Before I call the mover and seconder, I want to announce the proposed pattern of debate during the remaining days on the Loyal Address: Wednesday 26 May—foreign affairs and defence; Thursday 27 May—energy, and environment, food and rural affairs; Wednesday 2 June—education and health; Monday 7 June—constitution and home affairs; Tuesday 8 June—economic affairs, and work and pensions.
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.
It is a great privilege to move the motion. I accepted the task, because it is an honour to my constituency, a rare chance to address a full Chamber and an historic opportunity to welcome the first peacetime coalition for 80 years. However, I hope that I was not as over-eager as one of our legendary colleagues, who languished unnoticed on the Back Benches for 20 years before receiving an invitation from the BBC to take part in a television debate. The invitation said that there would be a fee of £25, and he wrote back saying that he would be delighted to take part, enclosing a cheque for £25.
I confess that when the Chief Whip asked me to do this task, my immediate reaction was to say, “But surely it is traditionally shared by a genial old codger on the way out and an oily young man on the way up.” When he assured me that this year, the criteria were different, I assumed that he was referring to the fact that I am still mid-career, until he added that instead of an oily young man, we have got a Lib Dem. The hon. Member for Bath (Mr Foster) who, I am sure, will do this brilliantly, is certainly not oily—like all Lib Dems, he abhors hydrocarbons—and like me, he is only young for his age, but I am sure that he is on the way up.
This coalition throws up difficult problems of parliamentary etiquette, and I am the first to have to tackle them. Should I refer to my Liberal Democrat colleague as “my hon. Friend,” but that is a term reserved for members of our own parties? How about “my honourable partner”? The word “partner”, however, nowadays implies an even greater degree of intimacy than friendship, which is clearly what the Daily Mail fears, so I will stick to “my honourable ally.”
My constituency of Hitchin and Harpenden is unique in many ways, not least because it was tailor-made to my design. In my maiden speech in 1983, I said with more prescience than I realised that my only remaining territorial ambition was that a future boundary commission should extend the boundary to the north to include the village of Lilley from which my Saxon ancestors must have come. In 1997, it did just that. Given the promised Bill to
“create fewer and more equal sized”
seats, new Members may want to follow my example and use their maiden speeches to lay claim to neighbouring territory.
After annexing the village of Lilley, I agreed to do a TV interview in the local pub, The Lilley Arms. Someone who saw the programme told my mother that her son must be extremely popular, as they had already named a pub after him. However, I do not rely exclusively on my personal charisma to win elections. During one particularly difficult campaign, one of my supporters, who lives next door to a funeral parlour, plastered his house with my posters, and next to “Vote Lilley” some wag helpfully scrawled across the undertaker’s window, “Or die.” It did the trick.
Another issue in my maiden speech—still a key local priority—was the defence of the green belt, so my constituents will be delighted that the Gracious Speech promises a Bill to
“give local communities control over housing and planning decisions.”
The Gracious Speech is the first instalment of the coalition’s programme. I congratulate the Prime Minister on recognising that the inconclusive election result meant that the only way to provide strong and stable government was to form a coalition with the Liberals—[Interruption.]—the Liberal Democrats, I hasten to add. Some of my closest friends find coalition difficult to stomach, but if anyone imagines that, like King David, we could have hidden in the cave of Adullam, refusing to take up the mantle of government until all challenges to our authority disappear, they are mistaken. A coalition of the losers would have been a monstrosity; to govern alone, an impossibility; and a loose agreement falling short of a coalition, an absurdity. It would have left all the other parties free to dissociate themselves from the difficult decisions that we now know are inevitable.
I hope that my Liberal Democrat allies will not take it amiss if I say of them what John Major, not realising that his microphone was still on, said when he was asked why he kept certain Ministers in his Cabinet—including, now I come to think of it, me: “I’d rather have the bastards inside the tent, pi…”—relieving themselves—“outwards, rather than outside the tent, aiming in.” As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister’s more elegant phrase has it, “We’re all in it together.” We are in the same boat, so we had better row in harmony. I welcome the Liberal Democrats’ commitment to working together with us for a full Parliament.
Coalition requires compromise. Neither party can achieve all that it promised in its manifesto and many of us are receiving letters from constituents upset that measures they voted for are not included in the coalition programme. There is a simple reason for that. The Conservative party did not win enough votes or seats to deliver all our manifesto pledges. The solution is not to blame coalition but to win more support next time.
Meanwhile I believe the Gracious Speech represents not the lowest common denominator but the highest common factor between our two parties. Nevertheless, the dismay that many people feel about not getting what they thought they were voting for is a salutary warning about the dangers of coalitions. Should they become the norm rather than the exception, they could give parties an easy excuse for abandoning manifesto pledges and a temptation to make pledges they had little intention of keeping. Nothing could do more to undermine the accountability of parties to the electorate. I support this coalition because a hung Parliament makes it necessary, but I would not support changes to our voting system that would make hung Parliaments the norm, so although I will loyally vote to hold a referendum on changing the voting system, I will campaign vigorously against the alternative vote.
I welcome the fact that the Gracious Speech makes reducing the deficit a priority, starting with yesterday’s £6 billion cuts. The reason for starting early is not because we are indifferent to public sector workers’ concerns about their jobs but precisely because we want to minimise the impact on them. Tackling a deficit is like treating an illness: the longer we put it off, the more drastic the surgery we need. By starting now, more of the necessary savings can be made by freezing recruitment rather than by imposing redundancies, and by voluntary redundancies rather than compulsory redundancies, and the sooner private sector growth can offset the slimming of the public sector.
I particularly welcome the inclusion in the Gracious Speech of plans to introduce an annual limit on immigration. That was the issue raised most frequently on the doorstep. Concern about immigration itself was coupled with a dangerous feeling of resentment towards the political class who had overridden public opposition while silencing debate. As Gillian Duffy discovered, anyone who raises the issue is liable to be dismissed as a bigot.
Why is it that when Prime Ministers leave their microphones on they reveal that they think anyone who raises contentious issues such as immigration or Europe is either a bigot or a bastard? The lesson my right hon. Friend should learn is not that he should take care to turn his microphone off, but that he should keep his receiver switch on to hear people’s legitimate concerns, however unfashionable their views may be among the metropolitan intelligentsia.
The Gracious Speech rightly makes Afghanistan our top foreign priority. When Tony Blair started paying tribute at Question Time to British soldiers killed in Afghanistan, he probably expected it to be a rare ritual. Instead it has become a weekly litany of heroism and sacrifice, made all the more moving by its repetition—so much so that I for one can barely stop myself crying out, “Enough. No more. Bring them home.” I know that we cannot overnight abandon commitments to allies and the Afghans themselves, but I urge my right hon. Friends to scale back our aims realistically and bring our young soldiers home with all due speed.
One issue the coalition has apparently not yet been able to reach agreement on is whether marriage should be encouraged. That is strange, as the coalition itself has been portrayed by the media as a marriage, albeit one that began as an arranged marriage but blossomed into romance. Last night, the Prime Minister celebrated this happy union with a reception at No. 10 for all his Ministers, and kindly invited the seconder—my honourable ally, the hon. Member for Bath—and me, since by tradition the Gracious Speech is read out for the benefit of Ministers who do not take The Sunday Telegraph. When my wife came to extract me from the reception, the policeman refused her entry. Forgetting my diminished status, she pleaded that she was one of the Ministers’ wives and should be let in. “Madam,” he replied, “I couldn’t let you in even if you were the Minister’s only wife.” I hope that the current situation implies no resiling from support for marriage, particularly as today is my wedding anniversary.
I commend the motion to the House.
I am delighted to follow the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley), who, as we all know, has served the House with great accomplishment and, as we have just heard, with great wit. Apart from today, that was perhaps best displayed in 1990, when he was the Trade and Industry Secretary. A survey found that just 2% of the British public knew who he was. To his great credit, he pointed out that that was a higher proportion than the percentage of the general public with whom he was familiar.
It is an honour and a privilege, both for my Bath constituents and for me, to second the Loyal Address, particularly because I am the first MP from Bath to do so since records began. Of course, over the years, many Liberals have had that honour, but most recently back in 1939, when Captain Frank Medlicott, in full military uniform, noted that
“the humble taxpayer is doing his part, and the resignation with which the recent Budget was received makes one feel that the popularity of the Chancellor increases with every shilling that he puts on the Income Tax.”—[Official Report, 28 November 1939; Vol. 355, c. 14.]
I hope that the Chancellor and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr Laws), are not seeking such cheap popularity. Even now, perhaps, they should be considering the issue of envelopes to be left to successors. This is a story that has been in our newspapers recently, but it merits repeating. It is claimed that civil servants advise Chancellors to prepare not one, but three, envelopes for successors. The first, to be opened during a crisis, contains a note saying, “Blame your predecessor.” The second, to be opened in a severe crisis, has a note reading, “Blame the statistics.” The third, for use in a catastrophe, reads simply, “Write three notes.”
I mentioned my constituents early on because I am enormously grateful to them for electing me for the fifth time, and with an increased majority. I particularly want to thank them for totally ignoring the national Liberal Democrat election slogan. It urged them to vote for change, and I am pleased that they did not. Change was very much in the air during the election, and I feared that even in Bath voters would take to heart the adage that politicians, like babies’ nappies, should be changed regularly, and for exactly the same reason. However, Bath voters bucked the trend, as they often do. They are special people, and they and I live in a special place. It is the only constituency that is, in its entirety, a world heritage site. As we develop a modern, 21st century economy, we have much that will help us. Bath boasts great sporting facilities and great sporting success. We have exceptional cultural festivals, two excellent universities, award-winning restaurants, the amazing Theatre Royal, and the groundbreaking children’s theatre, the Egg. Alongside the famous Roman baths, we now have a modern spa complex. Although we still have areas of deprivation and an urgent need for more affordable housing—issues that I hope the new Government will address—Bath is a great place to live.
We have generally had good relationships with monarchs—Queen Elizabeth I, for example, saw the potential of Bath and granted us a royal charter—but that has not always been the case. During an official visit to my constituency, the young Princess Victoria took offence at an overheard comment about the thickness of her ankles. She shunned Bath for the duration of her reign, and whenever she passed through the city on a train, she would draw the curtain of her window in disgust.
The right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden has pointed out that it is customary for the task of seconding the Loyal Address to be offered to a young rising star. Clearly, I do not fit the bill, at least on the age basis, but despite that I still have hope on the other front, I am pleased to be sitting on the Government Benches. However, it is ironic that I started my parliamentary career by unseating a Tory and now sit with them. That Liberal Democrat victory in 1992 deprived the Conservative party of its chairman, and I can truly say that it deprived the House of an outstanding parliamentarian. It is some small relief that my dastardly act led to Chris Patten going on to serve this country with great distinction in a number of important roles. But, while that chairman left the House, there are many former ones on the Conservative Benches, showing the rapid turnover that goes with the job.
Similar rapid changes have taken place in the leadership of my party. I began in the House with Paddy Ashdown as leader, and a few years ago he sent me a complementary copy of the first volume of his diaries. I was disappointed that inside the front cover there was no affectionate comment, so I did what we all do: I turned to the index. Against my name, he had written, “Knew you’d look here first. Thanks and best wishes, Paddy.” He was a leader of whom it was said, “People would follow him just out of curiosity to see where he would lead.” He got up in the early hours of the morning—at roughly the same time that the next leader would go to bed. There followed such a gentleman that I would never speculate about his bedtime arrangements, and then an interim leader who began as “Dr” and soon, without even bothering with the normal dying requirement, became a saint.
Our latest leader has become Deputy Prime Minister. Parliamentary party meetings are now easier than ever before: all we have to say is, “I agree with Nick.” But the House should be under no illusion: my Liberal Democrat colleagues and Conservative colleagues have had to make difficult decisions in forging the coalition and in agreeing the wording of the Queen’s Speech, and of course it has not been easy. Those who question the wisdom of what we have done should be under no illusion about the scale of the problems and the urgent need for reform that this country faces. Both the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister have had the courage to meet the toughest challenges of a generation by putting aside party differences for the sake of our country. In considering how that has been achieved, it is useful to recall the words of Humphry Berkeley, who said, “It is a bizarre fact that the Conservative party can be directed along a sensible left-wing path only by a leader with impeccable aristocratic connections.”
Already, many of the Liberal Democrat policies for which I have campaigned form part of the Queen’s Speech and the coalition agreement. Issues that I care about are to be enacted: fairer taxes and a greener, more sustainable economy; extra investment in schools and a better deal for pensioners; less intrusion into our private lives and a reformed political system. My constituents understand that compromises have had to be made, and I welcome the overall radical and reforming package and hope that they do.
I hope also that we can have more confidence in the outcome than a Russian politician had of changes in his country, when he said, “Yesterday we stood on the edge of the abyss, but today we have taken a great leap forward.” As for Liberal Democrats, it is truly a vindication of all those years spent developing and costing our policies. Dictionary writers will have to go back to the drawing board. No longer can the definition of “futility” be listed as, “Serving on the Lib Dem policy working group.”
I am happy to support the new deal. I hope that we will also work to change the way in which we do business. I congratulate all those who have been elected to serve in this House for the first time, but they will learn that on occasions we and those in what we quaintly call “another place” live in a strange world. That is perhaps best exemplified by the title of a debate in the Lords just six years ago, which read: “Commons reason for disagreeing to a certain Lords amendment in lieu of a Lords amendment to a certain Commons amendment in lieu of a Commons amendment to a Lords amendment.” Many things must change, and I am confident that they will.
One of my predecessors as MP for Bath, William Pitt the Elder, said in 1761 of Bath that it was
“justly famed for its integrity, independence and zeal for the public good.”
I hope that that is also how this coalition Government are remembered, so I am honoured on behalf of Bath to support them and to commend the Gracious Speech to the House.
I am sure that the whole House will join me in paying tribute, as I know the Prime Minister will do shortly, to those members of our armed forces who have lost their lives in Afghanistan since the House last met: from 1st Battalion the Royal Welsh, Fusilier Jonathan Burgess; from 1st Battalion the Mercian Regiment, Corporal Harvey Holmes; from 21 Engineer Regiment, Sapper Daryn Roy; from 21 Engineer Regiment, Lance Corporal Barry Buxton; from 40 Commando Royal Marines, Corporal Christopher Harrison; and from 40 Commando Royal Marines, Corporal Stephen Walker. We salute their bravery, we honour their sacrifice and we remain steadfast in support of our troops. There are some things on which the country expects us to work together, whoever is in government and whoever is in opposition. We will genuinely work with the Government in support of our troops, their wives and families and in support of peace in Northern Ireland, as we did when we were in opposition before.
We also remember today David Taylor and Ashok Kumar, the two Members of this House who died towards the end of the last Parliament. We pay tribute to the contribution that they made.
I want to congratulate warmly the mover and seconder of the Loyal Address; they made two fine speeches. To assist new Members, I should remind them that, as the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley) said, the seconder is by tradition a rising star and someone who is on their way up, while the mover is someone of great distinction whose career is not ahead of them, but behind them. But having heard a typically spry speech from the right hon. Gentleman, I want to agree with him that it is time that we challenged that notion. I invite him to join my campaign “You’re not past it when you’re past 60”.
I suspect that the right hon. Gentleman will always be best known for his musical interventions in Tory party conferences—his trademark Gilbert and Sullivan routine. I thank him for not inflicting a song on us today and I hope that his little list will not be the blueprint for the new Government. However, I do pay tribute to his work on international development, which contributed to this Government’s promising today to keep development aid a high priority. I think there will be support across the House for that.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bath (Mr Foster) on seconding the Loyal Address. He was first elected in 1992, when he snatched his seat from Chris Patten, then chair of the Tory party. No one then would have predicted that the hon. Gentleman would stand before us to speak in support of a Tory Prime Minister’s Queen’s Speech, but he performed the task well.
This is not known to many people, but the hon. Gentleman is also a musical performer. At last year’s Lib Dem conference, and with eerie foresight, he played the Johnny Cash classic “Walk the Line”. I suggest that this time he goes to the Tory conference to play another Cash classic—“Ring of Fire”. The hon. Gentleman has also had a long-standing interest in science. Again, with a self-knowledge that we can only envy, he wrote a noted scientific publication “Science with Gas”. [Interruption.] You couldn’t make it up.
I congratulate the new Prime Minister and his Government. On the steps of Downing street, he acknowledged that we had left Britain more open at home and more compassionate abroad, and I thank him for the generosity of his words. Those are achievements of the last Government that I hope Members from both sides of the House can recognise, and which I hope the new Prime Minister will protect. From the first ever national minimum wage to the creation of civil partnerships, from the Sure Start children’s centres in every community, to the shortest waiting times in the NHS since records began—those are achievements of which Labour Members are rightly proud. In particular, I want to pay tribute to the former Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown).
We will be an effective Opposition. We will not oppose for the sake of it—that is not what the public want—but we will not pull our punches. Though we are in opposition, we will be powerful in the public interest. We will be determined to prevent unfairness. We will speak up for the public services that matter. We will be vigilant in protecting jobs and businesses. As the Government today acknowledge, their most important domestic task is the economy. The new Government take over an economy in which recovery is already under way and where Government action has blunted the impact of the recession. Economic growth has returned. There are too many people out of work, but unemployment is still half the level seen in the 1990s recession, and repossessions have been at half the rate that people suffered then. But the recovery cannot be taken for granted. The challenge now for the Government is to embed and secure the economic recovery with new manufacturing and an even greater role for the low-carbon sector.
Where the Government take steps to do that, we will back them. But taking support away from businesses risks slower growth for the future. As the new Business Secretary consistently argued before taking up his new post, now is not the time to leave firms to sink or swim. We all agree with cutting waste, but cancelling 10,000 university places is not cutting waste—it is cutting our capacity for future economic growth. Cancelling 40,000 jobs for young people under the future jobs fund is not cutting waste—it is blighting their prospects. The country faces a very serious challenge to reduce our deficit. What the country needs to know is that the Government will do so in a fair way, without damaging front-line services and without putting future growth at risk. People will want to see that they are not left bearing the cost of holding the coalition together.
Before the election, the leader of the Tory party, now the Prime Minister, was telling us all that the Lib Dem promises were simply unaffordable. At the very same time, the Lib Dem leader, who is now his deputy, warned that the Tories’ tax and spending promises could be paid for only by increasing VAT or cutting front-line services. It is the combination of the two that worries me. While the happy couple are enjoying the thrill of the rose garden, the in-laws are saying that they are just not right for each other. We keep telling them that they cannot pay couples to stay together, and it is clear that it will take more than a three-quid-a-week tax break to keep this marriage together.
Tough decisions will be needed, and the British public will need to see that those decisions are taken fairly and transparently. Despite what we have heard about accountability in the new politics, the Government’s decision to announce £6 billion-worth of cuts in a press conference rather than to this House was a poor start. When I was at Highshore school in my constituency on Friday, people were asking me whether they will be able to go ahead with their new rebuild. They, and people all around the country, want answers, not press conferences.
On education, today in the Queen’s Speech the Government pledged to help the education of children in poor families with a pupil premium, but they must not cut the programme that provides laptops for children in poor families. We will look at the detail of the Bill to ensure that it will help, not hinder, the development of strong schools in all areas that benefit the whole community.
It is in this country’s interest that we have strong relations with Europe. It appears that Europhobe Tories and Europhile Lib Dems have cancelled each other out. The Prime Minister, though, must be relieved that his coalition partners have given him cover to renege on the pledge that he made to repatriate powers over social policy, employment and justice from the EU by the end of this Parliament. However, having promised that following ratification of the Lisbon treaty he would “not let matters rest” there, will he confirm that that is now precisely what he intends to do?
The Government intend to legislate to establish a referendum lock for future treaty changes that represent transfers of power, but what would the question be? The Conservative manifesto wanted a yes or no answer to treaty changes, but the Liberal Democrats’ manifesto said that the question should be whether we should be in or out of the EU. The problem is not that they want different questions; it is that they want different answers.
The Queen’s Speech states that the Government will take forward political reform. Having devolved power to Scotland and Wales and enacted the Freedom of Information Act and the Human Rights Act 1998, our Labour Government can rightly claim to have been a reforming Administration, but there should be further change. Where the new Government strengthen our democracy, we will support them. Where they give the House more power to hold Government to account, we will support them enthusiastically. We support a referendum on the voting system that would promise to increase democratic participation and choice, and I congratulate the Deputy Prime Minister on the ease with which he has persuaded the Tories to have a Bill on electoral reform—well done. We agree with a right for voters to recall Members guilty of serious wrongdoing and that the House of Lords should be elected. We support the idea of fixed-term Parliaments, although they should be for four years, not five. However, we will insist that if the Government lose the confidence of Parliament, even by one vote, they will have lost their mandate and there must be an opportunity for fresh elections. The coalition partners, lacking confidence in each other, are already preparing for the day when they shrink back from their loveless embrace—it is like a political pre-nup. We will not support a 55 per cent. rule that would allow the Government to cling on to office having lost the support of the House, and they have no mandate for that change. It would be morally unacceptable for the number of seats to be cut and boundaries redrawn on the basis of an electoral register from which 3.5 million people are missing, or for individual voter registration to be brought in without the essential safeguards to maximise voter enrolment.
We object to the Liberal Democrats’ request that they should keep the public funding that goes to Opposition parties. Some say that they like to be all things to all people, but even they cannot be both in government and in opposition. They cannot fudge this one—they are in government and cannot claim Short money. People are familiar with the notion of clinging on to the trappings of power, but the Lib Dems are the first party to seek to cling to the trappings of opposition.
We will support the completion of the reforms proposed by the Wright Committee, but we deplore the Government’s decision to demote the Leader of the Commons from being a member of the Cabinet, especially in the case of the right hon. Member for North West Hampshire (Sir George Young), who played a significant part in bringing forward the Wright Committee reforms.
The Deputy Prime Minister has proclaimed a progressive agenda on political reform, but it is not progressive to politicise the police by putting them under the control of an elected police commissioner. It is not progressive to scrap the Human Rights Act, pack the Lords and rig the Commons—it is not new politics, and if that is what the Government try to do, we will oppose them.
The Queen’s Speech includes Bills on crime, civil liberties and security. The new Government take over with crime falling. The safety of the public must be the highest priority, and we will judge each proposal on its merits. When, as is so often the case, there is a balance to be struck, we urge the Government to take no risks and to give the benefit of the doubt to the victim.
On keeping DNA records, why do not the Government retain the records that they have and review the evidence in 2012 to ascertain whether it is safe to dispose of them earlier? If the evidence shows that there is no need to retain DNA for longer than three years, we would not object, but if it shows that six years are necessary, the victims should be given the benefit of the doubt.
We ask the Government to reconsider their plans to change the rules for prosecuting rape and their proposal for anonymity for rape defendants. It is often only after many rapes that a defendant is finally brought before the court, and it is often only when previous victims see the name and details of the defendant that they find the courage to come forward. Police and prosecutors say that that is essential in helping get a conviction. To make only rape defendants anonymous sends a message to the jury that, uniquely, a rape victim is not to be believed, and it sends a message to the woman who has been raped that, “We don’t believe you.” We have made progress on bringing rapists to justice; I urge the Government not to turn the clock back.
Government benefits from strong opposition. Our new team in opposition—our Front Benchers and our Back Benchers—have wisdom and experience, and youth and diversity, with more Labour women and black and Asian Members than the rest of the House put together. The new Government have a great privilege and a heavy duty. They have said that they stand for freedom, fairness and responsibility. The whole country would agree with those principles, and we will make sure that they live up to them.
Before I go on to the tributes, I welcome the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) to her new position. I enjoyed listening to her speech, but I felt that there was something missing. There was not one word of apology for the appalling mess that has been left in this country. She had nothing to say about leaving Britain with a deficit that is bigger than Greece’s—not a single idea for getting to grips with it. Until the Opposition learn what they got so badly wrong, I am not sure that people will listen to them again.
Whether we sit on the Government or the Opposition Benches, we have been sent here by our constituents to renew the British people’s faith in our democracy. All of us, whatever role we have to play in the House, share a responsibility to ensure that that renewal really happens.
When talking about our democracy, we should first remember those who do so much to defend it. Let me join the Leader of the Opposition and pay tribute to our troops who serve on the other side of the world, fighting day and night to keep us safe. Let us remember those who have fallen since we last met: from 1st Battalion the Royal Welsh, Fusilier Jonathan Burgess; from 1st Battalion the Mercian Regiment, Corporal Harvey Holmes; from 21 Engineer Regiment, Sapper Daryn Roy and Lance Corporal Barry Buxton; and from 40 Commando Royal Marines, Corporal Christopher Harrison and Corporal Stephen Walker. They died serving our country. We will never forget what they did and we will always, always look after their families. I know that everyone in the House agrees that we owe them a huge debt of gratitude.
I also join the right hon. and learned Lady in paying tribute to the two Members of Parliament who have died since the previous Gracious Speech in November, Ashok Kumar and David Taylor. Ashok Kumar was much loved by his constituents. He brought—a rare thing in the House—real scientific experience to our debates, which earned him respect in all parties. David Taylor was the model of an independent Back Bencher, never afraid to challenge authority or stand up for his constituents. They were a great credit to the House and we remember them with great affection.
I thought that the Loyal Address was proposed superbly by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley). That was a great speech and, like the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham I have tried to do my research. My right hon. Friend is a well known and passionate Eurosceptic, but I know his little secret: it was during the 1975 referendum campaign that he met his wife Gail. She was the local secretary of the European movement and was vigorously campaigning for a yes vote. As my right hon. Friend said, it is their wedding anniversary today. They have been happily married ever since. As someone who has recently got into bed with an ardent Europhile, I should perhaps ask my right hon. Friend’s advice about how to hold the relationship together over a long period of time—[Interruption.] The way you are going on, it might be.
