’s Rainforests Project. As rain forest species disappear, so, too, do many possible cures for life-threatening diseases. Currently, 121 prescription drugs sold worldwide are derived from plant sources and 25 per cent. of western pharmaceuticals are derived from rain forest ingredients, but less than 1 per cent. of tropical trees and plants have been tested by scientists. So we have tested 1 per cent. and we are burning the other 99 per cent., yet we are getting 25 per cent. of our drugs from that 1 per cent.—that is a dangerous pyramid.
Why have scientists spent millions tracing every star back to the beginning of time but have not got a clue as to how many species we have on this earth or what unique life-saving properties they may have? Let us briefly consider the following facts: a single pond in Brazil can sustain a greater variety of fish than is found in all the rivers of Europe put together; a 25-acre area of rain forest in Borneo may contain more than 700 species of trees—that figure is equal to the total tree diversity of north America; a single rain forest reserve in Peru is home to more species of birds than are found in the entire United States; and the number of species of fish in the Amazon exceeds the number found in the entire Atlantic Ocean. I repeat my question: how can we in the west be so stupid as to destroy a habitat permanently when we have not looked at 99 per cent. of the species in it?
Some scientists estimate that we are losing more than 130 different species of plants and animals every single day because of rain forest deforestation—we just do not know, yet we are carrying on. Estimates of the total number of world species vary from 2 million to 100 million—the best estimate being that there are about 10 million different species of living things, which range from nematode worms, slugs, molluscs, plant life and fungi to trees, birds and the cuddly animals about which we worry. Only 1.4 million of the species in the world are named, and we do know the terrifying rate of loss of those species. The latest update by the International Union for Conservation of Nature was published on 3 November, just as we were about to prorogue. Its red list of threatened species showed that 17,291 species out of the 47,677 that it has assessed are threatened with extinction; some of those species are close to complete and permanent extinction. Its results reveal that 21 per cent. of all known mammals, 30 per cent. of all known amphibians, 12 per cent. of all known birds, 28 per cent. of reptiles, 37 per cent. of fresh water fishes, 70 per cent. of plants and 35 per cent. of invertebrates assessed so far are under threat. Hundreds have become extinct already. With enormous effort and tremendous will on the part of all Governments in the world, we can eventually reverse climate change, but we can never bring back to life a species that has been wiped out.
Biodiversity is not just about saving the red squirrels, polar bears, orang-utans, lemurs and tigers, as vital and close to my heart as some of those are. Of far greater importance to the planet are the plants and bugs that we never see and which are not cuddly. Most Members have recently become very concerned about the plight of the bee population, not just in Britain, but in Europe and north America. That tiny insect, which we have taken for granted for millennia, holds the key to huge quantities of our food production. That is just one insect that we know about and which we have studied. We kind of know its place in the jigsaw of the survival of humankind, but why, therefore, do we carry on destroying without checking hundreds of other species whose role we have not studied and do not understand, but which might be equally crucial?
The United States National Cancer Institute has identified 3,000 plants that are active against cancer cells, 70 per cent. of which are found in the rain forests, and as I said, 25 per cent. of the active ingredients in today’s cancer-fighting drugs come from organisms found only in the rain forests. We are destroying the only source of those drugs.
On a less important level, at least 80 per cent. of the developed world’s diet originated in the tropical rain forests. Their bountiful gifts to the world include: fruits such as avocados, coconuts, figs, oranges, lemons, grapefruits, bananas, guavas, pineapples, mangoes and tomatoes; vegetables, including corn, potatoes, rice, squash and yams; and spices on which we depend, such as black pepper, cayenne, chocolate, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, sugar cane—I shall not read out a lexicon—coffee, vanilla and Brazil nuts. At least 3,000 different fruits are found in the rain forests, of which we, in the west, eat about 200 at the most. The Indians of the rain forest use more than 2,000.
The magnitude of the loss to the world was most poignantly described by Harvard’s two-times Pulitzer prize-winning biologist, Edward O. Wilson. In 1993, he said:
“The worst thing that can happen during the 1980s is not energy depletion, economic collapse, limited nuclear war, or conquest by a totalitarian government. As terrible as these catastrophes would be for us, they can be repaired within a few generations. The one process ongoing in the 1980s that will take millions of years to correct is the loss of genetic and species diversity by the destruction of natural habitats. This is the folly that our descendents are least likely to forgive us.”
He said that about 15 years ago, when rain forest destruction was in its infancy—it is 10-times worse today. However, like other scientists, and his Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, he has a solution: to make the forests more alive than dead. We can harness the power of markets and global capitalism to save the world’s forests. The Darwin initiative shows that 41,000 hectares of rain forest have been protected in Indonesia using market forces.
The point of my speech is to say to the Government that the one deal that they must do in Copenhagen next month is on concerted action to save the world’s rain forests. I believe that a rain forest plan is on the agenda. We need not conventional overseas aid, but a new, verifiable and rapid system of carbon credits, properly and legitimately traded on the world market. Those countries with rain forests have a natural resource that the world needs—we need them, so we should pay for them and save them. Those of us who produce carbon should therefore pay those who have carbon sinks. That is not rocket science: we know that it can work—there have already been experiments—and we can easily police it with modern technology. What we now need is international action, led by the Prime Minister in Copenhagen, to make it work.
The cost of halving deforestation is estimated at £25 billion over the next five years, but the Government’s Eliasch review estimated that the benefits of saving our forests could be as much as £2.5 trillion. When my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe gave me the incredible privilege of negotiating at the Earth summit in Rio in 1992, with him and the then Prime Minister joining us for the concluding week of the conference, forests were also on the agenda.
In 1992, the concern was that India was burning huge amounts of local timber for domestic fuel consumption and contributing to carbon emissions. I am therefore concerned to read that we are building large wood-fired power stations in the UK and importing the timber to fuel them. If the wood being burned is waste wood, then okay. If thinnings and willow coppice are being burned for power, probably with garbage added too, then I am happy with that. However, if we are stripping our northern hemisphere forests, which are also carbon sinks, I will be concerned, because we could be doing the wrong thing and being hypocritical.
If in the next few months the Government want to show that they are doing things to be on the side of the angels, they should come back from Copenhagen with a deal on saving the rain forests. We should forget about the rest of the measures in the Queen’s Speech and concentrate on the climate change agenda and the world’s rain forests. Later today or tomorrow, I shall put down an early-day motion on the Prince’s Rainforests Project, which I urge colleagues to sign. He says at the end of his booklet:
“If we lose the battle against tropical deforestation, we lose the battle against climate change. Please join me in trying to save the rainforests—for the sake of our children and grandchildren.”
As John Sawhill of The Nature Conservancy said:
“In the end, our society will be defined not only by what we create, but by what we refuse to destroy.”
I am grateful for the opportunity to follow the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean), who made not only an eloquent speech on Copenhagen and deforestation, but a moving speech. I have always admired the way that he speaks and have always told him that privately, although I have always been a little bashful about following him. I should also say—he did not say this himself—that, so far as I am aware, that was his last speech in the debate on the Loyal Address, and the same is true for the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard). The points made by the right hon. Gentleman in the early-day motion that he will table will be well received and thoughtful, and contribute enormously to the debate.
I would add in passing that the Leader of the Opposition invited the Prime Minister to introduce a Bill to implement Sir Christopher Kelly’s report and his recommendations. Sir Christopher Kelly has made 66 recommendations. I defy any Member to say at this stage that they have read them all—even I have had some difficulty getting through them all. However, the Leader of the Opposition did not point out that Sir Thomas Legg is carrying out a review of five years of allowances that will be published on about 14 December. He also did not refer to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, which the House agreed to almost unanimously in the summer. That new independent parliamentary body will take out of Members’ hands the right to have any say whatever on their allowances, with a statutory requirement to consult a series of bodies. All that has been designed to take allowances out of the controversial arena of public opinion, so that we can get to a general election and fight it on the issues in the Gracious Speech.
I wish that the Leader of the Opposition were still here, although I pay tribute to him for staying for some of the speeches. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Dutch auction on parliamentary allowances and expenses between our respective party leaders cannot continue? Each of them has tried to be a bit more sanctimonious and holier-than-thou than the others. The issue had no impact on the Glasgow election last week, or on council by-elections. It is time for us to shut up about the matter and let Sir Christopher’s suggestions be considered by IPSA. If we do that, we might begin to make some progress.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his intervention. All opinion polls show that, when asked which issues concern them most, only 8 per cent. of people say that they are worried about the allowances of Members of Parliament. When they are asked about their specific Member of Parliament, only 4 per cent. disapprove of what he or she is doing. I concur entirely with my right hon. Friend that a period of silence from all party leaders would be helpful, because they have not helped: in fact, they have weakened the institution of Parliament, which seeks to hold the Executive to account. If I may say so—I do so with some reluctance—I believe that other people in positions of seniority in the House might also feel that we should leave those matters to IPSA.
The leader of the Liberal Democrats talked about electoral reform—another topic that will rise in the political scene as we approach a general election. We live in the modern era, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) also referred to electoral reform, so it is clear that it is a major issue that we will have to face at some time. However, the essence of electoral reform is not only to bring us closer to our constituents and citizens, but to ensure that the House maintains its sovereign authority.
In speaking about today’s Gracious Speech, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister referred to Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as many other world issues, and the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border talked about Copenhagen. Those are the major issues of our time, and they can be dealt with in this House by hon. Members holding the Executive to account. As the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe noted, the more we weaken the institution, the more we remove its powers, and the weaker we become, the less able we will be to represent our constituents and look after their interests. If we are to go down the road of electoral reform, it is extremely important that this institution is strengthened. [Interruption.] I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire (John McFall) is following my speech with the greatest care, as I followed his. He made a number of statements that of course I fully accept and support. He talked about big government being followed by little government, and that reminded me of a conversation that I had many years ago with Sheikh Yamani—the oil sheikh out of Saudi Arabia—who said that, if a person has one leg in ice water, it does not help him much to put the other one in boiling water. Big government may not be the flavour of the day, but that does not mean that little government will be better. We must be very careful about moving from one extreme to another.
Economists would call having one leg in boiling water and the other elsewhere a balanced outcome, but it would not do anyone any good.
Yes, and that reminds me of the statement by Maynard Keynes that in the long term we are all dead. Economic forecasters have lots of ways to explain and describe where we are, but none of it makes much difference in the real world.
I return to the Gracious Speech, which gives the Government of the day an opportunity to set out their stall. What could be better than a stall that will ensure sustained growth and the delivery of a fair and prosperous economy for families and businesses? Even though this parliamentary programme may be limited to no more than 70 days, the Government have set out a stall that is based on conviction. The Government can be a force for good, with a programme that seeks to ensure the end of the global economic downturn in our country and rebuild prosperity on the basis of a fair society.
It has been said that Conservative peers in the other place may try to halt the passage of legislation from this House, because the general election will be no later than next June. I note that neither of the Opposition leaders actually followed that line, but the Lords might, if that is their inclination, remind themselves of Harry Truman’s presidential campaign in 1948, when he criticised a “do nothing” Congress that held up his Bills. He won the election. If there were opposition to some of the legislative proposals in the Gracious Speech and attempts to block measures such as those to enable wider provision of free personal care to those with the highest care needs, to introduce guarantees for pupils and parents to raise educational standards or to try to protect communities by ensuring that parents take responsibility for their children’s antisocial behaviour, the public might reach their own conclusions about which party cared more for the society in which they live and which party had a true sense of natural justice and really believed in a fair society.
The measures outlined in the Gracious Speech will advance our citizens along the paths of natural justice and fairness. There are welcome measures to reinforce, reinvigorate and strengthen regulation of the financial services industry to ensure greater protection for savers and taxpayers. The proposition of the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) in today’s Times that there should be a 10 per cent. levy on bank profits has not been taken up by the Liberal Democrat Opposition leader, although he did take up other proposals, such as the separation of investment banks from retail banks—the so-called Glass-Steagall proposals that were referred to earlier. My right hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire, the Chairman of the Treasury Committee, who is following my remarks with great interest, mentioned a number of proposals for necessary banking reforms. He did not mention securitisation and the need for banks to get back on that route, which is being looked at carefully and will help to put the banking system back on to an even keel.
While we are talking about the banking sector and bank bonuses, we should remember that not one depositor in our country lost money when the banks moved into difficulty. That remains the case. Not one bank has gone to the wall—unlike in the 1930s—and however much we may complain that the banks have put constraints on lending to the small and medium-sized business community, we have to recognise that it is only through bank lending that we shall get back to growth and investment in the public and private sectors.
“Where are the snows of yesteryear?” François Villon once said. What happened to all the terrible things that were supposed to befall the British economy since the last Gracious Speech? Where is the depression that was forecast? Where is the inflation? Where is the deflation? Where are the 3 million unemployed? Have we lost the confidence of the markets? Have we lost our triple A ratings? “I have had a great many worries,” Dean Inge once said, “but most of them never happened.” If all those things have not happened to the British economy it is because of the measures that Her Majesty’s Government took in the Gracious Speech last year and in the pre-Budget report that went hand in hand with it.
Incidentally, the Government persuaded the international community to adopt the self-same measures. They have lessened the impact of the global economic downturn, through help for small businesses. There is financial help from enterprise finance guarantees, working capital guarantees and capital for enterprise funds, none of which works with the 24-hour news cycle, yet they ultimately have an impact on reducing the consequences and effects of recession. Low interest rates set by the Bank of England at 0.5 per cent., quantitative easing to the tune of £200 billion, the reduction of VAT from 17.5 per cent. and a fiscal stimulus referred to again today by the Prime Minister have all pulled together to ensure that the downturn is shallower than it might have been and less enduring—one corner being turned leading to another, so that by 2011 economic growth rates will be as they were before the downturn.
Australia and India had no downturn. What did they do right and what did we do wrong?
That is a very interesting question in the context of the global economy. Many countries in Asia were afflicted by the global downturn, as was Brazil in south America. We cannot compare such different economies with our own, which is an industrial economy—an advanced economy—within the European Union. I have heard comparisons made with the German economy, which, we are told, is pulling out of the downturn before our own. In fact, Chancellor Angela Merkel, speaking to the Bundestag on 10 November, made it plain that the Federal Republic was going through the worst downturn in its history: growth had plummeted five times further than the hitherto harshest downturn in the early ’70s and major banks were still dependent on state assistance. In the words of Chancellor Merkel,
“Germany is facing a harder test than at any time since reunification”.
Is not the answer to the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) very simple? In India, there is far greater state control of the economy, well beyond what any Opposition party in this country would propose; and the Australians had the good sense to reject a Conservative Government and to elect a Labour one.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for answering the question much more eloquently than I did. He thinks on his feet more quickly.
Unfortunately, I do not think the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) did answer the question. The reason why Australia and Canada’s institutions have fared better is that they did not have the same lending policies as ours: their debt ratios were much lower and they did not have aggressive policies on lending to the housing sector. The hon. Gentleman refers to Germany, but that country is already coming out of recession, as is France. Why is the UK not following suit?
I am happy to respond to that intervention. The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point about the debt ratio. We moved into a position—light-touch regulation has been mentioned—where debt became easy and available. The sub-prime mortgage market in the United States, which was the original cause of the economic downturn, enabled house ownership to increase from 55 to 65 per cent., and everyone welcomed that. Everyone welcomed the situation where the debt ratio was going up and up; no one saw that, like a rocket, it would have to come down.
As for comparisons with Germany and France and comparative rates of growth, or lack thereof, even the Bank of England in its inflation report declared that evidence from business surveys and the pattern of past revisions—in this case, of the forecast for the third quarter from the Office for National Statistics—showed that its minus 0.4 per cent. estimate was likely to be revised upward. When that revision takes place, as it will, the hon. Gentleman will see that we are, in fact, in line with the French and the Germans and, essentially, with the eurozone.
Dwelling on the macro-economic steps for a moment, we see that we have achieved a great deal, as the Prime Minister said. Fewer jobs have been lost and there has been more investment in local economies. For the micro-economy—the people on the ground—in last year’s Gracious Speech, the Government placed emphasis on workers, families and small businesses to alleviate the effects of the downturn. What steps have we taken to help ordinary people and their families? We have provided extra mortgage protection to help families to stay in their homes; given a £145 tax cut for 22 million basic rate taxpayers; cut VAT; increased child benefit and child tax credit; given an extra £60 payment to pensions on top a rise in the state pension; increased the pension credit to a minimum £130 a week; and given a winter fuel payment of £400 for over-80s households and £250 for the over-60s.
The Government have invested £5 billion to help people back to work and helped 300,000 people to stay in their homes by providing help and advice on paying their mortgages. Mortgage arrears and repossessions are running at about half the rates at which they peaked in the early ’90s. Many headlines have been written about youth unemployment, which is a matter that would, and does, dismay any Government. Although it is overlooked—the Prime Minister sought to rectify that today—the Government have provided extra cash to encourage employers to recruit people without jobs. The Government have stepped up training and support for people who need to get back to work, with guaranteed work or training for 18 to 24-year-olds unemployed for 12 months. In a time of global downturn, 1.7 million more people are in work than if the experience of the 1990s were repeated.
When I was a child attending chapel, rather than the Church of England, I recall a visiting preacher who said, “Where are the men of vision?” In this day and age, it would be, “Where are the men and women of vision”, and so it should be. Those men and women of vision are not, I surmise, to be found on the Opposition Benches. I have not heard any great policies in today’s responses to the Gracious Speech. They do not regard the glass as half-full, but as half-empty, and they would not accept the John F. Kennedy principle that when the going gets tough, the tough get going. A time of global downturn can be a time of opportunity: of building up the national health service, which a Labour Government created; of laying the foundations for a new national care service, to which reference was made in the Gracious Speech; of raising standards still further in our schools; and of seeking values of fairness and responsibility for all our people; and of never losing sight of these values, even in a downturn.
The Gracious Speech emphasised the steps taken to strengthen the overall economy and to ensure, too, that the budget deficit will be reduced and that national debt is on a sustainable path, with legislation to bring that about. A strong economy means a strong economic basis, and a strong national economy means a strong local economy. The price of freedom, as Winston Churchill told the Italian people towards the end of the war, is eternal vigilance. On Teesside, MPs will continue to be vigilant in following the development of the Corus steel mill, and vigilant about the future of our chemical industry. My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase) will no doubt catch your eye later, Mr. Deputy Speaker. He is a great friend of the manufacturing sector, and I am sure that he will add his own remarks. On Teesside, steel and chemicals have been the heartbeat of our industry for many years. As we saw when the North East Regional Grand Committee met at Middlesbrough on 25 September, all the MPs in the region are dedicated to maintaining those industries, and they are dedicated to the work force, to production and to the future of the steel and chemical industries in the global economy. The Government also take a strong interest in those matters, as we saw from the Grand Committee speech by the Minister for the North East.
A great deal has been said today by Members, including the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border, about the forthcoming conference at Copenhagen. The Prime Minister spoke about vision and resolve, and intermediate targets. In the Gracious Speech, the Government declared that they would seek effective global and European collaboration through the G20 and the European Union to sustain economic recovery and combat climate change, including at the Copenhagen summit next month. I therefore welcome the Government’s commitment to the summit in the Gracious Speech. It is three weeks to the climate change conference, which seeks to pick up where the Kyoto protocol left off, and there is now closer co-operation between the United States and China, following the President’s visit to China and his talks with President Hu. We are seeing movement towards progress, even though it is not entirely clear that there will be a binding agreement at Copenhagen.
I turn briefly to the European Union, which is a great subject in the House and will be for many years to come. The treaty of Lisbon has been ratified by 27 member states. The president, with a maximum term of five years, will be appointed on Thursday and a High Representative will also be appointed. The forward march of the Union can now be continued in the development of a common foreign and security policy, an environmental policy to be expressed at the Copenhagen conference and immigration and energy policies, all to the benefit of the British people. It may be a paradox, but the current economic downturn means that our active membership of the Union is more important than ever for our prosperity.
I do not wish to detain the House as other Members wish to speak. With reference to the conclusions of the Gracious Speech and the statement that I made a little earlier, the House of Commons must come to terms with major issues of our times, such as Afghanistan, Pakistan and the middle east. All these matters must come together, and we must be not only the debating Chamber for all these issues, but the focal point of the country.