I have also looked at some of the books that my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden has written during his extensive career. There are thrilling titles such as “The End of the Keynesian Era”, “Benefits and Costs: Securing the Future of Social Security”, “Delusions of Income Policy”—and then suddenly, as if from nowhere, “Common Sense on Cannabis”. I think that we will pass over that one.
The one book that I have been looking for is something that my right hon. Friend published in 1974, called “Lessons for Power”. The only problem is that the book has been so staggeringly successful that it is now out of print and unavailable. I contacted my right hon. Friend’s constituency office, but it did not have a copy.
In government, my right hon. Friend had a strong record of achievement as a Minister. I am very glad that the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham mentioned his work on overseas aid. He worked with Bob Geldof to transform the debate on that in the Conservative party. He did a great job, and in this House he remains a committed advocate for his constituents.
The Loyal Address was seconded—superbly, I thought—by the hon. Member for Bath (Mr Foster). As he said, this is the first time in over 70 years that a Liberal has either proposed or seconded a Loyal Address, since Captain Frank Medlicott did so in 1939. However, the hon. Gentleman did not give us the full picture. As far as I can see, after giving his speech the captain sank back into obscurity. He was barely heard of again and then, eight years later, he quietly joined the Conservative party.
I know that, like many people, the hon. Member for Bath is still coming to terms with the new arrangements in the House. However, now that our parties are sharing everything, I have managed to get hold of a copy of his election leaflet, in which he promised to
“fight against this new generation of Home Counties’ Conservatives”.
I cannot possibly think who he meant, but we are delighted to be sitting on the same Benches.
The hon. Member for Bath also tried to play his part in bringing the 2012 Olympics to London. The story goes that he was at Wimbledon, enjoying the hospitality and refreshments, when he was overheard having a heated debate with a young woman about where the games should be held. He argued passionately for London, and she argued vigorously for New York. He could not understand why she was so stubborn—until they were introduced, and he realised he was talking to Chelsea Clinton.
The hon. Gentleman has made a significant contribution to the education debate in our country. He is a powerful champion of international development, and I thought that both speeches were in the best traditions of this House—as was the speech of the acting Leader of the Opposition.
For me, the mystery remains: why is the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham not standing for the leadership of the Labour party? Is she really content to stand aside and leave a field of front runners that consists of two brothers and another man who stopped his wife standing? Surely she would start with a natural advantage. Of course, we hope that she could rely on the vote of her husband, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey), whom we welcome to his place today. As deputy general secretary of the Unite union, he would not yield just one vote, but 2 million votes. Never mind transferable tax allowances for married couples—this is far more significant. Let me pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman individually, as he has achieved something remarkable. He is, I think, the first man in history to win a constituency with an all-women shortlist.
For the first time since the Korean war, the Government have changed hands while our troops are at war. This is a vital year for Afghanistan’s future. We have had a troop surge in southern Afghanistan, where about 44,000 American forces are now fighting alongside around 9,000 British soldiers. What we need now is a political surge, with more effective and accountable government, a reformed Afghan police force and proper reconciliation at the centre. This Government will play a leading role in helping to bring that about. Already we have appointed that country’s first National Security Adviser. We have held meetings of the new National Security Council, and we will continue to work with the Afghan Government and our NATO partners—in particular the United States—to bring about success.
I was pleased that the first leader whom I hosted as Prime Minister was President Karzai. Our aim is clear—it is to create the stability and security that are in our national interest and that will enable us to bring our troops back home. A stable Afghanistan, free from terrorist training camps, is vital to our security, and so is an Iran free from nuclear weapons. All the evidence points in the same direction—that Iran is intent on developing nuclear weapons. Even if Iran were to complete the deal proposed in its recent agreement with Turkey and Brazil, it would still retain around 50% of its stockpile of low-enriched uranium. It is that stockpile that could be enriched to weapons-grade uranium.
For the last six years, we have pursued a twin-track policy, offering engagement but being prepared to apply pressure. It is time to ratchet up that pressure and the timetable is short. This Government have a clear objective to ensure stronger UN and EU sanctions against Iran. Specific areas should be covered, including trade finance, asset freezes and action against banks that hold funds for the Iranian regime. I have discussed this and other issues with President Sarkozy and Chancellor Merkel, and what is needed for European nations to rise to those and other challenges—be they climate change or economic stability—is not another treaty, but political will and practical engagement.
On the subject of EU treaties, let me be clear. Under our proposed Bill, any future treaty that transfers power to the European Union will be subject to a referendum. Never again will a Government be able to surrender sovereignty to Brussels without the full consent of the British people.
This Queen’s Speech is the first in 65 years from a coalition Government. It is a Government driven not by party interest but by the national interest, with clear values at its heart—[Interruption.] Those values include freedom, because over the past decade the state has become over-mighty and our liberties have been undermined consistently by the Labour party. They include fairness, because after 13 years of a Labour Government inequality is wider, social mobility has stalled, severe poverty is rising and social justice is falling. The third value at the heart of this Queen’s Speech is responsibility, because under Labour the age of irresponsibility broke our society and left our economy deep in debt.
On the issue of fairness and responsibility and given that 50% of the funding for the child trust fund would benefit 1.5 million of the most disadvantaged families, is it fair that the Cabinet, who are asset-rich, should take away from those who are asset-poor?
The right hon. Gentleman has to understand that, in the words of the outgoing Chief Secretary, we have run out of money—[Interruption.] I do not know what they are shouting about. The Labour Government left us with a budget deficit of £160 billion. Of course the child trust fund was a good idea when it was thought up, but today it means that when a child is born we are borrowing money to put into that child’s bank account. You broke the nation so badly that we cannot continue with such schemes.
The Queen’s Speech has these values running right through it in each and every Bill—devolving power, not centralising it; trusting people, not dictating to them; and saving money, not wasting it. It is a radical programme for a radical Government, and that is exactly what our country needs.
I am grateful to the Prime Minister for giving way and may I congratulate him on his recent promotion?
I and many of my colleagues were looking forward to an opportunity in this Parliament to reaffirm our support for the Hunting Act 2004, and I understand that many of his Back Benchers were also looking forward to an opportunity to express their view on it. Is there any particular reason why repeal of the Act was not included in the Queen’s Speech?
There will be a free vote on a motion of the House of Commons and all Members will be able to take part, voting according to their conscience, as they should on this issue.
Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that the proposal for a 55% rule to prolong the life of this Parliament is totally unacceptable? It is a travesty of parliamentary democracy, and if it goes ahead we will see what the 2010 House of Commons is made of.
Perhaps I could remind the hon. Gentleman of two important points. First, in its manifesto, the Labour party supported fixed-term Parliaments. Secondly, in order to entrench fixed-term Parliaments in Scotland, almost every Member opposite who was there at the time voted for a 66%, rather than a 55%, threshold. Let me give a little warning: I can tell you, having sat on the Opposition Benches for the past nine years, that opportunism does not work. [Interruption.] It did not take them very long! The context of our Government is an appalling legacy left by Labour. I shall quote in full the letter left to his successor by the former Chief Secretary, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne):
“Chief Secretary, I’m afraid there is no money. Kind regards and good luck.”
Those 13 words sum up 13 years of complete cavalier arrogance with the taxpayers’ money.
This Queen’s Speech, put forward by this new Government, is the first step towards putting things right. This country will get the complete opposite of what went before—not spending money for the sake of it, but spending it wisely and saving it; not top-down control and big government, but bottom-up change and the big society; not power for politicians, but power to the people.
Will the Prime Minister remain in an alliance in Europe with parties that his Deputy Prime Minister described as “nutters” and “anti-Semites”?
The answer is yes, but I have been waiting for this question. For five years, I sat listening to all the right hon. Gentleman’s questions to the former Labour Prime Ministers on this issue, and never once was I able to remind him of some of the people his party sits with in the European Parliament, so I hope the House will indulge me. Labour is allied to the Lithuanian Social Democratic party, one of whose MPs said:
“As a doctor, I think that”
homosexuality “is a disease”.
I think that is a disgusting point of view. And that is who you sit with; that is who the right hon. Gentleman sits with.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Is it in order for the Prime Minister to continue his practice in opposition of using the word “you” to describe Members on the opposite side of the House?
The short answer to the hon. Gentleman is that it is not in order, but I know that the Prime Minister is not going to do it again anyway.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I shall endeavour to do my best.
Let me give one other example. In the last Parliament, while the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane) was making all these points, Labour was allied to the Self Defence of the Republic of Poland party, whose leader, Andrzej Lepper, said that
“Hitler had a really good programme”.
Those are Labour’s allies in the European Parliament. I think we have heard enough from the right hon. Gentleman for another five years.
Order. I am sure that the House wishes to hear Mr Simon Hughes.
I congratulate the Prime Minister on his new office, and he was right to criticise some of the legacy of the Labour party. Can he therefore give the House and the country an assurance that we will do better in his Government at building council housing and providing affordable housing in rural constituencies such as his, as well as in urban constituencies such as mine?
I am very grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s question, although I hope that before long he will be referring to it as “our Government” rather than “his Government”. You are absolutely right—[Hon. Members: “Wooh!] Sorry, he is absolutely right—I will get the hang of it eventually—and we will be prioritising social housing, not least because the last Government left a huge black hole that they refused to fund—
Failed miserably, failed miserably!
I ask the hon. Gentleman to calm down.
Some of the £6 billion in savings that we have found will be put back into the social housing that Labour promised and never delivered.
Nothing will better sum up the clean break that this Government will make with the past than our freedom Bill. We will repeal ridiculous laws that allow a never-ending list of public bodies, from local councils to quangos, to enter people’s homes without permission. We will scrap Labour’s plans for ID cards and, after the Labour Government failed to act for so many years, we will end the incarceration of children for immigration purposes once and for all.
We are going to bring the same spirit of radical change to the biggest challenge of all: sorting out the mess that Labour has made of our economy. Everything that the previous Government told us was wrong. They told us that they had abolished boom and bust, but they gave us the longest and deepest recession on record. They reassured us that we were better prepared for this recession than other countries, yet we were one of the first countries into recession and one of the last countries out of recession, and we have one of the weakest recoveries. They promised us prudence, but they left us with the largest UK budget deficit in peacetime history. They lectured us about their golden rules, but in the end the only golden rule was: “Never trust Labour with the economy of this country”.
It stops now—no more spending beyond our means; no more reckless borrowing; no more taxing of the poorest to pay for the mistakes of the few. In just two weeks, this Government have done more for our economy than Labour managed in the last two years. We have changed the way Budgets are written, by establishing a new Office for Budget Responsibility, which will stop any Chancellor fiddling the figures ever again in our history. We have launched and completed an in-year spending review to save £6 billion of waste—waste that Labour still says is vital to our recovery. What a ridiculous argument. Do Labour Members really think that the £125 million a year that we discovered the previous Government were spending on taxis, the £320 million that they spent on hotel bills or the £7 million spent by one Department on stationery are necessary? Are all these luxuries somehow essential to firing the engines of our economy? Of course they are not, and it is right that they are being reduced.
It is because we have found these savings that we can stop one of the most stupid, reckless and irresponsible tax rises ever dreamt up in the middle of a recession, which was the idea of putting up national insurance on every job in our country. With this coalition Government, that jobs tax is going. That is what we have done in the last two weeks.
I would be grateful if the Prime Minister could confirm that his Government have no plans to raise VAT.
The whole point is that we are getting to grips with spending so that we do not have to put up taxes. The only people I remember with a plan to raise VAT were the last Government, who actually published it, although to be fair to the hon. Gentleman, he had lost his first seat then—and we are all looking forward to him losing his second one.
That is what we have done in two weeks; the Queen’s Speech shows what we will do in the next two years. We are going to bring some law and order to the banking system, which Labour allowed to wreck our economy. There will be more powers to the Bank of England, in our financial services regulation Bill. We will get to grips with the unacceptable bonus culture and open up credit lines for small businesses. We want to ensure that our banks serve our economy, rather than the other way round. We are going to change our whole economy, so that it is not built on debt and waste, but instead on savings and investment.
Our energy security and green economy Bill will mean more energy efficiency in our homes and our businesses. From the savings that we have already identified, we will make £50 million available for the building and refurbishment of further education colleges. One of the last acts of the previous Government was to completely bungle that building programme. One of the first acts of the new Government will be to start putting that wrong right. If we add to that high-speed rail, an interactive energy grid, corporation tax cuts and super-fast broadband, we will get a completely new economy and a Britain that is back open for business.
And one last thing: we will finally bring justice to the Equitable Life policyholders—people who were shamelessly betrayed, year after year, by the bunch of people sitting there on the Opposition Front Bench.
The Government we have just had were not just disastrous for our economy; they were bad for our society, too. This Queen’s Speech marks a decisive shift from the past, treating not just the symptoms of what is broken in our society, but its root causes. In Britain today there are families better off on benefits than in work and couples with children being paid more to live apart. We have taxpayers who go out to work, earning just £15,000 or £16,000, and are expected to carry on supporting people who refuse to work. All these things need to change. Our welfare reform Bill will begin the process of benefit reform.
The programme that we have set out in this Queen’s Speech will mean real changes straight away in our schools, too.
Will the Prime Minister confirm that, after 13 years of a Labour Government, the gap between rich and poor had widened, and that the number of children living in poverty was among the worst in Europe—worse than that of Latvia, Lithuania or Estonia?
The hon. Gentleman is entirely right, and worse than that—[Interruption.] The former Health Secretary says that he is wrong. That shows how out of touch they are: they do not even know the damage that their Government did. We can add to that the fact that there are more children here in households where nobody works than in any other country in Europe. That is the record that they have left, and that is the record that we want to put right. So before the summer, we want to pass an education Bill that allows our best schools to reopen as academies straight away. We will not stop there. There is going to be greater freedom for all schools, radical reform so that new schools can be established, more trust for teachers and, through our pupil premium, we will make sure that extra funding goes to the poorest pupils.
We will radically reform all our public services so that they serve the public, not bureaucrats in Whitehall. We are going to do things in a completely different way from what has gone before, dismantling the top-down apparatus of state control and bringing in real choice and accountability. So with policing, out go centralisation, unnecessary paperwork and central targets, and in come beat-based police meetings and elected individuals as police commissioners. With the NHS, out go centrally directed hospital closures and politically motivated targets, and in come full patient choice and elections for your primary care trust. And that is not all. Because we are getting rid of Labour’s jobs tax, we can now afford to fund the cancer drugs that people have desperately needed for so long, to extend life and give hope to thousands of people in our country.
This Queen’s Speech addresses problems not only in our economy and our society but in our politics, too. It includes a comprehensive programme for pushing power downwards and outwards from this place. That is what the decentralisation and localism Bill is all about. Already we have shown our intent: the imposition of new unitary councils—going; regional spatial strategies—going; home information packs—gone; comprehensive area assessments—going; Standards Board bureaucracy—going; the excessive ring-fencing of local council budgets, and treating local government like infants—gone. We will be the Government who give politics and power back to the people. Not only will we push power outwards; we will also sort out the other issues that brought this House into disrepute, with a clampdown on lobbying and the right for constituents to recall any MP found guilty of serious wrongdoing.
Will the Prime Minister confirm that he will support the devolution of further powers to the Welsh Assembly?
What we are going to do is allow the referendum to go ahead that was actually rather held up by the last Government. So yes, a date will be named for that referendum and I believe that it should be held next year. There should be a free and open debate in Wales for that to happen.
I am sure that it was just an oversight, but the right hon. Gentleman did not actually answer my question. Will he support the devolution of further powers to the Welsh Assembly?
I have got two homes, but I am afraid that neither of them is in Wales, so I will not actually be able to vote.
The right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham mentioned the Wright reforms. We will ensure that Select Committee Chairmen and members are voted for by Members of Parliament and not appointed by the Whips. I have mentioned fixed-term Parliaments; we will be legislating for that, and also for a referendum on the voting system. So our political reform is all about cleaning up Parliament, and passing powers from the Executive to the legislature and from the legislature to the people.
Will the right hon. Gentleman explain how setting an artificially high level to defeat the Government in this House in a no-confidence motion can look like anything other than gerrymandering, when he is cutting the number of MPs in this House and appointing more peers in the other place, allegedly to save money? How is that new politics?
I am the first Prime Minister in British history to give up the right to go to the Palace to choose an election at a time that suits them. Everyone in the Opposition stood on a promise in their manifesto to introduce a fixed-term Parliament. If there is to be a fixed-term Parliament, there has to be some way of trying to make sure that it is a fixed-term Parliament. That is why the hon. Lady voted to support a 66% threshold for the Scottish Parliament.
I will happily give way again, but let me make one more point first. Do Opposition Members really want to go through the whole experience of 2007 again, when we had a Prime Minister wondering whether the time was right for wandering off to the Palace and whether or not they would win? I quite enjoyed 2007, I really did. It was great for Conservative Members. Does the hon. Lady want to go through that again?
I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman can convince the country that he is not really trying to stitch up a majority in the Commons for a lot longer than he might truly own one. If he is appointing new peers to ensure that the coalition has a majority in the House of Lords, while at the same time requiring a Commons vote of more than 55%, which is more than all the Opposition parties can muster, before the Government can fall, is it not stitching up the House and—[Interruption.]
Order. I remind the House that interventions must be brief.
I am not quite sure where to start, Mr. Speaker. As for appointing peers, let me remind the hon. Lady that previous Governments, particularly that of Tony Blair, appointed more peers than any Prime Minister in British history. What is more, the Labour party had 13 years to reform the House of Lords and completely failed in something this Government are going to achieve. Let me explain that we are not taking away Parliament’s right to throw out the Government; we are taking away the Government’s right to throw out the Parliament. That is why it is about giving power from the Prime Minister to the legislature. If it is such a bad idea, why did every Labour Member put it in their manifesto and stand for it at the last election?
No, I have given way enough.
As this Government start the job of building our country’s future, the Labour party is clearly thinking about its own future. As experts in leadership elections, we shall be watching with interest. I have to say, however, that if Labour thinks that having a leadership election is the answer to its problems, it is wrong. The truth is that it is not the leader that is the problem; it is Labour. The whole approach has been wrong—the idea that for every problem there is a bottomless pit of public money, that for every situation there is a Government solution and for every issue there is a Whitehall initiative. It ended up giving us an economy that is nearly bankrupt, a society that is broken and a political system that is bust. That is why this coalition has come together—because this country needs strong, stable government to sort out the mess that the Labour Government made. They gave us big spending; we will bring good housekeeping. They trusted in bureaucracy, we will trust in community. They governed in the party interest; we will govern in the national interest.
This Queen’s Speech marks an end to the years of recklessness and big government and the beginning of the years of responsibility and good government. It takes the deficit head-on; it shows the world that Britain is reopening for business; it tackles the causes of our social problems; it means better schools for our children, real hope for those out of work and a stronger NHS for everyone; and its means having a Parliament that belongs to the people, not the politicians. It means a new start for Britain, and I commend it to the House.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You said earlier that for the sake of accuracy you had managed to obtain a copy of the Queen’s Speech. You need not have done any such thing, as you might just as well have bought a copy of The Sunday Telegraph. Will you confirm that this is the first time that a draft of the Queen’s Speech has ever been leaked to a national newspaper? Will you personally conduct an investigation to find out whether it was leaked from No. 10 Downing street and whether any money changed hands in connection with it? You rightly used to excoriate Labour Ministers if ever we made announcements before making them to this House, so will you make sure that that lot over there do not announce things to the press—as they have done, day in, day out over the past 10 days—without first bringing them before this House?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order, which warrants an immediate response. The House will share the hon. Gentleman’s disappointment that it and he did not hear for the first time the details of the Government’s legislative programme while listening to the Queen’s Speech this morning. This gives me the opportunity to say at the start of this new Parliament that I shall continue to expect, as I said two days after first being elected Speaker last June, that
“Ministers ought to make key statements to the House before they are made elsewhere.”—[Official Report, 24 June 2010; Vol. 494, c. 798.]
If they do otherwise, I—and, I am sure, the House—will expect to hear explanations and apologies as necessary.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for calling me to speak immediately after the Prime Minister.
Let me take this opportunity to thank my constituents for re-electing me, and for re-electing me with an increased majority. Let me also thank them for the excellent local election results that we had on the same day, including two gains from the Liberal Democrats and a board swept almost clear of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.
My constituents voted Labour on 6 May because they wanted the continuation of a Labour Government. That Government had brought them more jobs and more job opportunities after they had experienced some of the worst unemployment in the country under the Conservatives; a new deal against which both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats voted; a national minimum wage; winter fuel payments and bus passes for pensioners; increased money for the national health service and new hospitals; Sure Start and newly built, brand new schools; antisocial behaviour orders and more police; and housing modernisation. Those were all achievements of the Labour Government, frequently opposed by the Conservatives and/or the Liberal Democrats in the House.
As I have said, the Conservatives opposed those measures, but I expected no more of them, and I expect no more of this Conservative-dominated Government now. We know what the Conservatives are: they are our legitimate opponents, who stand for values different from those for which we stand in our party, and there is a clear dividing line between us. Now, though, we have a new phenomenon: Liberal Democrats sharing in government.
As my right hon. and hon. Friends will know, for many years—in our constituencies and nationally—the Liberal Democrats have grubbed up votes by making promises that they knew they would never have to fulfil; but now they share the responsibility of government, and will be judged not on what they say, not on what they promise, but on what they do. Hon. Members on the Opposition Benches will be watching them, and judging their performance against what they promised.
For example, in the previous two elections the Liberal Democrats conned students by promising them the earth. In their manifesto this month, they promised to
“scrap unfair university tuition fees so everyone has the chance to get a degree”.
Well, the Liberal Democrat Chief Secretary to the Treasury smashed that pledge yesterday with 10,000 fewer university places. We will be watching the Liberal Democrats on that.
We will be watching the Liberal Democrats on winter fuel payments—which the Conservatives opposed—to see whether they are continued, together with the bus passes that we introduced. We will be watching them on the national minimum wage, which the Conservatives opposed and which they said would bring mass unemployment. We will be watching them on health. Yesterday’s statement by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury included cuts in the national health service which they were too dishonest to specify. We will be watching them on policing and law and order. Both parties opposed antisocial behaviour orders—oh yes, they did—and now we will be watching to see what they do about the level of policing. The Liberal Democrats promised in their manifesto thousands more police on the beat. We shall have to see whether that is continued. We shall have to see whether they continue Sure Start. We shall have to ensure that building of brand new schools in my constituency and in those of many of my right hon. and hon. Friends will continue.
Yesterday, the Government made a statement about a fund to help build 4,000 new houses. What “help” means is not very clear, but if they keep the promise, there will be six new houses in every constituency in the country. That will scarcely help to solve the housing problem.
On international development, the Liberal Democrat manifesto promised to increase the United Kingdom’s aid budget. Yesterday, the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Government cut money for international development. [Hon. Members: “No.”] Oh yes—it is in the statement by the Chief Secretary. In their manifesto, the Liberal Democrats said that they would work to end the blockade of Gaza. We will be watching to see what the Government’s policy is on the middle east, because there was not a word in the Queen’s Speech about that.
I say something else to the Liberal Democrats: they will have to indulge in some internal house cleaning. Their candidate against me at the general election, Qassim Afzal, went round the constituency to mosques and other places where Muslims gather, telling people to vote against me because I am a Jew. That is what their candidate did. I was told that again and again by Muslim voters. My Muslim voters are possessed of a decency and generosity of spirit utterly alien to the Liberal Democrat candidate in my constituency, because they organised for me as they never had before and voted for me in many thousands.
The incidents that took place in my constituency as part of an anti-Semitic campaign went on and on. One of my constituents, a Muslim, told me how the Liberal Democrat candidate Qassim Afzal came to his house, which had a poster of mine in the window, and said, “You cannot have a poster in your window of a Jew. Take it down.” I told two Liberal Democrat Members before Parliament was dissolved that that was what their candidate in Gorton was doing. They were horrified. They said that they would bring it to the attention of their leadership. I do not know whether they did. I do know that their Liberal Democrat candidate, against the decency and humanity of my Muslim constituents, went on conducting an anti-Semitic campaign right through to polling day.
I say to the Liberal Democrat leader, now the Deputy Prime Minister, that if he did not know about that before, he should have done. His MPs told me that they had told him. He knows about it now. I will wait to see what he does to deal with an overtly anti-Semitic candidate who fought an anti-Semitic, and personally anti-Semitic, election campaign. If the Deputy Prime Minister does not take swift action to deal with that person, I will know that he accepts that anti-Semitism is a run-of-the-mill form of campaigning by Liberal Democrats. [Interruption.] Well, it is up to him. That is what their candidate did, disgusting thousands of Muslims in my constituency. It is up to the Liberal Democrats to decide whether those are acceptable campaigning tactics.
We in this House, as a Labour Opposition, will scrutinise everything that the Government do and we will campaign for the socialist values for which my constituents in Gorton voted and will go on voting. The people on the Government Benches are together in an unholy alliance. The electorate will tumble to that sooner or later. This Government have the seeds of their own self-destruction within them. It is for us as Labour Members of Parliament to advance policies that are for the benefit of the people and that expose the shifty foundations on which this Government are based.
I usually enjoy and can be quite entertained by the speeches of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman), who can be very humorous, but today he chose to make a series of very serious allegations, which he has the opportunity to make outside the House where there are proper procedures that can be followed to test them, and I would expect him to do that.
I usually also expect the right hon. Gentleman to have some wider grasp of the context of his comments, but I found no evidence in his speech that he realised that, actually, we are all minorities. No party won a majority at this election, and therefore some combination of parties had to find a way of ensuring that this country had stable government.
The right hon. Gentleman also seems to be unaware of the fact that his party’s Chief Secretary left a note saying that there is no money left, and the scale of the debt seemed to pass him by, too. I was disappointed that on this occasion I did not enjoy one of his speeches as much as I sometimes do, especially as I regard his great seniority—he is one of the four or five MPs who has been here longer than me—as rather reassuring.
I wish to extend my congratulations to the Members who spoke earlier: the two opening speakers and, indeed, the acting Leader of the Opposition, who I thought spoke with some force, and quite a lot of the time with some dignity as well. I, too, am puzzled as to why she is not entering her party’s leadership contest, but I shall come back shortly to the interesting subject of the future of the Labour party.
First, I want to remind the House that we are all minorities now, and that that left my party with a choice. We could enable a Conservative minority Government to take office, which would not have been a stable Government, would not have had broad support and would not have carried out Liberal Democrat policies, or we could reach an agreement to work together to create a stable Government drawing on the ideas and policies of both our parties. We explored whether a coalition with Labour and others was feasible, but there was no sign of movement from Labour on the civil liberties issues, such as identity cards, or on our tax proposals for people on low and middle incomes. There was also no majority for such a coalition and, perhaps most telling of all, there was no real will within the Labour party to take it on. Moreover, I think that some on the Labour Front Bench saw honourable defeat and moving aside to resolve their own leadership questions as a better course—and the more cynical would say some of them thought, “There are too many difficult decisions to be taken; let’s get out of the way and leave it to somebody else to take them.”
No, I want to make a little progress, but I shall give way later.
Labour Members have now entered a leadership election which I am sure we will all find diverting and entertaining. As the Prime Minister pointed out, two brothers are taking part. Why is that principle not extended further? I wanted the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) to stand in contest against her husband; that would have been good. There might also be the question of the husband of the acting leader of the Labour party taking part, along with her; that would be fascinating. And why should the hon. Members for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) and for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) not also stand, so that we have two sisters in the race? A pack of “Happy Families” cards could be kept handy in case there is a tie at the end of the contest.
Let me make a serious point about Labour’s leadership election, however. I think Labour and its new leader will have to think through the consequences of the massive debt crisis they have left behind. If they are serious, they cannot simply enjoy the luxury of attacking every cut as if no action needs to be taken and nothing needs to be done. Frankly, if there had been no election and they had stayed in office, they would have been confronted with the same difficult decisions that confront this coalition Government now. We cannot tackle this crisis on the basis that something will turn up.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. He has taken as his theme that we are all minorities; does he believe that 54 per cent. of this House constitutes a minority?
I was going to come to that point later, but I shall deal with it now. The hon. Gentleman seems to confuse two things. A vote of confidence—a decision to throw out a Government—is at present and in the future a matter for a bare majority of those voting in this House. That is perfectly straightforward: a majority in this House can get rid of a Government in whom it does not have confidence. That is not the same question as whether a general election should immediately take place. If we make it the same question, consequences follow. One is that it influences the potential outcome of a vote on removing a Government and may make some people more unwilling to remove a Government. In addition, we then present the sovereign with a potentially politically controversial choice about whether to grant a Dissolution, as most precedents require, in circumstances in which there is or may be an alternative Government.
That is why the Labour Government legislated in the Scottish Parliament that there should be a distinct procedure. It is why the German Parliament, which we helped to set up after the war, has a distinct procedure for a constructive vote of confidence. It is a well established practice in many countries, but we should be clear—
No, I have dealt with the point. We should be clear that there is a difference between the vote to get rid of a Government and in effect placing in the hands of the Prime Minister the power to call a general election whenever he feels like doing so and whenever it is in his political interests to do so.
The right hon. Gentleman has referred to the situation in Scotland, and as an MP from a constituency next door to Scotland he should know well that there is a difference between what the Government propose in this case and what applies under the Scotland Act 1998, because if the Scottish Government lose a vote of no confidence on a simple majority, the First Minister loses his role as First Minister, and if a replacement is not found within 28 days, there has to be a new general election. That is not what has been provided for in this case. That is precisely why we oppose the proposals in this programme of government.
I have not yet heard from Opposition Members a suggestion that there is an alternative way of ensuring that their stated objective of a fixed-term Parliament is built in. They chose that particular complex scheme, including a higher threshold of 66%, in Scotland. So far, they have simply suggested that no other system than a bare majority is appropriate, in which case they do not genuinely believe in the fixed-term Parliament for which they argue.
I shall give way once more.
I know that the Liberals quite readily abandon their plea for proportional representation, but is the right hon. Gentleman not aware that PR is a fact and a feature of the system in the Scottish Parliament and that is why there is a threshold?
How could I not be aware, as my party played a large part in ensuring that it was the case? I look forward to the hon. Gentleman’s co-operation in securing some moves in that direction.
I have sat in the House for, I think, 36 Queen’s Speeches, but this is the first time that I have been able to listen to one in which Liberal Democrat policies are clearly included as such in the programme. I am referring to policies that we campaigned on in the general election campaign to make our country fairer: fair taxes, a greener economy, a fair start for every child, cleaning up politics, restoring freedom and civil liberties by scrapping identity cards and passing a repeals Bill, which we have long argued for. That is all to be put into practice. I am talking about cleaning up politics by reforming party funding and giving people the right to sack their MP if they are found to have done something fundamentally wrong.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
No, I want to make some progress.
The measures include having an elected House of Lords. In 13 years of the Labour Government, they did not do that. I am also talking about a referendum to end the first-past-the-post-system with what I regard as the first step on the electoral reform road—the alternative vote—which means that every MP would have to secure the support of more than half his or her constituents.
Reforms to the House of Commons are part of this Government’s programme. The Back-Bench business committee, ultimately taking over the full management of the business in the House, will give the Government their business but allow the House to decide what time to spend on what parts of it—a measure that the previous Government resisted right up to the final moments of the Parliament. When the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) was referring to parliamentary reform, I was astonished that she had so quickly forgotten how hostile she was to change in the last days of the previous Parliament.
More Liberal Democrat commitments include the freedom Bill, the financial services Bill to try to sort out a system in which at the moment banks are too big to fail, and energy efficiency measures in homes and businesses, for which I have fought through much of my parliamentary career.
I want to mention fairness on Equitable Life. I mention in passing that I have a minute interest in that matter, but what is important to me is the undermining of the ombudsman’s authority by the Labour party which was so dangerous to this House. The ombudsman is one of the few servants of the House who has some authority over Government. That authority was undermined by the refusal to implement an ombudsman decision, which occasioned special reports from the ombudsman. At last, we have a commitment to do something about that.
I would like the new Government to look closely at some of the work that Select Committees have been doing, and in particular at the work that the Justice Committee did under my chairmanship in the previous Parliament on justice reinvestment—on looking at why we are committed to spending so much money on creating so many prison places, rather than ensuring that young people do not get involved in crime in the first place. The previous Government tried to do that with regard to youth justice and the women’s prison estate, but that work needs to be extended much more widely if there is to be real progress, and I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends to do that.
I represent a constituency in a region that has serious concerns about the impact of the financial crisis, and I welcome my right hon. Friends’ decision to retain a regional development agency in our region; that is strongly supported by the business community. The agency will need to be clearly focused on regeneration, and I am anxious to ensure that, despite budget pressures, it can continue to do its work in an area that relies too heavily on public sector jobs at the moment.
I am, of course, very much on the same side as the right hon. Gentleman on the issue of the RDAs, but at what point, whether during the election campaign or subsequently, did he draw the conclusion that his party’s view, which was that the early repayment of debt would be damaging to the economy, had been reversed? Its view now supports that of the Government, and that will create unemployment in his constituency and mine.
One of the key features of what we have agreed in the Government’s programme is that some of the savings produced by the measures announced yesterday have to be ploughed back into helping to create jobs, for example through the affordable house building described earlier. Market perceptions have changed over the period, and it is important that we make it clear that we are prepared to make the kind of cuts that will be necessary. We cannot go on with £160 billion of public sector debt. Anyone who imagines that we can is living in a dream world.
The situation makes things difficult for areas such as mine, where crucial elements of infrastructure have never been properly put in place; the A1 link between the north of England and Scotland is one example. For us, raising capacity on the east coast main line is more urgent than high-speed rail; we urgently need that capacity ahead of high-speed rail to make sure that we are not disadvantaged when it gets only part way up the country.
I very much welcome the pupil premium, which should particularly help disadvantaged children in a number of areas, such as Northumberland, that up to now have had more than £1,000 less per pupil than some other areas of the country. Much has been said about Building Schools for the Future, but that programme failed to provide for schools such as the Duchess’s Community High school in Alnwick. The buildings there are a disgrace, and the previous Schools Minister, the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), admitted as much, but its excellent results precluded it from being considered for rebuilding under that programme. We need measures that will enable decisions to be taken that do not go against schools that do a good job.
I welcome the abandonment of Labour’s forced local government reorganisations. Unfortunately, it has come too late for Northumberland, where the verdict of the people in a referendum not to have a single authority was simply ignored by the previous Government.
The right hon. Gentleman has a strong record of standing up for the north of England. Does he support the halting of BSF funding for schools in Gateshead?
The hon. Gentleman has to realise that very difficult public spending decisions have to be taken. Unless he and his hon. Friends start to recognise that they would have had to do something similar, they are in an unreal world.
One of the things that I most approve of in the Gracious Speech is its very first line:
“My Government’s legislative programme will be based upon the principles of freedom, fairness and responsibility.”
That is a statement of belief, with freedom as its first principle. Hallelujah! We have not heard one of those for a very long time. The lack of any clear framework of belief or ideology was the blight of the Blair years. There was plenty of self-belief, but self-belief is not enough. Without a clear set of underlying principles, there is nothing to guide Governments when making decisions on issues that have not been anticipated or predicted.
A Government who believed in international law would not have launched in Iraq an illegal war that has cost so many lives. A Government who had a fundamental commitment to civil liberties would not have introduced identity cards or tried to introduce 90-day detention without charge or trial. A Queen’s Speech sets out a programme of what is mainly law making and the repeal of laws, but it is usually events and the Government’s response to events that write the history of Governments and Prime Ministers—and in this Government, no doubt, the Deputy Prime Minister as well.
The Government are made up of two parties with very different histories, different policy commitments and different basic philosophies. We are in contest with each other for the support of the voters, and we will continue to be—in by-elections, local elections, elections to the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments and European elections. But, we are working together in government because the voters gave no party a majority, and the country needs a strong, broadly supported and stable Government. We have been able to reach a wide-ranging agreement that combines policies from both our manifestos, and it is a considerable achievement to have done so. It is even more of an achievement to have done so in a way that sets out and puts into practice clear principles, some of them shared by both parties, some brought to the table by one party and some by the other.
Tories—if the Prime Minister will forgive me for referring to his party for a moment—have, except during the Thatcher years, traditionally tended to be suspicious of ideology and belief. However, in the Tory manifesto this time I detected an unusual assertion of some welcome principles, such as the decentralisation of power—not a principle that ever attracted Mrs Thatcher, but one that is an integral part of the coalition Government’s programme. Times are changing.
Every Liberal Democrat Member carries a membership card, and I think that I have one with me. Here it is! It says:
“Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we to seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.”
That says it all; and it says why I am proud to support a Queen’s Speech that not only asserts but seeks to put into practice principles of freedom, fairness and responsibility.
This country faces an horrific debt crisis—left to it by the previous Government. The coalition will have to take difficult, unwelcome and unpopular decisions, and it will need to test its decisions against those principles. Liberal Democrat Ministers in the coalition have a particular responsibility to see that it does so, and we Liberal Democrats below the Gangway will hold them to it, along with the whole Government.
We said that politics would be different after the election. It is.
I join the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in paying tribute to our servicemen and women for their courage, sacrifice and fighting prowess in the service of our country in Afghanistan and elsewhere. As we know only too well from events and recent history in Northern Ireland, the debt that we owe our troops can never be repaid, and we must never forget their sacrifice.
I publicly congratulate you, Mr Speaker, on your re-election to the office of Speaker of this House. The crush in the House last week meant that I was unable to catch your eye on that occasion, but I know that you will continue to defend the rights of Back Benchers and smaller parties in this Parliament, and we wish you well.
I, too, congratulate the proposer and seconder of the motion on the Loyal Address, and I congratulate also the Prime Minister on his appointment. We, certainly on these Unionist Benches, wish him well personally as he embarks on the most onerous of tasks at one of the most challenging and dangerous times in our modern history.
As I look around the House, I see many new faces, but at such times we miss some of the old faces. I welcome the new Members, including those on our Benches, my hon. Friends the Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for North Antrim (Ian Paisley), who shares the same name as the former Member for North Antrim. We are delighted by my hon. Friend’s tremendous victory in that constituency, but I pay tribute to his father, the right hon. Dr Ian Paisley, who sat on these Benches for 40 years. A great parliamentarian and a great Ulsterman, he led our party through dark and difficult years in our Province and, ultimately, ensured the victory of democracy, with Northern Ireland at relative peace today and firmly within the United Kingdom. I also pay tribute to the right hon. Peter Robinson, the former Member for Belfast, East, who served here for 31 years and whose seat on these Benches I now occupy. As our leader and First Minister of the Northern Ireland Assembly, he continues to do vital work for Northern Ireland in securing and embedding devolution there. However, he will undoubtedly be missed in this place because of his outstanding service to his constituents and his country.
As we meet here today to debate the Gracious Speech, the “almost” election is our backdrop. The Conservatives almost won an outright majority; the Labour party almost held on or almost imploded, depending on one’s perspective; the Liberal Democrats almost made an electoral breakthrough; and my own party almost held the balance of power at one stage—indeed, the minority parties almost came to form a Government with the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats.
The product of that “almost” election is altogether novel, certainly in respect of the past six or seven decades: a coalition Government. The coalition nature of the Government places an additional responsibility on them as they go about the nation’s work. The decision of the people was not clear-cut; no single party manifesto was endorsed as manifestos have been previously. Like the programme for government and the original coalition agreement, the Queen’s Speech is the result of negotiation and bargaining, with compromises, dilutions and sidesteps involved in the drafting.
As they introduce their legislation, I suggest that the Government show throughout a greater degree of sensitivity and flexibility to the proposals and criticisms from those of us on the Opposition Benches. I certainly suggest that more sensitivity and flexibility is required than the Prime Minister has heretofore displayed in relation to the management of his own party. If positivity is the spirit and practice adopted by the new Government, Opposition parties should respond in kind and act conscientiously in the national interest, as we in this Parliament collectively try to steer our nation through these troubled and risky times—whether the issue is the war in Afghanistan, the threat to our national security, or our economy.
When the coalition fails or its internal tensions lead to questionable compromises, Opposition parties must do more than deride—they must offer sensible alternatives. I am sure that in this new Parliament there will be a greater role for those of us from Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales as we seek to hold the Government to account. I hope that in the business of the House our new role will be recognised, as we were told it would be in the previous Parliament.
We have been told that the new Government are the radical, inspiring and progressive choice. In the name of era-changing, convention-challenging, radical reform, never has so much been sent to a review, referred to a committee or subjected to further examination. However, rather than tease them about the gap between rhetoric and reality, I simply emphasise the point that rather than being a means to manage the coalition’s contradictions, those should be a means of addressing the individual or collective concerns of all Opposition parties in the House.
With that attitude of constructive criticism, my party welcomes the Government’s making it clear that their primary duty is to our national security and the conflict in Afghanistan and elsewhere. I pay tribute to our troops, as all speakers have. When our servicemen and women come back home from the battlefront and service overseas, it is important that we in the House ensure that they are treated properly, that they are given help and support to readjust to civilian life and get into employment, that their health concerns are addressed and that their families are given care and consideration. In that regard, the strength of the role ceded to the Treasury in the original coalition Government agreement for the proposed defence review is of concern to me and my colleagues.
The urgent task of tackling the deficit will be the ultimate test of the Government and of this Parliament. During the election campaign, my party questioned the sense of reducing public expenditure in the order of £6 billion in this financial year. That concern, which has already been mentioned, was shared by the Liberal Democrats until their road to Downing street conversion. The UK economy is barely in recovery, and there is potential for further shocks, especially arising from events within the eurozone. Some point to the troubles of the Greek economy and the economies of other nations within the eurozone as portents of impending doom. However, that overlooks the fact that those countries held pre-existing levels of debt prior to the downturn, and ignores the fact that a core source of the problem is that in an act of political will a group of economies that were too divergent were squeezed into the euro project; as often happens, economics can trump political will. I am glad that in their agreement—their programme for government—the coalition Government wisely made it clear that there is no question of the United Kingdom’s entering the euro, because that gives us flexibility and freedom in relation to devaluation and interest rate adjustments and the ability to respond to difficult and challenging times.
My party is convinced that there is a lack of sophistication in the Government’s long-term thinking to tackle the deficit. As the Prime Minister kindly pointed out when he came to Northern Ireland, in a now infamous television broadcast with Jeremy Paxman that was aired quite a lot in Northern Ireland during the election campaign, there are significantly different levels of reliance on the public sector in regional economies across the United Kingdom. In many of these regions, there has been an inability to recover from the economic damage of the early years of the last Conservative Government, but in Northern Ireland there was the overriding factor of a terrorist campaign that included economic destruction as one of its goals. Indeed, for many years leading industrialists and businessmen in Northern Ireland were actively targeted for assassination by the Provisional IRA. Therefore, taking the same approach across all regions of the United Kingdom cannot and will not work. What is required is a plan that takes account of those variations. Make no mistake about it, we have made tremendous progress in Northern Ireland in moving towards peace and stability, but no one in this House should be in any doubt that there is a strong correlation between embedding that peace and having economic stability and prosperity as we go forward.
The Government will point to their pledge for growth balanced across the regions and all industries. However, the details on how that will be achieved—for the north-east of England, Northern Ireland, or any other region—are decidedly lacking. The policy proposals are of course always subject to the strong caveat of tackling the deficit. The cuts are clear and definite, while the proposals to expand the private sector are vague—somewhere out in the middle distance. Simply cutting the budget and public expenditure will not solve the weakness of the private sector in any region. We must ensure that policies on the economy do not entrench economic division and disparities to the detriment of the United Kingdom as a whole.
On tax policies, my party will closely examine the emergency Budget. In particular, we will assess the case for changing capital gains tax allowances and any proposals to recognise marriage in the tax system. My party is a socially conservative party—perhaps the only one left in this Chamber willing to describe itself unambiguously in those terms—and therefore our natural instincts are to support a marriage allowance. However, such a measure must take place in a policy context of supporting the traditional family unit and be the best use of resources. In any broken community, one of the fault lines is invariably broken families. In that regard, some of the discussion in the coalition Government is positive, particularly in relation to proposals on the commercialisation and sexual exploitation of children. We will watch with interest to see whether the talk of supporting families and marriage is fulfilled or whether the ingrained tendency to bow to minority interest groups wins through.
On banking reform, we welcome the part of the Gracious Speech that suggests that there will be legislation on financial services reform, learning the lessons from the financial crisis. I am sure that you, Mr Speaker, like other hon. Members who were on the doorsteps, could not have failed to be taken by the immense anger that still exists among the public at the financial sector and those in banking who brought about the economic and fiscal crisis in our country, for which all of us will now have to pay very heavily. I therefore welcome proposals to reform the banking system and to help, at long last, those who were Equitable Life savers. I hope that that help will be extended to those who saved through the Presbyterian Mutual Society in Northern Ireland, who are in a similar position and to whom the last Government promised some help and assistance. I know that when the Prime Minister was in Belfast recently, he discussed the matter with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister.
We will focus on the proposals on small and medium-sized enterprises and access to credit. By one official definition, 99% of all businesses in Northern Ireland are small businesses, so the importance and economic role of that sector cannot be overstated as far as we are concerned.
On crime and policing, we welcome the Government’s clear announcement that they will abolish ID cards, which we believe were misconceived and worth nothing in value for money. That is a sensible and progressive step. We will examine closely the proposals for more directly elected oversight of the police. We have concerns about that and will therefore examine the details carefully as they emerge, but we will support strongly measures to give ordinary citizens greater protections in tackling criminals and intruders, as well as new measures to tackle antisocial behaviour and the destructive culture of binge drinking.
On defence, I welcome the proposals to retain Trident. It is important and right that this country should have its own independent nuclear deterrent, and, as I said, more needs to be done to improve pay, conditions and care for our soldiers and veterans.
To describe my party’s attitude to the coalition’s proposals on Europe as “sceptical” would be an understatement. In the last Parliament, I had the honour of introducing a private Member’s Bill calling on both the then Labour Government and the official Opposition to honour their pledges to the people of the United Kingdom when they promised that there would be a referendum and that the people of this country would have their say on whether the Lisbon treaty—or the European constitution, as it is known—should be implemented. Sadly, both major parties reneged on their promises and pledges.
I welcome the proposal in the Queen’s Speech for a Bill on a referendum lock on the further transfer of powers to Brussels, but many people who have followed closely the development of the European Union and sought to bring more democracy to our proceedings will say that it is a bit late now to bring in such a lock, when most crucial powers have already been transferred. It is regrettable also that there is no clear commitment to seek the return of powers, even in cases such as the common fisheries policy in which the failure and ineptitude of current EU policies is plain for everyone to see.
The failure to seek to get powers back to the United Kingdom goes beyond the matter of national sovereignty and is to do with this place’s relevance and our usefulness to the people. The end of the last Parliament was marred by public anger and disconnect with politics. Duck houses and moats could explain that public anger being triggered, but not the depth of frustration that was unleashed. I contend that that frustration was born of an inability of Government and Parliament to act on behalf of the people in areas in which the people believed they should do so. On far too many issues, when the public turn to politicians for action they are met with hand-wringing about why things cannot be done—this EU regulation or that, a judicial ruling or the fear of one, or the fact that the decision lies with some unresponsive quango. The less legislative or administrative space we have under our direct control, the less we can try to effect. The less we can effect, the less relevant we politicians are. I hope that the Government’s proposals on political reform will go some way to addressing that in this Parliament.
On the references to devolution in the Queen’s Speech, I welcome the commitment to
“work constructively and co-operatively with the devolved institutions”.
The devolved institutions in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are working well. Indeed, a meeting of the First Ministers of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland took place in Belfast just yesterday to discuss co-operation and common interest.
I also welcome the Government’s support for the political institutions and stable, devolved government in Northern Ireland. I am sure that the whole House welcomes the fact that, despite challenges from several quarters, my party’s progressive, positive message of moving Northern Ireland forward, supporting the devolved institutions, and working through power sharing to provide the best means of getting prosperity and peace in Northern Ireland, was overwhelmingly endorsed in the general election. That happened despite the efforts of some to split the Unionist vote and allow even more republicans and nationalists to gain entrance to the House and take their seats in opposition to the Union that some proclaim that they support.
Will my hon. Friend note that the words:
“My Government will support the political institutions and stable…government in Northern Ireland”
are not enough, because with the other hand the Government are pulling the financial rug from under us? Will he ask the Government to assure us that the recent devolution of policing and justice will not be undermined by the removal of any finances from it?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question; he alludes to the devolution of policing and justice. My party brought that forward, completing the jigsaw of the devolution of powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly and putting the Assembly on a stable footing. He is right to point to the need to ensure that devolution of powers must be matched by devolution of resources so that we have the means and ability to move forward on the crucial issue of policing, which has bedevilled Northern Ireland for decades, and so that both sides of our community can continue to progress with that. I welcome the fact that, after many decades, nationalists and republicans in Northern Ireland now support the forces of law and order, the rule of law, the British courts and the justice system in Northern Ireland. We welcome that progress. There should never have been violence—there was never an excuse for it—but the recent development is extremely welcome. However, as my hon. Friend points out, it needs to be properly resourced.
I conclude on a point that several speakers have mentioned—the 55% proposal for dissolving Parliament. I welcome the proposal for a fixed-term Parliament—it is overdue and the right decision. After listening to some Labour spokesmen, I must point out that that proposal did not get anywhere under Labour in the past 13 years, and I welcome its introduction now. However, I share the reservations of those who have spoken about the 55% threshold. It is dangerous and undermines parliamentary democracy. When the Government introduce their proposals for a fixed-term Parliament, I urge them to withdraw the 55% proposal before they tarnish their reputation within days of getting under way. They should reconsider the ill-conceived suggestion of a 55% threshold. I know that they will say that there are similar provisions in Scotland and the Northern Ireland Assembly. However, those are devolved institutions and the creations of statute; this is the sovereign Parliament of the United Kingdom and there should therefore be no question of introducing an undemocratic threshold, which is against every tradition—indeed, every value—of democracy. We should maintain the current position.
We wish the Government well as they undertake their onerous work at the start of the new Parliament. On balance, my party will vote against the Queen’s Speech because the proposals that get it wrong outweigh those that get it right. However, as regards our future attitude, we will watch the development of Government proposals closely, the way in which they are introduced and their content, and we will judge each one on its merits.
I should like to express my gratitude to the voters of Wokingham for renewing their confidence in me and returning me to the House. It is particularly comforting that I got more than half the vote at a time when the idea of the alternative vote is in the wind. I am sure that colleagues will think long and hard about that as they look at their own electoral positions as well as the national interest.
During the general election campaign, my electors—I am sure like those in many other constituencies—expressed their deep sorrow that the Equitable Life victims had not yet been compensated. It is extremely good news to see a Conservative pledge—and perhaps it is also a Lib Dem pledge—honoured immediately in the Queen’s Speech. The compensation is the victims’ due, owing to the bad regulation of that business, and the pledge is that it will now be paid more promptly. We look forward to the statement that is to be made.
An even larger number of my electors in Wokingham were extremely worried about the impact of the very large amount of new housing that the former Government and their regional planning authority were imposing on my constituency. I argued long, and I hope clearly, that, were a Conservative Government to be elected, they should sweep away the regional housing targets and the regional planning system. I argued that the unitary Wokingham borough council should be allowed to make more of its own planning decisions, and my hope was that the new Government would allow the council to come to a wiser judgment about how many new homes should be made available.