During the Falklands war, the great focal point was the fact that on the Saturday morning the House met and calmed down the British people. A clear line was given by the Prime Minister of the time and that line was followed. In so far as we allow ourselves to take routes such as those down which the media will take us, such as obfuscation and confusion, the House of Commons will never be itself. We have gone through the difficult period when the focus was on allowances. We should come out of it and restore the reputation and confidence of the House from within and towards the British people.
I commend the Gracious Speech to the House, and I commend the Government’s proposals. We will have an interesting debate up until the general election. It will be based on issues and clear differences of policy. At the end of the day, the British people will come to their own conclusion. When that conclusion is reached, it will be more supportive of Labour than the opinion polls show.
Following on from the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Sir Stuart Bell) and his concluding remarks in particular, may I point out that many of us felt, long before the allowances issue or the expenses scandal—choose your terminology as you wish—earlier this year, that there was a distinct sense of drift about this Parliament? Curiously, that goes right back to the aftermath of the 2005 Labour general election victory. I was struck by how soon after the historically successful outcome of that election, among colleagues and friends in the parliamentary Labour party, the plot internally moved on to the question of how long Tony Blair would stay and, if it looked as though he was going to stay too long, what means could be found of moving him out sooner rather than later. We saw a failed attempt at that. Eventually Blair did go and the present incumbent came in. What finished it for him was the election that never was. He must look back now not in anger but in sorrow at the missed opportunity that he had.
We now find ourselves at the tail-end of this Parliament. The late Roy Jenkins once said to the present Prime Minister when he was Chancellor that if he inherited the Labour leadership and the premiership with it, he would not want to inherit it in Callaghan-like terms, taking over when things had already gone wrong and managing as best he could towards probably inevitable defeat. That is the strong sense that we have about the drift that has characterised the past 18 months, made disastrous by the international circumstances and particularly the parliamentary circumstances of the past six to 12 months.
Would the right hon. Gentleman care to reflect on changes of leadership in his own party?
Yes. The Liberal Democrats have an awful lot to answer for in this Parliament, because, having been first out of the trap on that issue, we found enthusiasm for it. I had almost lost count of the number of leaders we went through before we reached this happy situation—where we are now and will, I hope, remain for many years to come. Other parties have followed suit, and I can only say that our position, looking towards the next election with our change of leadership over and done with, is happier than that of the right hon. Gentleman’s party. I wish him well in the future leadership contest or contests that he may have to look forward to. It is not so much a case of waiting for Godot as waiting for Gordon, but the Prime Minister should remember that “Waiting for Godot” was always defined as a two-act play in which nothing happened twice.
This has been something of a broken-backed Parliament, certainly since the expenses issue, and today we have had a very thin Queen’s Speech. That is out of necessity. I do not blame the Government, because all Governments legislate far too much anyway, and a more limited Queen’s Speech is rather welcome. However, something struck me about today—it was true this afternoon and when the House convened for Prayers this morning. As I said, it is a thin Queen’s Speech and that is a product of necessity, but there is a rather thin sense of occasion about everything—in terms of attendance, energy about the place and the inescapability of the political choice that we all know is only five or six months ahead of us.
That sense of dispiritment, which goes to all parts of the Chamber, is more than a reflection of the turnout in the parliamentary by-election in Glasgow just a few days ago. Indeed, that was the worst turnout for any Scottish parliamentary by-election in modern times: two-thirds of the electorate did not even participate in the choice of a new Member of Parliament. As my right hon. Friend the leader of the Liberal Democrats said earlier, we really must look beyond the content of the Queen’s Speech today to the wider political vista over the next few months. The challenge is upon us all to try not only to gear ourselves up again, but to re-engage the electorate along the way.
My right hon. Friend was right to speak about the broad issues, most of which do not feature today. However, in the cause of reform, I welcome the further nod in the direction of the House of Lords. Let us hope that we do not have to nod in its direction too much longer, and that we bring it on to a properly accountable, elected, basis like the House of Commons. It is only a century overdue.
There is also a nod in the Queen’s Speech to the final report of the Calman commission on the ongoing evolution of Holyrood and Scottish devolution. I do not intend to get into a great debate about that this afternoon, but one irony of the expenses scandal is that it has made many people—not just elected Members but those in authority in and around the Palace of Westminster—realise that there are other ways and—would you believe it?—better ways of managing parliamentary institutions. Lessons can be learned from the new devolved institutions. That is true of the way in which Holyrood has managed expenses, and it has also been proved true in legislative terms. For example, there is pre-legislative scrutiny, which this House has now embraced and which all of us, who have had any experience of it, would say is a good way of widening people’s participation in, and influencing of, legislation in a more consultative way than ever. We can learn from elsewhere.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that, in having a business management committee, Holyrood provides another lesson that this House could learn?
I most certainly do. I suggest to the next House of Commons, and to whichever party or combination thereof forms the next Administration, that they look at the basis on which Parliament is structured, so that the relationship between this body, the legislative body, and the Executive is defined more rationally and reasonably.
I hope that this side of Christmas we will see the publication of greater intent on the part of the Government politically in terms of their response to Calman, if for no other reason than that that would greatly inform the debate in Scotland at the next UK general election. Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives have all signed up to this, although I would like to see the full colour of the Conservatives’ money. Those of us who want to continue to reform and improve the United Kingdom—in my preference, in a more federal direction—without seeing it separated out into constituent parts would like that argument, in its varying shapes and forms, to be on the front foot, and the nationalist alternative to be very much where it belongs, in a UK Westminster election, as something of a sideline, or certainly on the back foot. I hope that the Government will take note of that in the light of what is in the Queen’s Speech.
I want to touch on two specific measures, particularly from a constituency point of view. Both are broadly welcome, and I think that my experience locally will be not dissimilar from that of colleagues in all parties and in all parts of the country. First, the Government have spoken about energy policy in the context of the wider environmental issues; Copenhagen has been mentioned, and we hope that that will yet succeed. Earlier this year, I was able to introduce a private Member’s Bill on this subject. I can see that by fortuitous coincidence the Minister who was involved, the Under-Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney), has just arrived on the Treasury Bench. The Bill was probably not going to make much headway, but we were able to discuss the broader issues of carbon capture and storage and whether there might be a window of opportunity to deal with them in the Queen’s Speech. I know that he, like me and many others, will welcome the fact that that has proved to be the case, which is a welcome step forward. May I enter a plea to the Government? Against the backdrop domestically, by which I mean domestically in this country and in terms of people’s fuel needs and consumption in their homes, lower energy prices mean that we need to maintain the political pressure, right across the board, on the big suppliers to continue to invest in energy-saving devices and technology generally if there is to be the proper return that we would look for.
The Government say that they will want to further the whole issue of energy in the legislation announced in the Queen’s Speech. That is very significant for those in fuel poverty. Let me give an example from my constituency. A couple of days ago, the citizens advice bureau for Skye and Lochalsh issued a statement in which it described many of its clients as drowning in debt. That is because, as in so many places, unemployment has gone up, incomes have not risen, certainly in the case of pensioners and those on low earnings, and people’s financial reserves, if they had any in the first place—those who I am talking about probably did not—have been all but exhausted. The category of families and households who have to spend a large proportion of what domestic income they have—a good deal of which probably comes in the form of state benefits of one kind or another—on their fuel needs, and who therefore find themselves in fuel poverty, is very marked. When the Government are considering this legislation, they must recognise those people’s circumstances, particularly in relation to heating fuels. This time last year the Prime Minister talked a good game on energy conservation, but a lot of it has been left to the big energy firms, and the reality does not always match the aspirations set out by the Head of Government himself.
I mentioned the area of Skye and Lochalsh in my constituency. Last month, a constituent on the Isle of Skye was informed, at the hands of BP, of an increase in the unit cost of liquid petroleum gas by 50 per cent. in a single increment. When I raised the matter with BP, it responded that as a global company fuel poverty was not something that it could be concerned with. It said:
“The issue of fuel poverty is clearly a very serious problem, and the best way to alleviate it in the long term is to ensure a competitive market, and to encourage efficiency in both the production and use of energy.”
We would all say amen to that. However, it goes on to say:
“But in terms of addressing the social consequences of fuel poverty today, this must be an issue for government in determining how best the tax and benefit systems should alleviate the hardship. Fuel poverty levels differ in both scale and severity across the world, and a global company such as BP has neither the legitimacy nor the ability to deal with this problem on a national basis”.
There is a big argument in this respect; time does not allow for it today, but it can perhaps be gone into in greater detail when the legislation is introduced. The Government have left it too much to the six biggest energy companies to take action, particularly as regards social tariffs, and have done nothing to address the rest of the energy sector. When one sees the dramatic impact that that can have on a single household in a remote and isolated part of the United Kingdom, one realises that the difference between the rhetoric and the reality at a local level becomes very marked. I hope that the Government can deal with that properly in the legislation.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that in rural and upland constituencies such as his and mine, the Government have seriously missed a trick when it comes to taking advantage of the natural renewable resources that exist there? I am thinking particularly of anaerobic digestion and hydro power. Given that there are 38 anaerobic digesters in this country compared with 25,000 in Germany, and that in my county of Cumbria, which has the fastest falling water in England, there are only four working hydro schemes, does he agree that the Government need to give much more attention to that aspect?
Order. May I say to the hon. Gentleman that it is not very helpful for him to turn his back on the Chair? It means that his words are less easily recorded by the Official Reporters.
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. Two words that I am happy to re-record for the Official Report are “hydro board”. Not only do I come from the home of Scottish Hydro Electric, which is in the highlands of Scotland, but my father’s employment for many decades as draughtsman with the old Hydro-Electric Board brought in the money that put food on the table in our house, so it is very much part of the family in that sense. Tom Johnston, the post-second world war Labour Secretary of State for Scotland—a great political figure of his time and one of the great definitive Scottish Secretaries in a century of that office—spoke about power to the glens when referring to the development of the hydro schemes of that time. In terms of social impact and economic well-being, those schemes probably did more than anything else in history to transform for the better the prospects of our part of the country.
I want to look forward to something that has an equal role to play and represents something as revolutionary as did hydro power in its time in the highlands and islands generally. Broadband is another issue to which the Government have given welcome attention in the Queen’s Speech. I want to enter another plea. I represent a part of the country where a significant number of people have no broadband, or have broadband connections only by means of satellite because of their distance from an exchange. It is hard to help those categories of people.
However, broadband provides the big, historic, electronic opportunity to overcome at speed the disadvantage of those in the Lake District, part of which my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) represents, or in my part of the country or any other of the peripheral parts of the UK’s islands. Those parts of the country are at a natural economic disadvantage, for all the obvious reasons, including geographical factors such as transport infrastructure links, distance from the larger markets and the higher prices it costs to import raw materials that can be used to make something that can be exported from an area. Ironically, our areas find it most difficult to get the access that would begin to create the sense of a more level playing field. We have suffered the disadvantage of the uneven playing field for so many years and decades past.
My right hon. Friend is perfectly correct. I was on the Isle of Coll on Saturday and found that there is a limit to the number of available broadband slots, and that BT seems to have been operating the situation very haphazardly. For example, when a constituent who came to my surgery moved house, he lost his broadband connection, and the slot was allocated to the lucky person who happened to phone BT on the day he moved. That is haphazard. My right hon. Friend is right: we need a system of universal broadband to cover the whole country.
I completely endorse what my hon. Friend says. I have noted time and again in my constituency precisely the kind of anecdotal example to which he draws the House’s attention. Indeed, if I have any sympathy at all, it is not for the Government, who are trying to deal with these problems, but for the Hansard Reporters during my short contribution. Given the many locations I have mentioned and the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale, this is becoming a bit of a round Britain quiz, but that at least makes the point that broadband is vital precisely because of the nature of the communities that we represent.
In the mainland area of the Highlands, which encompasses quite of lot of my constituency, the city of Inverness, and the larger towns, such as Dingwall and Fort William, everybody should be able to access a universal standard. However, getting the edge on broadband speed is important when it comes to fast-tracking the next generation of broadband. Representatives from across the political spectrum and those of us in elected public positions have learned—from our own work as MPs, but certainly from schools, the vital public services such as the police, hospitals and the health service, and business generally—that providing broadband services is the big problem that has to be overcome more successfully if we are to have a properly and fairly connected UK operating with the economic success that broadband technology can bring.
Although there is not long left in this Parliament, there will at least be further parliamentary time to debate the social opportunities and social injustices of fuel poverty and fully flexible and modern broadband connections, which are insufficient at the moment. The time available to us, as representatives, can be well spent discussing those matters.
Finally, I welcome the obligatory reference at the outset of the Queen’s Speech to Europe. That reference is encouraging because of the history and future of the fuel poverty and broadband issues that I have raised—and not only for the area that I represent, but for the country as a whole. An awful lot of the decision making is now done at European level, and rightly so. The infrastructure investment that becomes available is crucially dependent on our being able to attract funding from the EU, and to match funding out of our UK coffers for the funding that is available from the EU. That underpins the need for this country to have an ongoing, sane and constructive engagement at a European level.
Although I have great and deep criticisms of the Prime Minister and his predecessor for having missed tremendous, historic opportunities for this country where Europe is concerned, I none the less feel reassured that this Queen’s Speech acknowledged Europe’s role in a sane and rational way, even if I would like the Government to be more ambitious in their approach. Heaven knows what kind of approach would be signalled following a change of Government and a Conservative Queen’s Speech in six or seven months. I hate to think of the damage that that would do to the long-term interests of all our constituents.
It is a great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Mr. Kennedy). I do not want to talk about Europe at all this evening, but I entirely agree with him. The new alliance that the Conservative party has formed with some of those east European politicians is of the most dubious sort. There was a remarkable article by the shadow Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), in the Financial Times on Monday, in which he called for a minor figure to be appointed as the new president of the European Union. He may well get his wish, but that would be entirely consistent with what the European Commission and the Brussels bureaucracy want. The role of president of the European Council was originally conceived precisely as a voice of the nation states of Europe and as a counterweight to the full-time Brussels bureaucracy. I am afraid that if the right hon. Gentleman’s wish is granted, he may find himself with a strengthened, rather than a weakened, Brussels machine for this country to deal with.
I have enjoyed all the speeches. Members come and go, which is as it should be, but it is a shame that the Chamber is so empty. The right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) talked about the shift of power from Parliament to judges, but if we are absent from such debates—I confess that with a lot of European engagements and serving on the Council of Europe, I am sometimes, regrettably, absent—we have only ourselves to blame. I wonder whether we might look at the new nudge theory, which is very fashionable at the moment.
I will give way to my hon. Friend who, I am deeply disappointed to say, is leaving the House. He is an adornment to it, and those of us who are lucky enough to be returned will miss him desperately—and if, after that, he has anything to put to me, I shall willingly take it.
I am slightly embarrassed, because after the nice things my right hon. Friend has said, I am going to ask him this question: is he going to stay to listen to my contribution? That is the problem. I am rather old-fashioned—one could even say a shade conservative—and I believe that hon. Members should stay to the end and listen to all the winding-up speeches. An awful lot of folk who spoke earlier are not here now.
That is a very fair question, and I shall wriggle on the answer, if I may. I certainly hope to come back for the winding-up speeches. There is a farewell dinner for retiring Yorkshire Labour MPs, for which I have already paid my contribution, and I feel that in due course I ought to go to it, but I will almost certainly read my hon. Friend’s speech—if he makes one—with great interest, as I read everything he says here, in Hansard.
To return to the nudge theory, and as we look at this wretched problem of pay and allowances, perhaps we should consider having part of our pay in the form of remuneration for attendance in the Chamber. I do not want to start new hares running, but if hon. Members got £1 a minute for coming in, and we lost it if we left, and if that substituted for part of our fixed salary, it might encourage a few more to stay in the Chamber a little longer.
We are in a fascinating era of monumental political change, and the debate has not entirely risen to that occasion. Change is happening both at international level and nationally. We face one of those watershed elections next year. I am very confident, because I do not believe that the Conservatives are ripe for power. To be blunt, they are in a position similar to that of my party in 1991-92—nearly there, but not quite. I may be wrong, but in any event the British people are willing a new politics into being. They returned 65 Liberal Democrats last time, but I wonder whether we will revert to the old bipolar world that existed until about 10 years ago. We also have strong representation of Scottish and Welsh nationalists. Our representative system is changing before our very eyes, but we are not adapting parliamentary procedures to deal with that change.
The broader issue is the profound changes in the national and the world economy. I sum those changes up with one word: inequality. We see inequality of power between those who have, and those who have not. The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean) spoke eloquently of the need to combat the slow disappearance of the rainforests, but why is that happening? The poorest of the world are chopping the forest down because it is their only source of heating and cooking fuel. If we do not tackle poverty, we cannot expect people to die of starvation to satisfy the legitimate desire of comfortably off people in this country to retain the rainforests for the protection of the climate.
The right hon. Gentleman is standing down, of course, and obviously I hope that Labour will win that seat—but if we do not, the Conservative candidate, Rory Stewart, will be an interesting addition to the House. I hope that he will maintain the originality that he has shown in his remarkable books and career so far, and does not just become Lobby fodder for the Conservative Whips.
We also need to look at inequality in our own nation. I am proud of what has happened in the last 12 years. On Monday, I opened a new primary school in my constituency, Herringthorpe, which is spectacularly designed and built. It is of a quality that the working-class residents of that area of Rotherham have never enjoyed before. When I was elected as an MP 15 years ago, that school had rotting roofs and windows falling out of their rotting frames. It was left to rot because of the indifference to the basic core issues of social justice of the then Conservative Government, which did not invest in the poorer parts of the economy. It is those principles that my party represents, while the Conservatives only pay lip service to them. We have to be realistic about the opinion polls, and it is very worrying that we may face the return to power of a party that is of the rich, for the rich and by the rich. There are more millionaires in the shadow Cabinet and political leadership of the Conservatives than any other political party in the world, with the possible exception of Saudi Arabia. It is a party principally of the south, and my constituents in Rotherham fear that if it were to win power they would be ignored, as they were between 1979 and 1997.
My party has to ask questions about why, after 12 years in power, so much inequality remains. Why is the Gini coefficient—one of the measures of inequality—as high, if not higher, now than when we came into power? Like Winston Churchill, I want to see industry more confident and finance less proud. I support the financial services industry, because we need banks; they are the petrol stations of the modern economy. However, perhaps we need more and smaller banks, working in a fully competitive framework, rather than giant behemoths accountable only to themselves.
The shadow Chancellor, in his party conference speech, said, “We’re all in this together,” but that is not the impression that my constituents have as they look at the Conservatives’ policies of removing death duties for the richest people in the country, abolishing the tax credits that have so helped the poorer hard-working families in my constituency, and getting rid of the Sure Start programme that has made such a difference to working-class families. We see the incessant clamour for anti-Keynesian public investment cuts, when every other country and every reputable economist—from Nobel prize winners to members of the Monetary Policy Committee—are saying that there must be a continued level of public investment in our economy if we are to come out of this recession.
When that happens, we need to look at the inequalities in our country. We are not all in this together. I was a BBC trainee after university. How I wish I had stayed to polish that seat at the BBC. I could now be paid £300,000, £400,000 or even £500,000. Mark Thompson, the director-general of the BBC, who is on £800,000, put forward the preposterous proposition that he and his mates have to be paid these huge amounts of money—which come from my hard-working, low-income constituents—to attract enough talent to run the BBC. I suggest that he put that proposition to the test. We should reduce all public sector pay to no more than the Prime Minister earns—£190,000—and if the people at the top of the BBC do not like that, let them go and work in the private sector. We would see who applied for their jobs. I have a sneaking suspicion that many young people out there—unpaid interns and other exploited and poorly paid people—would do those jobs every bit as well as the gentlemen of the BBC and other public sector bodies.
We cannot apply that argument to the public sector alone, and accept the idea that the private sector should have grotesque salary differentials. In 1996 I tabled a ten-minute Bill that proposed not so much a statutory minimum wage as a statutory maximum wage. I suggested that it should be set at a ratio of 20:1, between the top earner in any company and the average or median wage of employees in that company. That would still allow handsome salaries to be paid. Of course it was regarded as far too left-wing in those days and not adopted as Government policy, but if we want everyone to be in this together, we have to start thinking more seriously about high pay.