Some new homes must be made available, but we must avoid building on floodplains or in back gardens. We must avoid the town cramming and all the other unpleasant features of the last 13 years that my electors had come to dislike. Again, therefore, it is very good news that the coalition has come together and that it has promised in this Queen’s Speech that there will be early action to deal with such matters.
Many of my voters were also extremely worried by the lack of progress by the Environment Agency and the relevant ministry in tackling problems of flooding. These problems have been made particularly acute in my constituency by the over-building in inappropriate places that has been determined by Government inspectors in recent years. I have seen the tragic sight of new homes being completely flooded six months after they were built and sold because they were put in the wrong place by a Government inspector who did not seem to understand the nature of a floodplain. I look forward to the planning system helping with that, but I shall also be calling on my colleagues who are now Ministers to see what else we can do to right the wrongs caused by homes being built in places without adequate flood defences.
I wish to concentrate on the central thrust of the Gracious Speech—the issue of the deficit. “There is no money left”: how kind it was of an outgoing Labour Minister to make that clear. What better independent authentication of all that we said in the general election could we want than that note from the outgoing Chief Secretary to the Treasury? He should know, although I do not quite understand his taste in jokes: none of the rest of us thinks that his remark is at all funny. It is poignant and sad, and it sums up the tragic end of the long Labour Government.
From what we have heard so far in this short debate, there are still Labour Members who do not seem to be able to distinguish between the deficit and the debt. We have already heard one say that he does not think that it is right to start paying down £6 billion of the debt this early. However, we are not talking about paying down—or paying off—£6 billion of the debt. We are talking about trying to stop the debt from going up by quite as much. We are talking about a debt that, on the outgoing Labour Government’s figures, is rising by £150 billion or £160 billion a year. So far, we have come up with a welcome but modest proposal to start to reverse the trend that is our ever-climbing deficit.
We meet as a new Parliament in very difficult and dangerous times, and I think that people have high hopes of us. I think that it was good that there was some democratic renewal in the election: more people wanted to vote, and they took the election seriously and wanted to express an opinion. However, Parliament must understand—as those of us who were in the previous one surely do—that we are on probation. It is up to us to prove to the public that this Parliament can be so much better than the last one, and that we can tackle the serious issues in a sensible way.
Of course, there must be robust debate and challenge to the Executive—and I suspect that that must come not only from those on the Opposition Benches. Of course, there will be periods of humour and light-hearted relief, and the speeches made at the start of this debate were notably good and humorous. However, we must restore the trust of the British people and ensure that they feel proud of their Parliament again. To do that, this Parliament must engage more actively with the Executive, thank and reward them when they get something right and make sure that they understand when they get something wrong. We must press and press the Executive until they get things right, for the sake of the wider public good and the wider national interest.
The country has very warm feelings towards the coalition. I welcome the coalition, as it was the only way we could go forward, given the nature of the election result. It is not for us to criticise the electorate for the judgment they made. Each individual made his or her judgment for good reasons, in good conscience. It is up to us to make the best of the result that they have produced. Looking at the arithmetic, even sensible Labour Members would agree that the only conceivable way of offering this country some stable government for a reasonable period was for the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives to find how many things they could agree about, and to agree to disagree about the other things and not to highlight them for a period while we offer stable government.
I am sure that Labour Members will play endless games suggesting that a Liberal Democrat said one thing and a Conservative said another before the election, but they should move on. It is not interesting. We all know that—we were fighting each other in an election. We still disagree about some fundamental issues—we have been open and honest about that—and that has not suddenly changed. But what we agree about is very important. We agree that this country is in a huge mess. We agree that this country needs stable government to start to turn it round, and we agree that the only conceivable combination that has the numbers to work is the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives working together. We also agree that the prime task is to start to tackle the deficit before it overwhelms us.
Many Labour Members still think that it is wrong to reduce public spending to reduce the deficit. Some of them mistakenly tell us that if we cut public spending—by £6.2 billion, to pluck a recent figure out of the air—it will take £6.2 billion out of the economy and will therefore help to collapse the economy further. The Labour party should understand that every £1 that is spent and borrowed by the Government has to come from the private sector. We are not printing money any more—that was the Labour idea for a year and even they agree that we cannot continue to do that. So every £1 that we need to borrow this year has to come from the private sector—from a company or individual who will lend it to the Government, but if they lend it to the Government, they cannot spend it or use it themselves. So it is not taking money out of the economy: it is just saying that we need a better balance in the economy.
If we do not get a private sector-led recovery, we will not cure the deficit, we will not prop up and develop the public services, and we will not have the increase in the tax revenues that we need to make a success of our large and expensive public sector. The only way out of this deficit crisis is a strong, private sector-led recovery.
My right hon. Friend has spent many years in the private sector. Having also studied efficiency savings in the public sector, does he agree that £6 billion—or 1%—is just a start, and that huge gains could possibly be made, especially in IT projects and the general management of Whitehall?
I entirely agree. I have in the past been actively involved in British industry, and 3% per annum efficiency gains is a normal target. It is not done by undermining the product, reducing its quality or providing the customer with a worse service: it is done while giving customers a better service and raising the quality of the product, through technology, training and energising and motivating the work force through reward and incentive. We need to do that in the public sector now, on a large scale, because we have had 10 wasted years in which the Government made no progress and put too much money in without asking for enough back—doing too little for too much. We now need to create a public sector that does more for less in the important areas such as health and education, and does less for less in areas such as ID cards and the authoritarian state that Labour introduced.
We are meeting at a time of grave crisis for our European neighbours in the euro area. As one who campaigned strenuously and volubly against the United Kingdom joining the euro, I take no great pleasure in saying that all the things that we thought could go wrong with the euro are now unfortunately doing so, even without this country. I am very proud of all those who joined us in that campaign and kept sterling out. It is the one thing that the Government most recently ejected from office got right—they managed to stay out of the euro. That was a very sensible judgment on which I always congratulated them and backed them at the time. Had Britain gone into the euro, the state of British public finances and the different nature of the British economy and its founder currency, sterling, would by now have shattered the euro. Our great contribution to euroland unity was keeping our currency out, and I think that I could now find many German and French people and experts who would agree that we have made their problem a lot easier by not being in the euro.
When we used to say, “Beware of Greece! That is why we need to control our deficit”, the previous Government were always keen to tell us, “Oh, but Greece is in a totally different position.” Well they were wrong in this sense: if we do the figures properly, we see that total borrowing in Greece, in relation to its economy, is no bigger than total borrowing by the UK Government in relation to our economy. Colleagues have set out endlessly that the true debt and liability of the state in Britain is £3 trillion, not just under £1 trillion, as the previous Government used to say. Furthermore, our deficit is every bit as big as Greece’s, as we know from the awful figures that we have seen. So in that sense, we are just like Greece, and if the markets have got to the point with Greece where they are saying, “We will not carry on lending you money, because we think that you have over-borrowed”, we could get to that point in the United Kingdom too. It is that argument that has brought several Liberal Democrats round to our way of thinking, which is that we need urgent action. During the election we saw the Greek crisis being enacted at the same time as we were talking to electors, making it clear how dangerous the situation was.
Of course, the right hon. Gentleman has held these views for as long as I have been in the House, but the Prime Minister made it clear, after he met Chancellor Merkel, that it is in this country’s interests that the euro succeeds. It might well be that we do not join in the next five years, but we want it to succeed. Does he agree?
Of course, and I said that it came as no pleasure to me to say that unfortunately what we saw as the failings of the euro are now coming true. I was going to deal with the right hon. Gentleman’s point: it is in Britain’s interest to try to tackle the problems with our eurozone friends in a way that does not penalise this country. They are, of course, an important trading bloc in the world and an important market for ourselves.
I would like to finish my earlier point, however. There is a very important difference between the United Kingdom and Greece: whereas when Greece needs to borrow a lot of money, it cannot print the money to do so, and whereas when Greece wants, or has, to repay the money, it cannot devalue the currency to do so, the United Kingdom can do, and has done, both on a heroic scale. The reason we have not yet got into the Greek situation is that the whole of last year’s massive borrowing requirement was simply printed. The money was printed and injected through the banks into the public sector, so that we avoided the market pressures that Greece experienced. Greece could not do that because she shares a currency managed by the European Central Bank. The previous Government presided over a devaluation of the currency of about a quarter, so, although we will obviously not renege on our debts, the previous Government reneged on them by the back door, saying to all the foreign holders of those debts, “You will only get back three quarters of your money or interest.”
Surely if the Greeks had the drachma, which was valued at much less than the overvalued—from their point of view—euro, they would be able to stimulate the economy, and many of us could perhaps go there in the summer and help them to do it.
Indeed, and even in this new possible age of austerity, and even with a September sitting, I am sure that it would be possible to fit in a visit to Greece. That is exactly the kind of help that the Greek economy needs, and it would be much more attractive if they had a devaluing drachma—so that we could buy ouzo rather more cheaply. So my hon. Friend’s point is, of course, absolutely correct.
There are these very important differences, therefore, but the message to Britain has to be that we cannot go on printing and devaluing ad infinitum. There comes a point where the markets pull the rug from under us and say, “This is extreme—you cannot do this anymore.” There comes a point where we will be effectively reneging on our debts, because we will be devaluing the currency in which we are repaying them by so much.
That is why I so strongly welcome the clear response of the coalition Government to put at the top of the Queen’s Speech the need to take action to tackle the deficit, and why I think that they are right to have three phases. We saw the first phase on Monday—the down payment of £5.7 billion net—and we will then have the emergency Budget, which I hope will include some guidance on how we are going to get the deficit down in the medium term. We will then have the really important work, in the autumn, when the Government have had time to do the full-scale public spending review that the previous Government ducked out of and declined to do at the appropriate time. We will then be able see the proper trajectory for spending, which will be important for curbing the deficit.
I want to see the euro stabilised. However, it will be difficult to do that, because it was not wise, as many of us said at the time, to include Portugal, Spain, Ireland and Greece in the euro area. The euro works fine for France, Germany, Benelux and Austria, but it is difficult to get it to work for such a diverse grouping. However, the United Kingdom Government have to allow the euroland members to take more direct power over the euroland economies, because a single currency cannot work unless there is a single budgetary policy and controls over the amount that those countries borrow. They are all borrowing in the same currency. It is like sharing a bank account with the neighbours, where we need to control how much the neighbours spend, otherwise there will be an awful shock when we see how they have flexed the credit card and the overdraft. We need to let those countries have such power, so I hope that the Government will offer advice and assistance.
I would like us to get some powers back for ourselves, at the same time that more powers are being taken for the centre. However, it would be quite wrong of Britain to be obstinate and say that the centre should not have those powers. It is in our interests that the euro should work, and the only way that a currency union can work is if there is centrally controlled budgetary discipline and central agreement on how many euros are printed—some more will probably need to be printed now—in order to get out of this mess and get reflation going in those economies.
However, I am, of course, much more concerned about the prosperity of this country. I am conscious that although we need to control the deficit and take the measures that I and others have often argued for, we are not going to get out of this mess unless we have the strong private sector recovery that I and others are now referring to. I would therefore say to the coalition Government that they need to spend as much time on regulation, tax and other matters that affect the rate of growth of the private sector economy as they spend on curbing the spending problems in the public sector. The two need to go together. It is not a good idea simply to cut the public sector, if we do not create the conditions for strong and good growth in the private sector.
Let us take the sensitive issue of tax. I have been doing a little research on the topic of capital gains tax. I share the Liberal Democrat and Conservative coalition Members’ wish to raise more money from capital gains tax. That might come as a shock to many of my parliamentary colleagues, but in this situation we need to tax the rich more. They have more money and we need more money to come into the Treasury; we need to tax the rich more. However, the result of my researches shows that the way to get more money out of capital gains tax is to lower the rate. The figures are quite dramatic, although it is easier to see the effect in the United States of America than in the United Kingdom, because there have not been so many fiddles and changes in the way that capital gains tax is levied there as we have had here. We have had indexation, business relief and all sorts of complications, although the British series, as adjusted, seems to bear out the same case.
In America in the early 1980s, there was a period of cutting capital gains tax rates, down to 20%. Capital gains tax revenues hit a massive high in 1986, on the back of the lower, 20% rate. The Americans spent the next part of the 1980s hiking up capital gains tax, from 20% to, I think, 33%, and the revenues collapsed, but they did not get the idea. However, in the ’90s they returned to a more common-sense policy and the revenues picked up again. By the 2000s, the Americans decided that even 20% was a bit high for maximising the revenue, so they took the rate down to 15%, which is where it is now, and revenue surged. The 15% rate seems to be much nearer the optimum, producing far more tax from the rich in the United States than 20, 28 or 34% produced.
My right hon. Friend is giving a masterclass in economics that, sadly, the Opposition failed to listen to in all their years of taking us to this current low ebb. Is he sure, however, that when the rates of capital gains tax are lowered, people will not simply manufacture a way of turning income into a capital gain, in order to avoid taxation elsewhere? If that were to happen, the gain might not be entirely real.
Those periods were also periods of surging income tax receipts, which demonstrates that this is good for enterprise, profits and jobs. We need more profits, more savings, more investment and more jobs. If we tax things more lightly, we get more of them. If we tax them more heavily, we get less of them. The enthusiasts for high taxes in this House have always said, “We must put up the taxes on petrol to stop people driving so much, and we must put up the taxes on smoking to stop people smoking so much.” So, presumably, putting up the taxes on enterprise will stop people being so enterprising. That must be the logic.
I am enjoying my right hon. Friend’s contribution. Did not Margaret Thatcher prove this point when she was Prime Minister? By reducing the level of tax on the top earners, she increased the amount of money that flew into the Exchequer.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reminding us of the great lady; she was a great Prime Minister. I not sure, however, that that is quite the model we need to persuade those on the Front Bench of a coalition Government. That is why I am drawing on more modern and foreign examples. My right hon. and hon. Friends will understand that we need good friends, because we must win this argument for the sake of our country’s prosperity.
I know a number of people whom I describe as entrepreneurs on strike. They have been very successful in business and they are now in their late 40s and 50s. Many of us would feel that they were still quite young—[Interruption.] They are also very energetic, as some of us are. They are on strike at the moment, however. They have loads of money in the bank or in a portfolio, but they do not want to commit it to a new business in Britain because they find the atmosphere here too hostile. They think that there are too many regulations and controls, which they find too burdensome. They also find the tax structure too uncertain. They feel that, if they are going to venture their money and work 12 to 14 hours a day to break in a new company and make it a success, they do not want to be paying 40 to 50% tax after five years if the company is working. They know that the Treasury will not be sending them half their losses if the business has not worked, and they feel that it is easier not to bother. They are saying, “I’ve got enough money, I can live quite comfortably, and I’m on strike.” Hon. Members might dislike strikes, as I do, but we have to work alongside them and with those entrepreneurs. This proves the point that if we want to stop something, we tax it. Please, Government, do not stop enterprise, venturing and new developments.
That brings me to my final main point, colleagues will be pleased to know. It relates to an excellent Bill proposed in the Queen’s Speech, which has been championed by my new friend, the Deputy Prime Minister: the great repeal Bill. I was delighted to learn that this was a Liberal Democrat idea. I cannot remember how many times I have urged that this House introduce a great repeal Bill, but Liberal Democrat ideas are not always wrong and I am delighted to give them ownership of this one, as long as they will do one thing for me. That is that they should work with us to make it a really good repeal Bill.
There are many things that we need to repeal. I shall not go on about them at huge length, because other colleagues wish to speak. I have sent the Deputy Prime Minister 27 proposals for the great repeal Bill, and they are also on that well-known website, johnredwood.com—I hope that I am permitted a commercial in this hallowed Chamber. If colleagues think it a good idea, they too should write to the Deputy Prime Minister with their pet ideas for the great repeal Bill. We do not want Ministers to come to the Dispatch Box with half a dozen perfectly good ideas, and then to say, “Well, we had a consultation, but nobody had anything else that they wanted knocked out.” I am sure that colleagues have their own ideas, and they should please put them in. If they do not, I do not mind them borrowing all the ones from my website. I do not expect any praise or attribution. They can even put in their letters that they do not like me, or perhaps that they agree with me. They can put in whatever they wish, if they think that it will help to get their message across. We need to bombard the Government with as many ideas as possible while they are listening and trying to construct the great repeal Bill.
We need to get costs off the back of British business. It is not easy to cut taxes as much as I would like—because the Government will not believe all my good news on how that would raise revenues—so we need also to cut the regulatory costs on business, so that more people can be persuaded that it is worth while to work. Our country is disfigured by 6 million people of working age who do not have a job. Some of them are chronically disabled and very ill; we all wish them any speedy recovery they can get and we wish to send them as much money as we can so that they can have a reasonably comfortable life. Most of the 6 million are not in that category, however, so it must be a high priority for this Government to use whatever means they can to get them back to work, which requires a strong and vibrant private sector for them to find jobs on offer. That is the central task.
If this Parliament masters the deficit before it demolishes us, if this Parliament gives hope to 6 million people out of work and if this Parliament creates an enterprising and fast-growing private sector economy, it will deserve to be well rewarded by the electorate in five years’ time or whenever the end comes.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.
It might help the House, and particularly Members seeking to catch your eye this evening, if you instructed the Treasury Bench Members to make available an 82-page document, which is not in the Library and not in the Vote Office, but is available in the Press Gallery. I think you hold my view that this House should be the first to receive information. A great deal of detailed information is in the document, some of which is available on the Government website, but Members seeking to catch your eye in this Chamber cannot gain access to that website. It would therefore be incredibly useful if every Member could have access to this document.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order, of which I had no detailed advance notice. I see no reason why the document should not be made readily available in the Vote Office. Representatives of the Treasury Bench are here and they have heard what the hon. Gentleman has said. I feel sure that he will be gratified sooner than he might have expected.
It is always a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood). He was elected on the very same day I was elected to this place and I think that he is sitting in almost the same place from which he delivered his maiden speech; I am certainly sitting in the same place as when I first arrived here in 1987. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman has not delivered the same speech that he gave on the earlier occasion. He referred to johnredwood.com, and we are all going to go out there and log on. When we were first elected, computers were not even around, so this marks a big advance for us.
Mr Speaker, you reprimanded Members who congratulated you on the previous occasion you were elected Speaker, but I want to join others in congratulating you on your re-election. In the months you have been Speaker, you have not only shown your command in this House, but you have gained the enormous respect that we all have for you and your work—hence your re-election without anyone against you. Congratulations.
I would also like to congratulate the hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) on making his first speech as leader of the Democratic Unionist party. We were at the same university but not at the same time, so I do not know what his reputation was, but I know that he will lead his party with great distinction. In debates in which I have participated with him, he has certainly shown an independent state of mind—not always supporting the Government and not always supporting the Opposition. Sitting next to him, of course, is the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley). When I first sat in my place here 23 years ago, I was sitting near his father. One tends to wonder whether one has sat here for too long when the sons get elected to replace their fathers.
What has been impressive about this election is the way in which the House of Commons has changed. When I was first elected, there were four Members from the ethnic minority communities representing the Labour party. As I look across the Chamber, I see one that has become more representative of the country, which I think is a tribute to the work of all the parties and, indeed, of Parliament, in trying to ensure that we get more women and ethnic minority people elected to the British Parliament. I am sure that they will all make their contributions in their own way, representing all their constituents to the best of their ability. I want to congratulate all new Members on their election.
It would be churlish to speak in the debate on the Loyal Address without congratulating Ministers. I know that they have not all rushed in to hear my speech, but I am sure that those present on the Treasury Bench will pass on our good wishes about the election of those Ministers.
This is, of course, an important time in British politics. We have never had a coalition Government while I have been a Member of Parliament; indeed, as we were reminded by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith), there has not been one for 70 years. However, I think that right hon. and hon. Members opposite should stop apologising for, or explaining, the coalition. The right hon. Member for Wokingham kept explaining why it was necessary, but the fact is that no party had an absolute majority in the House of Commons, and if we want stable government, we must have a coalition.
We will of course do our best to support coalition policies when they are in the best interests of the country, but when we feel that they are wrong, we will challenge them. As the Leader of the Opposition said today, that would be done by any good and effective Opposition. I think that we should put the explanations to one side, and that the coalition should get on with being the coalition, governing the country and putting before the House proposals that we will scrutinise.
I know that many other Members wish to take part in this debate so I shall raise just four issues, the first of which concerns home affairs. I had the privilege of chairing the Home Affairs Committee for three years during the last Parliament and I found it interesting that the Government adopted a number of the Committee’s recommendations at the very end of the Session, including the creation of a national security council. We proposed that the various strands advising Ministers on national security should be combined in a single body—not quite the “situation room” of “The West Wing”, but a body that the Prime Minister could consult in order to obtain effective and important advice about the security of the nation. I am pleased that the Government accepted those recommendations.
I am also pleased that the Home Secretary has decided to review the case of Gary McKinnon. I see that the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) is sitting in his place—or, rather, not in his place, which was formerly on this side of the House, but almost directly opposite it. I pay tribute to him for the amazing work that he did on behalf of his constituent. I believe that the fact that Gary McKinnon is still here is due to the hon. Gentleman’s work as a constituency Member, which should serve as a model for any Member who might take up an issue of this kind. He was able to bring the attention of the House and the country to Gary McKinnon’s plight.
As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Select Committee resolved unanimously that Gary McKinnon should not be extradited to the United States of America, but should be tried in this country. Although we heard some comments from members of the Government this morning about the progress of the review, I am happy to leave it to the Home Secretary to examine the evidence that we urged the former Home Secretary to examine, and to arrive at the right conclusion: that Gary McKinnon should be allowed to stay and face trial in this country. That is the right thing for him to do if the prosecuting authorities believe that he should do it.
The Government have accepted other proposals in our reports, including our very last report, which dealt with the detention of children in immigration cases. We felt that that was wrong, and I am glad that the Government have accepted our view.
Now for the bad news, however. I think that we have some problems with the Government’s policing proposals. Of course it is up to any Government taking office to decide their priorities, but I would recommend caution over policing budgets. I know that it was suggested in the statement made yesterday by the Chancellor and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury that £376 million could be found from the home affairs budget specifically for policing matters, but I do not believe that many police authorities in the country are wasting money on front-line policing.
I think that this will be an issue for every single Member of the House. As the cuts proceed and the bills are sent to local police authorities, we will see the impact on local policing. It has always been true that we should protect front-line services. Of course the invention of police community support officers has been extremely important, because they provide back-up for front-line officers, and of course it is possible to make savings on administration and red tape. That was another of the Select Committee’s recommendations.
In our report “Policing in the 21st century”, we spoke of the need to use good practice and to share it around the country. For example, Staffordshire has reduced the number of forms to be filled in from 24 to one. As a result, more police time has been released. Another of our recommendations, which the previous Government had started to implement, was that every single police officer should have a hand-held computer, an effective way of dealing with crime at the scene of a crime. If that new technology is to be put at risk because of the proposals to cut police budgets, we ought to be concerned; not necessarily in a party-political way, but in a way that is above party politics. At the end of the day, what our constituents want and need more than anything else is the ability to pick up a phone when a crime has been committed and to ensure that a police officer comes as soon as possible so that they are able to report the crime.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that what constituents want—they certainly said this to me during the election—is more police officers on the beat and fewer in police stations drowning in bureaucracy?
The hon. Gentleman has made this point before. As a small business man, he was concerned about policing in his constituency. It is also, of course, natural constituency work. People want visibility and if they do not see a police officer, they get worried. When we consider police budgets and re-organisation, we must make sure that we protect those front-line services.
We also ought to be very careful about electing commissioners and chief constables. I am all in favour of a review of the police committees. Most police committees are not absolutely accountable to local people, most of whom do not know who sits on their police committees. Similarly, very few people know who the executive directors of primary care trusts are, despite the fact that they dispense a huge amount of NHS money locally. I am all for more accountability and am happy to look at proposals that would allow certain numbers of people to be elected on to police committees, but we should not take away the operational responsibilities of police officers and the priorities of local policing from police officers and place them in the hands of people who do not necessarily have the experience to do their work.
For a man of his experience and expertise, I am surprised that the right hon. Gentleman morphed the election of police commissioners with the election of police chief constables. No one is suggesting the election of chief constables. We are talking about addressing the very point that the right hon. Gentleman rightly makes, which is that there is no accountability. When we knock on the doors of our constituents, we find that they are frustrated that the local police force has not been focused on local needs and wants but on what I call cricked-neck policing, looking always to the Home Office for leadership. The elected police commissioner, working with the unelected chief constable, will provide the accountability and clarity to local people who have suffered from frustration for too long.
I am very pleased to hear that reassurance from the hon. Gentleman, who knows his party’s policy better than I do. I am glad that there is no proposal to elect chief constables, but we must look at the democratic deficit to see how it can be filled effectively, leaving operational matters to local people. [Interruption.] A former Police Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), has just come in, no doubt to check on what I am saying about him. I have said nice things, I can assure him.
On identity cards, there has always been concern—my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick), a member of the Committee in the last Parliament, was always very strong on this subject, as was the Committee as a whole for a number of years, certainly before I took over the Chair—that they would not deal with the issues that the previous Government had in mind. The Government believe that identity cards should be abolished but they have been introduced and apply to foreign nationals. We need to look at the practical implications of that. What do those people do? Do they have to give back their identity cards, or will we keep them specifically for those who are not resident in this country? We need to look at the detail.
The Select Committee also expressed concern that the DNA of innocent people was being kept on the DNA database. It is the largest DNA database in Europe, and there was great concern about people being able to get their DNA off it, including Members of this House whose DNA was taken from them, especially the hon. Member for Chelsea and Fulham (Greg Hands). He conducted a three-year campaign to try to get his DNA off the database, only finally to be told it was never on it in the first place. If we had a more effective way of dealing with such situations, we would not have had the problems we ended up with. I will support the Government on the database scheme because that is precisely what the Select Committee said when we last conducted an inquiry into the subject.
I am worried that the proposed cuts to the health budget will remove some of the emphasis our Government placed on health, and especially preventive health care, over the past 13 years. I only discovered that I had diabetes five years ago, when by chance I went to my local GP at a time when a drugs company had been asked to conduct a pilot involving a new diabetes drug. I just went along to our local health centre to launch this scheme, as most of us would do. I was telephoned the next day to be told I was on the front page of the Leicester Mercury opening the pilot study, and then I was phoned by my GP to be told that the bad news was that I had type 2 diabetes.
The issue here is that the more money we spend on preventive work and testing people for diabetes, making sure their cholesterol is under control, the less we as a country will have to spend. At present, £1 million an hour is spent on diabetes-related care. At present, too, 500,000 people have diabetes without knowing that—including some Members of this House, to repeat a point I have made before—and if we direct that £1 million at testing the population for diabetes, that will save us a lot of money in the future, and lengthen people’s lives. If people have diabetes without knowing that, that can knock at least five years off their life.
I want to pick the right hon. Gentleman up on a different point, if I may. He talked about health spending cuts, but we on the Government Benches were elected on a platform of real-terms increases in health spending, so when he talk about cuts, that is not strictly accurate.
I am very pleased to hear that, and when the Health Secretary comes before the House, I hope the hon. Gentleman will join me in pressing him for more money, not the same amount, to be spent on preventive work—I have already lobbied the Secretary of State on that in the Tea Room. If we prevent illnesses, we spend much less in the long term and we save lives.
Let me make two final points. First, on banking reform, I think we all got the message during the election about the need to be pretty beastly to the bankers. My concern is the Government’s proposal to hand regulation back to the Bank of England. A number of Members were first elected to Parliament at about the same time as me. I know that the Conservative Chief Whip was elected the year before, and my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Sir Stuart Bell) was here before anyone present in this Chamber now, although he does not look as if that is the case; he still looks as young and spry as when he was first elected to the House.
One of the campaigns I took up was to do with Bank of Credit and Commerce International, the sixth largest private bank in the world, which suddenly closed because the then Government were not prepared to accept the Sheikh of Abu Dhabi’s cheque for $6 billion to keep that bank open—even though, of course, we kept Northern Rock open recently and gave a lot of public money to a number of other banks. The liquidation of BCCI is still going on. The right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood) will remember that when he was a Trade and Industry Minister, I had a very good meeting with him at which we discussed what we were going to do about the liquidation. It may surprise him to know that this liquidation, which started on 5 January 1991, is still going on after all these years, with millions and millions of pounds going on liquidators’ fees. What might the sums involved have been if we had kept the bank open? It was the Bank of England that allowed BCCI to continue to trade, which is why I think handing regulation back to the Bank of England will be a problem. We have the Financial Services Authority, which began because of BCCI and the recommendations of the Bingham inquiry, so we should make sure that we are careful about moving around the regulatory system.
I know that we are to have a debate on Europe next week, and I look forward to taking part if I catch your eye, Mr Speaker. It is important to clarify exactly where we stand on the European Union, especially as we have a Government who appear to be going in two different directions with their manifestos—although perhaps not with the coalition document. I have no problems with a referendum whenever there is a treaty that means that powers will be ceded from the UK. If we accept the Prime Minister at his word—we ought to, because he has been in office for only two and a half weeks—he will never agree to anything that means that powers will be taken from Westminster to Brussels, so we shall not have a referendum over the next five years. However, I am keen on the Liberal Democrat proposal, which I supported, that we should have a referendum on whether we should stay in the EU. I hope we can explore some of those issues in the debate on Europe next week.
My final point is about something in the Queen’s Speech that has not yet been explained. The sovereign—on the recommendation of the Prime Minister—talked about an enhanced relationship with India. I warmly welcome that. We should have the strongest possible relations with India. When I was Minister for Europe, the European Union began the EU-India summit meetings, but we have not given India sufficient attention. We should do so not just because of the 2.5 million people of Indian origin who live in the UK—some of them in my constituency—but because it makes good economic sense for us to do business with India and to have a strong and firm relationship.
The Attorney-General is on the Treasury Bench. He will know that the Indian diaspora has moved from places in south London such as Southall to Beaconsfield. If he looks at his diary, I think he will find that most of the parties he attended to celebrate his election were organised by the Indian community in Beaconsfield.
The right hon. Gentleman is undoubtedly correct. Evenings of bhangra dancing and hospitality are well worth enjoying. I think he already knows that the Gerrards Cross south ward in my constituency—the wealthiest ward in the UK—is about 20% Asian.
I do know that. I have all the statistics and I know how much people in Gerrards Cross love the hon. and learned Gentleman. I am sure that now he is the Attorney-General, they will use his services well.
We must keep our relationship with India going. When the Prime Minister visits India on 2 October, he should take the advice Members gave previous Prime Ministers and make sure that he involves the Indian diaspora. Let us have firm, strong relationships with that very important country.
On that note, I end my speech. I wish the Government well in getting their legislation through.
I am very grateful to be called to speak today.
I can do no better than repeat the words of my illustrious predecessor, Claire Ward, who on a similar occasion said that she felt a great sense of awe and some nervousness. She had reason to do so. At the time she was only 23 years old, about half my age—only three years older than my eldest son. She also had the distinction—should I say?—of always being known as the youngest of the Blair babes in the 1997 intake. I fear I did not make the cut for Cameron’s cuties, so I have to rely on Richard Littlejohn in the Daily Mail. He referred to my stature in Parliament as broadly equivalent to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Nicholas Soames) and of the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr Pickles). However, I think Mr Littlejohn was referring not to political stature but to my girth.
Claire Ward was an outstanding Member of Parliament for Watford. She was proud and honoured to represent the town, and she is very popular—and not only in the constituency. She had a distinguished parliamentary career, and was a Whip for several years before becoming an Under-Secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice in 2009. I am sure that everyone will join me in sending our good wishes to her and her husband and young family for their future. She is still under 40 years old, and I really do not think that we have heard the last of her. She is a wonderful person.
My first experience of Watford was at the tender age of 21, when I joined Trewins, a local department store belonging to the John Lewis Partnership that was, at the time, compared favourably to the shop in the then popular programme, “Are You Being Served?” My time there was a great lesson for me. It gave me a certain morality on the way to do business. The way that that firm taught us to treat suppliers, customers and fellow workers was a lesson for my whole business career and, I hope, for my political career.
I started in Watford then, not dreaming that I would become the Member of Parliament for the town. Watford was very much regarded as an industrial town in those days, and in the days of my predecessor-but-one, Tristan Garel-Jones, now Lord Garel-Jones, a wonderful man and a distinguished Member of this House. He had been Deputy Chief Whip and had held various other jobs, and had been in the Cabinet. He has been a great help to me. Watford was known for what is still colloquially called the print; it was one of the biggest printing centres in Europe. It had Scammell Lorries and Rolls-Royce aero-engines, and most of the town was involved in manual labour.
Of course, thing have changed. We now have a very diverse economy in Watford. We have some well-known national names. Camelot, the lottery company, has its head office in Watford, and we have Total—the oil company—and several other big names. We also have many distinguished smaller, local firms. We have Sigma Pharmaceuticals, which employs 400 people, and a very interesting family-run business called DDD, which manufactures toiletries and cosmetics, and it too employs 400 people locally. It was established in 1912 and is family-owned.
The important things for me are start-up businesses and high-tech businesses. During the election campaign, I had the privilege of visiting a business called Twin Technology, which was a start-up company only two years ago, and which now employs 14 people. I visited it with my right hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar, who was then party chairman. It was interesting; we heard on that day how difficult it was for the owners of the company to keep building it and to keep recruiting people in the current economic circumstances, surrounded as they were by the obstacles of bureaucracy.
In my business career—before my political career—the most important thing was employing people. In business, it is the greatest privilege to be able to employ people—to give them the opportunity to make something of themselves in life. It is with some shame that I tell the House that, in Watford, unemployment among young people—that is, people under 24 on jobseeker’s allowance—has more than doubled in two years. I think that we are talking about just under 550 people. That does not sound very much, but that is 550 lives in a small town. Those are people who want to work, and are able to work, but are not working.
To me, one of the most important parts of the Government’s programme—this came out in the Queen’s Speech—is providing a business environment where people are incentivised to create employment for others. If I do nothing else in Watford, and in my political career, I would like to be able to do this one thing: I would like to change the attitude to business among young people, together with a Government who are able to give them incentives to fill the empty shops and offices, so that we make business something that people want to do. I have spoken at many schools in Watford, and always to very bright young people. I say to them, “What do you all want to do after university?” but so few of them want to start businesses. It is not fashionable, and it should be. Government can incentivise people, but it is the responsibility of us all to encourage people to go into job-creating schemes.
The very large number of young unemployed people in this country—1 million—is obviously a scandal, but boiling that down to individuals, I believe that it is the job of Government to facilitate some form of change. I was delighted to hear in the Queen’s Speech that the welfare reform Bill, much of which is based on our election manifesto, is to provide interesting schemes, such as a mentoring scheme for small businesses and sole traders to take in young people and give them a chance.
I remember being in business in 1992 and not doing very well. Unemployment was very high and we were very short of money, but I thought that I could afford to recruit three young people. At the time the Government had a very simple scheme: it was for one year; the employer paid the young person £30 a week; and the Government made up the balance. So, I went to a jobcentre on the Monday, and three young people started on the Tuesday. I am told that that process is impossible today, with audits, safety checks, people going to appraise the business and everything else. Somehow, we have to be able to give people a chance so that employers can decide, “Enough of all this. I want to recruit people, I want to give them a chance. If it works out, it does. If it doesn’t work out, well I’m sorry.” I hope that this Government will be able to change the environment into one that makes people want to take a risk, take a chance and not have all those reasons for not doing so.
For that reason, I am very pleased to support, among many other things, everything that I have heard in the Queen’s Speech, and I hope that the Government will continue with that kind of operation.
I pay tribute to the new hon. Member for Watford (Richard Harrington), who has the great distinction of making the first maiden speech of any of the 2010 intake. That suggests that he has been quick off the blocks, and I hope that his Front Benchers take note that he, among our large 2010 intake, managed to get in first. I was expecting to hear maiden speeches for the next six months or so, so well done to him for getting in so quickly.
From listening to the hon. Gentleman’s contribution this afternoon, I am sure that it will not be long before he plays an important role in the Chamber, and I was delighted to hear him pay tribute to his predecessor, Claire Ward, because she was well liked in the House. She entered Parliament as a very young woman, aged 23, and she was indeed in that famous picture—in which I also featured, because I too entered Parliament in 1997—of Blair’s babes. However, she grew up in this Chamber, getting married and having children, and for her to have survived the life that we Members have to lead, while all that was going on in her personal life, which is the normal life of most young people, is nothing short of miraculous. I worry that we have made it more difficult for young people like Claire to enter Parliament, to lead a normal life as an MP and to have a successful career and home life, too.
I know very little about Watford; I am not even sure whether I have ever been through the town. People from Scotland always used to complain that people from south-east England knew nothing of what was happening north of Watford, so perhaps the hon. Gentleman will at some point explain to me what the Watford gap was; I never did find out.
I pay tribute also to the proposer and seconder of the motion on the Loyal Address. In 2001, I seconded the motion on the Address, and in those days, traditionally, the proposer was most definitely someone who had been a Member for some time but would be standing down at the next election, and the seconder was the up-and-coming new person who would have a meteoric rise and soon be on the Front Bench. Since then, I have languished on the Back Benches, although I remember saying in my maiden speech that one advantage of my using a wheelchair was that I would be on the Front Bench for most of my parliamentary career. Unfortunately, the powers that be have perhaps not quite appreciated my talents.
Thirteen years on, I am absolutely amazed that I am still in this place. When a Member has an ultra-marginal seat, they do not expect to retain it when their party loses an election and to be on the other side of the House. However, I have managed to make it from one side to the other, and the view is much the same; I was expecting things to be somewhat different.
I don’t like it.
My hon. Friend says that he does not like it. We might not like the inability to influence policy in the same way, but the view is very similar.
I suppose that one of the reasons why I am still here is my Liberal Democrat opponent. He put out so much literature, all of which told constituents in my very marginal seat that if they wanted to get rid of Labour, all they had to do was vote Liberal Democrat. My majority was emblazoned across all his leaflets. I had always had a real problem in convincing my constituents that, yes, I did indeed have a marginal seat. They kept saying, “You’ll be fine, Anne, don’t you worry.” I said, “No, I have got only a 1,300 majority and I have a marginal seat,” but they would say, “Oh, it’s all right—you’ll be fine.” So I thank the Lib Dems, who put out a sea of leaflets with my majority on them, all claiming that Labour could be defeated only if people voted Liberal Democrat. Thank goodness, my constituents saw what was best for them and for me and voted Labour after all.
I am proud of the achievements of the Labour Government in the past 13 years. Before history is rewritten too much and our achievements are swept away in the great euphoria of the new coalition Government, I should say something about the Liberal voters who did not realise that by voting Liberal they would end up with a Tory Government; in Aberdeen South, they were very well aware that if they voted Liberal they would get a Tory Government. To those Liberals, I say a Scottish phrase: if ye didnae ken then, ye ken nou!
The Labour Government’s achievements have been many, but the one in which I take most pride is how we tackled the scourge of poverty—both pensioner poverty and child poverty. I do not want anyone to undermine what we did as a Government to bring people, particularly pensioners, out of poverty. We ended absolute poverty with the introduction of the pension credit for all pensioners in this country and we made huge inroads into tackling relative poverty. We did the same with child poverty; we turned the tide. The numbers were going up under the last Conservative Government, but we have turned that around—we turned that around, I should say; I have not yet got my tenses right—and the numbers of children in poverty were coming down.
The Labour Government also transformed the landscape on equality. I am thinking not only of the rights of the lesbian, gay and transsexual community, but of those of us with disabilities and those facing discrimination because of their gender or on any other grounds. I worry that the new Conservative-Liberal alliance will not take equality as seriously as the previous Labour Government took it. There are some warm words in the Queen’s Speech, but warm words do not necessarily add up to a strong commitment to the equality legislation already on the statute book and to building on that to make sure that equality is at the heart of everything that the new Government do.
A Liberal-Tory coalition is not a new thing. We had one elected in Aberdeen in 2003, and it lasted until 2007, when a Lib Dem-Scottish National party coalition was elected. I have to say that it was not a happy experience for the good burghers of Aberdeen. Under the Liberal-Tory coalition elected in 2003, the city council underwent a huge reorganisation, which cost huge amounts of money, took away the existing directors of education and housing, and reorganised local government in Aberdeen into three geographical areas. By 2007, it was clear that the whole restructuring had failed miserably, and it had cost a huge amount. I do not know the exact cost because it is difficult to disaggregate these things, but it was certainly more than £100 million.
Aberdeen has had a foretaste of what may now happen under this coalition Government with regard to public spending cuts. In the first year, there were supposed to be £25 million-worth of cuts, which miraculously rose to £50 million, and in the second year there were proposals for another £30 million-worth of cuts. This happened in one small city as a result of the financial mismanagement of, essentially, a Liberal-dominated council. Perhaps some of the Members sitting on the Government Benches should worry that the Liberals may talk a good game, but when they get into power there is quite a different outcome. What we found in Aberdeen, before the effects of the global crisis kicked in, and before any of the proposals made by the Government in the Queen’s Speech or in the days leading up to it, was one of the richest cities in the United Kingdom on the verge of bankruptcy. It has been a sorry tale.
We often think of public servants as faceless bureaucrats and paper-pushers, but we must remember that it is these very same public servants who work for our local councils in providing the care for our elderly and disabled, and who will find that their jobs have been lost as a result of the actions taken by this new coalition Government. It is frightening to think of what might happen when we have the new cuts on top of the existing cuts. We have already seen it in Aberdeen. Schools have closed. Day centres for people with severe disabilities have closed without alternative provision being made, and those people have been left to find activities for themselves because they are no longer provided by the council. All the warm words—“Oh yes, we’ll provide something better”—have never materialised into action.
Perhaps that helps to explain why I am sitting here on the Labour Benches having survived the Liberal bounce, the Clegg bounce, or whatever it was it called. It is because people in Aberdeen know the reality of what it is to live under a council run by the Liberal Democrats.
The hon. Lady seems to be overlooking the fact that this coalition Government are confronting a gap of £156 billion to £160 billion between what the country is spending and what it is taking in. Should she not take that into account?
Part of the reason for my illustrative lecture is that in 2003 the Liberal council in Aberdeen took on a budget that was £27 million in surplus and turned that surplus into a £50 million deficit, without any kind of economic crisis. That did not happen to the Labour local authorities elsewhere in Scotland; it happened only, surprisingly, in Aberdeen, where we had a Liberal-Tory coalition that later became a Liberal-Scottish National party coalition. That council took a rich city that did not have any financial problems and, by its sheer incompetence in reorganising itself, managed to bring it quite close to bankruptcy.
One would think that the council would have started to listen to the people, but it has not. We have our own 55% question in Aberdeen, because there was a proposal to put a lovely new arts centre in Union Terrace gardens, a lovely Victorian park right in the centre of the city. It had the backing of the Scottish Arts Council and had most of its funding in place. Everything was ready and the lease was about to be signed with the council, which owned the land in the gardens, when one of our local businessmen came along with an offer of £50 million to cover over Union Terrace gardens and create a civic square. He said that he would do that only if the people of Aberdeen wanted it, and £300,000 of public money later, spent on a consultation on which the council had said no public money would be used, 55% of those who took part said that they did not want the civic square, and 44% said that they did. Last week, how did the Liberal Democrats and the SNP on Aberdeen city council vote? Did they vote with the majority of people in the consultation? No, of course they did not. They voted to allow the civic square to go on to its next phase.
Some £50 million from a philanthropist and local businessman sounds like a lot of money. Who would dare to turn it down? It might seem churlish to suggest it. The problem is that the proposed civic square is not going to cost £50 million, or even £100 million. It was costed, very quickly, at £140 million. There was not supposed to be any taxpayers’ money involved, but another £90 million will have to be found from somewhere. That is the position in Aberdeen—we have a bankrupt council, an economic crisis given the potential funding problems coming to us down the line, and a council that has decided to go on to the second stage of a grandiose scheme to raze a public park to street level when the majority of the population do not want it to happen. That is not democracy, and the people of Aberdeen are feeling angry and disfranchised because they have not had a say. I heard in the Queen’s Speech that local communities are to be given power over planning, although I appreciate that that will not apply in Scotland. If that power for people in England means that local councils then ignore their views, the promise will have been hollow.
I have talked for longer than I meant to, but I wish to mention one more concern before I close. Although it is popular and may seem right to suggest that people should have access to cancer drugs that have not yet been properly registered, I worry that that proposal overrides the mechanism that the Labour Government put in place, which is the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence. I ask the Government to be clearer about whether that is in fact what the Conservative-Liberal coalition wants to do. Does it want to dismantle the whole apparatus of NICE? It was through NICE that we stopped the postcode lottery in drug funding, and it is through NICE that we ensure that drugs are safe and good value for money before they are made available to the population. I worry that if a drug company has a very expensive drug that it wants to sell, it will now be in a position to be more generous in its description of the efficacy of that drug. That would put pressure on patients, who would then put pressure on doctors to prescribe it, whereas it might not have got through the NICE appraisal scheme. We have the NICE appraisal for a good reason, and I worry that the new Government could undermine the whole basis of an organisation, which the Labour Government quite properly set up.
Perhaps it does not sound like it, but I am delighted to welcome the Queen’s Speech today. It is interesting to be back and on the other side of the Chamber. The 1997 election and coming to Parliament was exciting, and returning to Parliament this time has been equally exciting. Perhaps, because there was no change of Government in 2001 and 2005, it was a bit of an anti-climax when we all arrived back—we simply had to get on with the work. This time, it has been fascinating, if only to watch the body language of Members opposite.
I intend to be brief—newly elected Members will learn that that is not the biggest fib they will hear in the House.
It is always a delight to follow the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Miss Begg). She said that she did not experience much difference in going into opposition from sitting on the Government side. It is a little like the man who said, “I tried rich and I tried poor, and on the whole, I prefer rich.” I have tried Government and Opposition and I can tell her that, on the whole, I prefer Government because at least we can start to do things. That is what today is all about—the Queen’s Speech has given us an action plan.
The hon. Lady was rightly very gracious about my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington). He spoke eloquently, passionately and without notes about his constituency. I congratulate him on his excellent contribution—I know that he has already received fan mail from the Front Bench. I am sure that he will go far in the House.
I am grateful to the people of Ribble Valley for sending me back to this place. I, too, had Liberal Democrats—my new allies—distributing leaflets in my constituency during the election campaign, pointing out that only the Liberal Democrat could beat the Conservative there. They went from second to third place, so I am equally grateful to the electors of Ribble Valley for that.
The sad loss towards the end of the previous Parliament of David Taylor and Ashok Kumar has been mentioned many times today. Both were decent men and good parliamentarians, and the House will miss them greatly.
On the day of the election, it became clear that there were problems in some polling stations—it happened in Ribble Valley five years ago—where people were turned away at 10 o’clock and not allowed to vote. Clearly, that should not be allowed to happen in future. I hope that the powers that be will reconsider not only the voting system but the process of voting so that people who join a queue to vote can cast their vote in some way, shape or form.
The postal voting system is far too lax, even now, despite the problems at the previous election. I still believe that people should have a good reason for casting a postal vote. As a member of the Council of Europe, I have observed elections throughout Europe. One thing we are told to look out for and prevent is family voting so that no pressure is put on members of a family. That is all well and good, but if entire families have postal votes, no regard is paid to that sort of voting. I am sure that family voting takes place in some cases. I therefore hope that we can reconsider postal voting.
I also hope that we can consider allowing early voting—perhaps five days before a general election—so that people can turn up at council headquarters with proof of identity and cast their vote early instead of having to wait for the day, particularly given the absurd delay between registering to vote and voting. I think that the deadline for registering for proxy and postal votes was 20 April. Many people did not know then that they would be away on 6 May for all sorts of work-related reasons and it would be better if the date could be extended or early voting were permitted.
I was delighted with the Queen’s Speech—the first one with which I have been delighted for 13 years. The economy is at its heart. The hon. Lady mentioned her bankrupt council, but we have a bankrupt country, and that needs to be sorted out. Spending cannot continue at its current level. We must be more effective with the huge amount of taxpayers’ money that we spend and ensure that we protect the front-line services on which people want their money to be spent. That will be a challenge for our new coalition.
Broadband has been mentioned. The Government want high-speed broadband internet connection to be made available. I represent a rural constituency and I want to ensure that the Government do not forget rural areas. When they roll out high-speed broadband, it must be made available to everybody. We do not want a digital deficit in rural areas, where access to high-speed broadband will boost employment.
The Queen’s Speech also refers to limiting the number of non-European Union economic migrants entering the UK. I fully support that. After the economy, controlling the number of people who come to the UK was the No. 1 issue mentioned to me on the doorstep. We are a small island. We should use the benefits of being an island, but we also need to limit greatly the number of people who can come to this country.
The Queen’s Speech also mentions the health service. We will ensure that patients have a voice and strengthen the role of doctors in the NHS. My hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) is sitting in his rightful place on the Front Bench. Clitheroe community hospital is close to my heart. It is superb and loved by everybody. We were promised a new hospital, which was delayed, even though the building programme started. If the voice of patients is to mean anything, I hope that the voices of the patients at Clitheroe will ensure that the new hospital is delivered for the people of Ribble Valley.
A Bill will be introduced to provide for a referendum on the alternative vote system. I had more than 50% of the vote, but I will campaign actively against the introduction of any form of proportional representation in this country. We currently have an aberration and we are making the best of it. However, I do not want that to become the norm. I want stable government and we can ensure that by not moving to some form of proportional representation. I will therefore campaign strongly on the streets of Ribble Valley in the referendum.
I served on the Select Committee on International Development for more than a year and I saw at first hand the excellent work that the Department for International Development and British taxpayers do throughout the world. The former Minister, the hon. Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas), is in his place. I have seen what the power of British taxpayers’ support can achieve in, for example, water projects and providing medicines for those who suffer from HIV and AIDS. I have seen the new lease of life that people can be given. When one stares into the faces of people to whom the money has made a genuine difference, one feels proud. During the general election campaign, it was great to listen to people on the doorstep who said that they wanted us to carry on supporting such projects throughout the world. We talk about poverty in this country, but it is nothing compared with the abject poverty in which too many people live—on less than $2 a day, in miserable conditions and with no hope. I am delighted that all the major political parties in the general election campaign spoke of raising the amount of money in the international development budget to 0.7% of GDP. I am even more delighted that my Government will fulfil that promise.
I said that I would be brief, and I have been. The most interesting part of any Queen’s Speech is:
“Other measures will be laid before you.”
We look forward to those along with all the others that the Queen mentioned in her Gracious Speech today.
I am grateful to you for calling me to speak, Mr Speaker, and I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans). Having been a parliamentary candidate in a rural area, I can commiserate with him. I understand the various problems that such areas have.
The hon. Member for Ribble Valley was very generous in his remarks about Ashok Kumar and David Taylor. Both were close friends of mine, and they are greatly missed. I am glad that the hon. Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) is still in his place, as he will see the generosity of spirit that passes across the House when Members from different sides talk about parliamentary colleagues.
In his speech, the hon. Member for Watford mentioned immigration, which is a subject that we encountered on doorsteps all the time. For me, it is a conundrum. What is immigration? Are we talking about the asylum seekers who come to our country and claim asylum, or about the Europeans who come here under the European programme? Or are we talking about the problems caused to housing and services such as the NHS?