If our country is permanently divided between those with huge salaries, or the gold-plated, index-linked pensions of our top Whitehall mandarins—Sir Thomas this and Sir Christopher that—and the rest of the community who struggle to achieve a decent life in retirement, we will not all be in this together. We have to discuss these tricky issues. I support aspiration and good pay levels, but we have to put a stop to ever-growing inequality.
In 1996 I was a member of the Committee considering the Budget. I tabled an amendment that proposed a modest financial transaction tax on trades, sometimes referred to loosely as the Tobin tax. I showed my amendment to the then shadow Chancellor—I cannot quite remember what happened to him—and his chief lieutenant, now the Chancellor. It came back scrawled over with red ink, “No new taxes”.
I was a loyal Labour man, so I immediately dropped my proposed amendment, but what a pleasure it was, two years ago, to hear my friend Poul Nyrup Rasmussen—the former Danish Prime Minister, now the president of the Party of European Socialists—proposing in a strong paper the need for a financial transaction tax. It was an even greater pleasure, last Wednesday, to hear my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister at the Dispatch Box insist that this was a good and necessary idea. It has taken him 12 years to adopt a MacShane policy, but slowly, bit by bit, we are getting there.
We will need that and other measures, because another problem that we have to be honest about is that although the minimum wage has brought about a great deal of social justice, it has fixed far too many people on a very low wage. We need fairer pay for employees across the board, but that cannot be achieved without agencies and agents to represent their interests. That in turn means the rebirth of our trade union movement, which is now too focused on the public sector and too absent in the private, capitalist market economy sector of the world, here and in other countries.
So, there are three measures. We need to take a look at high pay. We need to consider a financial transaction tax, which could be for the next generation what North sea oil was in the 1980s. We also need a mechanism that would allow the Labour party—I would also invite support from other progressives in the House—to see what we can do to strengthen the right of workers to obtain a fairer share of the value that their labour creates, thus ensuring that they do not become dependent on benefits and credits. They should have fair pay for a fair day’s work.
It is wonderful to see the revival of socialism at the end of this Government’s period in office. Does the right hon. Gentleman not feel acutely embarrassed, however, that after 12 years of a Labour Government we now have the most unjust, inequitable taxation system to be found anywhere in Europe, under which the poor pay a greater proportion of their income through direct taxation than the wealthy?
Technically, I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. Knowing Europe quite well, I can assure him that the social justice and full employment measures that we have introduced—including the huge investment in our NHS and in the schools in my constituency that I have mentioned—represent a remarkable social democratic achievement, of which we on these Benches should be much more proud. I do not wish to see the Liberal Democrats being replaced by flinty millionaire Tories at the next election, but they have only a very short period in which to come to terms with the fact that we can shape a progressive alliance in this country and stop the return of the most reactionary, ideological Conservative party for many years. However, if all that the Liberal Democrats are capable of doing between now and the next election is to snipe and moan at those on the Labour Benches, they will be playing right into the hands of Mr. Rupert Murdoch and the Conservatives.
I want briefly to comment on political change, along lines similar to those explored by my right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), who opened the debate from the Labour Back Benches. I agree with him that we need transparent party funding. I will not make any detailed comments about the £2.4 million sitting in the Liberal Democrats’ party coffers that belongs to other people, because I do not think that that would be fair. It would also breach my spirit of seeking co-operation and consensus. However, every other country in the world has had to move to a form of publicly available funding for political parties, in order to stop the corruption that has sent people to prison in France, Germany and elsewhere. We are the last country in the democratic world to hold out against allowing democracy to pay for democracy.
We have the money to do this: we voted £27 million a year to the Electoral Commission. I have to say, however, that since that body was set up, it has increased its pay and its staff, but it has decreased voter participation and confidence in the broad democratic political parties. Coincidentally—it is not responsible for this in any way—that period has seen the rise of extremist, anti-Semitic, racist politics in the form of the British National party and the horrible xenophobia of the United Kingdom Independence party, whose leader boasted of being paid £2 million in expenses by the European Parliament. That £27 million could be allocated pro rata, under supervision, to our political parties. That would stop our search for funds from those such as Lord Ashcroft, or the dubious investors who are now in prison, such as the one from whom the Liberal Democrats have taken money—or funds such as, I have to say in all honesty, some of the big-ticket trade union money that comes to my party.
My second suggestion is that we should support the call for fixed-term Parliaments. I have put forward this argument consistently for some time now. That measure could result in as significant a change as changing the voting system. We could vote on whether our fixed-term Parliaments would last for four years, as in America, Germany and Spain, or for five years, as in France. There could be a free vote in the House on the question. I earnestly suggest that other political parties adopt this policy, so that we would really know where we stand. We could nominate the first Thursday—although I would move the election day to Saturday or Sunday—of May or June, when the weather is nicer, and we would know that there would be an election on that day. We would not then have to play the endless, pointless political game of trying to put forward this or that measure simply to gain a bit of political support.
I also suggest that 15 to 20 per cent. of the legislation introduced in this House should come from Back-Bench MPs on a bipartisan, cross-party basis. It has been suggested that electing the Chairs of Select Committee will somehow provide a miracle cure for the so-called disregard in which many people now hold the House of Commons. I am not sure about that, however. I know of no governing deliberative assembly, from the Roman Senate to our own House of Commons, including the US Congress, where there is no party political management. That is simply the norm. There is a notion that a free vote, in which names would suddenly appear for consideration as Chairpersons of our Select Committees, would miraculously transform things, but I am not sure that that is the case. However, if a coalition of members of at least two or three parties introduced a Bill, and the Bill had to be given a Second Reading, that might begin to make this House more of a legislature, and not simply a group of followers of the Executive plus an Opposition who have their say but never get their way.
I also want to suggest fixed terms for Prime Ministers and Ministers—perhaps a maximum of two Parliaments for a PM or a Minister. Ministers often make the best Back Benchers when they return from being Ministers, because they know how things work. They know the dodges and the diddles of Whitehall. The eternal Minister, with his or her car and red box, however, devalues our ability to make this more of a debating legislature with real supervisory powers over the Government. Instead, we have endless queues of Members waiting to become Ministers—
Former Ministers always get called to speak before everyone else, as well.
I have to say that one rule that was changed early was that Privy Counsellors lost that privilege. I think that this is the first debate in which I have been called to speak before my hon. Friend. However, I am very much looking forward to either hearing his speech, or reading it tomorrow. I will ask other hon. Friends to take careful notes on it and report back to me when I return from my Yorkshire Labour MPs’ dinner.
Would not a natural corollary to what my right hon. Friend has said be perhaps to cap the number of terms that individual MPs can serve in this place? That is a feature of some national legislatures, and there is some attraction in that; perhaps three or four terms might be appropriate.
I am fully prepared to consider that idea. I think that there is real problem with our representativeness. Thanks to Labour’s policy of all-women shortlists, we have many more women in the House. I congratulate the non-neanderthal Conservatives of Norfolk in seeing off what was obviously an unpleasant misogynist challenge there.
However, I worry considerably that as we search for more women, and the Conservatives search for more millionaires, the one group that is excluded is the one that used to be called “the workers”. I wonder whether it is only my own party that needs all-worker shortlists to be introduced, so that people who once came to the House of Commons through the trade union movement and from a working-class background—and then made a huge contribution—will get another chance to be represented here. I am conscious that I had the privilege of a university education, even if I have worked with trade unionists for most of my life.
Let me finish by saying that as a House, we are not rising to the geopolitical and national economic and social changes that face us. As Horace put it:
“Parturient montes, nascetur ridiculus mus”.
The mountains laboured, and gave birth to a ridiculous little mouse, or rat. I want this House to be where the needs of a changing nation are heard and reflected. I am not sure that our party political system or our parliamentary system delivers that. I believe profoundly that if the Conservatives were allowed to form their millionaires’ Cabinet, it would be disastrous for our nation.
I congratulate the Prime Minister on a workmanlike Queen’s Speech, but let us now go out and make the argument for new thinking on equality, new thinking on fairness, new thinking on the rights of workers, new thinking on Parliament and new thinking on politics. We have to rise to the occasion, because if we do not, it will be Mr. Rupert Murdoch who continues to have too much influence and say over the affairs of our country.
I advise an industrial group and an investment company and have declared that in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
Listening to the previous speaker, one might forget that we have had a Labour Government for 12 years and one might forget that inequality has risen to new highs. One might also have been led to believe that we had not been through our worst recession since the 1930s, that Britain was somehow not doing far worse than most other economies of the advanced world, that we were not the only economy that was not coming out of the recession as quickly as the others that went into it and that we were not the only country that had had a deep recession because of the policies we were following. But the truth is that is the position we find ourselves in today.
I agree with hon. Members who have already made reference in passing to the lack of any sense of occasion on this Queen’s Speech day. Members have referred to how few hon. Members have been present in the Chamber. By about 4. 15 pm, we were down to fewer than 40 Members in the Chamber, with only 13 on the Labour side; half an hour later, we were down by another 10 Members. It has been a very thinly attended debate. There were even empty seats going begging when the Prime Minister himself was delivering his remarks—something that I cannot recall ever seeing before during a Queen’s Speech debate.
The Queen’s Speech debate used to be one of the big events of the parliamentary year. It was up there with the Budget, up there with a no confidence motion were one ever tabled, up there with a really big argument over war or a major economic problem that the country faced. It was something we attended with a sense of expectation. One of the reasons that it worked so much better in the past was that we did not read all the contents of the Gracious Speech in the media and press for several days in advance.
I remember when I was chief policy adviser at No. 10 for a previous Government when I was privileged enough to work with the palace on the draft Queen’s Speech. Very few people saw the whole draft speech; it was kept extremely secret. Obviously, all those who needed to know were informed; all those who had an influence on the decisions were involved in their part of the speech—but it never leaked. None of the major or minor items of that speech ever leaked because the whole sense of drama and theatre required that the first that the world knew about it for sure was when Her Majesty delivered it in the House of Lords and that the first people who unpicked that speech, criticised it, attacked it, praised or supported it should be Members of this House in one of the most important debates of the year.
I think our visitors have been insulted today, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We invite the ambassadors of all the great countries represented in London to be present, so they can hear at first hand what the Government are going to do over the next year and write their telegrams back to their countries. We invite many other important dignitaries and they do not come here solely for the sense of occasion—to see people in unusual clothes and the colour of the spectacle before them. They used to come because it was their first chance to be sure of the Government’s programme and their first chance to talk to others, perhaps to Ministers, about how that programme was going to proceed. If you destroy that secrecy, that drama, that importance of this Queen’s Speech, you kill Parliament, you kill debate and you stifle proper cross-examination.
When I was a Minister—making less important announcements than in the Gracious Speech, but still sometimes important announcements—I always accepted the constitutional propriety. I would make the announcement first to this House. Very often it was Members on both sides of the House who had really good questions, which made me think or want to modify the plans. That is how it should be. Then I would rush from this House—back to the Department, usually—to give the press conference and face another barrage of questions from able people, sometimes coming from different angles from those that came from the House. Today, we are told, that is very bad practice because it does not give Ministers the chance to showcase their policies and to present them on favourable terms through the media first.
If the past is a foreign country, what the right hon. Gentleman is describing is a different planet. He was describing, no doubt accurately, a situation that obtained perhaps 20 or more years ago, when there were just four TV channels, the internet was hardly established and the media storm and network that surrounds politics now was vastly different at that time. Is it not reasonable to respond to that in what we do now?
There were rather more newspapers selling rather more copies in those days, as there was plenty of competition and choice in newspapers—less so in the media, as the hon. Gentleman says—but this is one of the myths of modern politics and why modern politics is, I think, so broken. The myth has arisen that it is the job of Her Majesty’s Ministers to entertain the media and that it is their job to have a story for every part of the 7-by-24 news cycle. Why is that their job? It is their job to try to govern the country well. From time to time, they come to this House to report on their conduct, to be cross-examined, to present their new policies, to sell to us and the wider public what they are trying to do. Those Ministers who forget that their prime duty is to this House usually end up doing their jobs worse than those who remember it and who are prepared to face sensible criticism. Those Ministers who think it is very media-savvy to leak their story in advance to a privileged media outlet or a privileged journalist discover in the end—if not earlier—that it is often a very foolish thing to do in terms of media management.
Yes, of course a Minister can get away with a few spectacular leaks to chosen media outlets who will puff up him or her and the story, but all the rest of the media will be hopping mad that that is the way the Minister has chosen to do it, and they will not all feel that they can get closer to that Minister and get a privileged leak themselves, so they are more likely to write badly about the Minister and his or her plans. I would say that even in the Government’s own terms of media management, it is often quite stupid to leak in advance through selected outlets rather than let all of them have a fair chance on the day, when they can come to the Gallery or watch the Queen’s Speech on television or go to the press conference and ask their privileged questions and ring up for specialist interviews as soon as the statement is made to this House. The sooner we get back to that system, the better—the better for the Government of Britain, the better for the scrutiny of the Government of Britain and the more meaning this House will have.
I say to colleagues that this Parliament is dying; it is in a very parlous condition. If the next one is going to be any better, it has got to learn the lessons. Those lessons are not just temporary lessons relating to some foolish expenses claims. They tell us that this model is broken.
The Government are not treating Parliament seriously, Parliament is not kicking back and making the Government treat it seriously, and so people are bypassing Parliament. The electorate are not stupid; they can see that Parliament is weakening and being damaged, and so they bypass Parliament. The media scorn Ministers who behave in the way in which many Ministers now behave, and so they bypass Parliament as well. They have their special lines, and their reliance on spin doctors. The result is what we see today: a hopelessly broken Parliament, with a few faithful parliamentarians here and the rest perhaps working elsewhere in the Palace of Westminster, or perhaps saying, “There are no votes today, so I need not be there although it is Queen’s Speech day.”
The issue on which I want to concentrate is what I consider to be the most fundamental issue. It is at the heart of this Queen’s Speech, and it will be at the heart of our politics for the next few years whatever the result of the next general election. I refer to the fiscal responsibility Bill and the parlous state of the public finances. After years of denial and after months of fevered political activity in an attempt to prove that the Opposition and those who challenged them on the deficit were wrong, the Government have put at the heart of their mock legislative programme a Bill providing for the deficit to be halved over a four-year period.
The Government may be right. I am impressed by the magnitude of the numbers about which they seem to be talking, which implies to me that at last they understand that the country is lurching towards bankruptcy at an unacceptably rapid rate and that they need to reimpose the fiscal disciplines that they discussed so liberally in the late 1990s, and even practised until about 2001.
I am listening carefully to the right hon. Gentleman’s speech. He made some very good points earlier. However, I think that he uses the word “bankruptcy” a little carelessly. Does it not mean that one’s liabilities exceed one’s assets? That certainly does not apply in the case of British plc.
What it means is that anyone who thinks that a Government of this country can continue to borrow at the current rate will experience a rude awakening. I remind the hon. Gentleman what happened to a previous Labour Government in the 1970s. They thought that they could go on borrowing. They had perfectly good things on which to spend the money, or so they thought. The hon. Gentleman may recall what happened: a Chancellor of the Exchequer had to be called back from the airport, and had to go off to the International Monetary Fund and beg for special measures to stave off bankruptcy. The special measures and the terms imposed on the Government were thought to be extremely damaging, but if they had not accepted those special measures and terms, they literally could not have paid the bills. Bankruptcy means not being able to pay the bills. It can mean illiquidity as well as a shortage of assets relative to liabilities.
The hon. Gentleman is in denial. The country is now building up the most colossal debt that it has ever seen. The Government are going to double the national debt that they inherited in just two years of borrowing, and that cannot go on. Every sensible person knows that it cannot go on. The hon. Gentleman’s own Front-Bench team knows that it cannot go on. That is why today is such a significant day in British politics. It is the day on which the Government themselves have said that they have been borrowing too much and cannot go on doing so. It is the day on which the Government themselves have said that the next four years of British politics, whoever wins the general election, will be about how they are to get the deficit down.
This is a totally different world from the one to which we have been accustomed, in which Conservative and Labour Governments alike have always been able to increase spending. We have had our rows about the speed of the increase, we have had our rows about which programmes are more favoured and which less favoured, but throughout my adult lifetime in this country we have discussed how to increase spending, apart from that one year in which the IMF took over to stave off the difficulties faced by the Labour Government.
The Government have said that they think they need to halve the deficit over a four-year period. We know that the deficit will be running at 12 to 14 per cent. of national income next year. That means that the Government wish to cut the deficit by between 6 and 7 per cent. of national income. It means—in round figures—£100 billion of annual spending that must be cut or £100 billion of extra taxes that must be imposed, or some combination of the two.
During what has passed for a debate today, I managed to ask the Prime Minister how he thought it would be best to make that reduction in the deficit—how he thought it would be best to remove that £100 billion from the accounts. I did not prejudge whether he would reply “tax increases” or “spending cuts”; I left that to him, because he is the man proposing the overall measure. His response was very interesting. He instanced three very small tax increases about which we already know—small in terms of the amount of revenue that they would raise, that is; not necessarily small in terms of the economic impact that they would have, which could be rather severe and negative. As those increases are already included in the figures, they would not produce the £100 billion. The Prime Minister was talking about loose change or petty cash. He was talking about just a few billions. What his Bill is talking about is £100 billion off spending or on to taxes, or some combination of the two.
I renew my challenge to those on the Front Bench to go away and think up an answer. This is a question that the Prime Minister has constantly asked about Conservative plans for years and years. I asked him the most simple question in the book—the one that he always asked—and he had no answer to it. I was amazed.
The right hon. Gentleman is posing a false choice. He is suggesting that the only way of starting to bridge the growing gap is either to cut expenditure or to increase taxes. I am sure he would acknowledge that one significant way of bridging the gap in the medium term would be returning banks to the private sector and regaining the money that we, the taxpayers, have had to invest to underpin them. I might regret that, but it is what the Government have said will happen. Does the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge that accelerating the process would provide a source of necessary income?
I fear not. I have been probing the issue in questions, and I think that even the Government admit that a fair amount of the money that they have tipped into the banks they have lost.
I am the one Member of Parliament who has consistently said “Do not buy shares in these banks.” There were other ways of avoiding a catastrophe. I have always thought that we would lose all or most of the money that we were sinking into those shares, and that seems to be the view emerging from the Treasury. The Treasury decided to buy in at too high a price. As we now know, the market price is well below the price at which the Treasury bought in. If the Treasury decided to sell all those shares on the market any time soon, the price would be considerably lower again. I do not think that we are going to recover huge sums of money from the very foolish share-buying into which the Government have entered.
That is a one-off capital item. What we are talking about is a deficit running at 10, 12 or 14 per cent. of national income every year. We are talking about a massive gap between annual spending and annual income, and—even if the hon. Gentleman is right and I am wrong—a few one-off capital receipts would not suddenly transform that position. We would still have to deal with the structural deficit.
Some Labour Members may think that the way out of this is growth. Of course growth will narrow the deficit, but we need it to narrow the other half of the deficit, which may well be cyclical and may well be related to the tragic recession and the state of the economy. However, we cannot leave this deficit at 6 or 7 per cent. of national income, because we know that the last time the Government tried to do that, they had to go off and take special measures as a result of the IMF lending.
Whoever governs the country, in the next four years—in the next Parliament—hanging over British politics will be the Prime Minister’s question: how can the deficit be cured? Throughout the time in which they remain nominally in charge and continue to recommend to the House a piece of legislation telling us that we must control the deficit, those on the Treasury Bench are honour bound to come back with a better answer than they managed today to the simple question that I have asked. I have said, “Fine: you want to get the deficit down by around £100 billion, excluding the cyclical recovery and the natural consequences of some growth. How do you propose that that should be done by this Government, or a future Government?” That is the dominant question in British politics, and it will rule all our lives—or the lives of those who are fortunate enough to be re-elected—in the years to come.