All parties have taken the question of immigration on board, but I am not yet entirely sure how we can deal with it. I notice that the Government have mentioned a cap on immigration, which would probably apply to immigrants from Commonwealth countries. The issue needs to be taken seriously and cautiously: the Government must try to meet the demands of the public, yet at the same time give some leadership on the matter.
The hon. Member for Watford also mentioned the alternative vote system. I am very glad to see the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) in his place. He will know that I have fought long and hard for the first-past-the-post electoral system, and that I am not a supporter of proportional representation. The Liberals may have wanted that system since 1923, but their ardour has cooled somewhat.
The right hon. Gentleman said that the alternative vote system was a step on the way. Scripture says, “In My Father’s house are many mansions”: I presume that the right hon. Gentleman is moving from the mansion of first past the post to the alternative vote and, in his best hopes, to proportional representation. I often wonder why the Liberal Democrats want to have a change in the voting system when the present system has put them in government.
There are indeed many situations in which my party would not benefit from a different system, as there are areas where we get more seats than the votes would justify. The same is true of the Labour party in the north-east, but the number of seats should reflect the numbers of votes cast. When people go to vote at the polling station, they should know that the outcome will reflect the actual votes cast.
I have heard that old argument over many years. The question of fairness in the voting system goes back to Jeremy Thorpe in 1974. We will have many arguments on the subject but, if the Conservative party has an ideology and a belief in itself, it will want to become the majority party again one day.
The Labour party is a social democratic party. We will evolve our social democracy, and we believe in governing on behalf of what we believe in. Neither the Conservative nor the Labour parties would put themselves in a situation of permanent coalition with the Liberal Democrats. They might support the Conservatives this time, but they might support the Labour party at another election, as has happened in Germany. Therefore, I join the hon. Member for Ribble Valley in his campaign against the alternative vote system.
I am very glad to see that the hon. Member for Watford is still in his seat. He is learning to stay in this House of Commons beyond the person who speaks after him. I took a particular pleasure in listening to him, as I spent some of my childhood in Watford. I remember Gammons lane, Leavesdon aerodrome, Watford station and, of course, Watford football club. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that Watford has changed enormously since I went there as a child. I am sure that the diversity to which he referred is a great benefit to the town.
The hon. Gentleman spoke extremely well, if I may so without flattery. He must remember Adlai Stevenson’s remark to that effect that flattery is fine as long as one does not breathe in. No doubt the hon. Gentleman will hear much flattery in this House but, on the occasion of his maiden speech, he will find that it is genuine. I shall give the hon. Gentleman some advice, however—the best speeches are those that come over well in the House but also read well in Hansard. One can sometimes make a very fine speech in the House that does not read very well in Hansard. The speeches that read well and come over well in the House are the finest ones.
The hon. Member for Ribble Valley said that the hon. Member for Watford did not use notes, but he also had his speech in his hand. That is a fine thing to do, as speaking on the Floor of the House is not a memory test. In his early days, the great Winston Churchill made a long speech but, 35 minutes into it, he forgot what he wanted to say. He did not have the speech with him, and he was stuck. From that time on, he always had his speech with him. Even when one does not refer to the text much, it is a comfort to have it in hand.
When a young man called Tony Blair first came into the House, I told him, “It’s not a memory test. You’re here to make a point. Therefore, while you may rely on your memory, you should always have a note somewhere.” That is the last advice that I shall give to the hon. Member for Watford. The other piece that I would have given him was to make his maiden speech early, but it is too late for that now. He has done it and got it out of the way, and that is fine.
The hon. Member for Watford is fortunate in one sense and you, Mr Deputy Speaker, will understand this. When I made by maiden speech in 1983—and I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) referred to me—the Deputy Speaker who is in the Chair now followed me, and I have his words yet. The hon. Gentleman will remember this occasion in the years to come. One’s maiden speech is probably one’s best, but I do not want to discourage him yet.
In these debates, I normally follow the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood), but I have not had that opportunity today. He gives wonderful lectures in classical economics, and I have heard the same speech many times over many years. Ronald Reagan could have done no better. The Laffer curve was alive and well: reducing the rate of taxation increases the revenue that comes from it—we have heard all that before, many times. If we had followed his advice during the recession, I do not know where we would be today. It is probable that 500,000 jobs would have been lost, with more to come, but I do not want to get into a debate with the right hon. Gentleman at the beginning of a new Parliament. I have a great admiration for him, and he renders a great contribution.
The right hon. Member for Wokingham talked about this being a new Parliament. Those of us in the Chamber this afternoon who were in the previous Parliament will know how shabby it was in the end, and how disreputable it had become. We dishonoured ourselves in the eyes of the public and ruined our reputation.
We are now in a new Parliament, and every Member of Parliament has a new mandate. The people who voted us in expect the highest standards from us, and that is what we will give them. We should put the past behind us and become the kind of Parliament that we ought to be and will be in the future. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East also made that point.
The hon. Member for Watford spoke about his constituency. Since the last Queen’s Speech, the constituency next door to my own has suffered the closure of the Corus steel mill, where the blast furnace has been mothballed. That unfortunate development cost 1,600 jobs and caused great anger in the local community. That anger was directed at the previous Labour Government, with people wanting to know what was going to be done about the matter. Nationalisation of the plant was suggested, but that was not open to the former Government, just as it is not open to the new Liberal-Conservative coalition.
The former Member of Parliament for Redcar, Vera Baird, paid a heavy price for all that went on. She lost a 12,000 majority on a 20% swing, and a Liberal Democrat was returned with a majority of 5,000. I wish him well, but I also convey my sincere regrets to Vera Baird. She was a fine Member of this House: she was Solicitor-General and she did not deserve her fate. However, her story is a great reminder to us all that our constituency interests are very important. I remember that she missed many meetings in Redcar because she had to be here for a vote in the House. It is extremely important that we link ourselves to our constituents and stay close to them. That is one of the lessons to be taken from what has happened, and it is of great importance for our constituencies.
I mentioned Corus, but I should also like to mention One North East, our regional development agency. The new Business Secretary has said that he will keep it, and we are very grateful for that. A programme worth £60 million was introduced on the back of the mothballing of Corus, and that money is very important for us. The programme is going ahead, although I have been told by way of a last-minute message that the £1.5 million pledged by the previous Labour Government to help Corus employees through the Teeskills bursary may be reconsidered. That would be a grievous blow to the people who have been made redundant.
In the speech that the Prime Minister made on the steps of No. 10 Downing street just after he became Prime Minister, he talked about how he would look after the frail, the elderly and the poorest. It was a noble statement on his part and we will keep him to it. One can hardly say that the Government have not hit the ground running in this post-election period. We had the statement from No. 10, the original coalition agreement with the Liberal Democrats, the formal agreement and now today the Queen’s Speech. I almost forgot the statement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer yesterday, in which he reduced the deficit—or whatever the right hon. Member for Wokingham wants to call it—not by £6.2 billion, but by £5.7 billion net.
We have heard many comments about the deficit and the reasons for it. The Governor of the Bank of England has been invoked to support the Government, saying that it is important that we show the world how we intend to reduce the deficit. We have heard a great deal about the Greek economy, although I have no idea why the Greek economy came to the forefront during the election. The Greeks had a problem with the euro, which was not our problem. The Chancellor said that we had a greater deficit than Greece, which just goes to show what you can get away with saying—of course we have a greater deficit than Greece, because they have 2 million citizens and a very small economy. Why would we wish to link our deficit with those in the eurozone when we are not a member of it? Indeed, the right hon. Member for Wokingham vaunted that fact, saying how wonderful it was that we had stayed out of it, now that it was having a crisis. It is not a crisis, but a difficulty, and its members will come to terms with it.
Angela Merkel put forward a proposal for budget controls for European member states, with which—much to my surprise—the right hon. Gentleman agreed. But President Sarkozy does not agree with that, and nor do I. I do not believe in treaty changes, and it was peculiar that the Queen’s Speech said that no more treaties would be ratified without a referendum, because no more treaties will come out of the European Union. No one wants a treaty, including Sarkozy and the French, the Dutch—anyone you ask. So it is an empty promise.
I am pleased that the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister have been to Europe and that they both realise that our future is in Europe. Whatever the criticisms of the European Union and the euro—whether we should be in or out is an argument that died a death a long time ago, so the concession by the Liberal Democrats was an empty one—the eurozone will sort out its problems. As the Prime Minister said, it is in our interests that it does so.
We had an interesting speech from my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East. I have welcomed the hon. Member for Watford, and I also wish to welcome the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), who is not in her place but happens to be the sister of my right hon. Friend. I wish her a great career here and I am sure that she will enjoy every moment.
The Queen’s Speech began by saying:
“My Government’s legislative programme will be based upon the principles of freedom, fairness and responsibility.”
Who on earth would disagree with that? They are fine social democratic principles. As Max Hastings wrote in the Financial Times, we are all social democrats now. He argued that there will never be another right-wing Conservative Government. Remarkably, this coalition has squeezed the right of the Tory party and the left of the Liberal Democrats. My guess is that, as the years pass, the Liberal Democrats will be very squeezed in the middle. Those who wish to go the Conservative way will do so, and those who want to come the Labour way will do so. However, they are experiencing the aphrodisiac of power at present, and we wish them well. They are well meaning, and we hope that they succeed in what they set out to do. We will follow events with great interest.
We support in the main much of the essence of the Queen’s Speech. The attacks on the public service—and 300,000 jobs are in the frame under the proposals set out in the Financial Times today—in the statement yesterday, and that are likely in the Budget on 22 June and the spending review in September, will contain a lot of pain. That pain will be felt in the public sector. The Government have not yet understood the balance between the public sector and the private sector. The private sector has lost out in the global economy over many years and our manufacturing is down. On Teesside, we are looking into green technologies with the £60 million coming from One North East. As that imbalance has been created, work has been found and jobs created in the public sector, and that has helped the private sector. If it is the philosophy of the Government to modify that arrangement again—the recalibration that we saw under Labour—there will be more unemployment, and that will not be good for the country. Lord Lamont, when he was Chancellor, said that unemployment was a price worth paying. We are getting the same message now, and we will counter it, argue against it and expose it.
We wish the Government well. I want them to succeed, because I want the country to be stable. We do not want a political crisis on the back of the financial difficulty. We will give them a fair wind, and I know that they act with great sincerity in all that they do. Of course, we will also be Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition. We will be strong and alert in Opposition, and we will hold the Executive to account, as will their Back Benchers. This is a new Parliament and a fresh beginning for us all. It can be an exciting, great and a noble undertaking, especially for all 232 of the new Members. I wish them all well.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) on a truly outstanding speech. It was a model for other colleagues who are waiting to make their maiden speeches—short, witty and genuine in every sense. My hon. Friend showed a real command of what is needed to create business in this country. The tribute that he paid to his predecessor was well judged, and he showed great commitment to his constituency. Since I have been a Member of Parliament, I have noticed that new Members are initially delighted to have been elected and to be able to serve their constituents, and then ambition sets in. My hon. Friend has made a real commitment to Watford, and I pay tribute to him for that.
When I made my maiden speech, which was from these Benches, I was not the first of the new Members. Indeed, I was practically the last. The first person to make their maiden speech in that Parliament was Edwina Currie, and later I became her Private Parliamentary Secretary for a short time. I wonder what the future has in store for my hon. Friend. In any event, I wish him well.
When I was first elected, there was a large intake of new Members of Parliament then, too. At that time, as a new Member I did not really know how this place worked. Now I am observing this huge influx of new Members, and I wish them all well, especially with their maiden speeches. Colleagues on both sides of the House will recognise that a maiden speech is a special occasion. I left mine until the second reading of the Rates Bill. I followed Sir Edward Heath and the Chamber was absolutely packed. I do not know what advice colleagues have been given about their maiden speeches, but I hope that they will be special occasions for them. After all, it is the only time that the House listens to them without interrupting.
I find myself in a difficult position. For the first time in 13 years, I am going to praise the Gracious Speech and so will have to sing a different song. However, for two or three minutes, I would first like to have a bit of a rant about the outgoing Government. As we look at those on the Opposition Benches who have returned, all of us recognise that we have had a pretty bloody battle for the past three or four weeks—in fact, some of us thought that the election campaign had gone on for three years. Lots of hard words were spoken, not only on the doorstep but certainly during the three televised broadcasts.
I never thought for a moment that I would be on this side of the House again supporting a coalition Government. I signed up to the Conservative party manifesto on very clear principles, and on those principles I will not shift, but, having read the Gracious Speech very carefully, I am delighted to support the 21 proposals in it. It was extraordinary to listen to the acting leader of the Labour party at the Dispatch Box. She made a splendid speech—one of the jokes was fantastic, and I shall use it in the future—but she was in complete denial about what has happened over the past 13 years. The outgoing Chief Secretary to the Treasury is a great guy, and I know he is saying that the note he left to the new Chief Secretary was a joke, but it told the truth: we have no money and are bankrupt.
The acting leader of the Labour party talked about all the wonderful things that the outgoing Labour Government did, but they all cost money—and we have no money. This country is absolutely broke, and it is no good Labour Members, in the weeks, months and years ahead, being in denial about it. In 1997, this country’s finances were in good order, and I will not accept that what has happened was the result of a global recession. There is no doubt that one of the big mistakes the outgoing Prime Minister made was to take away the traditional regulatory role of the Bank of England, and I am sure in time that that and many other matters will come to the surface.
As for other matters for which the outgoing Labour Government were responsible, I listened carefully to the speech made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley). His speech and that of the seconder of the Loyal Address were splendid. He made some careful remarks about Afghanistan—he probably would have said a little more about Iraq as well—and I agree with him completely. However, there are many other matters for which the Labour Government were responsible, and which I hope this House will take careful note of in the weeks, months and years ahead.
I believe that the outgoing Government destroyed not only the country but Parliament. And here we go again: it is the first day of a new Parliament, and where is everyone? I suppose attendance is reasonable, but is it as one would expect on the first day of the debate on the Loyal Address? Absolutely not. The Labour Government and Tony Blair, who hated the House of Commons—he thought it was a nuisance—fundamentally destroyed and undermined what went on in this place. I am sure that everyone, as they were knocking on doors, began to reflect on what has happened to this place. This Parliament, which was the mother of all Parliaments, has lost all its powers, and to what has it lost them? It has lost them to the nearly 800 unelected, unaccountable quangos. Opposition Members may look horrified, but we have lost great powers to quangos. When we address the deficit, therefore, we will have to reform the concept of these unelected quangos.
I am not going to touch on local matters in Southend West because I have been very fortunate to secure an Adjournment debate on Thursday, when I will share with the House a number of local matters. However, I want quickly to talk about a few of the points in the Gracious Speech. I am delighted that we will limit the number of non-European Union economic migrants entering the United Kingdom and end the detention of children for immigration purposes. If any Member did not think that immigration and asylum were issues on the doorstep, it must have been a very strange election that they were fighting. Even the previous Labour Government admitted at the end that it was a big issue. So I am delighted that this new coalition arrangement has agreed to do something about it.
I am also delighted that the new Secretary of State for Education, my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), will introduce this legislation—he has called it giving schools academy status, which to my thinking goes back a bit to grant-maintained status for schools. I know there is an argument about grammar schools, but in the area that I represent we have four grammar schools, and I am delighted that they will not be under threat. I am also delighted that, in various parts of the country, there will be the opportunity to set up these new schools and give our professionals more power.
On health, I am delighted that the new coalition Government will match the committed funding of the previous Labour Government. Again, on the doorstep we kept hearing that there were too many managers in the health service and not enough people doing the job that health care is all about.
Now for the police service. I want to share with the House one little example of what has happened to policing in this country. A few weeks ago, I took three constituents down to the door of No. 10 Downing street—hon. Members have that privilege—to have the usual photograph taken. When I saw the anonymous police officer, I said to my constituents, “You watch what happens.” I said to the police officer, “Do you mind taking a picture of me and my constituents outside No. 10 Downing street?” He said, “I’m sorry sir, but if my chief was watching, it would be more than my job’s worth. In any case, sir, I can’t do it for health and safety reasons.” Again, as we were canvassing, we heard from our police officers—when we found them—that there is too much bureaucracy and paperwork. I am delighted, therefore, that this coalition Government are going to do something about it.
Of course it is right that people can demonstrate on a range of things, but what is going on on Parliament square at the moment is absolutely insane. That is a dangerous roundabout! Of course, it was the then Prime Minister Tony Blair who went to America and the White House, one side of which looks marvellous, but on the other side of which are all the demonstrators. As I moved into my rather nice new office at the weekend—I am not trying to wind colleagues up, but having occupied a converted broom cupboard for 10 years, I feel that I deserve a decent office—I watched what was going on on Parliament square. It was crazy. No one stopped what, frankly, turned into a folk festival. Then someone took a spade and planted a tree in the middle of the square—I did not know people could do that—and someone started sowing crops, and someone climbed on top of St Margaret’s church, and no one did a thing. The new coalition Government should do something about what is happening on Parliament square.
I also say to the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd), who I think has responsibility in this area, that I am delighted that the role of social enterprises, charities and co-operatives in our public services will be enhanced. As money will be very tight, we will have to encourage more and more people to get involved in what the Prime Minister has described as the big society.
I am delighted that the Government will propose parliamentary and political reform to restore trust in democratic institutions and rebalance the relationship between the citizen and the state. My goodness, that needs doing in every sense.
I am absolutely delighted that the new Government are going to give power back to local authorities. What has gone on in planning and other areas is crazy. Yes, local authorities have grand titles—they have cabinets now, and all sorts of responsibilities—but when I was a councillor, donkey’s years ago, they had real power. Councils do not have that power now. I say again to the House: we do not need all these quangos. The money given to quangos should be given directly to local authorities, which will be far more effective than what we have now.
I am delighted that the British people will have their say on any proposed transfer of powers to the European Union. I say again: this is a wonderful agreement that the coalition Government have arrived at.
I am also delighted, as the former chairman of the all-party group on the Holy See—I know that we have to reform these groups—that His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI is visiting in September.
Finally, following what my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans) said about things that were not mentioned in the Gracious Speech, I am delighted that when the Prime Minister gave interviews before and during the election on abortion, embryo research and other matters, he said quite clearly that there would be a free vote. He said clearly that he felt personally that the limit should be reduced from 24 to perhaps 22 weeks. I will very much welcome the opportunity to vote on that issue.
I welcome the Gracious Speech. I never anticipated four or five weeks ago that I would be sitting on the Government Benches again, supporting a coalition Government. Like the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Sir Stuart Bell), I wish this Government well. I hope that the House will judge issues on merit and that by the end of this Parliament this coalition Government will make Britain great again.
I am grateful to you for giving me the opportunity to address the House for the very first time, Mr Deputy Speaker.
This is a particularly poignant moment for me, because 34 years ago—on this day, I think; it was certainly this month—a predecessor of mine, Phillip Whitehead, who represented Derby North from 1970 to 1983, recruited me to the Labour party when I was a young apprentice bricklayer. Little did I know at that time that I would be following in Phillip’s esteemed footsteps and representing Derby North as I am today. I am also conscious of the fact that 110 years ago Derby sent the first Labour MP in England to this House, so I obviously have a good deal to live up to, as I look back at the esteemed colleagues who have gone before me.
My immediate predecessor, Bob Laxton, who, like me, was formerly the leader of Derby city council, was an excellent constituency Member of Parliament. He was very much a people person. Indeed, there is hardly an individual in Derby who does not know Bob Laxton. I was looking at his maiden speech the other day, when I was preparing to make mine, and I was struck by one of his comments. He said that it could sometimes take him an hour or two to get through what is a relatively small city centre, because he knows so many people. Bob’s record in bringing resources to our city is second to none. I am therefore pleased to be able to follow in his footsteps. I hope that I can live up to his reputation for representing the people of Derby North.
I know that it is the convention to avoid controversy in a maiden speech—I certainly intend to try to do that—but I have to disagree with the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith), who has now left the Chamber, and with the hon. Member for Southend West (Mr Amess), who said that Labour Members were in denial. In my view it is the coalition Government who are in denial. I would urge hon. Members to look at their history books and learn from the lessons. They should look at what happened in the 1930s when the Government in this country made big cuts in public spending, and at the similar situation in the 1980s—it was not quite as bad, but it was a recession—when the Government also made big cuts. That had a devastating impact on the economy and, more importantly from my point of view, on the people whom I represent, because unemployment went through the roof. My father grew up in the 1930s, and he told me about the grinding means test that his family were subjected to as a result of the policies pursued at that time.
Hon. Members should also look at what happened in the 1930s across the Atlantic when Franklin D. Roosevelt came to power. He did not make big cuts in public spending in the face of the worst depression the world had ever known—an economic downturn perhaps on a similar scale to what we are facing today—and nor did he say, “Let’s cut public spending.” Far from it: he used the power of the state—the power of Government spending—to put American people back to work. Before Roosevelt came to power, 25% of the American population were out of work, yet at the end of that decade, America emerged as the No. 1 global economic superpower, never to be surpassed again.
It is also worth remembering that in 1937 the Government in America sought to reduce the economic stimulus, but it was too soon. The economy started to go into decline, and they quickly had to retreat and take a different course. I would therefore say to Members that they should look at their history books and not be too quick to condemn the record of the previous Labour Government, because we were committed to investing in our economy, to ensure that we kept people in employment and protected front-line services.
It is necessary to make efficiency savings and reductions in Government spending—we accept that some reductions need to be made—but it is worth bearing in mind that we need to look at how we can grow our economy. If we can put more people back to work, more people will be paying national insurance and income tax, and businesses will be paying more corporation tax. More resources will therefore be flowing into the Exchequer, making it possible to reduce the deficit. However, my fear is that if we remove the stimulus too soon, our economy will go into decline again, which is the last thing that I want to see.
I welcome a commitment in the Gracious Speech to reduce health inequalities and improve public health, but that prompts the question: if big cuts are going to be made early on in this new Government’s term of office, how will that be delivered? One of the biggest contributory factors in undermining public health and increasing health inequalities is increasing unemployment. In my view the policies being pursued by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats will increase unemployment in this country, and therefore increase health inequalities and worsen public health.
I also welcome the commitment to devolving more power to local authorities. As a former leader of Derby city council, that is something for which I have been arguing for some time, but I wonder: why now? Why are those powers being devolved at this time? Is it simply the right to make cuts that is being devolved, to deflect attention away from the coalition Government’s proposals? That is my fear.
Speaking of efficiencies, I do not understand the proposal in the Government’s programme to unpick the proposals to create more unitary authorities. Further, I do not understand the suggestion that that will save money. I do not think that that stands up to examination. I was the leader of a unitary council, and I know that the creation of such unitary local government cuts out a lot of duplication. My advice to the coalition Government would be that, rather than reining back from creating unitary local authorities, they should create more of them. In my view, that would be a way of reducing the cost of local government.
I welcome the commitment to tackling climate change, and I hope that the new Government will build on the work of my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband), who did so much to move forward the agenda on addressing climate change. It is one of the biggest challenges—if not the biggest—that humankind has faced since the second world war and the rise of fascism and Nazism.
The Government’s reference to removing barriers to flexible working fills me with dread, because that could result in a race to the bottom. I remember when, prior to 1997, before Labour came back into power and introduced the national minimum wage, the wages councils were abolished and millions of people in our country, including thousands in my constituency, had to endure extremely low wages. They were forced to put up with poverty pay. I remember doing a jobcentre survey in 1996, and about 50% of the jobs on offer paid £1 an hour or less. Unemployed people who were subject to the regime that had been brought in were forced to take those low-paid jobs on pain of having their benefits reduced, even if they would be worse off in work than on benefits. My concern is that this talk about flexible working and about changes to welfare will take us back into a period in which people are forced into poverty pay and forced to be worse off in work than they were when they were out of work.
One of the achievements of the Labour Government that I am most proud of was the introduction of the national minimum wage, tax credits and Sure Start. They made it possible for work to be a genuine pathway out of poverty. My fear is that, if this Government’s proposals go ahead in the way that is being articulated, we shall go back to that dark period before 1997 when people in our country were living in abject poverty.
I should also like an assurance from the new coalition Government that there are no plans to move away from the commitment that has been put in place to ensure a legal entitlement to paid holidays. Before Labour came to power in 1997, and before we signed up to the social chapter, if people in this country—particularly low-paid workers—wanted to take time off work, they had to do so at their own cost. They received no paid holidays at all, and it would be a retrograde step if we were to consider reverting to that.
Regulation sometimes receives a bad press, and we all know of silly examples where it has perhaps been a little over-zealous. I used to work in the building industry, however, and when I was a bricklayer in the 1970s, the health and safety standards on the building sites where I worked were woeful. Indeed, there were 54 fatalities in the building industry only last year. That illustrates an absolute need to continue to be vigilant and to support health and safety legislation to protect the workers of this country who work in those hazardous occupations.
I know that there is a commitment to identify efficiency savings, and I am all in favour of that, but there is a danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. I understand that one of the areas in which the coalition Government want to make what they deem to be efficiency savings is the regional development agencies. My local RDA, the East Midlands Development Agency, has done an excellent job in supporting business in our region. It has helped to create many thousands of jobs in the east midlands. If we start to take away that support to business at a time of economic uncertainty, it will undermine those businesses and create difficulties and more unemployment. I therefore urge the coalition Government to reconsider that proposal, so as not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. They should consider the good work that the agencies have done around the country.
On the subject of efficiency savings, I would also urge the Government to consider the work that was done by the Local Government Association on the development of the notion of Total Place. That involved bringing together different public sector organisations to cut out duplication and protect front-line services. I also urge the Government not to reject the work of Ian Smith’s review, which followed on from the Lyons review, on taking civil servants out of the capital, where accommodation costs are extremely high, and putting them into the regions. I would certainly like to see some of those jobs coming to my constituency, as that would not only create new job opportunities for those directly employed in those occupations but bring the benefit of their additional spending to other businesses in the area.