The second aspect of the Queen’s Speech that I wish to raise briefly is the issue of control of the banks. As Labour Members have said, one of the reasons our economy is in such a mess is that we made a bigger mess of regulating our banks than many other countries around the world, and we happened to have rather bigger banks. Indeed, one of the most egregious regulatory failures was the regulator’s decision to allow those massive banks to accumulate so many assets by merger and purchase. I was very much against the series of mergers that produced RBS, and I was also against the prominent public decision of the Government to back the Lloyds and HBOS merger, because it has led to Lloyds unnecessarily being sucked into this vortex of underperforming bank assets, state subsidy and semi-nationalisation.
It is the failure of the regulator in Britain that has made our financial and economic position so much more difficult than those of many other competitor countries around the world. I therefore asked the Chairman of the Treasury Committee, the right hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (John McFall), to remind us of the findings of its very important report on why the banks in Britain went wrong. He gave us a very fair answer again today, when he said that, of course, the main problem was regulatory failure—the proper rules of prudence were not applied. By that, he meant all the rules that were always in place under previous Governments to control both the amount of cash a bank needed in case people turned up off the streets and wanted their money back and the amount of capital a bank had in case it lost lots of money on foolish investments and needed to pay the losses. That was always governed by very strict controls under the Conservatives—the deregulating Conservatives. We always had very firm controls on cash and capital. In our day, the banks were not allowed to gear and lend anything like the quantities of money they came to lend in recent years.
The right hon. Gentleman was a member of the last Government when BCCI—the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, which was the sixth largest private bank in the world—closed because of a lack of regulation. I think he may have been at the Department of Trade and Industry at the time. There then followed the Bingham report into why the bank failed and why it was not properly supervised. Lord Justice Bingham—as he then was—suggested that the supervision of banks should be taken away from the Bank of England, and, indeed, the Government, and placed in the hands of an independent regulator. It may be the case that the regulator has not been up to speed, but surely the right hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that regulation should be returned to the Bank of England.
Yes, of course I am. The Bank of England occasionally made mistakes—it did so with BCCI and in two other cases that I can remember—but it never made systemic errors and it never made a mistake in respect of one of the major clearing banks that affects everybody in the country. What has happened on this most recent occasion was that mistakes were made with a whole series of banks—several of the mortgage banks, several of the large clearing banks, and some other financial institutions. The result was therefore a comprehensive disaster on a scale that, fortunately, we have never seen before.
To return to the line of argument I was previously pursuing, we need good regulation of cash and capital, but that is what we did not have. The Government have belatedly woken up to this, and now, at exactly the wrong point in the cycle, they are telling the broken banks that they need to have a lot more cash and capital. At the same time, however, they are telling those same banks that they need to lend more money. The Government have to make up their mind as they cannot do both: either they make the banks far more prudent immediately, in which case no further credit will be extended in addition to what is already out there in the economy and some of the existing credit will be withdrawn, or—this is my view—they say, “The current situation is so grave that now is not the time to strengthen cash and capital. As we know that no banks will go under and we the Government stand behind the most damaged banks anyway, that can be sorted out later. The priority must be to get money pumping through the economy again, so let’s delay strengthening the cash and capital until there are signs of greater activity in the economy.”
If the Government want there to be any kind of economic recovery in this country on a faster and better basis than we are currently experiencing, my recommendation is that they need to sort out the banks, and also that they should not require them to do opposing things because at present the banks will listen to the regulator rather than the exhortation to lend and, if the regulator intervenes in the suggested way, all our constituents who run small businesses or need loans will face difficulties.
The Government also have the strange idea that the problem will go away if they can control all the remuneration of the highly paid people in the banking sector. I regret to have to tell them that it will not. First, the bankers in the private sector will be far too swift and clever for them; they will move offshore or find other ways of remunerating themselves—share-based rather than cash-based awards, perhaps, or deferred awards. Whatever might be necessary, there will be lots of people working very hard to try to solve that problem because these bankers like being highly paid. Secondly, even if it is possible to control the pay of all these bankers, that does not mean they will run a bank well or solve the cash and capital problems, or that the banks will suddenly come gloriously right, because they have been so badly regulated in the past and they are now so comprehensively broken.
I say this to the Government: by all means examine the issue of bankers’ remuneration as there are examples of excess, but the cases of excessive remuneration that I see lie in those banks that are state subsidised. If a bank decides to pay its staff lots of money because it is very profitable and trading very well, I have no philosophical problem with that. That might mean there is not enough competition in the market, in which case let us put in some more competition in order to try to lower the overall returns; but we should not start regulating the pay of the staff. It may be that there is a foolish private institution that decides to pay a few people too much money when it is not making a profit; it may or may not trade itself out of the difficulties, but as long as its private shareholders are paying the bill, again, I have no philosophical problem with that. I would have a problem, however, if that institution were then to expect a state subsidy because it had been paying its people too much, or if it were already in receipt of a state subsidy.
As the majority owner of RBS and the leading owner of Lloyds-HBOS, the Government should put in place a remuneration policy with which we can all live. I cannot live with those bankers getting megabucks when they are having to be subsidised by people in my constituency who are on very small incomes compared with their own. Why must they pay more tax to tip money into these state-subsidised banks so that these people can earn a lot of money for losing us, as those banks’ collective owners, so much? Surely the Government can put that right. It does not need an Act of Parliament; it will not be sorted out by the Bill in the Gracious Speech. What is required is a bit of management and courage from the Treasury Minister responsible; he should go to his new charges and say, “We need to change the remuneration structure. Until you’re profitable, we cannot accept this. We do not want dozens, or hundreds, of people paid more than the Prime Minister when the overall results are so dreadful. We cannot sell this to our constituents.”
Let me conclude. If we are serious about rebuilding Parliament, we need to learn from this disgraceful Queen’s Speech; we need to learn that we have insulted our guests and that we have done ourselves damage by not treating the Queen’s Speech seriously, by having it briefed out to the press in advance, and by then not creating a great debate to give it proper scrutiny. If we are serious about mending our economy, we need, first, to mend the banks. It is more important to deal with the problem of bank lending than it is to deal immediately with the inadequate amounts of cash and capital—assuming the Government stand behind those banks, as they clearly do. That is my recommendation for trying to deal with that part of the problem.
Above all, I wish to point out that British politics has changed dramatically today thanks to the idea of a Bill to control the deficit. We face years of work-out ahead in order to try to tackle this deficit. As yet, the Government are simply play-acting on this, and they owe us a reply to the very simple question: where is the £100 billion coming from?
(Leicester, East) (Lab): It is always a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), even though after I hear him speak I tend to feel extraordinarily depressed about the state of the country. He is always a doom-and-gloom speaker about the Government, as he is an Opposition MP, but I hope in my speech to take up a couple of his points, especially concerning the financial services Bill, because, as I shall explain, he was wrong to say that the only solution is to hand regulation back to the Bank of England.
May I join other right hon. and hon. Members in commending the speeches of those who moved the Gracious Speech in this House—my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Frank Dobson), whom I served under in opposition when he was the shadow spokesperson on the environment, and my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry)? It is a grand tradition of this House to have an elder statesman and a newly elected Member propose and second the motion on the Gracious Speech, although I am sure my hon. Friend will recognise that she can hardly be described as a newly elected Member four years after her election.
I was on breakfast TV this morning—I do not know whether you saw me, Mr. Deputy Speaker—with the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), the former Leader of the Opposition. He continued the theme developed by Members on the Opposition Benches, including, surprisingly, the former leader of the Liberal Democrats, the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Mr. Kennedy) that this was the end of the Parliament and there was no need to put legislation before the House. The right hon. and learned Gentleman said that what we needed was a general election, so I pointed out that every time I have encountered him he has been calling for one; the nature of opposition is to feel that a general election is the best way of sorting everything out.
May I remind the House that the Government have not completed their full term and a mandate has to be fulfilled? They still have a majority of 63—that is probably 63 more than the Conservative Government had at the end of their time in 1997, when the right hon. Member for Wokingham was a distinguished member of the Cabinet. What a Government who have a mandate and a majority do in the Queen’s Speech is propose legislation that they seek to ensure will get through not only this House but the other place, and will thus get on to the statute book. It just so happened that the previous Prime Minister decided to call general elections before the full term was up—there was a year to go in both 2001 and 2005—as did Baroness Thatcher every time she called one. The approach was not repeated by Sir John Major when he was Prime Minister.
The Opposition should let the Government get on with what they are supposed to be doing—governing the country—and let them put before the House the legislation proposed in the Queen’s Speech, and let us ensure that we do our best to scrutinise it. If the House wishes to support it, it should become law. The right hon. Member for Wokingham talked about statements being made to the press, but I was concerned with statements made by the Conservative party’s leader in the other place. He said that he is going to use—[Interruption.] I do not know whether my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase) was aware of these statements, but I am sure that he followed them in the other place. The Conservative leader there said that he would use every opportunity to frustrate the legislation that this Government are placing before the House, and that is absolutely wrong. We have a fully functioning Government who have a working majority of 63—most Prime Ministers would be delighted to have such a majority, as would the Conservatives should they win the next election—so let us get on with scrutinising the legislation.
I read the remarkably arrogant statement that the Conservatives in the other place would block measures put forward in this Queen’s Speech. How much more contempt for democracy and the House of Commons do we need from the Conservative party?
I agree with what my right hon. Friend says; it is very bad when those in positions of responsibility in another place try to frustrate the will of this House. Now that the Conservative leader in the other place has heard the Queen’s Speech, I hope that he will reflect on the proposals put forward.
Some good speeches have been made in this debate. The points that the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe made about judicial control were important, because the House needs to examine that area. It is right to say that we have ceded a lot of powers to the judiciary. I am delighted to see the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills) on the Front Bench. I know that he is very busy, but he ought to read the speech made by the right hon. and learned Gentleman, because it contained important points about the power that this House has as a sovereign House and the power that has been ceded to judges. I disagreed with him on one point, because I think that judges ought to come before hearings of the Select Committee on Justice to answer questions about their record—that would be a jolly good thing and I am not with him on that point. The scrutiny of the judiciary is important when appointments are just about to be made.
The second speech that I thought was good was made by the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean). He made such a passionate speech about rain forests that I think he ought to accompany the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change to Copenhagen. The right hon. Gentleman made some important and useful points about the way in which the climate change debate was developing, and I commend him for what he said.
I wish to discuss two or three of the Bills that were foreshadowed in the Gracious Speech. I am delighted that the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill has been carried over, because I hope that the House will thus have a better opportunity to debate its provisions. I am particularly interested in the very good suggestion made by the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) for the appointment of temporary peers. Where Prime Ministers want those from outside to join Parliament to become part of the Government, they need not necessarily be life peers; they could be peers appointed for a temporary period. Such an approach would mean that more people would have the opportunity to serve in Parliament and we would get a more diverse House of Lords than we have at the moment. I hope that we will be able to debate that further when the Bill returns to the Floor of this House.
I am very pleased with the digital economy Bill. Obviously we took the point made by Scottish Members that they cannot have access to the broadband network to the same extent as England and Wales has—
Where are all the Scottish Members?
Perhaps they have gone to fix their broadband internet as a result of the digital economy Bill. I welcome that Bill because it will implement, in full, the recommendations of Tanya Byron’s review, which was set up by the Prime Minister. She produced a very good report last year about video games. It is important that we do our best to ensure that the House has a say in how the video games industry operates. I am treading on people’s toes in saying that, and when I go back to my office, I will have received many e-mails from video games players who believe that I am in favour of banning such games or preventing those under the age of 18 from purchasing and playing them—I am not, and that was also not Tanya Byron’s recommendation.
What we were concerned with, and what the House should be concerned with, is video games that are intended for adults falling into the hands of children and young people. There are four elements to this partnership, and I hope that all the recommendations will be included in the Bill. The first element is the responsibility of parents to ask their children—or indeed their grandchildren—what video games they are playing and whether they are intended for their age group.
The second element is the responsibility on the Government to ensure that the video games industry packages the games properly, so that it states clearly on the label where a game is “18-plus”. I got someone in my office to buy the new video game “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2”, and the 18 sign on it remains only the size of a £1 coin. The label is easily erased if somebody puts their thumb on it. In my view, retailers do not take much notice when someone buys a game, and ample evidence suggests that retailers are not being prosecuted if they sell 18-plus games to young people. “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2” is a classic example. It is a very dangerous and violent game if seen by under-18s. In fact, Russia has banned it today, although I am not suggesting for one moment that it should be banned in this country. Russia did so because it shows Russians as terrorists and recreates a scene at an airport in which civilians are gunned down by characters in the game.
I welcome the digital economy Bill and hope that the Opposition will also support it when it is debated in the House, including on Second Reading. I am pleased that the Equality Bill will come back, because it is important that we continue to ensure that it is as strong as possible. We have made enormous progress—it has some very good clauses—and it would have been sad if the Bill had died at the end of the last Session. I am therefore pleased that it was re-contained in this year’s Gracious Speech.
I come now to the financial services Bill. I note that the right hon. Member for Wokingham has left the Chamber. I remind Members who have been here as long as I have that in 1995 the sixth-largest private bank in the world closed. It had assets of £6 billion, and almost every member of the Asian community in this country either had money in BCCI, knew someone who did or worked for the bank. The bank was allowed by the Bank of England to continue as it had been going, because the supervision of banks then rested with the Bank of England.
As a direct result of BCCI’s closure, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Norman Lamont, set up the Bingham inquiry. Lord Justice Bingham, as he then was—he went on to become the Lord Chief Justice—produced an historic report that talked about the need to separate the supervision of banks from the Bank of England. The Government acted on that and created the Financial Services Authority. I am not suggesting that everything that the FSA has done has been correct. It needs to be tweaked—changes are needed and it needs to be reviewed and toughened up—and we welcome everything in the financial services Bill. However, I make a plea—the Government are with me on this—to the Opposition, including the Liberal Democrats, not to give the supervision of banks back to the Bank of England, which simply cannot carry out all its tasks. A separate organisation needs to supervise how licences are given out and banks are policed. That is why it is important that we support the financial services Bill. We should not attempt to hand back supervision to the Bank of England.
Does my right hon. Friend recall that, when the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 passed through the House and Committee, the constant refrain from Opposition Members was that there should be a lighter regulatory touch and that we were doing too much?
My hon. Friend is right, and I do remember that. It is important to revisit what people said then. Of course I do not blame the Opposition for the global economic crisis or the failure of the banks—it would be wrong to do so—and I am not saying that everything went wrong as a result of the suggestion of light-touch regulation. I am not that partisan. However, we need tough regulation, so please let us not give those responsibilities back to the Bank of England. If right hon. and hon. Members have any problem with that, they should read the Bingham report and the deliberations on BCCI.
I have two final points about two things that were not in the Queen’s Speech, but that we were told would be. First, I am delighted that there was no immigration Bill in the Queen’s Speech, because we have had eight immigration Acts under this Government. Frankly, the administration of the UK Border Agency—or the immigration and nationality directorate, as it was—has not improved to the standards expected. We need not more legislation but better administration of the UK Border Agency, so that when Members write letters to the head of the agency, she replies promptly with information other than, “People’s cases will be dealt with in 2011”, and so that when we have an urgent case, the Immigration Minister takes the trouble to agree to meet right hon. and hon. Members and sit down with officials, as all previous immigration Ministers have done, to try to resolve the issues.
The Mayor of London has suggested that the 500,000 illegal immigrants in London should be given leave to remain. He wants to regularise them. Neither the Government nor the Opposition, including the Liberal Democrats, agree with him. In the meantime, however, hon. Members who write to Miss Lin Homer get frustrated because they expect things to be done—I am sure that that applies to my hon. Friends the Members for Wolverhampton, North-East, for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) and for Brent, North (Barry Gardiner), the hon. Members for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) and for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming), and any other Member who is dealing with an immigration problem—[Interruption]—including my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown).
I am pleased to say that the Home Affairs Committee will publish a report next week based on the work of the UK Border Agency and will question why so many agency officials—39, I think—managed to get bonuses last year when we do not see the backlog being reduced. We need a change in immigration administration; we do not need more legislation. I am delighted that there is no immigration Bill, but please let us get the administration right and put in place some rules on the issues of citizenship.
My final point concerns the UK-US extradition treaty, which was the subject of debate in the House in July. The debate referred in particular to the case of Gary McKinnon. Last Monday, the Home Secretary came before the Committee. We wrote to him on Tuesday and told him that the treaty gave far too much to the Americans compared with what they gave to us. It did not create a level playing field, as a result of which we can hand over citizens with a very low burden of proof, but the Americans require a very high burden of proof, because of their constitution. I commend the work done by Gary McKinnon’s Member of the Parliament, the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes). He has done a terrific job on behalf of his constituent.
It is a pity that we are not going to review the treaty. I hope that in the weeks and months ahead, we will be able to do so, because it went through far too quickly. I do not know whether my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock, who serves on the Foreign Affairs Committee, has looked into the extradition treaty, but it might be a good idea if his Committee did. Let us revisit it. The Home Secretary is still considering Gary McKinnon’s case. I hope that he will consider it again, as he has promised to do, and allow him to stay. Anyone who can hack into the Pentagon computer system should not be sent for trial, but be offered a job. If he was able to do that, he clearly has intelligence far beyond what anyone could imagine.
Today’s was a good Gracious Speech. It contained 15 Bills, but a huge amount of work needs to be done. We have six months until the Prime Minister has to call a general election. It is enough for us all to feel that we can make a great contribution to changing society for the better.
The right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) wants speeches that will cheer him up, but I am afraid that I will disappoint him, because my speech will be along similar lines to that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood). However, I agree with the right hon. Gentleman about the quality of the mover and seconder of the Loyal Address.
The hon. Gentleman is to be forgiven even before he speaks, because, as chairman of the all-party group on the Holy See, he arranged for me, my wife and other members of the group to meet the Holy Father. Whatever he says, I shall forgive.
In spite of that flattery, I will stick to the original tone of my speech, although I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his forgiveness.
Any remarks that I make are not personal remarks about Government Members, whom I regard as splendid people by and large, but will be directed towards the Government, because this Government are absolutely awful. They have somehow managed to redefine the dictionary definition of “incompetent”. They have single-handedly destroyed absolutely everything. The editorial comment in The Times yesterday said:
“The Prime Minister would be well advised to bear in mind that the Queen’s Speech is there for the maintenance of good government of the nation, not the maintenance of his premiership.”
Listening to the Gracious Speech today, I thought that it failed to on both those counts, although I await the editorial comment in The Times tomorrow.
Every Member of the House knows that today’s proceedings have been farcical. We are not talking about having six months of parliamentary time on the Floor of the House; we are talking about a very short period indeed. It is absolutely impossible for all the Bills in the Gracious Speech to become law, and I think that the right hon. Member for Leicester, East knows that.
I want briefly to pick out five issues in the Gracious Speech that I feel strongly about. The first is the proposal for a constitutional reform Bill. We have a Government who are purporting to rebuild trust in our democracy, but they are precisely the same Government who have brought trust in our system to an historic low. It is as if they have not been in power for the past 12 years. Our country has undoubtedly become too centralised and, under this Government, Parliament’s power has been severely weakened. I absolutely agree with everything that my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham said about that.
It would have been good to have a proposal in the Gracious Speech to ditch the quangos as a priority and return accountability to Ministers. Hon. Members are fooling themselves if they do not consider why fewer and fewer people are interested in Parliament. It is because Members of Parliament are now ornaments, and not particularly attractive ornaments. We have lost so much power. Ministers have lost all their powers and given it away to the 790 quangos that we have at the moment, which employ just over 92,500 staff, with total expenditure at nearly £43 billion. A tenth of public spending goes on those quangos. Indeed, the figure is probably even higher. There probably are 1,000 quangos, depending on how we define them, and they cost the taxpayer probably as much as £60 billion. The right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) spoke about the pay and conditions of some of those working for such organisations. Sixty-eight quango bosses earn more than the Prime Minister, yet quangos face neither the ballot box nor systematic inspection. They are governed by boards that are totally unaccountable to the electorate.