I should like to say a few words about my constituency, and about Derby in general. A year or so ago, Jeremy Paxman asked why the rest of Britain could not be like Derby. I think that he was referring to the fact that Derby’s local economy has performed extremely well and, although it has suffered as a result of the economic downturn, it has not suffered as badly as other areas have done. We are the UK’s leading aerospace city, and 11.8% of our work force are employed in high-technology occupations. Derby is the last place in Britain still to make trains. It also has a vibrant creative industry sector; indeed, it was the birthplace of Lara Croft.
Derby has been transformed in the past 13 years. Not only have we seen 13 new schools, a new hospital and 19 Sure Start centres created in our city; we have also seen huge investment in new shopping facilities and hotels. We also have 701 additional nurses, 327 extra doctors and 92 midwives. All of these things have made a massive difference to the quality of life of people in our city. It is almost unique in that it is one of only five towns or cities in the UK to have a world heritage site in its city centre. Indeed, it was the birthplace of the industrial revolution, as the very first factory in this country was located in Derby.
Derby also hosted the country’s first public park, and it is a city of firsts in many other ways, too. The programme of the coalition Government leaves Derby’s future hanging in the balance, however. They would do well to recognise the importance of the city’s high-tech industries to the UK economy as a whole and to learn some of the lessons that we have learned in making Derby’s economy so successful. I am proud to represent a constituency in the great city of Derby and, whatever happens, as long as I am a Member of this House, I will stand up for Derby at every opportunity.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) on his speech. Anyone who looks at Parliament and thinks that we do not get quality people has not spent time listening to today’s maiden speeches and, I am sure, those that we look forward to hearing later. He will be able to look back on today as the time when he first impressed the House of Commons. I hope that he will do well and that other council leaders will also ask whether they might, in time, follow him here as others have before him. The range of talents and experiences that we need in our Members includes those who have served and done important things in local government. I congratulate him again, just as I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) who did equally well, if at slightly less length. I think that the two of them will have much to contribute to the House.
On the subject of public service, I want to refer briefly to the obituary of Sir Peter Baldwin in today’s The Times. Anyone who reads about his life story and work, before and during his time in the civil service and later in voluntary organisations, will see evidence of his being one of those impressive people who offer themselves not just to Parliament, but to the civil service and for that matter local government as well. The obituary provides an exemplary account of a really fine man, showing how, for example, he helped people who use motorways and made it easier for disabled people to get around. He helped others in so many other ways, too. One would not have thought that this man was also involved in the cypher school at Bletchley, helping to decode Japanese signals. He was involved in a range of activities that were so important.
Of equal value on the spectrum are people who are often called bureaucrats or managers. As our health service goes on improving, I intend to pay more attention to medical records. There is not much point in asking consultants, nurses and other clinicians to do their job more effectively if the paperwork and the computer back-up do not work. I offer my helpful interest in this issue to Worthing hospitals. I would like to be taken around by those involved at all levels of the medical records process to see how we can free up our doctors and nurses to provide the care people need in hospitals and to make it possible to say to someone in hospital, “If you’re here, can we help make you better. If you should not be here, can we make your transition out to recuperation or back home as fast as possible?” All that requires keeping proper records. I am glad that we have managed to throw out most of the NHS IT system, which required my local hospital, on a budget of £140 million, to be given an extra £2 million a year to provide manual back-up for the new computer system, which worked even worse than the previous one. The NHS and the Government were warned, just as they were warned about the completely useless effect of the modernising medical careers and the medical training application service—MTAS—systems a year or so earlier. People must take responsibility for what they do.
The general election has not finished as there is still an election in Thirsk and Malton. My wife and I were there last Saturday, helping with the campaign. My grandmother’s first cousin represented the constituency for 44 years; if I manage to stay here another nine or more years, I shall beat him, which would be quite a joy. I recommend colleagues new and old to get involved in elections—this one is not a by-election but part of a general election—because it helps people to see what is going on around the country. We should continue to help in that way.
Even if we decide to pass the referendum Bill on the alternative vote system, I hope people will be warned against bringing in the single transferable vote system, which would have the effect of giving a permanent place in Parliament to the British National party and a permanent place in government to people in the position of the Liberal Democrats now. That is not to say a word against them, just as I would not say a word against the Free Democratic party in Germany, but there is absolutely no reason why they should be guaranteed a place in government. The ability to throw certain people out is an important part of the democratic process. I shall therefore oppose that. I shall also oppose it for the additional reason that under STV more MPs seeking re-election are assured of getting re-elected. I believe that fewer of us should be assured of re-election—or re-selection, for that matter. I think that it should be based on merit all the time.
To the person in my constituency who in a letter to the local newspaper committed herself to the electoral system that is used for the European Parliament, I say, “That is awful.” A closed regional list system is just about the worst system that can possibly be designed. It is easy to describe and fun to operate for the winners, but the number of places that can be changed is very limited. I shall support the Bill on the AV referendum and my constituents can make up their own minds as to whether they want it. AV by itself cannot do too much harm, but I give warning that STV would do a great deal of harm to our parliamentary democracy.
Radio 5 was one of a number of media commentators on the election. It has produced a book called “Commons Sense”, making some recommendations and offering advice from three former MPs. The first is Clare Short, who said:
“Stay close to the people who vote for you. That keeps your feet on the ground. And don’t be a clone; be true to yourself.”
The second is from Matthew Taylor, the Liberal Democrat, who said:
“The most important thing to remember is that you are no more important than the people who put you there, and your job is to do your best for them. Self importance is the politician’s original sin, and self interest the greatest vice.”
The third is from Ann Widdecombe, who said:
“The prayer I made when I became an MP was ‘Please, Lord, never let me lose my sense of outrage’.”
Instead of just processing constituents’ problems, we actually need to care about them. If the answers we get are inadequate, we need to be persistent. One of the nicest tributes ever paid to me came from John Sentamu, the current Archbishop of York, who described me in terms of “veni, vidi, velcro”—he comes, he sees and he sticks to it. One thing I am going to stick to—let me send out a warning, or rather an invitation to Ministers to co-operate—is seeing how many NHS consultants have been dismissed on grounds of breaking data protection rules.
I heard about a case from a doctor in my constituency whom I enormously respect, although it is about someone who is not in my constituency. I think that it was the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) who spoke about diabetes and the special needs of people with south Asian backgrounds. The consultant I am talking about knew that diabetes could be treated not only in hospital, but by educating people and helping them to change their lifestyles. She decided to get a project going under the primary care trust—part of the NHS and where confidentiality is supposed to be involved—and invited 80 such patients to participate. She sent out a list of names and addresses from herself in hospital to herself as part of the PCT-funded project, which had been approved by everybody, and she got sacked. It is difficult to understand quite why. The hospital trust that sacked her referred her to the Information Commissioner’s Office, as if she had committed a criminal offence, and to the General Medical Council, which has still not got around to deciding whether there is a case to look into.
I want to arrange a meeting with the people who run the employment tribunal, which found that she may have been wrongfully dismissed but not unfairly dismissed. They should be put in the same room with employment tribunal experts, the Information Commissioner’s experts, the General Medical Council’s experts, the hospital trust and preferably someone from the very top of the NHS as well as a Minister. Let us get it out into the open why a doctor who cares so much about her patients that she is willing to go the extra mile should get thrown on the scrap heap for doing something that someone else did not like.
I have been invited to the Biobank. I shall be attending for a three-hour session at Croydon. It wrote to me asking whether I would like to take part. I do not see the difference between that and someone being asked to come to a specialist education clinic for diabetes. I am going to be persistent on this issue. Until we get some kind of explanation and some kind of justice, I and others will be right to continue to do so.
I make a plea about standards relating to councillors—parish, district and borough councillors as well as county councillors and those in unitary authorities—as an incredible situation exists at the moment. If a complaint is made about a councillor, that councillor does not get a copy of it. Why should any invigilating committee or independent standards group on a council be expected to look into a complaint from a member of the public about a councillor if they do not tell that councillor—apparently, they cannot under the existing regulations—what the complaint is. I have seen that happen to a person who kindly acted as my agent at the election in respect of a case that both he and I had taken up. They cannot complain about me—well, they can, but there is no committee of MPs to look into it—but they did about him. There was nothing in the case whatever, yet it ran on month after month at enormous expense and to the great worry of my colleague, and with no representation made to him.
I received the following from the chair of the independent standards committee of Arun district council, which said that the regulations at the moment only allow the following to be disclosed:
“identity of the complainant (unless the complainant has sought and been granted anonymity)”
“paragraph(s) of the Code of Conduct alleged to have been breached.”
It is quite clear that Arun district council and others are right to say, first, that the councillors about whom the complaints have been made should
“be sent a copy of the complaint at the same time as being notified that a complaint has been made”;
“before the Assessment Sub-Committee meet, the”
“be asked if they wish to respond about whether they consider the complaint should be investigated or does the complaint indicate some procedural issue that could be more beneficially dealt with by Other Action”;
and, thirdly, that
“the process of reporting on Local Assessment decisions of ‘investigation’ and ‘other action’ be changed so that they are not public information until:
a. the Hearing Sub-Committee has made a decision, or
b. the Monitoring Officer presents a report to the Standards Committee setting out the action taken to implement and bring to a close a decision of other action.”
I can think of no other sphere in which a complaint can be made and submitted for investigation when the person being complained about does not know what the complaint is, and I hope that the position changes. Whether we keep the standards board is one question, but people who are dedicated to public service should not be exposed to such treatment. Councillors—especially parish councillors, but the same applies to members of councils at every level—should be treated properly.
Let me say something about prisons. In 1992, the prison population was 44,000. In 2010, it is 85,000. It costs, on average, £41,000 a year to keep someone in prison, and the outcomes of being in prison are bad. I do not think that we have £1,000,640,000 to spend on those extra people in prison when they do not come out better than they were when they went in. I am told—although I have not checked—that a Home Secretary who later became a Conservative Prime Minister said that the purpose of prison was for people to come out better than they were when they went in, and also that he halved the prison population. I am told that it was Winston Churchill in 1910, when he was a Liberal. That is another example of alliance, or of change. Given that Churchill was able to join the Conservatives from the Liberals, I hope that other Liberals will follow his good example.
The Prison Reform Trust has provided a great deal of information in its Bromley briefings, and I think that any Member of Parliament who has received those briefings should read them and discuss them locally. The Howard League for Penal Reform has made similar points. I hope that, as a result of their work, we will begin to understand that we must engage with Government—this Government, just as much as the last—to establish that the purpose of our policy, and the results of our actions, should be getting the prison population back down to 44,000. There may be a prison building programme, but I would rather try to find ways of ensuring that prisons are not overcrowded. We do not need a prison building programme, but we may need a prison rebuilding programme. Let us try to reduce the number of people who commit offences, and reduce the number of occasions when it is judged that a prison sentence is the right option. I suggest that anyone who reads my speech should also read the early chapters of Jeffrey Archer’s first book about prison, which shows how counter-productive even the first weeks can be.
Let me end by returning to the subject of my constituency, where one of the biggest issues is parking. I have been told that it is possible to raise the amount of revenue and reduce the amount of aggravation by training the parking control people to behave in a way that is humane and helpful, and to stop being jobsworths. I do not want to criticise any individual parking control person in my constituency, because I have not found myself offending, but people have asked me why they have to pay £8 for four hours and 13 minutes in a town centre car park. In the car park in Union place there is 24/7 paying. It is empty after 6 pm. The town centre does not have nearly as many people at that time and they can park on a yellow line.
Then there are the problems experienced by people with businesses who try to deliver a few bits of supplies in their estate cars rather than in vans, and are not allowed to use an unloading bay for five minutes. Such things are just wrong. Although parking is not directly my responsibility, I suggest that for those involved in public service throughout the chain of life—someone dropping a child at school, a doctor calling at an address, or a restaurateur trying to keep his business going—we should bring humanity back into the rules, and, if necessary, change the rules.
I have been in this place for some time. I have seen great improvements, which have normally taken place because someone has been dedicated to making the necessary change. If people say that only Government can make such changes, they are wrong. One of the greatest delights of my public service was reducing the incidence of over-the-limit drink-driving by young men by two thirds in about two years, with no change of the law, no change in sentencing and no change in enforcement. I believe that if we manage to get the public finances under control and also improve our social behaviour, we can probably make a great start during the next year or two. Once we start to achieve success, we shall be able to build on it further.
I hope that others who make speeches today and during subsequent debates on the Queen’s Speech will pay more attention to the individual Bills, but I believe that we have an opportunity to make the country better by building on some of the successes achieved by the last Government while also trying to make up for some of their failures.
Thank you for calling me, Mr Deputy Speaker. Let me begin by paying tribute to the hon. Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) for his maiden speech, and for the tribute that he paid to his predecessor, Claire Ward, who served as a Justice Minister in the last Government and who performed that role extremely well. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson), who spoke with passion about his city of Derby and with warm regard about his predecessor, Bob Laxton. He reminded me of the major triumphs of the Labour Government over the past 13 years, including the minimum wage. I well recall a debate that lasted 36 hours in which we were kept up all night by Conservative Members to vote for the minimum wage and to ensure that we achieved that bit of social progress for people not just in Derby, but throughout the United Kingdom. I congratulate my hon. Friend on his contribution.
I find myself in a very strange position. This is the first speech that I have made from the Opposition Back Benches, and indeed from the Back Benches generally, in 13 years. It is a novel experience. As my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Sir Stuart Bell) pointed out, however, after the initial shell shock of an election defeat—which is what it was—it is important for us to return to the fray, start to challenge the Government on the issues of the day, and present alternatives in relation to some of the key issues raised by our constituents, which are also important to us as Members of Parliament.
Having said that, I should add that, while I think it is our job to hold the Government to account, I welcome a number of the proposals in the Queen’s Speech. For instance, I consider the agreement on the introduction of fixed-term Parliaments to be a good and progressive move. We can argue—as we will over the next few weeks and months—about the length of time involved. I think that four years is probably appropriate. However, I believe that the principle is one that we should support.
I welcome the proposal for a referendum on the alternative vote, as I would if it were included in the Labour manifesto, and the potential recall of Members of Parliament who have committed acts that are a disgrace to their constituents and their constituencies. That is an important process. We shall need to examine the details of how it will work in practice, but it is important for us to support the principle.
I also welcome the commitment to co-operation with the devolved Administrations. My constituency is in north Wales, and we have a devolved Administration. I hope that there will be co-operation not just on the potential referendum on devolved powers that will, I hope, be implemented shortly, but on the whole scope of how that devolved Administration—they remain one of the areas of Labour Government rule in the United Kingdom—will work with the new Administration here in Westminster.
I hope that the Government will not pursue one of the crazy ideas that they had in opposition: the idea that Welsh Members of Parliament would not be able to vote on English matters. Let me give an example from my constituency, which is 2 miles from the border with England. Some 30% of my constituents use the hospital in Chester, in England. Several hundred work at Vauxhall in Ellesmere Port, which currently receives a devolved grant from the English Government to support the factory’s work. Aircraft travel over my constituency from Liverpool and Manchester airports. The train line goes through Crewe and Chester to my constituency in north Wales. On all those issues there is an element of national Government responsibility which involves my dealing with England-only issues. I feel that I would be letting my constituents down if I did not have a vote on such matters, and I hope that the Government will consider such co-operation with the devolved Administration, which will be important in the future.
I also welcome the commitment to stable government in Northern Ireland. I had the privilege of being a Minister in Northern Ireland for two years and I am pleased that, five or six weeks ago, the devolution of justice to Northern Ireland took place, providing, I hope, a stable devolved settlement for the future. A great deal of cross-party work has been done and I look forward to seeing that continue in the future to ensure that we build on that stability and do not give into the terrorists who want to destabilise the devolved Administration. We must work collectively with the devolved Administration to build peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland. When I was a Minister in Northern Ireland, there were parts of that community to which I could not go, even with police and military support. Now Northern Ireland is prosperous and is facing a future with a devolved Administration involving people working side by side who were enemies for many years. We need to build on that stability for the future.
Having said what I welcome in the Gracious Speech, I turn to three areas where I have major concerns, the first of which is police reform. I declare an interest: I was until two weeks ago the Minister in the Home Office responsible for the police. We ensured that crime was down by 37%, that we had record numbers of police officers on the streets and that there were 16,500 police community support officers, introduced by the Labour Government, supporting those officers on the streets. Yet we face now a proposal radically to reform police management, with directly elected police commissioners. Superficially, that might seem to be a positive idea, but the chairman of the Association of Police Authorities—not a Labour party member; indeed, he is a member of the governing party—does not believe that it is a good solution. The Association of Chief Police Officers, the Association of Superintendents, the Police Federation and local government do not believe that it is a positive solution, and neither do I.
Would not Government members do well to remember that a fine line divides improved accountability—the rhetoric behind the measure—from the political interference that could do enormous damage to public confidence in the police service in this country?
I agree, and that is the point that I wish to emphasise today. I believe that there is room for greater political accountability for the police service. We need to look at how we strengthen police boards, at how we improve training and at the support we give to chairs of police authorities. The possibility that individuals might become chief constables through direct election might cause conflict that would be detrimental to the service. Ultimately the police service has to serve all the people of a community and not be politicised in the way indicated by my right hon. Friend.
I have a lot of respect for the right hon. Gentleman but it was made clear earlier that there was no intention of having elected chief constables. In Bournemouth, the people who are asking for accountability are asking for a relationship with the police who are in charge. The police there do not answer to the people of Bournemouth directly, but to the Dorset police headquarters in Winfrith, which then answers to the Home Office. The community that needs to be represented is out of the loop. That is why the Government have proposed elected representatives; to provide that important interface between the public and the police who are supposed to be looking after them.
Order. I should remind the hon. Gentleman and the House as a whole that interventions should, on the whole, be shorter than that.
It is very important that we have close co-operation between individuals and communities and the police that they serve. That is why the White Paper that we published before Christmas looked at trying to strengthen police authorities and to make them more accountable to local communities, but in a way that did not involve direct elections, which I understand the proposed Bill will do. I fear that, and I pray in aid the Mayor of London—as I recall, one Boris Johnson—who did not take up his role as the directly elected chairman of the police authority and gave it to his deputy. I understand that there is a need for accountability but I do not believe that what the Government propose will achieve that objective. Let us look at the level of objections from professionals and at the needs of the service, which are to reduce crime and to build confidence in policing. I do not believe a shake-up as proposed by the Government will be beneficial.
My second point concerns the reference in the Gracious Speech to the priorities of reducing the deficit and restoring economic growth. I happen not to believe that taking £6 billion out of the economy this year will help those objectives. As my hon. Friend the Member for Derby North said, many private sector companies depend on public sector investment. Taking that £6 billion out now will greatly damage the community at large. When I was Police Minister, we had a proposal to save many millions this year through savings on IT, uniform procurement, vehicles, air support and a whole range of other things. I say this to Government Members; if we could have taken out an extra £200 million to £300 million in efficiency savings, do they think that we would not have done it? That money was not there to take out without impacting on the police service directly or on community support officers. I will challenge the Government and hold them to account on how they take that extra resource out of the Home Office budget.
The Government have proposed to restrict still further the DNA database. Before the election, we proposed that individuals’ DNA data could be held for ever if they had been convicted of a crime or for six years if they had been arrested, charged but not convicted. If the Government are proposing to reduce that, it will damage the potential to get convictions in court. There will be people who are murdering or committing rape who will, if the DNA database is restricted, not be convicted and will be let off. I do not believe that the party of law and order that now forms the Government would want that to happen.
I can show—not today, Mr Deputy Speaker—many cases when the DNA database has led directly to convictions for murder which would not have been achieved had the DNA not been taken, sometimes from individuals who were originally innocent but convicted later. I caution the Government; they must be very careful about the steps they take. I do not want to see people being killed, raped or attacked by individuals who could have been convicted through use of the DNA database.
Finally, I confess that I have an ID card. Since I have had it, I have never felt that my civil liberties were under threat. I have travelled to Austria on this card and used it to cash cheques in Britain and abroad. I have used it to secure a range of services. I have never been asked to show it to anybody and never been asked to explain why I should have it. Before they scrap the card, can the Government look at its benefits? Some individuals hold them voluntarily and wish to use them to travel and to show their identity. Can the Government look at the costs of decommissioning ID cards and the potential difficulties faced by individuals such as myself who paid £30 for the card and probably have £29.50 worth of lifetime left on it, but also at the costs of the computer system? ID cards are a valuable tool in helping to secure our borders and I hope the Government will think carefully before decommissioning them.
As I have already said, this is the first foray for 13 years back to opposing, rather than supporting, the Government. I believe that there is some good in the Gracious Speech, and I welcome it where that is the case, but there are also some real issues to do with the deficit, cutting public spending, crime, reform of the police, DNA databases and ID cards that I will wish to challenge not only today, but in the months ahead. I know that Labour Members will hold the Government to account on every issue on every day of every week of every month, because it is important that we have a strong Opposition. I hope that the Government will welcome the contributions we can make to ensure that they are up to the game in their activities, and that we fulfil our duty as an Opposition as well.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), who was a very well respected Minister in the last Government, admired in all parts of the House. It has also been a pleasure to listen to two very fine maiden speeches. I am pleased to see that the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) is still in his seat. He made a fine contribution, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington), who greatly impressed us all by delivering his maiden speech without a single note in front of him; I think most of us would agree that that shows no mean courage.
I wish to start my remarks by thanking my constituents very much indeed for having returned me to this House with 52.8 % of the vote, a much larger majority than I had in the last Parliament and a considerably larger majority than I had in 2001 when I was first elected here with a majority of only some 700 or so. It is a massive honour to be not only elected but re-elected, and I pledge to serve my constituents in this Parliament in the same way as I did in the previous two.
I am a little saddened that there has not been much reference so far in today’s Queen’s Speech debate to the fact that we are a nation at war; I hope that those who speak after me might do something to rectify that omission. I agree that we as a country face massive problems at home. We have heard many eloquent speeches about that, and that is right and proper, but we must never forget that we are a nation at war. Both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition paid tribute to the six, I think, lives of British servicemen in Afghanistan lost since the last time this House met.
I carried my Royal British Legion pledge card throughout the general election campaign, and I have it here with me in the House today. I am a member of two Royal British Legion branches in my constituency, and I took the pledge I made to it before the election very seriously. It is perhaps our first duty in this House to support our servicemen and women and make sure that they have the right equipment, and to look after their families at home, especially those families who have lost members serving in Afghanistan. I greatly welcomed the Prime Minister’s remarks that we will pay particular attention to our mission in Afghanistan, and to making sure there is a political solution to that crisis. I think we have to believe the previous Prime Minister when he told us that two thirds of the plots hatched against this country originate in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Therefore, this terrible war is necessary, but—in common with, I believe, all Members of this House—I want our troops to come home as soon as possible and not to be there a day longer than necessary.
Mention is made in the Gracious Speech of political reform. I support that; the ability to recall Members of Parliament who have behaved very badly is a welcome step. My constituency of South West Bedfordshire borders Luton South, and considerable disquiet was expressed in my local press that the former Member for Luton South could not be removed and was absent for a very long time. I have experienced some of the anger about this subject locally, therefore, and I think the ability to recall Members of Parliament where there has been serious wrongdoing is to be welcomed and will go some way to restoring public trust in Parliament.
I am concerned, however, that for two days following the general election there was the very real possibility that the parties that had come second and third might have formed the Government of this country. I therefore make the urgent plea that we introduce the new political convention that the leader of the party that gains the largest share of the vote in a general election becomes Prime Minister either of a minority Administration or of a coalition, as we have at present. My constituents were beginning to send me very angry e-mails asking, “What is happening up in Parliament? Most people have voted for a Conservative Government but it looks like the Labour Government, whom we thought we had voted out, are going to be kept in office.” I think there would have been real anger, and that people might well have taken to the streets. If we are going to talk about political reform in this country, we would do well to establish the political convention I recommend.
I hope that in this new Parliament we can enter an era of real honesty and integrity, and of sustainability in respect of our public finances, about which quite a lot has already been said this afternoon. The hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Sir Stuart Bell) made a good speech, in which he said he welcomed the principles of fairness, freedom and responsibility that will be the hallmark of this Government, but I would just gently say to him that there was not previously so much responsibility in the management of the public finances and, indeed, that that was the case well before the worldwide economic recession descended on this country. We urgently need to address that, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood) said. The Government are not printing money any more, so if the Government take money to spend, that is money that is not available for private businesses or to stimulate our economy and generate the private sector growth that is the only way we will get out of the terrible recession that we have been through. We must remember that the last Government have left us with both a debt and a deficit of Brobdingnagian proportions, and we must not repeat that.
I also want to see fair funding across the whole of the United Kingdom. I speak as a member of the Conservative and Unionist party that very much wants to see Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales remain part of the Union, but I have to say that, as an English Member of Parliament, I have detected considerable resentment at the additional spending that is available to parts of the United Kingdom other than England. Let me give a couple of examples. Council tax has been frozen in Scotland for the past couple of years, but there are pensioners in my constituency who tell me that they run down their savings every year just to stay in the home they love and have worked hard all their lives to acquire, and there will come a point when they have to sell that home and move elsewhere because of the increases in council tax. Frankly, I do not think that is fair.