The Government claim that they want to devolve power to local bodies, but when will that happen? Since Labour came to office in 1997, the Government have done everything that they could to undermine not only this place, but local government. What is the point of voting for local councillors any more? They have lost all their power, particularly in planning. According to a recent report by the Local Government Association, although the state spends on average £7,000 per person on health, education and care for the elderly, just £350 per person is controlled by locally elected politicians. That is crazy, and it has all happened under the watch of this Labour Government.
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point about the role of quangos, but he will recall from “Yes Minister” and the like in the 1980s, which were based on inside knowledge, that people could become the chair of the “Whitefish Authority”, or whatever it was. Does he not accept that quangoisation has been happening for decades and is not just a new Labour phenomenon?
I am not going to pretend to be clever enough to get into a tangle with someone who in another life used to prepare and react to parliamentary questions. I am sure that there is an element of truth in what the hon. Gentleman says, but the role of quangos has grown out of control, to the point where this House is greatly diminished. We have only to look at some of the responses that we get to parliamentary questions to underline that fact. I will never forget what happened when I tried to help my constituents about the problem of badgers. Some people might not think it a big issue, but in the course of a two-year battle to get something done about badgers, the Minister responsible, who now happens to be in charge of climate change, lost power, and the power for overall governance of badgers went to a quango.
Councillors have accountability, which is provided by direct elections every four years. Quangos have no such accountability. The law requires council decision-making meetings to be open to the public, with papers available to the press and public in advance. There is no requirement on many of the quangos for such scrutiny, yet they have much more power in real terms. There is no doubt that quangos have systematically taken power away from local communities and locally elected representatives. I would have hoped that we could have a measure on that in the Gracious Speech. For people to have trust in our democracy, they need to be assured that elected representatives, whether national or local, have the power to act on their behalf, but we do not. Decision making and taxpayers’ money should not be monopolised by a growing group of unelected bureaucrats.
Does my hon. Friend deprecate, as I do, the fact that the Government’s flagship quango, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, does not require its commissioners to declare any interests and holds its meetings in private?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend.
If I can catch the eye of the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), I shall reflect on a matter concerning Scotland. It is 32 years this month since the West Lothian question was raised in the House, yet we still have no answer to the problem. Scottish MPs should have no say in exclusively English matters, when English Members of Parliament have no say in theirs. That is another matter that I would have liked to see in the Gracious Speech. English MPs should have exclusive say over English laws. The whole idea of English regional assemblies has been an unmitigated failure. I could delay proceedings by talking about what happened in the eastern region.
I might leave it to the hon. Gentleman to pick that up in his speech. English regional assemblies were a failed attempt to skirt around the problem. All we are left with is a swathe of unelected regional development agencies—in other words, more quangos. We need to address the issues of representation and accountability immediately, to restore power to those who have been elected to make decisions on behalf of their constituents and rebuild faith in our political system. Nothing in the proposed constitutional reform Bill gets to the heart of the matter.
My second point about the Gracious Speech is about the energy Bill. I will now cheer up the right hon. Member for Leicester, East, because I welcome the measure, which seeks to tackle climate change by reducing carbon dioxide emissions. It is imperative that we develop and expand renewable and low-carbon energy, in order to help guarantee our energy security and protect the environment for future generations. However, a series of measures are threatening to hurt those smaller producers engaged in green microgeneration—exactly the sort of producers that we should be supporting. The current excise duty differential of 20p a litre for biodiesel will cease in April 2010. Value added tax would thereafter be charged at the same rate as on other main road fuels. That will result in a price hike for greener fuels and many producers are worried about the future viability of their enterprises and the entire biofuels-microgeneration industry.
Biofuel producers are penalised in other ways. For example, methanol is commonly used as a reagent in the production of biodiesel from used cooking oil. A recent Ofgem ruling prevents biodiesels produced in that way from being included in the renewables obligation scheme because of the presence of a small proportion of fossil fuel-derived methanol. It will not escape notice that Ofgem is yet another unelected body that is making important decisions about our economy and the environment.
I listened to the speech earlier by the former leader of the Liberal party. I remind hon. Members that I was privileged—on the 18th attempt—to pilot through the House the private Member’s Bill that became the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000, which laid a duty on the Government to eliminate fuel poverty. On that count, the Government have patently failed. The 15-year target seems to be slipping so we need a much firmer commitment to meeting it.
My third point in relation to the Gracious Speech has to do with the economy. I disagree with what the right hon. Member for Leicester, East said about the Bank of England. The Prime Minister once claimed that he had abolished boom and bust, but we are in the longest and deepest recession since records began. The right hon. Gentleman kindly did not blame the Opposition for the state that we are in, but I blame the Government for making the situation much worse than it would have been by taking the supervisory powers away from the Bank of England.
Key economic indicators continue to worsen while our European neighbours are emerging from recession. We had a slight exchange about that earlier, but the UK economy contracted by 0.4 per cent. in the third quarter of 2009, and the Government could not even get that right. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham said, everything is briefed to the media beforehand, and the media had been told that we were coming out of recession. However, when the figures were announced, that was clearly not the case.
I have listened extremely patiently as the hon. Gentleman has made his case, but does he not recognise that every reputable commentator believes that this country would be in a far worse position if we had followed the economic policies advocated by those on the Opposition Front Bench?
That opens up a huge debate that I would be happy to engage in, but I think that the Minister is wrong in the point that he has just made.
Let’s have an election and find out.
As my hon. Friend says, we should put the matter to the country. That is what we want and, if the Minister is right, no doubt a Labour Government will be re-elected. However, I doubt that the British people feel that the Government were not in any way culpable for the depth of the recession.
Over the past year, employment among 16 to 24-year olds has fallen by 7.6 per cent. That is more than in any other age group, and the Prime Minister’s recent claims to the House about the Government’s record on youth unemployment are absolutely wrong and frankly ridiculous. The Government have mismanaged the economy and their decisions have been catastrophic. The financial services Bill announced today is essentially an acknowledgement that the regulation set up by the Prime Minister has failed. What he did as Chancellor to take away the Bank’s supervisory powers was very wrong. The Government bail-out of Northern Rock and Bradford & Bingley added £142 billion to the national debt, taking it up to almost 60 per cent. of national income. When we have an election, the electorate must have that fact laid out in front of them.
But will the hon. Gentleman tell the electorate in his constituency what he would have done with Northern Rock?
I certainly will, and I shall lay out very clearly what I think that we should have done when faced with that problem. A total of £1.5 trillion of debt, largely caused by the huge liability of banks such as the Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds Banking Group, has been added to the public balance sheet. That is a nightmare that whichever party forms the next Government will have to face up to.
The Labour Government have offered £330 billion in guarantees to the financial sector. They have given no credible explanation of how they will address the debt crisis. We urgently need to get the £175 billion annual deficit under control. No political party wants to spell out clearly how it will raise taxes, but we all know that an incoming Government will have to face up to that decision. Banks’ ability and willingness to lend have been slashed, and the problems have been exacerbated by falling consumer confidence and the realisation by many that belts need to be tightened.
I spent the whole summer recess visiting every small shop and business in the constituency that I represent. It was heartbreaking, because we used to be a nation of small shops. Many businesses have been operating for 10, 20 or 30 years, but they were as close as that to going under. I undertook the visits because I am chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on small shops, and I had the opportunity to observe that the entrepreneurial spirit of the British people is still alive—but my goodness they are struggling at the moment. I had hoped that the Gracious Speech would address the problems of the rising burden of regulation and tax when times are hard enough already.
I certainly talked with local traders about what they could do to try and get relief from business rates. That is another thing that the Government have not yet faced up to, but I am optimistic that a Conservative Government, if there is to be one, will address the problem of small business rate relief. There are, of course, encouraging signs in some sectors, but by and large activity is very flat.
I want to end with two final points, and the first has to do with Afghanistan. I can remember—in fact, the memory haunts me as though it happened just yesterday—the night we debated whether to get involved in the conflict in Iraq. The House was not as it is today; rather, it was absolutely packed, with people standing everywhere. I can remember Tony Blair standing at the Dispatch Box and saying very clearly that there were weapons of mass destruction, that they were targeted at this country and could reach us within 45 minutes. He was talking to people like me, people not blessed with military expertise. I believed what he said, and voted in favour of the conflict.
May I urge the hon. Gentleman to consult the Hansard record for that day and that particular debate? I believe that he is referring to a debate that took place six months earlier than the one in which it was decided to go to war.
The procedure in those debates was so confusing that many hon. Members were rather confused about which debate meant that we signed up for the war. Whichever debate it was, I can remember the dossier that was presented, and I was very aware of what was going on in an area of the House that we are not supposed to name. The then Prime Minister probably needed some Hansard books so that he could read his speech more carefully. As far as I am concerned, what he told the House that night was not the truth. If I had been told the truth, I would have joined my 18 colleagues and voted against the war with Iraq.
I turn now to Afghanistan. I do not think the House has ever had a debate in which hon. Members could vote about whether to get involved there. Yet again, we take the American lead, and I heard what the Prime Minister said today, but I am in despair. Support for our involvement in Afghanistan is definitely waning. It behoves the Government to be much clearer about our objectives and about the progress we are making to achieve them. This year has been the bloodiest year of action for our armed forces since the Falklands.
In the time before the election, the Government must set out much more clearly what is going on with the Afghanistan Government. One minute, we are told that they are dreadful. Then there was a presidential election that was a farce. Now the only candidate is back in post. It insults people’s intelligence. The British people need to be told clearly what the purpose of our involvement is and how the Prime Minister sees it continuing.
I sense that the hon. Gentleman is about to sit down, and before he does so, I want to remind him that the purposes of that war have been set out very clearly. I also want to give him an opportunity to pay tribute to the armed forces who are serving so gallantly in that war.
Not only do I pay tribute to them, but I am a member of the armed forces parliamentary scheme and in January I hope that some of us will go to Afghanistan to see at first hand what is happening. I absolutely pay tribute to the armed services.
I am very disappointed that there is no proposal in the Gracious Speech to look at the criteria for holding public inquiries. The issue that is causing the most interest and concern in Southend at present is the expansion of Southend airport, which is very controversial for all sorts of reasons. Last week, a public meeting was organised by our excellent Leigh town council. It was very well attended and the overwhelming majority of residents were concerned about proposals for the expansion of the airport. Southend council will look at the proposals in January and the Secretary of State cannot give a view until after that planning meeting. Depending on how the meeting goes, he may or may not decide to call in the plans and hold a public inquiry. I have asked the advice of the Library and civil servants about the criteria for holding a public inquiry. They are not clear to me. In fact, I am of the opinion that the matter depends on the judgment of the Secretary of State of the day, but how he makes that judgment is not clearly set out, so I was disappointed that there were no proposals about that in the Gracious Speech.
I was aware that the Government and Labour had destroyed the country, but I had no idea that they would destroy Parliament. That is what they have done. We need a new Parliament. We need a general election and the return of a Conservative Government.
The hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) said that he disagreed with a number of the things said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz). I think that the hon. Gentleman will disagree with everything I say, but that is nothing new in this Chamber.
Earlier, the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) recalled the considerable number of Queen’s Speeches that he has been privileged to hear in this place. That reminded me that I am merely in my 18th year here, and I feel like a cub scout compared to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, with his vast experience. I mention that particularly because when I was bag carrier for the then Foreign Secretary, he was for a time the shadow Foreign Secretary. When I carried messages back and forth, he was unerringly understanding, exceptionally kind and very co-operative whenever he possibly could be. Although I have never given or sought quarter in the House, I have always been touched and moved, and thankful for the kindness with which Members from all over the House—
Not while I’m around.
Thank you, Mr. Bevin. I have been privileged to be treated so well by so many people while I have been in this place.
The Queen’s Speech announced many Bills, including Bills on equality, child poverty, digital economy, energy and so on, and Lords reform, which enables me to mention one of my predecessors in the seat of Wolverhampton, North-East—a certain Major John Baird. He was a Scottish gentleman who from 1945 until 1964 served my constituency with great distinction. I mention him particularly because when I made my maiden speech I referred to him, as is the custom, and reminded the House that one of his statements included the words that the Labour party exists
“to make workers of Lords and not Lords of workers.”—[Official Report, 2 June 1992; Vol. 208, c. 749.]
In this year, 2009, we have yet another promise to reform the House of Lords. I am an abolitionist—unashamedly so. I believe that if this place organised itself properly, particularly in terms of the scrutiny function of Select Committees, it could very well do the job of examining legislation both before it came here and during its passage. To employ Members of this place fully on legislation here, we have to rethink our approach to scrutiny, which would give us the opportunity to diminish—if nothing else—the role of the other place. It could simply make recommendations for amendments, without any powers.
In an elected upper House, I see serious problems arising from a conflict of power—deciding who says what for whom, and when and why, and who represents the people of this country. I still believe that abolition is the best answer. I recognise that it will not happen, but in the next Parliament Members of this House must take on the proper scrutiny of the Executive in a more intense and structured way.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Frank Dobson), who moved the motion, referred to an amazing array of institutions and people from his constituency. Of course, it is a London constituency and we should expect that to be reflected. In my borough and my city of Wolverhampton, we could not possibly match that array—the clusters of diamonds that my right hon. Friend told us about—but I can tell the House that Wolverhampton university takes more working-class students than any other university in Britain and it does very well with them, despite being harassed by the Higher Education Funding Council. None the less, the university is succeeding in the noble task of ensuring the widest possible opportunities for people who want to take advantage of and will benefit from higher education.
We are the home of large companies: Goodyear, Goodrich and Birmingham Midshires, which is now part of Lloyds and a little bit MIA—missing in action—but I am pleased that the Midshires office in my constituency, employing 1,200 people, is unaffected by the redundancies announced by Lloyds earlier this week. I am happy to say that the service it has been giving for many years, under the old name of Birmingham Midshires, to people in the midlands with mortgage problems will continue in the future.
We also have the, not quite as redoubtable as they were, Wolverhampton Wanderers—the Wolves, which provided successive England captains in Stan Cullis, the youngest ever captain of England, and Billy Wright, who achieved more than 100 caps at a time when a player had to start and play every game. There was no coming on for five minutes at the end and getting a cap; every cap was earned with 90 minutes of hard running. He will remain a hero, not just of Wolverhampton, but of the game of football wherever it is played.
Above all, Wolverhampton is home to thousands of skilled workers in the aerospace and automotive industries. The city is proud to have played an important role as part of that workshop of the world and the Commonwealth, the west midlands area, which also includes Birmingham, Dudley and Telford. It is the cradle of industry and we are proud of the part that we have played in ensuring that the wealth of this small country is still almost unparalleled outside the top half dozen countries in the world.
I was a councillor in Wolverhampton for 20 years and I brought to this place my interest in housing and education. I am therefore disappointed that the Queen’s Speech did not contain more about rebuilding our stock of council houses. I have never—not even in the deepest days of Mrs. Thatcher—opposed the sale of council housing. I live in a house with a garden and I believe that what was good enough for my children is good enough for other people’s children. I want to see houses with gardens that people can buy or rent, whichever suits their circumstances, so I do not oppose the sale of council houses. What I also want to see, however, is the building of many more to replace the stock that is sold.
I have to record, with great sadness, that now in Wolverhampton and, I believe, in many other boroughs and cities, more people are registered for council housing than were in the dark days of Mrs. Thatcher. I am not proud of that. We may well have modernised and improved 2 million houses in our time, which is very worth while, albeit expensive and time consuming.
Will the hon. Gentleman record his sadness that whereas between 1979 and 1997 successive Conservative Governments built an average of 46,000 social housing units a year, the present Government have built only about 17,000 units since 1997?
I have to acknowledge that as a matter of fact. It does not please me. I have to add, though, that the building of social housing almost entirely by housing associations has led to a serious problem. Both main parties—mine, too—have adhered to the idea that there have to be market rents. The only people who can afford the market rents for housing association dwellings are those who pay no rent at all. That is leading us to a position where we have a residual welfare sector, which is not good for our country. That has to be redressed, so that we can continue to build our society in the way that all of us want.
I was, am and will remain a great supporter of the ideals of comprehensive education. Throughout the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, I and people like me who held that ideal engaged in a battle—a battle of minds and of ideas—so that we could extend the opportunity of having the very best education to every young person and prevent the stigma of having failed an 11-plus or 13-plus examination. We fought the good fight and we were winning—indeed, Mrs. Thatcher closed more grammar schools than any other Secretary of State in history, although that is not my point. Now, however, since the advent of city technology colleges, academies, specialist schools and so on, we have more selection than we had for 20 years. That is a grave disappointment to me, even though specialist schools are supposed to be able to choose only 10 per cent. of their pupils, and many of them have chosen not to go down that route. In fact, many head teachers and governing bodies have shown a great deal more allegiance to the ideal of comprehensive universal secondary education than many Governments.
I really hope that people will begin to understand that there is no way that we can pick out at 11 who will benefit most from an academic education and who will not. We need to push this nation along to ensure that every child in the secondary sector, whether they mature at 11, 12, 13 or later, has that opportunity to be taught by people who know their subjects and are enthusiastic about them. I have met teachers who would be happy to teach in a comprehensive school rather than a grammar school, if only they could be assured of getting the A-level group that really challenged them, that made them prepare, and that tested their knowledge of their subject. Those teachers would then be more than happy to work with the other girls and boys who were not on that academic strand and who were not giving the same attention to their studies. We must press on. That is the biggest barrier to Britain advancing in science and education. We must not lose sight of that.
I take considerable interest in international relations. As I mentioned, I was greatly fortunate to be a bag carrier—PPS—to the late Robin Cook. I had known him for many years before that, and his death in 2005 was a great disappointment to me. He made a remarkable speech on Iraq. I can tell the House that it was a very considerable torture to Robin: he had determined that he would go as far as he could and remain a member of the Blair Government, as long as he thought that there was even a glimmer of a hope that the outcome would be different from the one that ultimately unfolded. He then showed absolute courage in saying that he could make no further progress, and resigning with great honour, then making an amazingly good speech to this House. It was a great honour for me to work with him and I remain extremely sad at his passing. He is sorely missed, especially from his work as Leader of the House, which he did with such great good humour, knowledge and preparation. I wish I had more time—I could regale the House with one or two anecdotes of that great man.
The Leader of the Opposition often talks of the “broken society.” He is referring to families that are simply dysfunctional—in a terrible state, with children who have no understanding of how to behave or to relate to others, and who therefore cause great difficulty through their unsocial behaviour. I think that there is another aspect of the broken society which you can hold between your finger and thumb and say, “This is one of our big problems.”
Hon. Members may have read in the papers about a 29-year-old woman who is pursing a case of harassment at work and unfair dismissal. The case has been making the headlines, and although I make no judgments about it, I will say this. The young woman is paid almost £600,000 a year. She is an advertising executive and assistant to the chief executive of the company. He is alleged to have sent e-mails with dirty jokes and made rather lewd remarks, although he says that they were just jokes and not insults.
A 29-year-old—she must be good—is earning £600,000 a year as an advertising executive. I have in my constituency aerospace workers on whose skills hundreds of lives depend—skills that those workers have learned and honed over years of apprenticeship and going to college. Yet those workers, even today, get perhaps £30,000 or £35,000 a year, tops. Now is the time to take stock of this broken society, when a man worth millions can spend his time sending rude e-mails to women workers telling them, in one of them, “You must work more and dress less.” When we have that outrage in our society, we need to tackle it, just as much as we need to tackle the problem of youngsters ignored by their parents, who seem to have no idea of how they should be helping those young people to develop.
We are crying out for a more equal society. That does not mean perfect equality—it means a more equal society, and narrowing the gap. As hard as my Government have tried—and I know that they have—we are not closing the gap at anything like the right speed. I do not know whether it is widening, but it is certainly not as narrow as it should be. That is a No. 1 priority for us to address. We simply cannot have a situation whereby someone working in the City or on some kind of financial instrument—even though they may be a good graduate or a very good worker—can earn £600,000 a year at 29, but a skilled artisan working in the aerospace industry earns £30,000. We cannot tolerate that: it has to be changed. That is as much part of the failed society as the children who are failed.
On the subject of incomes, my favourite newspaper, The Guardian, printed a big page yesterday showing lots of people and the incomes that they received for their trade or profession. It started off with people earning millions, and the Queen, Her Gracious Majesty, was top of the list with some millions. Others were there with more millions, there were some more earning half a million, and more earning £250,000. So it went on, but not one of the pictures or headings illustrated either a newspaper editor or a political editor—the people who talk about us. They do not do anything, or contribute anything.
It is useful to receive criticism from outside, but we need to get a grip on this income business—not to make everyone the same, but to make sure that people are treated fairly, and that there is some semblance of common sense in the pay of people at the top and of those at the bottom. With those words ringing in people’s ears—and, I hope, being seen by their eyes tomorrow—I make a plea to Parliament. These are the key issues: education, addressing the income gap and making sure that it narrows, not widens, and real equality.
I am pleased to speak after the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase). The issue of council housing has a lot of purchase with me, too. In Birmingham, we can at least say that we are building a small number of new council houses, even if that is done through a municipal housing trust, so that we are not trapped by the housing revenue account calculations and the tax on tenants.
The issue of housing is important not just in isolation but because of its wider effect on people. I have visited two organisations in my constituency that deal with family support: Home Start, which is a voluntary organisation, and a Sure Start centre. I asked Home Start what proportion of family problems arose primarily from housing, and it said 50 per cent. I asked Sure Start what proportion of problems in families with whom it dealt arose primarily from housing, and it said 75 per cent. It is extremely clear that the difficulties at the bottom end—the hon. Gentleman made a point about the poverty trap and the fact that it is difficult for people at that level—have a continuing effect.
It may have been conscious Government policy to try to drive up housing prices, and thus debt on housing, through the constraints on the availability of housing, but there has been a massive social cost. That issue has to be addressed, whoever comes into government, because in practice other costs arise from it. For example, children go into foster care at £40,000 a year, which is a lot of money. A family with a number of children—and I have discussed this with a senior social worker—may go into crisis because of bad housing, and it suddenly costs £150,000 a year to deal with a situation that has arisen as a result of bad housing, rather than from a lack of intent or of ability.
Turning to the Queen’s Speech, we face a complex situation arising from the fact that there is a relatively short period before a general election is definitely held. I think the latest date for an election is June—everyone expects one in May at the moment—which in itself causes difficulties. One of the bigger problems is the failure to use processes properly. I am a glutton for punishment, and I serve on the Select Committees on Regulatory Reform, on Procedure, and on Modernisation of the House of Commons. I took the fact that the Modernisation Committee had stopped meeting to mean that we are now modern, but I am not sure that that is true. I am interested to see what happens with the Committee chaired by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), because the basic problem with the House of Commons stems from the fact that it is controlled by the Executive, who control what is debated and when it is debated. They also control standing orders, although interestingly an Opposition day could be used to modify them.
The fact that the Executive control Parliament’s rules and timetable means that Parliament is hobbled. Parliament does not do too good a job of scrutinising legislation. If a mass of Government amendments are tabled to a Bill on Report, for example, and everything is cut out by knives, it is impossible to exercise such scrutiny. The relevant Bill Committee does reasonably well, but we must resolve that problem. We should not have an immigration Bill every year—points have been made about the chief executive of Birmingham city council, who is now running Birmingham international airport—and unless we have less legislation, and unless we get it right as it goes through the House, we have a problem.
Legislation is used for things for which it should not be used. There is a Bill to cut the deficit, but that is not what Bills should be used for. They are meant to establish law. I disagree profoundly with the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) and with the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), as I believe that judicial review is a mechanism to make the Government follow the law, which is set by Parliament. Judicial review is a function whereby Ministers, civil servants, quangos and public authorities generally are required to follow the law. As for the issue of how judges are accountable, they make decisions or orders, and they explain the reasoning for their decisions in a judgment. If there is a problem with a judicial review decision, people should read the judgment and find out about the point of law in which all the difficulties lie. If they are not happy with judges controlling Ministers through judicial review, they should change the law, but judges are there to make sure that Ministers follow the law.
Much as I am critical of the way in which Parliament manages to manage the legislative process, I am more critical of the way in which we hold the Government to account by tabling questions. For a long period, I have been concerned about the fact that, if those questions are not answered, nothing very much is done. The Minister for Europe told the Procedure Committee that, in short, if Members did not like the fact that the Government did not answer questions, they should beat the Government at the next election. That method of accountability is no good, and I have described it as trying to avoid a car crash by looking in the rear view mirror at the car crash that happened two years ago. We are not monitoring what the Government are doing now—what we are monitoring is the report that came out about a disaster some time ago. Nothing is done to address the serious problems that affect different aspects of the system of accountability today.
Silly things have arisen such as the fact that the Government suddenly announced that the uniform business rate was not going to go up but, in practice, councils could not change their computer systems, so everyone was charged the increased rate. That sort of nonsense goes on all the time. A lot is driven by the media agenda, rather than by good government, and what we get is a disaster from government. I take an interest in legal issues, particularly in the family division. One of my constituents came to see me about her son, who had been jailed for five years, because he had set fire to the house in which they lived. We looked through the paperwork, which said that the Crown Prosecution Service had looked at his case, and thought that he should be sectioned, because he was a bit inadequate and doolally. However, he could not be sectioned, because the health service would not accept him, so the CPS wanted a hospital order, and therefore prosecuted him. He ended up with a five-year jail sentence, and the barrister said that there was no way in which the family could appeal it. The mother came to see me, we filled in all the forms and sent them to the Court of Appeal, and her son was released.
The issue there is the advice desert. If someone gets legal aid and loses in a case, they get an opinion from the same barrister as to whether they would win on appeal. That is a mistake, because the barrister is asked to write an opinion about what they got wrong. When a case is lost and an opinion is written as to the chances of an appeal, it would be far better procedurally if it were written by somebody other than the person who handled the original case. One of the problems is miscarriages of justice. In that case there was a clear miscarriage of justice.
Does the hon. Gentleman think the Sentencing Guidelines Council is advantageous? Does it improve the way that judges carry out their jobs or is it a hindrance?
I like to look at cases in detail and I do not know enough about that. Much of the time, what we do in this place is pick on a case that seems wrong. There are cases that seem wrong superficially, but we need to consider a set of cases. There are systematic problems in child protection, for instance—take the Climbié inquiry or the case of baby P—but often we focus on one case. I am sorry, but I do not know enough to answer that question, which may seem an odd thing to say.
I spend a lot of time looking at individual cases. The case that I cited is still grinding through the system. I wrote to the Ministry of Justice and asked who takes responsibility for stopping miscarriages of justice. The answer was the judges. Another area of concern to me is medical evidence, particularly in areas such as shaken baby syndrome, where there is no settled scientific opinion. There is no scientific proof that the opinion relied on in court is reliable. A number of people have been released after miscarriages of justice in such cases.
That brings me to another interesting point about miscarriages of justice. We spend considerable amounts of money on people who are released from jail and who were guilty. That is a reasonable thing to do, in the sense that we do not want to dump people straight away. But we spend no money on people who are released from jail and who were innocent. That is absurd. I had a meeting with a number of people who were innocent and jailed. They raised a number of issues, and we looked at compensation for miscarriages of justice.
It is interesting that a number of people have died before getting their final compensation, which does not seem very good from my point of view, although there are interim arrangements. The number is about 20, although four of those were posthumous. Those people had been sentenced to death in the past, and the miscarriage of justice was identified only after the person had died, so we cannot complain that compensation was not paid until after they had died. In the other 16 cases, there is a concern that we are not treating with respect people who have been jailed wrongly. In fact, we are treating them with less respect than those people who have committed the offence and been properly jailed. That is an issue that the Government need to examine, although it may not require legislation.
Another area about which I am concerned is the lack of action by the Ministry of Justice on the Crown dependencies. Because I undertake work in the family division, many people contact me. I currently have two cases relating to the Isle of Man, and I have a senator living in my flat in London. Senator Stuart Syvret was elected by the whole island of Jersey. He revealed on his web log that a nurse, Andrew Marolia, had been found to have probably murdered a number of patients. He was then prosecuted under the Data Protection Act by Jersey. He was not allowed to adduce as evidence the case to which he referred on his web log, which is a public interest defence—that he needed to reveal the failures of the judicial system in Jersey.
Anyone who has been following the case will know that there are great concerns in Jersey. A number of people have written to me from Jersey expressing concerns about the failure of the criminal justice system. The argument has been put that people should take everything through the judicial process in Jersey, but when there is a failure to prosecute child abusers in Jersey, which is happening—people have seen the “Panorama” programmes on that—and there is no process of judicial review for the prosecuting apparatus, which is what the Attorney-General in Jersey says, that is a serious problem. It is a problem for which the Ministry of Justice is responsible.
Although Jersey is not part of the United Kingdom, the Ministry of Justice is responsible for good law in Jersey. Someone who was elected by the whole island of Jersey, and who got the largest number of vote across the island—it is not a big island, so 15,000 was the largest number of votes—is effectively in exile in London, while warrants for his arrest continue to be issued on Jersey. He wants to come and talk to hon. Members and I am sure we will sort that out in the near future. Although something was done about the Turks and Caicos islands, nothing is being done about Jersey. That is a clear failing of the Government.
I have listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman said. There is a difference between the Turks and Caicos islands, which is an overseas territory, where competence for good governance and European norms rests with the Foreign Office. Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man are separate jurisdictions. Provided they meet European Union norms, their systems are their business and the business of their voters.
The Berkeley brothers took the issue of the system of law in Sark, which is linked with Guernsey, to judicial review. It was seen clearly as a responsibility of the Ministry of Justice. It is settled UK law that that responsibility rests within the UK. I accept that there are differences of status. Whereas I am not sure about the settled legal position on the Turks and Caicos islands, there is a settled legal position for Crown dependencies, which is that the Ministry of Justice has a duty to act. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman interrupts from a sedentary position, referring to European norms. That is correct. Under article 6 requirements, the UK is responsible for maintaining the compliance with the European convention on human rights of the Crown dependencies.
That brings me to the point raised earlier about the European convention on human rights. There is a proposal that judges in England should not be allowed to look at the European convention on human rights, but that people should still be able to take a case, as an individual case, to Strasbourg. That is absurd. A case must go all the way through the courts in England before they can consider whether it is compliant with the European convention.
I had a case in my constituency on the Child Support Agency recently in which we did quite well. Partners had split up, somebody had got married and got more children. The money being asked for from the CSA was such that it was in the financial interests of the second couple to split up. The amount of money that the new wife was being asked to contribute, effectively to go to the older children, was such that the couple would be financially better off if they split up. We decided to put the case to the CSA tribunal with an article 8 argument, which is that the Government do not have the legal right to interfere with the family and force them to split up.
We won. This may be the first time that that has happened. Hon. Members are aware how difficult it is to deal with the CSA. That is a good example of how the European convention on human rights in domestic law can work well. There are silly cases, and people have a right to ask for silly things and be told no. But the European convention does protect people’s rights.
Chairing Justice for Families—I declare my interest—I work with a number of hon. Members to get their constituents’ cases into the European court. We have the usual problem that it is all well and good getting legal aid in the lower courts, but in the higher courts it is very difficult to get any support. I have a network of about 70 people across England, a couple in Scotland and a couple in Wales who help people in courts. They help them fight the injustice that goes on in the family courts, where there are many procedural problems.
I am very pleased that on Monday the Legal Affairs and Human Rights Committee of the Council of Europe decided to establish an inquiry into family courts and human rights across Europe, with the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) as its rapporteur. We now have an opportunity to look at that issue in more detail. I find it sad that, when the UK has had so many stresses in family law, we have not managed to do the same in the UK Parliament. The UK has had stresses in private family law, which deals with situations when partners divide; and in public family law, which deals with situations when the state interferes in the family. Often the two overlap, and that issue is a responsibility for the UK Parliament.
On patterns of accountability, it is wrong to say that judges are not accountable, because they are. They are required to explain their judgments. The Queen’s Speech does not mention this measure, but I am pleased that the Government will improve the accountability of judges in the family court. The problem is that one cannot discuss publicly, even if anonymously, the contents of a judgment in the family court unless it has gone to the Court of Appeal or one has judicial permission. It is good that the Government have introduced some pilot schemes, and they should happen in all courts. The courts should not say, “This is the decision, but you can’t say why it has been taken.” Court orders are always public documents, and that is why super-injunctions are strange. I discussed that issue with a Law Lord recently. There is an argument for a super-injunction lasting a week or two, when assets are being frozen around the world and one does not want people to find out what is going on. However, court orders should be public documents. The European convention on human rights makes that very clear. One may redact part of it, but not otherwise.
Freedom of speech is in a dreadful mess in this country, such that American newspapers are considering banning Britons from viewing their websites and stopping selling American newspapers here because of libel tourism. The issue is not about the damages; it is all about the costs. The threat of libel costs has a chilling effect on free speech in the scientific and general media arenas. That is our responsibility: there is no reason why we should allow a dispute over damages of £1,000 to have potential costs of £500,000 on each side. There is a tradition in UK law that the costs follow the action, but why that should be so for a strict liability offence, such as defamation, is unclear. One may say that damages should be limited to £5,000, but the issue is serious and ongoing, and there is no mention in the Gracious Speech about the effect on freedom of speech in this country. To be fair to the courts, new procedural rules were introduced in October to manage the costs situation, but we have a real problem with the constraints on freedom of speech which arise from legal costs.
On family law, the Government have done a really good job—gradually. They could have done it a lot faster, but let us recognise that progress is being made in opening up the family courts. There is a wide range of concerns about family life, and some of it comes from the judicial environment, in which bad practice is encouraged at times and tolerated by the system. It should not be. Judges are held to account by their judgments; however, at times, it is very difficult to get a written judgment out of the courts. It can take a number of months. They say that three months is reasonable for a judgment, but I am not talking about reserve judgments, when a decision has not been taken; I am talking about the circumstances in which a decision has been taken and implemented, but one cannot get the judge’s reasons in writing for three months.
I have had cases in which it has taken six months to get judges’ reasonings. One cannot really appeal a case until one has the judge’s reasoning, so that makes things very difficult, although we have appealed cases on the basis of no reasoning, which is a basis for an appeal. However, that should not have to happen. There is accountability for the process, but merely leaving the issue to lawyers is not adequate.
The rule of law is important to absolutely everybody. If one knows the law, one should follow it. We should not have to go to court to enforce the law, because people should follow it, and the court is there to enforce the law if people do not follow it. We have particular problems in family law. This year is the 20th anniversary of the Children Act 1989, but that Act gives us procedure, not law. It does not say what should happen in certain circumstances or, for instance, that both parents have a duty when they split up to make sure the child stays in touch with them. That would be a good first step and some real law. However, the Act actually says, “If you want the court to make a decision, you need to fill in this application for this section and that application for that section.”
Similarly, Baroness Deech said that there is a problem with divorce law. The same principle exists: we do not have law; we leave the judges with massive discretion. That is a really big problem, because in public family law people know which judge will give which answer, and some judges will give one answer and other judges will give another. That is not law; that is just giving power to a judge. I am working with the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) on a case involving a 17-year-old boy who has been sectioned while in care. We have some serious concerns about that, but getting a handle on it and any proper explanation from the system is not easy. That is no good at all when somebody is in such a powerless situation—perhaps they have been sectioned and their family are concerned—and we should develop some proper family law. Currently, we do not have family law; we have family procedure. Such measures would make a big difference, because one would be able to tell people, “We expect that if parents split up, they’ll put the best interests of the child first and try and work together to maintain contact.” Instead, a report last week said that people use children as bargaining chips, which is fundamentally wrong. We do not have any law that says, “You mustn’t use children as bargaining chips,” and such legislation would be a good way forward. It would be nice if the Government made an effort in that area.
With all the secrecy in the family division, one difficulty is that people do not know what decisions have been taken or why. The Government are gradually going to open up the system to reveal what decisions have been taken and why. That will allow Parliament or the public to scrutinise more widely on an anonymous basis what is going on. People should not be required to dress up as super-heroes to draw attention to their situation. The amount of gagging that prevents people from talking about their cases is fundamentally wrong, but I recognise that the Government have made two important if small steps in the right direction and that they are talking about making a third during this Parliament, even if the Queen’s Speech does not actually mention it.
One of my particular concerns is the use of mental capacity and adjudging people not capable to instruct a solicitor. I have had two cases in which mothers were prevented from contesting their cases—both have gone to the European Court of Human Rights—because they were told that they were too stupid to instruct a solicitor. The expert who wrote that was jointly appointed by the local authority. That is standard practice, but they are therefore beholden to the authority, and that is a ludicrous situation.
One mother was an Asian lady who did not speak English, and she was given an IQ test through an interpreter. We should not disqualify somebody from the right to instruct their own solicitor because they fail an IQ test taken through an interpreter. That is madness, but it has been going on in the family division. Luckily, article 9 of the Bill of Rights applies, and I can therefore talk about that case. I am not a lawyer; I am a physicist by training and more of a mathematical person. But in my view, as somebody who is not a lawyer, it is spectacularly bad to exclude someone from the judicial process. The authorities are saying, “You can’t oppose this, because you are too stupid and it is like you’re in a coma.” Then, the Official Solicitor comes in and concedes everything against such people. Those two cases are not unique, but one does not see them all.
We need to look towards a change of culture in the children’s care environment. On Saturday, I had a meeting in my constituency office with several parents of children who are on the autistic spectrum, all of whom said that they feel as though the system does not listen to them at all. They are, to be fair, the people who know their children best, but they are kept out of it, so that when a panel makes a decision they are not allowed to attend. I hope, with my local authority, to see whether we can improve the situation and get better communication. Again, the situation arises whereby things are done to people without their consent. Things are working very badly in many of these areas, yet there is no mention of that whatsoever in the Gracious Speech. We need to get more of a focus on what should be done.
Legislating to introduce measures that are really Government policy—for instance, cutting the budget deficit by 50 per cent.—is a misuse of legislation, which is not intended for that purpose. Legislation is intended to establish law; Government policy is a separate matter. Policy should be reviewable now, not in retrospect two years later, which is what happens at the moment. There are some serious problems to deal with before we get to the major financial problems that we face, and proper attention is not being given to those issues.
On Afghanistan, people fail to understand the nature of segmented societies. There is a topic of study called political anthropology whereby one can look at how societies operate. In essence, we are trying to change the culture of a society through military means. I have a lot of confidence in the British armed forces—I am sure that they can win any battle—but using them to try to change a culture is the wrong mechanism. If a culture is going to change, it will do so over a number of years. In an honour-based system whereby if somebody’s tribal brother is killed it is then their duty to take revenge, it is very difficult to calm these situations down. Much as I pay tribute to the British armed forces and have great confidence in their ability to win any military battle, the Government are making a mistake by giving them a cultural and political objective rather than a military objective. That is another matter that the Government should review urgently but does not appear in the Queen’s Speech.
We face a lot of problems as a society. The Government are misusing the Queen’s Speech. There should be a general election now; sadly, we know that there will not be. However, whatever happens in future, I intend to continue to try to deal with these issues, which are not necessarily party political; I find that I work with hon. Members in all parts of the House. I intend to press to reduce miscarriages of justice, particularly in the family division, and I look forward to working with hon. Members in doing so.
Over the past 17 years in which I have been a Member of Parliament, I have been pleased to use the occasion of the first day of the Queen’s Speech debate to set out my stall and amplify my views on a number of issues. The opportunity presented by our convention allows us to address a broad canvas of issues on this day, a right exercised by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming).
I also want to refer to the rubrics of today’s ceremony. I am one of those people who defend the ceremonial, and I think that it is superb. However, we need to reflect on the absurdity of having these state openings of Parliament year after year. In my view, it would be much more sensible, in a modern Parliament, for us to have the state opening ceremony at the beginning of a Parliament after a general election and for there to be a seamless robe instead of these wholly artificial Sessions, particularly now that we have carry-over motions and so on, with much legislation never heralded in the Gracious Speech. It would be much better if we had the ceremony once, given all the expense, which cannot be dismissed nowadays, and the inconvenience to people who need to move around this part of central London. Last but by no means least, there is the fact that a large number of our skilled and dedicated armed forces are proudly associated with the state opening ceremony; that cannot be justified year after year, bearing in mind that there will almost certainly be another ceremony next May. I hope that whoever wins the next general election will reflect on this and move to make arrangements whereby we have one Session for one Parliament and there is a seamless robe in terms of the legislative programme for the duration of that Parliament instead of frequently having these artificial, and very costly, state opening ceremonies.
For many hon. Members who have spoken today and are not now in the Chamber, and for myself, this occasion is an opportunity for a valedictory. I looked at a report of my maiden speech, which I delivered on the first day of the Queen’s Speech debate in 1992, to see what I had said. I intend to leave the House of Commons at the next general election, so I was pleased to see a number of things in that speech with which I am proud to be associated—[Interruption.] Fortunately, when I came into Parliament in 1992, we did not have high technologies that trespass on us both in this Chamber and at weekends.
In the Queen’s Speech debate in 1992, I advocated the admission of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic to the European Union. Not only are they now robust members of the EU, but I am proud that the Labour Government fast-tracked, supported and argued for the expansion of the EU. Whatever our differences on Europe, we can recognise that the expansion of the EU means that countries that have a chequered history—of a century or more, in the case of Poland—of occupation, partition and so on, have rightfully taken their place in, and are contributing to, the club of free nations, to their benefit and ours. One thing that is not spoken about enough is the fact that the European Union is a great vehicle for conflict resolution and minimisation, apart from the commercial, political and economic contributions it makes to our part of the globe.
The second thing I noticed when reading my contribution in 1992 was that I referred to the need to improve industrial relations. In the great sweep of the period of this Labour Government, industrial relations have significantly improved. The period has been relatively free of strife and conflict, compared with the 20 years or quarter of a century before 1997.
I am pleased that in today’s Queen’s Speech, there is talk of advancing agency employees’ rights; and that there is going to be greater disclosure regarding the opportunities for workers to get redress and remedies, and to point out pay and opportunity injustices when there is discrimination on gender grounds. I very much welcome the introduction of such measures by this Labour Government.
Most Members of the House will welcome, at least in principle, the Government providing, through the personal care at home Bill, much-needed additional support for people suffering dementia and other conditions to help their loved ones and carers; and intensive support for such vulnerable people. Most will also welcome the measures for re-ablement technology to assist and improve the quality of life of our fellow citizens who suffer from those conditions.
I obviously welcome the fact that we have a carry-over motion—it was referred to in the Queen’s Speech—for the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill, and the intention to produce at least a draft Bill in respect of democratising the upper House. On the latter, it is disappointing that after 13 years, and even though the 1997 Labour manifesto said that we were going to introduce such a measure, there has not been much of an advance.
I am leaving the House at the general election, primarily because I felt, physically and mentally, that I needed a sabbatical. I deliberately tell the House that because I am not going away. If there was an opportunity for election to the upper House, I would love to be one of the first of the new, or at least to be able to offer myself. However, I am not holding my breath, because I have heard Governments time and again say that they are going to address the matter, but it does not happen. That reflects the deep conservatism on this issue.
Simple measures could have been introduced to make this House and the other place much more meaningful. Some colleagues have already referred to the GOATs—Ministers in a Government of all the talents—some of whom were Ministers for only a short period. I did invite the Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee to consider whether we could allow Ministers in the Lords to come and answer questions here on their portfolios and, if they were the architects of legislation, to be allowed to pilot it through this House, and for the reverse to happen as well, with Ministers from the Commons appearing in the Lords. It is not rocket science, and it happens in many legislatures around the world, including some Westminster-style ones.
Indeed, I cannot see why it is necessary for Ministers to be members of the legislature, and there are many good reasons why they should not be. If a Deputy in the French National Assembly becomes a Minister, a suppléant takes over to represent their constituency in the interests of the voters, and the Minister can focus on their ministerial portfolio. If it is right for me, as a Back Bencher, to raise issues—such as the railways, the hospital service, the environment, the Thames and Afghanistan— through parliamentary questions, Adjournment debates and debates in Westminster Hall, why cannot a neighbouring Member do so if they happen to be a Minister? How can that position be defended? If they are the Under-Secretary of State for paperclips and statues, the only thing that they can speak about in the House is paperclips and statues. Their electorate is therefore disfranchised, compared with the electorate of a Back Bencher. We need to consider that issue with dispatch, if we are to enhance the bruised reputation of Parliament.
The Gracious Speech also referred, rightly, to advancing devolution in Scotland and Wales. However, despite that, for many hours this afternoon and evening, there has been no Member from Scotland present. There has been one Plaid Cymru Member waiting to catch the Chair’s eye. I also find it frustrating that when questions of devolution are discussed, many colleagues representing English constituencies seem to think that it is not their business. It is most definitely our business, because it is a question of the constitution of the United Kingdom, and there is a desperate need to address what is known as the West Lothian question. My Government are in denial about the problem, but each time we rightly advance devolution in Scotland and Wales, the West Lothian question becomes more perverse. One day, this issue will be addressed, but because of this Government’s failure to act, it will be on terms dictated by others. It would be much better to embrace the issue now.
In any event, we need constitutional symmetry. One of the most important arguments for devolving power to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is the need for good governance. Decisions should be made and initiatives taken at local level, and the suggestion that that issue cannot be addressed in relation to England is absurd. The very Union that the overwhelming majority of Members wish to defend is being endangered by our refusal to accept the need for symmetry. Indeed, we are creating greater anomalies all the time. I therefore urge Members representing English constituencies to be much more interested in this issue. I also urge the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Chris Mole), who is sitting on the Treasury Bench, to take the matter back to the Government, because we really need to address the West Lothian question, as a matter of fairness and in defence of the Union. Not to do so would be foolhardy in the extreme.
I always listen to the hon. Gentleman with the greatest interest. I should like to remind him that the north-west of England has a bigger population than Scotland and that, for some of us, an English solution that still leaves civil servants taking decisions behind desks in Whitehall is not what we are looking for. We are looking for those decisions to be taken in the north-west of England.
Obviously, I have a great deal of sympathy for what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Either we have to have an English Parliament, or we need a number of Parliaments within England. I have an open mind as to whether we should create provincial Parliaments in England to represent populations comparable to those of Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland, or whether we should have an English Parliament. We cannot, however, go on with this nonsense whereby people can not only come down from Scotland and vote on exclusively English matters but actually be Ministers dealing with such issues. An example is the Dartford toll bridge. A Minister who is a Scottish Member of Parliament told me that I had to have higher tolls on the Dartford toll bridge, when a comparable decision had just, rightly, been taken to remove the tolls from the bridge across the Clyde. That was a very sensible decision, but it was nothing to do with me. That position is just not sustainable.
This very day, a report was published by the All Wales Convention, which was set up by the National Assembly of Wales—to its credit—under Emyr Jones Parry to look into whether devolution in Wales could be advanced. The fact is that any such greater devolution—which I support—will have ramifications for the constituency of the hon. Gentleman and for mine. That report is not available in the Vote Office, however. I got an executive summary of it through the good offices of a member of an Opposition party. We cannot go on like this. The Calman commission produced a similar report into further devolution for Scotland, initiated largely by the Scottish Government, but with a nod and a wink and some support from the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Prime Minister. That, too, has ramifications for my constituency. I just wish that we could get a grip on this issue and address the modernisation of the United Kingdom constitution, in order to create parity of treatment and constitutional symmetry.
I also want to raise an important constituency issue, which affects not only Thurrock but the wider Thames Gateway area. A little while after my party came into office, in order to increase the supply of housing stock and to create jobs, it developed a strategy for expanding in the Thames Gateway to the east of London. I supported that policy then, and I still do, but I am bitterly disappointed at how slow and sluggish its implementation has been. One problem is that Tony Blair and the present Prime Minister have kept moving their Ministers. This is true of so many Ministries. These Prime Ministers have an obsession with changing their Ministers every few months. There is never any settlement, and never any ownership of the issues. Some Ministers change their minds, and sometimes the civil servants think, “Ah, we’ve got rid of him and her; now we can reverse some of their initiatives.” This is bad governance.
In the past year or two, there has actually been significant progress, but I hear a rumour that the current Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government is contemplating giving the responsibility that is vested in the Thurrock Thames Gateway Development Corporation to an outfit called the Homes and Communities Agency. I am implacably opposed to that, to the extent that in the few weeks I have left in this place, there is going to be one hell of a row if the daft Minister decides to hand this over to a man called Bob Kerslake and this national quango, which has been created on top of the plethora of bodies that already exist in the Thames Gateway.
This is completely bonkers, and I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Chris Mole), who is sitting on the Treasury Bench, will tell the Communities and Local Government Secretary tomorrow that the Member for Thurrock who supported and sustained the policy of developing the Thames Gateway is not in favour of the Thurrock Thames Gateway Development Corporation losing its powers and having them handed over to a big national quango, which cannot, in my view, either address the needs of the people of Thurrock and the Thames Gateway, or achieve the Government’s objectives of increasing the housing stock in this important region as well as creating jobs. This would be foolhardy in the extreme, so I hope that that message will be conveyed back.
I have spoken informally behind the Chair to the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) and other Essex MPs. It is interesting to note that when we raise matters relating to our constituencies or the wider region, BBC Essex is dilatory about reporting Parliament and the issues raised by Members, whether they be left, right or centre, about the county of Essex. If the issue is expenses, of course, the BBC people are on the telephone, but we do not get good reporting from BBC Essex, which I am angry about.
BBC Essex has closed studios in Southend. It had a newsgathering facility provided by the borough of Thurrock at the western end, but it did not use it, and gave it up. It is time that we complained about the coverage by BBC local radio. I imagine that hon. Members in other areas will have similar experiences. The service is parlous, and I believe it is time we demanded that BBC Essex and other BBC radio stations up and down the country report real news and real initiatives by councillors and MPs speaking on and about local issues. They are supposed to be providing local news and local interest.
Colleagues have expressed disappointment or, in some cases, surprise that there was no legislation relating to immigration and/or the stewardship of our borders by the Border and Immigration Agency. All I can say is that I simply cannot understand why successive Governments have not been able to get on top of managing the migration system. MPs of all parties have cases in which the Border and Immigration Agency is behaving in a totally absurd manner, with consequences of great hardship, great anxiety and, in some cases, cruelty to individuals.
I have frequently had cases in which people have, rightly or wrongly, lived in the UK for many years, and have developed relationships and had children and are living as loving family units. We are told, however, that we have to wait until 2011 for those cases to be resolved. It is indefensible that we cannot provide a swift common-sense remedy, because we know what common-sense remedy will eventually prevail: these people will be allowed, for a whole variety of sensible human rights reasons, to gain permanent leave to remain in the UK. Why cannot this agency, and Ministers, address the problem? It is just beyond me; I urge them to revisit the issue.
We expected electoral reform to be mentioned in the Gracious Speech, but it does not seem to have emerged in the way that some of us had hoped for. Both before and during my time in the House, I have believed that we need to alter the electoral system both for Westminster and for local government. Failure to address that need will be a source of further aggravation. There are ways in which we could reach a consensus across parties. We could find a way of maintaining the single Member constituency system while making people’s votes count much more. We could create a system in which every Member of Parliament would be able to say that he or she had a mandate from more than 50 per cent. of the electorate. I cannot see why the Queen’s Speech did not at least issue a promissory note to voters saying that if a Labour Government were returned at the next election, electoral reform would follow. There should have been a paving Bill to that effect.
I hope that over the next few days of our debate on the Queen’s Speech we may hear some news from the Government. Our detailed debates on justice and home affairs will give them an opportunity to address the issue. In my view, there is an urgent requirement for electoral reform to be put both before Parliament and before the country as a whole.
Other Members, who have been very patient, wish to speak, so I shall not labour my points for much longer. However, I think that we need to be much more ambitious in asserting the rights of the House over the Executive, and indeed the Opposition Front Bench. The Executive are to blame to a large extent—the Executive of the day, that is; the same would be true if there were a Conservative Government—but there is also a cosy consensus between the Front Benches which excludes the influence of Back Benchers, and I think that it needs to be broken down.
You have been here for many years, Madam Deputy Speaker. If you read past Gracious Speeches, you will find that, certainly in your early years in the House, they gave details of overseas state visits made by the monarch, and of the people whom she expected to welcome on their state visits to this country. The latter practice has largely ended. When I inquired about that I was told that it was to do with security, but I think it is going too far for us not to announce when Heads of State are to visit and when visits are to be made at “state visit” level. The public should be given more notice. I suspect that on occasion many Members have observed some disruption in London, or some extra flags flying, and have inquired about the reasons, only to discover that there had been a state visit earlier in the day. A significant Head of State may have visited, but it is possible that no Member of Parliament will have known about it.
I mention that matter for a variety of reasons. One of them is a parliamentary reason. I feel that whenever there is a state visit there should be a presumption that the Head of State involved will address both Houses of Parliament, but that does not always happen. In fact, I think that on the majority of occasions it does not happen, and that is wrong. A state visit by a Head of State is a visit to the country. It is not just a visit to the Government or to our Head of State. After all, it is the tradition for our Head of State to address legislatures when she goes around the world, both in the Commonwealth and in other states. It is also the tradition for many other Parliaments to welcome people to address them in their chamber. I think that we should develop the practice of insisting that both the House of Lords and the House of Commons welcome people making state visits in a very formal way. Perhaps the Chambers could alternate as host.
This is the last time I will do this in the House, Madam Deputy Speaker, but let me, by way of illustration, remind you of a speech by Winston Churchill. He said, “The French generals told the divided Cabinet that in three weeks England would have her neck wrung like a chicken. Some chicken! Some neck!” That speech was delivered in the Canadian House of Commons—and that is the tradition. Mr. Blair and our current Prime Minister often address other legislatures. Why do we not at least invite visiting Heads of State into our legislative Chamber—and also, for that matter, important Heads of Government? That would be a very good innovation.
Although I hope to catch the Speaker’s eye again between now and Dissolution, I shall conclude my remarks tonight by referring to the pride that I have taken in being a Member of this House, and to the fact that colleagues left, right and centre have been bruised recently, and in many cases traduced. We have got ourselves to blame to a large extent, of course, but some of the vitriol and criticism have been wholly disproportionate. I hope that Members will get an opportunity to read the contribution that I am making this evening, because I shall now quote some words of Teddy Roosevelt, a distinguished President of the United States at the beginning of the last century. He said:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”
I think we should take heart. There are people outside this House—we know them—who find it easy to traduce but never to contribute to public life. There are many people who say repeatedly that they could do the job of a Member of Parliament more cheaply and better than we do it. It is perfectly reasonable for them to assert that, but if they believe they can do the job more cheaply and—this is the important ingredient—better, not only may they stand at the next general election, but I say they have an obligation to stand. If they are elected, they will have to fulfil their duties in the way they have outlined to the people outside this place. They will also have to remember that resources are limited, and that being a Member of Parliament is not about being away in the recess and enjoying relaxation, but that it is a 52-week-a-year commitment, seven days a week, 24 hours a day. Therefore, I say to our critics, “Yes, you’re entitled to criticise us, and we will never want to stop you doing so, but if you feel so strongly about this and think you can do the job better and more cheaply, not only can you stand at the next election, but you have an obligation to stand.”
It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay). I hope I am not being too premature in paying a tribute to him, but may I say that he is always a pugnacious parliamentary performer, and also highly creative and at times highly entertaining as well?
As the hon. Gentleman alluded to the report of Sir Emyr Jones Parry, perhaps I should start by discussing that. Today is a very important day in Wales: not only do we have the Queen’s Speech, but there is also the publication of Sir Emyr Jones Parry’s report on further devolution—on, in fact, full law-making powers for the Welsh Assembly, or the so-called part 4 powers. This is highly pertinent to our debate now and over the next few days, as some of the flagship elements of the Queen’s Speech are to do with devolved matters, specifically education and social care. Those matters are the responsibility of the Welsh Assembly Government and the Welsh Assembly itself. The hon. Gentleman referred to the fact that we have not heard contributions from Welsh or Scottish Members today, aside from an intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd). I am glad to see that the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) has come into the Chamber because if he had not, Wales would be unrepresented, save for myself. Wales should be represented here as this is an extremely important occasion, because of not only Sir Emyr Jones Parry’s report, but the Queen’s Speech.
There has been frenzied discussion in the press over the past few days as to how much of this Queen’s Speech will be enacted. I found myself in the novel and rather disconcerting position of being in agreement with the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) earlier. Hon. Members who know of his previous career as Secretary of State for Wales will know how strange it is for me to agree with him, but I, too, find the trailing or leaking beforehand of the Queen’s Speech, and of other matters, highly irritating. I listen every day to the “Today” programme and hear matters related there that should be related to this place first. His arguments would have been somewhat stronger had he given the House an undertaking that should his party be returned to government it would immediately abandon these practices, but he made no mention of that eventuality.
The Queen’s Speech was trailed and one of the questions discussed was whether or not it was just a manifesto for the next general election. I wish to respond on behalf of my party by saying that if it is, there are certain matters that we welcome. We welcome the statement that there will be further devolution. Devolution has been going on, but it has been under the hatches as far as most people in this place are concerned. The legislative competence orders—LCOs—have been considered by the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs, on which the hon. Member for Ceredigion and I serve, and they have transferred a great deal of power to the Welsh Assembly.
The hon. Gentleman has alluded to Sir Emyr Jones Parry’s report and to the LCO process, which some of us would say we endure, rather than celebrate. One of the points that Sir Emyr Jones Parry made was about the lack of clarity in the government of Wales—in the transfer of powers. What does the hon. Gentleman feel about that, given what the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) said about wanting an holistic approach and about our wanting good, accountable government and decision making closer to the people affected by the decisions?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. The LCO process is highly mysterious to some people and extremely boring to others. I have counted the steps in the devolution of power through that process and I believe that there are 27 such steps—there can sometimes be 28 and there may even be 29 if, as is likely, we discuss LCOs in respect of the Welsh language on the Floor of the House—before the Welsh Assembly takes any step towards passing a measure.
We have recently discussed the LCO in respect of having regulations for sprinklers in new domestic builds. It has taken two and a half years from the initial inception of the idea that sprinklers should be made mandatory to its being discussed here, and it will take another six to eight months before it is eventually passed and a measure takes the simple step of having building regulations in Wales on the installation of sprinklers. I understand from the Assembly Member responsible on this that every year some 25 people in Wales die in fires that could be prevented by sprinklers. We are also talking about £128 million of damage caused every year by fires that could be prevented in that way, so there is a real issue to address because people have died and great damage has been done. I shall not go on about the devolution process, because I know that yet another Member—the hon. Member for Brent, North (Barry Gardiner)—has been patiently waiting to make his contribution.
I said that we would welcome elements of the Queen’s Speech if they form part of a manifesto. The statements on child poverty are extremely welcome—I shall refer to that later—as too are the energy Bill and the extension of the social tariff. I draw the House’s attention to the fact that the Welsh Assembly Government do not have great power in the latter field, and we would welcome further consideration of devolution on the matter. As part of my general welcome to the Queen’s Speech, I should mention that the digital economy Bill, too, is very welcome. One hon. Member referred to the wonderful broadband service in England and Wales, but he could have dropped the reference to Wales—or, at least, to my constituency, where generally the broadband service is pretty awful.
I would like to raise a matter that has concerned me since I became aware of it a couple of years ago. When broadcasting goes digital, as it has been doing in north-west Wales over the past few weeks, digital radio will be made available. In the north-west, that will include Radio 1, Radio 2, Radio 3, Radio 4, Radio 5 Live and the Asian Network, but Radio Cymru, which broadcasts in Welsh and whose heartland audience is in the north-west, will not be broadcast digitally there until 2015, as was referred to in the Queen’s Speech. For possibly four or five years, therefore, all kinds of services will be available digitally through the medium of English, but the core listenership of Radio Cymru will be unable to access the latter digitally. That seems perverse to say the least, and I wish that someone would take a look at it. I have drawn the Government’s attention to it in the past; I hope that they will pay attention to it in the future.
We, in Plaid Cymru, have published our alternative Queen’s Speech, containing nine Bills, all of which address the concerns of the people of Wales, and which we will put to the people of Wales as part of our offering for the forthcoming election. I do not want to detain the House unduly on this subject, as we are here to discuss the Queen’s Speech, not the alternative Queen’s Speech, but I shall read out some of the Bill titles in our alternative speech. There is a military well-being Bill, a care allowance Bill—I shall talk about that later when I come to care in the community—and a maximum wage Bill, which has been mentioned already. We also have some proposals for the devolution of justice powers to Wales and a democracy Bill to introduce electoral reform, the single transferable vote, votes at 16 and various other matters. We have, too, a financial reform Bill, a green representatives Bill, an employment services in Wales Bill and a personal debt Bill.
Last week, when we presented the alternative Queen’s Speech to the press, a BBC journalist—the faithful David Cornock—asked where was the St. David’s day bank holiday Bill, which is a traditional part of our offering. If he is listening, may I now refer to it and say that we would like that as well—and have done with it?
We were disappointed by some partial omissions in the Queen’s Speech. For example, we would have liked to hear proposals more directly related to employment and unemployment. I referred to an employment services in Wales Bill. We would like the services of Jobcentre Plus and the various associated initiatives to be devolved and beefed up. In some parts of the UK, the numbers of people seeking vacancies are very high. For example, in parts of Wales, 60 or 70 people are chasing each vacancy. However, in parts of south-east England, the numbers are two, three, five, six, seven, eight or nine. A very good case can be made, therefore, for beefing up Jobcentre Plus in Wales and working more effectively with the third sector.
When one looks at the distribution of unemployment, it becomes clear that, as ever, it is high in some inner cities and parts of the midlands and the north-east, and, as is traditionally the case, high in Wales. In fact, the unemployment rate in Wales jumped substantially last month, despite some of the actions taken by the Welsh Assembly Government.
There is a great deal that we can learn in this Chamber from what happens in Wales. We should look beyond the UK’s borders as well, but there are certainly some initiatives in Wales that bear examination by this place. We have two schemes in Wales—the ProAct and ReAct schemes—that ensure that people are retained in employment or trained for employment in lean times. They are short-term measures, instituted by the Welsh Assembly Government, but have been highly successful in their own limited terms. We are talking about thousands of workers being retained in employment, not tens or hundreds of thousands, but there are points related to those schemes that could be examined in this place. Indeed, ProAct and ReAct have been praised by those in all parts of the House when they have been discussed.
That is what the Welsh Assembly Government have managed to do, safeguarding those jobs, but much more needs to be done to target resources at, for example, manufacturing and small and medium-sized enterprises, of which we have many in Wales. In fact, as in many places, small and medium-sized enterprises are the backbone of the Welsh economy. However, I would add in parentheses that private enterprise forms much too small a part of the Welsh economy. We have a large public sector, but without a doubt we could do with growing our private sector. There will be new jobs, as we have heard from those on the Treasury Bench. That is very much to be welcomed, but I would have hoped to see further direct steps taken on the training of workers, job creation and helping SMEs.
I had the unfortunate experience just the other day of discussing a small tourism enterprise in my constituency that was experiencing difficult times in winter, as tourism businesses always do. The owners have taken out a second mortgage, mortgaging their home to keep the business going. The bank provided the money, but demanded additional payments of £800 a week as a security because of the risk being undertaken. The owners are understandably experiencing great difficulties in finding that extra money in lean times. That example is a classic case of the bank giving an umbrella when it is fine and wanting it back when it is raining. There are far too many businesses in Wales and elsewhere suffering from such problems.
There are also measures on employment that we would have liked to see. I have spoken in the Chamber previously about the possibility of reducing VAT on labour-intensive industries. The Government might look at that later in the month or as we approach the election, but I would like to recommend it as a possibility that is now allowed for, following the most recent ECOFIN discussions. Other countries have taken that step and reduced VAT on, for example, building work for repairs and renovation, thereby injecting some money into labour-intensive industries, immediately giving the building industry a boost and getting repairs done on old buildings, of which we have many in Wales, including many pre-1919 buildings and bad houses.
Reducing VAT on repairs would be one way of getting those repairs done. However, not only would people be employed and the repairs get done, but it was apparently found in Italy that when the tax rate dropped to 5 per cent., 30,000 building companies appeared out of what is called the informal economy and started paying the rather more reasonable rate. The actual tax take went up, even though the tax rate went down. That does not always happen, of course, but the potential exists when one is looking at how to pay for such a step. We would very much have liked to see a reference to that course of action in the Queen’s Speech and, given that Europe has been happy to recommend it as a way forward, it is possible that the Government will decide to take it up.
I want to turn briefly to a couple of other omissions from the Queen’s Speech. For some time, my hon. Friend the Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy has been calling for a military well-being Bill to address a wide range of deficiencies in the treatment of our military personnel, such as the aftercare of those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The Bill would also try to get to the root of why 10 per cent. of our jail population are ex-military: what is the root cause of that glaring problem, and what steps can we take to remedy it? There is clearly a chain of causality, and I know that my hon. Friend will take part in research on the matter very shortly.
Another matter about which my hon. Friend is keen—and I speak on his behalf now—is the lamentable state of service accommodation and housing, some of which is in very poor condition. Every week, the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and other hon. Members have to stand up and express their concern and sympathy for people who have so tragically lost family members in conflicts abroad. It is quite right that we in this place state clearly how much we appreciate the sacrifice that people make, but my party believes that certain concrete steps should be taken, and that the corollary of expressing public sympathy is to look at problems such as the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Before I conclude, I want to speak briefly about two matters that I have raised already, and the first is the potential for changing the law on child poverty. Clearly, that is a huge problem, although I am not convinced that we need a new law to enable us to reach the Government’s targets of halving child poverty by 2010 and reducing it to 10 per cent. by 2020. However, I had a quick look at the figures for Wales before I came to the debate and I found that in 1997, when this Government came to power, there were 216,000 children in poverty, or 36 per cent. of the child population. Five years later, the figure was 210,000, or 35 per cent., four years after that it was 186,000, or 31 per cent., and two years after that it was 174,000, or 29 per cent.—but the point is that by June 2009 the figure for children in Wales defined as being in poverty had risen again to 192,000, or 32 per cent.
We are going very much in the wrong direction, with the proportion of children in poverty in Wales rising from a low of 29 per cent. to 32 per cent. That is tragic when one thinks of the lives of the children involved, and of the hard work that the Government have put in. They had very well meaning intentions to attack this dreadful problem and it is tragic that they are not succeeding. I hope that the Government will redouble their efforts to tackle this most wicked of social ills.
There are two areas that I would like to see addressed in the months running up to the election, and perhaps they could be the subject of election manifestos. The first matter is the reform of the tax credits system. At every surgery that I hold, I still get one, two, three or four cases in which people describe finding themselves in deep debt to the Revenue thanks to past over-payments. That is still going on, despite the reforms that the Government quite rightly have brought in. The problem needs to be looked at again.
The other area is child care. Child care is difficult to obtain in urban areas, but it is a total nightmare in rural areas. In my part of the world, it is very difficult to access the good-quality, affordable child care that means that people who want to return to work are able to. It is not impossible, but it is a total nightmare. The people who actually access child care tax credits are few and far between, and they tend to be the more able. There is a class difference. The people who most need child care tax credits seem to be the least likely to access them. I hope that point will be addressed.
Lastly, I refer to the proposals on care for the elderly and for disabled people—the personal care at home Bill. I note from the BBC’s Bill by Bill briefing that the measure applies “to England only”, so I hope that, as a Welshman, I will be allowed to say a few words, because the proposals are part of a much larger consideration of care services. A week last Thursday, we debated the Government’s Green Paper, one of whose proposals is that attendance allowance and disability living allowance for people over 65 might be taken to finance enhanced care services for older people and people with a disability.
The Green Paper proposals are about care in England. However, I assume that the proposals about attendance allowance and DLA will apply equally to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. When I asked the Secretary of State about that—a week last Thursday—he said there had been regional consultation with stakeholders and all kinds of users throughout England, because a large change was envisaged. When I asked him about consultation in Wales, he said there had been talks with Assembly officials. That is not good enough and I am sure that the Secretary of State felt embarrassed at having to say it. I hope he will quickly take steps to hold proper discussions with the Welsh Assembly Government and stakeholders in Wales, because at present it is unclear what “national” means in the national care plan that the Government propose. I think it means England. It is a perennial problem for people such as me.
Some years ago the Leader of the House was talking about an education measure and she kept saying “this country”. Eventually, I intervened to ask her which country she meant. She had what is sometimes called an “Aha” moment and replied, “England”, which was the point of my intervention.
To be serious, more and more people in Wales are beginning to realise that there may be changes in attendance allowance in the future, although not for the current recipients. People are worried about the future of attendance allowance and disability living allowance, so the sooner the Government clarify their intentions in respect of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, as well as England, the better. I look forward to it.
I have to admit that I have been known to fall asleep in the Chamber during the speeches of other Members in the past. That has not happened today, but I trust that I may be forgiven if I should fall asleep during my own speech this evening—after what is now seven hours in the Chamber without a break, I feel for the first time that it is quite likely.
We now know that it is Lord Strathclyde and not the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) who will be leading the Opposition charge in the next general election. Any piece of progressive legislation that the Labour Government introduce may be struck down by the noble Lord who has pronounced that it is
“too early to say which bills we will allow through.”
How condescending! How outrageous that the Conservative party is so brazen as to flaunt the fact that it intends to use its inbuilt majority in the House of Peers to strike out the Government’s programme.
What is in this programme that the right hon. Gentleman is reported in today’s newspapers to have described as “divisive” and mere “pettiness”? I shall focus my remarks on two areas: health and education. I welcome the Government’s proposals to guarantee that all treatment for any illness should begin within 18 weeks of GP referral. I fail to see what is either petty or divisive about that. I welcome the Government’s proposals to guarantee that, if one’s GP suspects that one has cancer, one will be entitled to see a cancer specialist within two weeks. I fail to see what is either petty or divisive about that. I also welcome the introduction of a right to a free health check every five years for those aged between 40 and 74. That is not petty or divisive; it is what most people regard as common sense. It is, in fact, the opposite of divisive: for the first time, it guarantees a quality of health care for the many that previously has been available only to the few who can afford to pay. Empowering people by giving them guaranteed rights is not about division; it is about equality. It is no wonder, then, that the Conservative party—the party of Lord Strathclyde—wants to tear it down.
My constituents remember only too well the last time that the Conservatives were in government. Treatment within 18 weeks—some chance. Their target was 18 months and patients routinely waited much longer. Eighteen weeks was what the wait felt like if one was unlucky enough to have to visit an accident and emergency department under the Tories. Now, almost all patients at A and E are seen within four hours. The Conservatives had put the national health service into intensive care; it was this Labour Government who invested in it and turned it around. In 1997, 50 per cent. of all hospital buildings in this country were more than 100 years old. Today, more than 50 per cent. of hospital buildings have been built since 1997.
The NHS has gone from a poor service, where patients got what they were given, to a good service, where patients have rights and the service is structured to suit them. Targets were important to drive up standards; guarantees are important to lock in those reforms and to empower patients. As targets become rights, not just the patient but our society is healed and becomes more equal, less divisive. Her Majesty’s Gracious Speech is right; Lord Strathclyde is wrong.
On education, today’s headline in The Daily Telegraph was the most extraordinary mixture of outrage and incredulity. So what did it say? Merely this: “Children get legal right to a good education”. That was it—that was the headline. How outrageous indeed—children having a right to a good education. What—all children, not just those of the rich who can pay for private education and enshrine that right in a legally binding contract? How preposterous! No wonder the newspaper condemns the Government’s proposal as a “whingers’ charter”. No doubt it says the same about the contracts that parents sign with Eton and Harrow, Winchester and Ampleforth, Fettes and Gordonstoun—whingers’ charters all.
So just how petty and divisive are the educational guarantees that Lord Strathclyde wants to strike down? I welcome the fact that all seven to 11-year-olds who fall behind are guaranteed to receive one-to-one tuition in English or maths. I fail to see what is petty or divisive about that. Perhaps the Opposition are not concerned if primary school children fall behind their classmates, but parents are. They want the Government to be just as concerned as they are, and they want Government action to help to sort it out.
I welcome the proposal to guarantee all five to 16-year-olds access to five hours of high-quality physical activity and sport every week. I fail to see how that is either petty or divisive. Children at private schools have always had that guarantee. Giving it to all children is about equality, not division. It is about doing something positive to address the growing problem of childhood obesity. I welcome the guarantee that every teenager should either be in education or in training at least until the age of 17 from 2013 and at least until the age of 18 from 2015. How is that petty, when that youngster’s future prospects depend on the skills and qualifications that he or she secures before the age of 20? How is that petty, when our country’s productivity and prosperity depend on our preparing our young people for the jobs that tomorrow’s economy will require?
My constituents well remember the last time that the Conservatives controlled education, both in the country and in Brent. In 1995, the Audit Commission report for London said:
“Brent schools are simply the worst”.
In those days, schools in my constituency regularly struggled to achieve even 40 per cent. A* to C grades at GCSE. Just one example is Wembley high technology college, which used to achieve only 32 per cent. This year, it achieved 92 per cent. A* to C grades at GCSE. I am hugely proud of it, and I pay tribute to its extraordinary head, Gill Bal, who was the runner-up this year as woman of the year in the leadership and diversity awards for her work improving the life chances of so many young people from so many varied backgrounds. There are other schools in my constituency that I could equally well name: St. Gregory’s, whose awards ceremony I will attend tomorrow night; Claremont; Preston Manor; JFS; and Kingsbury high school—all of them with A* to C achievements in the 80 to 90 per cent. bracket. That is the transformation that has taken place in my constituency in education.
Perhaps the year that was most indicative of what things were like was 1996, when the Conservatives in Brent set the council’s budget. They omitted entirely to put a single penny into special educational needs. It was a statutory responsibility, yet not one penny was allocated in their budget. My constituents know what is petty. No funding for the most disadvantaged children—that was petty. My constituents know what is divisive. No funding for disadvantaged children—that was petty and divisive, which is a precise description of what Conservative party policy on education was all about.
This Queen’s Speech is right to talk about the need for action on climate change and to look forward to COP15 in Copenhagen next month. With a number of hon. Members, I had the privilege of attending the Globe Forum on climate change and energy in Copenhagen last month. There I chair the commission of Globe on land use and ecosystems, so it was with particular pleasure that I listened earlier this evening to the remarks of the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean), who, as he informed the House, was speaking in his last Queen’s Speech debate before leaving the Commons. He spoke of the need to preserve rainforests.
The proposals that will go forward from the Copenhagen conference next month are critical for tackling climate change through reduced emissions from deforestation and degradation. By 2020, if the world is to achieve a 450 parts per million trajectory, we must reduce annual emissions of CO2 by 17 gigatonnes each year. That is 17 gigatonnes from business as usual, but only 5 gigatonnes can be achieved at a cost of less than €60 per tonne from the developed world.
The irony and injustice of that will be patent to everyone in the Chamber. What it means is that 12 gigatonnes of that abatement have to be achieved from the developing world, which did not create the problem in the first place. It is essential that the post-2012 settlement, when the Kyoto protocol comes to its conclusion, should include a process of reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation, but to date the REDD process that has been talked about by Governments is inadequate to the task. It offers a method for paying Governments to reduce their emissions, but that is like boarding a train without knowing the destination.
Each country must be assumed to act in its own economic best interest. It will therefore seek to maximise the revenue that it can accrue from the minimum amount of emissions reductions over the longest period. That is what any rational economic agent would do. However, the world does not need the process of emissions reductions spun out over as long a period of possible. It needs early and dramatic reductions in emissions. That is why, in setting the framework for REDD at Copenhagen next month, it is absolutely essential that the argument be made to ensure that the REDD support package’s financial weighting incentivises early and dramatic reductions and rewards a transition to a stabilised point of zero net emissions. Unless it is clear that the REDD process has that end point, we cannot hope to achieve the emissions reductions that are required to get the world on a 450 ppm track.
It is essential also that there be a stabilisation fund as part of the REDD negotiations—a fund that will show countries just why it is in their self-interest to arrive at a point of zero net emissions. Only if there is such a stabilisation fund will countries make the transition that is required to achieve the climate change results that the world hopes Copenhagen may bring.
The issue of Equitable Life has been before this Parliament and its predecessors for almost 10 years. Although it is right and proper that we discuss the things that the Queen’s Speech contains, it is also important to mention the things that it has not addressed. It was interesting to hear an Opposition Member—I cannot now remember which hon. Gentleman it was—talk about the need to consider people who had been imprisoned and subsequently released, because they were found to be innocent, and the compensation that should be made available to them. The hon. Gentleman used the phrase that, tragically, many are now dying off before that compensation can be paid.
In Equitable Life, we do not have a few miscarriages of justice, with people suffering and not being in receipt of compensation before they die; we have literally tens of thousands of people, who have suffered because of poor regulation as well as the maladministration of that company, and to whom compensation is undoubtedly due. Unfortunately, many are dying before it is possible for them to receive that compensation, and it is a major failing of this Queen’s Speech and of this Government that we have not moved far more swiftly to address the plight of those people. It is quite simply wrong for them to be struggling in their old age without the financial support that they believed they would receive and, indeed, had spent their lives saving for. Now, they find themselves in penury, and many are dying before they are able to get what they deserve.
In the minutes that remain to me, I want to bring to the House’s attention the single most distasteful thing that I have experienced as the Member for Brent, North. Two days ago, I received an e-mail from a friend of mine, Panna Vekaria, who urged me to go on to a website and action a YouTube video, which was a promotional video for the Welsh British National party filmed in my constituency. It started with an image of Wembley football stadium. The camera was then driven through Wembley High street, focusing on people of African and of Indian descent, and on people whose dress would indicate that they were Muslim or Hindu. It then stopped outside the mosque on Ealing road and focused on the sign of the Muslim welfare centre that stands there. All the time, the presenter, an individual from the British National party, was saying, “Look at that. That’s not what Britain should be, that’s not what Britain is like, that’s not what Britain should have been allowed to become.” I found this the single most revolting and disturbing thing in my life as a constituency MP. I issue this challenge to the British National party: “Come back to Brent, North and dare to stand against me at the next general election. Dare to put what you said on film to the whole of the British public. Dare to put it to the people of Brent, North. You claimed that those individuals your camera focused on were not British—well, I refute that.” Those people are British. They are proud to be British and proud to be part of this society.
I am proud to represent the most multicultural borough in this country and, indeed, in Europe. More than 160 different first languages are spoken in our borough and more than 130 different first languages are spoken in our schools. We are proud of that. We are proud of the fact that in every single one of the schools in Brent, North, by the time those children reach the time to go to secondary school, they are achieving above the national average at key stage 2. These children are our future. I defy the British National party to come to Brent, North to stand at the next election. Of course, the BNP believes that these people are not even entitled to vote, but they are: they are here; they are British citizens. It is absolutely essential that the Queen’s Speech that we will vote on in a few days’ time includes an equality Bill. At the core of what we do in this place must be equality; it must form the essential heart of British public life and British politics.
When I spoke to a woman in my constituency who is second generation—her parents came from east Africa in the 1970s but the family was originally from India—she told me about a discussion that her family had had over the dinner table about the appearance on “Question Time” of the representative from the British National party. She told me how she and her husband tried to explain to their children that it was important that there should be free speech. They had been intellectualising how important it was that, in a democracy, people should, without fear, be able to express their views and state them clearly, and how important it was that other people should be able to argue with them rationally and defeat them in a rational debate.
However, what impressed me most was that her daughter, who was born here and who has been a British citizen her entire life, simply asked, “Why should they be allowed to go on television and question the fact that I am British?” All the intellectualising and all the fine words about freedom of speech and the importance of debate, were knocked to one side by that young girl and her sense of outrage that a fellow member of her own society and her own country could question her right to be what she was, and question what she was.
The British National party has, I believe, no basis in this society. It has defiled my constituency by coming into it in the way it did. I issue once again the challenge to the BNP: come—put up or shut up—but do not dare to speak about my constituents as you did on YouTube.
It is a privilege always to address the House. The last speaker following seven hours can speak at greater length than otherwise, and I am grateful for the opportunity that being last in the debate today has given me. I thank you, Mr. Speaker, and the House, for it.
Ordered, That the debate be now adjourned.—(David Wright.)
Debate to be resumed tomorrow.