Dunstable, one of the towns in my constituency, has 56 empty shops on its high street. A large part of the reason for that is the very high business rates, and there have been increases in those rates for many businesses in England. Businesses in Leighton Buzzard and Houghton Regis in my constituency face that problem too, yet in Scotland business rates have been abolished for the smallest businesses and cut by either a half or a quarter for other businesses as well. I do not think that is fair, and I think that we, as a United Kingdom Parliament, must move towards a funding formula that is fair to every part of the United Kingdom. We are a Government pledged to fairness, freedom and responsibility, and it is absolutely right that parts of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland should have additional funding because of the additional costs of delivering public services caused by sparsity, deprivation and poverty, but why not apply that same formula across the whole of the United Kingdom so we do not get these discrepancies and great unfairnesses? I worry that that might lead to people wanting to see the break-up of the Union, which I think would be a very bad thing.
I greatly welcome the emphasis in the Queen’s Speech on localism, particularly in housing and planning. The previous Government wanted to impose 43,000 additional houses on my constituency. That would have approximately doubled the number of households in my constituency—when I do a leaflet run, I produce about 40,000 copies, one per household in my constituency—which highlights the scale of the additional housing we were being told to build in my constituency.
It was the thoroughly undemocratic nature of that imposition that so angered my constituents. Their local council could do nothing about it. Their elected councillors had no influence on the process. In Leighton Buzzard, several hundred people took to the streets in protest during the election campaign. Leighton Buzzard is a town where people are not prone to take to the streets about just any matter, yet several hundred came out to demonstrate, such was their strength of feeling.
I wish some Opposition Members had been present, as the rally was a difficult time for the Labour candidate. She had to disown her party’s policy because she saw how unpopular and unfair it was and that it would have ruined the balance in our area between infrastructure, transport, jobs and housing. I speak as someone who always supported the previous district council’s plans to build about 9,000 extra houses in my constituency to meet local housing need and make a small contribution towards the greater housing needs of London and the south-east. That need is real and we should not deny it.
I welcome enormously the Prime Minister’s emphasis, as he stood on the steps of Downing street, on strengthening families and rebuilding family life. When I made my maiden speech nine years ago, I said that strengthening families was a large part of my motivation for entering politics and public life. During the Child Poverty Bill Committee, I was saddened when the then Under-Secretary for Work and Pensions said the Labour Government did not believe that family breakdown was a cause of poverty. The Conservatives recognise absolutely that poverty wrecks families and Government statistics from the households below average income series clearly demonstrate that there is a double likelihood of a child growing up in poverty if its parents separate. We cannot ignore that, so I ask Opposition Members not to let the issue become a party political divide. There are plenty of politicians on the centre left in other countries who recognise the facts and try to do something about them. They try to give families skills and support to make a success of their family life and strengthen it, and I am delighted that our new Government will do that. I hope that we have common ground in that area in the future.
It is an honour and a privilege to follow my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous). He spoke with eloquence on a mixture of local and national issues but, unlike me, without notes. I applaud what he said.
When I gave my maiden speech in the last Parliament, I opposed the Government’s proposal to impose a system of compulsory identity cards, so it gives me real pleasure the first time I speak in this Parliament to applaud the announcement that the ID card scheme is to be scrapped. The scheme is deeply illiberal, deeply authoritarian, intrusive, misguided and unnecessary.
In the last Parliament, I tried my best to hold the Government to account and I promise to try even harder in this Parliament to hold the Government to account. There is too much overbearing Executive power in this country. Regardless of the colour of the rosettes Ministers wear on election day, all Ministers in all Governments would benefit from proper scrutiny in the House of Commons of what they propose and decide to do with our tax money. Indeed, the failure of the House to hold Governments to account explains not only the haemorrhage of confidence in our political system in recent years but the grossly illiberal and authoritarian governance that has grown up, whereby power has seeped away from people who are accountable to the rest of us and has gone to the quango state—the unelected officials.
We urgently need political reform and I welcome the Prime Minister’s announcements today. I particularly welcome the speech the Deputy Prime Minister made last week in which he talked about some of the political reforms. We need to make MPs answer directly to the people, which they have not done, especially when seven in 10 are in safe seats. We need to make the Government answer to MPs—the people’s tribunes.
The Queen’s Speech does much to decentralise; it promises to devolve power. I welcome that, particularly the localism Bill. I am delighted that the Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), has been given a brief to oversee decentralisation. I am delighted that responsibility for planning and housing will be devolved. I have always admired how our coalition partners have been bolder on the centre right than we have, in advocating reform of the local government finance system. Since the poll tax riots, many on the centre right have been petrified of thinking anew about how to reform local government finance. I support an open-minded approach and I hope that the coalition will look again at local government finance and think again about new ways of devolving revenue-raising power from Whitehall to the town hall.
I am delighted that we are to have locally accountable policing. In fact, I have been pushing that idea for more than a decade. There are people who, rightly, have concerns. They want to make sure that under any system of directly elected police commissioners or sheriffs—whatever we like to call them—the operational independence of chief constables will be guaranteed. It is vital that the operational independence of professional police officers is guaranteed and enshrined in statute. I would not support proposals that I thought were putting politicians in control of operational policing decisions. There needs to be separation between the strategic oversight of policing and the operational autonomy of chief constables.
I am delighted that there will be moves towards the decentralisation of control and choice in education, giving mums and dads a greater say in how their children are educated. However, I have questions about some aspects of the decentralisation agenda.
I believe we have said that we are in favour of the election of heads of primary care trusts. I used to agree with that idea; in fact, in October 2002, I published a paper advocating it. However, I have changed my mind for a number of reasons, not least because the ballot-box model of accountability should not really be used for something unless it is exclusively a public good, as the economists would say. I fear that if we were to have ballot-box local accountability over the allocation of finite health resources, there could be distorted outcomes. There could be an over-supply of eye-catching, high-profile health care treatments and an under-supply of less glamorous ones. I remain open-minded, but I shall suggest that other forms of local accountability over health care could be even better.
The Queen’s Speech talks about rebalancing the relationship between the citizen and the state. I fully support that. Indeed, I like to think that some of those ideas were borrowed from the direct democracy localist agenda that I have been pushing. Many people will claim original authorship of the idea for a great repeal Bill, but surely that is the point. It is an opportunity for us to allow everyone—all 60 million people on this island—to have a say in what should go into the Bill, although that is not to argue that Members should necessarily concur with the proposals made by the people. A couple of years ago I put up a wiki-site, which is still available. It allows anyone to make suggestions about which bits of regulation or law should be repealed. More than 150 ideas have been put forward; some of them are kooky and a little bit weird, but some are very wise and I do not think anyone in SW1 would have thought of them.
I support open primaries and recall, and I have even toyed with the idea of some sort of electoral reform, but I have some concern about some of the detail in the reform agenda. I hope that we do not just leave it to politicians to decide what goes into the great repeal Bill, but that we genuinely crowd-source it, to use the wisdom of millions and not just the “wisdom” of those in SW1.
In the last Parliament I introduced a private Member’s Bill advocating recall. It is urgent that we make MPs properly accountable to the people they are supposed to serve, and the way to do it is to allow local people to trigger a by-election. However, I fear that if we are not careful our proposals could mean that a committee of Westminster grandees triggers the recall process. Any move towards recall must genuinely be a locally initiated process.
We want to make sure that we do not do the precise opposite of what we intend. We need to ensure that recall is triggered locally. Otherwise, it could become a form of political execution by the Executive. In the last Parliament, which we might call the rotten Parliament, I advocated open primaries as the antidote. I proposed a ten-minute Bill that would allow everybody a say in who got to be their next MP. My proposal would cost the taxpayer nothing extra. It would allow local people to petition a returning officer to have a ballot that piggybacks on the same day as a pre-existing local or European election. I rather like the idea of our choosing our candidates on the day of the European elections. However, I fear that the ideas put forward by some for open primaries would result in taxpayer-funded open primaries. That could strengthen the power of the big, corporate, party hierarchies. I am not sure that that is the intended effect, but we need to be very careful, and we need to scrutinise the details carefully.
I welcome the idea of embracing the Wright reforms in full. It is regrettable that the previous Executive stalled on the process; I do not know whether it was they or Sir Humphrey Appleby who tried to stall the Wright reforms, and I am not sure why it will take us so long to implement the reforms in full, but I welcome the fact that we will do so.
I have a couple of questions about the idea of having an Office for Budgetary Responsibility. We need fiscal responsibility, but the fact is that a succession of Governments have failed to rein in Government spending. One cannot rely on Executive fiat to rein in the Executive. When it comes to using taxpayers’ money, upward accountability is not enough; we need a form of outward accountability. Perhaps in addition to making those who spend Government money accountable to an office of fiscal responsibility, we should make those who spend our money more directly accountable to this House. There will be a way to do that, after the Wright reforms. Under those reforms, Select Committee Chairs will be elected by private ballot, in a way that is free from manipulation by party Whips. Following that, we need to agitate to give the Select Committees greater power—power to confirm ministerial appointments and, crucially, to veto the budgets, and items in the budgets, of Whitehall Departments and their respective quangos. That would ensure real fiscal responsibility, and it would move us towards a separation of powers in Britain.
I finish with a couple of points on electoral reform. I am deeply sceptical about the proposal for the alternative vote system. It is the one change that would actually make our system worse. AV is the politics of second preference. It militates against the politics of the niche, the distinctive, the particular and the local. If one looks at the results of the recent election, one sees that there is an appetite for political representation that is niche, distinctive, particular and local. AV militates against that. I have reservations about it, and I look forward to being able to elaborate further on them.
I was elected by people in my Clacton constituency as a Member of Parliament, and I will be, first and foremost, a Member of this House rather than a cheerleader for any Executive. I pay tribute to a former Member of this House, Mark Fisher; I forget his constituency. He, in his quiet way, argued for reform of the legislature, and for giving the legislature greater control over the Executive. Behind the scenes, he built a cross-party consensus that, in many ways, laid the foundation for many of the changes proposed, and the effect that he had is being seen today.
I welcome this new radicalism and this new political reform. This is an opportunity for us to get the legislature off its knees, to have a legislature that can assert itself against Government, and to renew democracy and public faith in it.
Many Members will be aware of Sherwood forest and its legends, and of all that Sherwood is famous for, so they will not be surprised to know that I am not the most famous person from Sherwood. That honour probably goes to Robin Hood. Like Robin Hood, I have a desire to counter over-taxation, to protect the most vulnerable in society, and to make sure that oppressive government does not bring misery on the people.
At this point I should refer to my predecessor, Mr Paddy Tipping, a most honourable man who decided to retire before the election. I am sure that all Members will join me in wishing him well in his retirement. Paddy was very well thought of, not only in Westminster but in the constituency. Many people whom I meet today tell me what a wonderful man Paddy is, and was as their MP. I should like to put it on record that I congratulate Paddy on the work that he did on behalf of the people of Sherwood.
Sherwood is quite a diverse constituency. Let me try to bring Members up to speed on what Sherwood is all about. There are two really important industries that have always been in Sherwood, and that will be very important to the country as it moves forward. The first is agriculture and food production, and the second is energy production. Sherwood is very much part of the Nottinghamshire coalfield, and we produced large amounts of coal through the 1970s—and, to a certain extent, in the 1980s, too. As we move forward, energy and food will be fundamental to how we run this country and how we progress, and to the global economy.
Agriculture has always been a big part of Sherwood. There are a number of very efficient and productive farms in the constituency that lead the way, not only in the east midlands but nationally, in their technology and how they produce food to make sure that our nation’s shops and supermarkets are full of food and that the nation is well fed. We now have two generations of consumers who have no concept of what food security is all about, and have no concept of what it is like to go to a shop and find that the food is not on the shelves. We have the farmers in our rural areas to thank for that.
Energy will become very important as we move forward. Whether we are talking about the production of renewable energy or clean coal technology, the residents of Sherwood are there to assist, and to make sure that our great nation has enough to move forward. A number of schemes are coming forward involving anaerobic digestion, which allows energy to be produced cleanly and in an environmentally friendly way. There are also willow coppice and other schemes, which allow us to produce energy from agricultural fields.
The one thing that I really want to pull out of the Queen’s Speech is the matter of localism and passing power back down the structure. On the doorstep, the issue that I was challenged on all the time was antisocial behaviour. We have heard many references to policing—how we need to change the way in which we do it, and how we need to encourage more police officers—but there have been other references to how there is not money available to make those vast improvements. Often, however, those improvements do not require extra cash. They may be about the process, and about the way in which we carry out policing.
There are two examples of antisocial behaviour that I want to highlight today. At junction 27 of the M1, which is just outside my constituency, there is an enormous issue with what is called car cruising. Hon Members may not be aware of what that is. It is when members of the public change—some would say improve—their vehicles. They make them louder and faster—
Soup them up.
That is the expression; my hon. Friend helps me with it. These people meet, on a Sunday evening, at junction 27 of the M1. That may not seem like such a big issue until I point out that we are talking about in excess of 250 vehicles. They come on to the highway and tear around at terrible speed, and it causes enormous problems for normal members of the public who want to use the highway in a safe manner.
Nottinghamshire police, along with the county council, have attempted to stop the problem, and have found a number of barriers to finding legislation to stop what is happening on the public highways. I shall lobby the Association of British Insurers to try to get them to recognise that driving without due care and attention should attract a three-point penalty. At the moment, it attracts only a fine. That would prevent some of those members of the public from using their vehicles to obstruct the highway. If we can pass some of the power down to our local authorities, so that they have byelaws to deal with such antisocial behaviour issues, we can save ourselves and the police a lot of hassle, hard work and taxpayers’ money, all at the same time.
The other example that I should like to draw to the House’s attention is that of gating orders. Members who represent rural constituencies will recognise that there are methods of creating quite quickly in law and in byelaws a public right of way so that members of the public who have used a stretch of land for a regular period can establish a footpath. However, the problem in some urban areas is that there is no reverse process, and some people use jitty ways, gunnels—whatever we want to call them—in order to create antisocial behaviour and cause trouble for residents who live next to those little jitty ways. To put a gating order in place is an enormous challenge involving hours and hours of legislation. One can do so temporarily, but then one has to go to the Secretary of State to keep the order in place, and I should like a mechanism by which we pass power down the structure to local authorities. They could then deal with and close problem areas—where there are antisocial rat-runs for people to escape from police officers and run off in different directions—so that local residents are well protected from the abusive and intimidatory activity of unscrupulous members of the public.
I also very much welcome the proposed legislation whereby we will lose regional spatial strategies. They have put enormous pressure on the greenbelt in my constituency, and they fill residents with fear. Those people live in villages and towns, but they cannot escape them at rush hour, because of the amount of traffic on the roads. I hope that we can find a method to give local authorities the power to look much more strategically at where they place housing, because there are areas of my constituency that need extra housing, and we would welcome developments not only for younger people who want to live near their families, but for older people who want to stay in their village. Often, such people live in five-bedroom or four-bedroom houses, when a nice one-bedroom, warden-aided flat in their village would assist them. Much more local thinking on development would be most welcome.
It is a pleasure to be stood here. I am very proud to represent Sherwood, and I look forward to working in the House to improve the lives of Sherwood people.
I am very pleased to follow the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer), who was making his maiden speech. His predecessor was a very good friend of many people in the House. The hon. Gentleman made his speech in a very knowledgeable way on all kinds of issues that are important to people here. That gives us a good sense of how this new Parliament is going to be. As someone who has been re-elected more times than they can almost remember—I think it is six times now—I have to say that on returning to this place there is no difference: one always feels the important weight on one’s shoulders, and the importance of this House as the place where we speak up for our constituents, not just for those who elected us.
I say a very big thank you to everybody who re-elected me as their Member of Parliament. We owe it to such people to ensure that this Chamber is the place where we not only speak knowledgeably and shape the debate about the legislation that will be brought forward from the Gracious Speech, but influence matters and debate issues. Indeed, we Back Benchers might become more influential than we have hitherto been. I note the earlier speech from my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), a very distinguished former Minister; it is clear that ex-Ministers have a very important part to play. I hope that that will be an important way in which this Parliament goes forward.
The hon. Member for Clacton (Mr Carswell) referred to my former constituency neighbour and very good friend, Mark Fisher, the former Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central, and the hon. Gentleman was right: Mark Fisher did a huge amount of work behind the scenes to make Parliament the place where we can start to discuss the issues, rather than just what the Government Whips tell us to discuss.
Normally, we have one old lag and one new person as proposer and seconder of the motion on the Loyal Address, but this time we had two old lags, and it is very clear from that and the debate so far that the way in which we do business in the House is changing. That has all kinds of repercussions for our new Members, particularly the large number of women Members, and we need to find out how we can use that to everybody’s best advantage, so that the best parts of the Gracious Speech can be delivered to benefit all our constituents. I hope that we can all have an input into that.
As always, it is difficult to discuss a Queen’s Speech without understanding the enormity of the budget cuts that are being made, and I really want to put on the record my displeasure at the fact that an announcement was made yesterday. It talked about £6 billion of cuts, and many of my constituents fear that it could lead us into a double-dip recession, which so many of us want to avoid. There is a lack of detail and clarity about where those £6 billion of cuts will be made and whether they will be fairly distributed throughout the whole country.
I very much hope that the new Government—the coalition Government—will look at, and have flagged up, the areas of greatest need, because I tell the Ministers on the Government Front Bench right now that if there is any area of high need in the country, it is Stoke-on-Trent. Huge inequalities exist there, not because of a lack of action previously, but because the scope of the challenge is so great. That also applies to other heartland areas that previously depended on manufacturing, and I want the new Government to understand those inequalities and ensure that the £6 billion of cuts and whatever follows are looked at through the prism of how such areas as my constituency can best be protected. I want to ensure that this place is where I can best safeguard my constituents’ interests.
I was particularly interested in the part of the Gracious Speech that related to climate change, and I hope that the coalition Government will consult and work closely with all those in the House who have experience on the issue. I am mindful of the fact that the Committee on Climate Change, which the previous Government set up, belongs to this House, so I hope that in new legislation on the environment and climate change we have regard for that committee’s important role and ensure that, whatever cuts apply across the board, that role is protected. We cannot afford reductions there given the importance of taking forward the climate change agenda.
I put on record also the importance that I attach to ensuring that that Bill transforms the nation’s electricity system. We have to move from that system’s fossil fuel basis, and from coal and gas to clean forms of generation. That means clean coal and, especially, renewables, and I shall discuss the role of areas such as Sherwood in that, because I have visited and seen for myself the huge amount of pioneering work taking place in those regions.
The new Bill on the environment, climate change and energy efficiency must somehow embrace the concept of a broader, green economy. The hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood), who served with me on the Environmental Audit Committee, understands that agenda entirely, and I hope that we will legislate for more than just electricity and ensure that there are provisions for supporting residential energy efficiency and electric vehicles.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on her re-election and thank her for the role that she played on the Environmental Audit Committee. She and I both argued for a low-carbon economy and support for renewable energy and clean forms of energy generation. I assure her that any Government of whom the Liberal Democrats are a part will continue to have that climate change agenda absolutely at their heart.
That was a most welcome intervention; I am glad that I gave way. I give the hon. Gentleman notice that I shall be watching very closely and holding him to account. I hope that a newly formed Environmental Audit Committee will also do so in due course, after the House decides on the role of Select Committees.
The whole issue of electric vehicles, and a charging network and infrastructure to support them, is really important. I want to flag up the important research done by the Public Interest Research Centre, which launched the Offshore Valuation in Aberdeen a couple of days ago. That work, which was part-financed by the Department of Energy and Climate Change, shows that the UK’s offshore renewable resources have enormous potential. It is vital that we find ways of putting the research into practice so that we become a net exporter, which would give us huge benefits as far as new manufacturing jobs are concerned, across the country and particularly in the west midlands.
To go back to something that the hon. Member for Sherwood said, I should say that there is an issue about the legacy of our coalfields. I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) is here, because he understands the issue as keenly as I do in Stoke-on-Trent. I speak as one whose constituency was the first to produce more than 1 million tonnes of coal a year, during the good old Victorian age. We have a legacy, and I say to this Government that that legacy was addressed by the previous Government. We had the coalfield regeneration work that arose from research work originally done by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. That set up funding to deal with the legacy of coal mining in areas such as mine. I am proud that £15 million land reclamation work has been under way; if that did not take place, there would be huge problems of land drainage and the collapse of culverts. The work also pays for the Coalfields Regeneration Trust. It is vital that the new Government should ensure that that work can continue in one way or another. Former coal mining areas such as mine still need that support.
Mention of education policy is made in the Gracious Speech. I have great concerns about the role of academies, as I firmly believe that local authorities should be able to make sure that there is equal provision of education right across the local authority area. I say one thing to those on the Government Benches on this issue. As I understand it, the Building Schools for the Future programme in Stoke-on-Trent is due to get its final financial sign-off in September this year. The plans are well advanced and partners have been chosen. I would not want any of the new investment that will be taking place, in new schools or the so-called free schools, to be at the expense of a carefully thought out programme such as the one in Stoke-on-Trent. We cannot afford to lose it. I hope that the relevant education Bill will look at that issue carefully.
The money brought forward by the new Government must not be at the expense of the needs of areas such as Stoke-on-Trent. In previous Budgets, there was mention of the relocation of 150,000 civil service jobs from the south-east. Will that plan be involved in the new efficiency savings? We need to know. We need to discuss the Gracious Speech in the context of the Budget and the cuts that are going to be made. I, for one, could say that there are great sites in Stoke-on-Trent. The momentum for securing a relocation of Government jobs from the south-east needs to be carried forward. I hope that Ministers will listen.
I speak as an honorary doctor of Staffordshire university for my work on regeneration. In respect of the regeneration agenda, ambitious plans are already under way for the Staffordshire university quarter, which is linked to the wider budget of the regional development agency and the Homes and Communities Agency. We need to make sure that we have ministerial input into addressing the needs of such areas, so that what is already under way and progressing is not stalled as a result of blanket cuts that take no account of the needs of people whom I represent in Stoke-on-Trent North.
It is a great honour to be called in the Queen’s Speech debate, particularly on the first day, and it is great to be back on these Benches. Like the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Joan Walley), I have been returned for the sixth time and it is a humbling experience. I sincerely thank my constituents, of Bosworth constituency, for returning me. I agreed with the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) when he said that the feel of the House had changed. It has certainly changed for us—there are nearly 100 new Conservative Members, who give a new energy. Furthermore, the gender balance is different and there are so many more from ethnic minorities.
We can look forward to many exciting things with this Parliament. Looking back at the last coalition, in the 1970s, we see that it had the seeds of its own catastrophe in its creation. It did not have any kind of solid majority and Jim Callaghan was defeated because a minority party changed sides. He said afterwards that it was the first time in history that turkeys had voted for an early Christmas, and he was right. In this new Conservative-Liberal coalition, however, we have a chance to go the distance and make a big difference.
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has given us a wide-ranging programme, as we would expect. The deficit issue, about which my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood) talked at length, is clearly the key issue. We have to get control of our nation’s finances. Many interesting and important Bills have been put forward. I will touch on the health reform proposals and education reform later. There is also the “I” word—immigration. It is funny how in every election campaign there is a defining moment when the campaign changes. In this campaign it undoubtedly came with the former Prime Minister’s interview with Mrs Duffy. Many of the media completely misunderstood the issue at the time. The issue was not that the Prime Minister had been caught describing Mrs Duffy as a bigot; it was that he did not understand that what she was talking about really concerned ordinary people in Britain. If those remarks have done anything, it has been to enable us to talk about some of the more controversial issues in a sensible way. We were not able to do that before.
Before I get to those issues, I want to say what a delight it was to listen to my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer), who delivered his speech without notes. He spoke cogently about issues of food production and energy—the issues of the future. I absolutely agree with him that increased food production will be absolutely essential. I also much enjoyed the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington). He was very generous to his predecessor, Claire Ward, and his points about wanting to take people on in business and being unable to do so because of regulations and red tape were well made. This new Bill, whatever we call it—the big reform Bill, perhaps, or the bonfire of the vanities Bill—will be one of the crucial aspects of this Parliament, because there is no doubt that in this country we are caught in a spider’s web of our own creation. We have to release the energy and do away with many of the regulations that have been imposed on us over the past 13 years.
When I toured my 100-square-mile constituency during the election campaign, with its 23 villages and a large town, I was astonished that all the time national identity and national security came up as the key issues. This is linked to cultural identity, to immigration, to a feeling of disempowerment among ordinary people because of the flouting of planning law—I have an issue with Travellers in my constituency—and to anger about people working the system and claiming benefits to which they are not entitled. I was given the example of a man on disability allowance who was walking to the pub with a stick in the evening and laying paving stones in the morning, and was clearly not eligible. It is a good idea that we are going to review that.
One of the failings of the outgoing Government is that they put us in a situation whereby minority interests have become almost sacred, and at the expense of the majority. That is fundamentally wrong. I am all for protecting minority interests, but we now have a situation, certainly with planning law, in which the boot is very much on the other foot as regards advantage. We need to stop treating the minority as if they were the majority and, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said, we need to stop treating adults like children and children like adults. We need to get back to a rather more realistic regime.
Let me deal with the “I” word, which came up in Mrs Duffy’s conversation—immigration. I am pleased that the incoming Government are tackling this issue head on and are going to do something about it, because it is what people were talking about. In my acceptance speech, I gave a pledge to deal with the issue of immigration, as well as schooling, which is crucial to the county. I believe in my heart that it is frankly absurd for us to complain about the British National party and some of the other fringe parties, which are articulating these concerns, if the mainstream parties will not deal with them. Whether we like it or not, this is what people want us to deal with, and we have to listen. We do not have to do this in a racist way. I spent some years at university looking at policing and public order in a multi-racial Britain—I did it for a degree—and I am very sensitive to this issue, but it has to be addressed.
The proposed cap for non-European Union immigration is certainly in accordance with what people want. I am afraid that the Labour Government were very remiss in failing to deal with the accession of new states to the European Union and in allowing such a fast inward migration of people, particularly from Poland. One can talk to my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) about the enormous problems that he faces with so many people coming into his constituency. This is very regrettable. Having studied race relations over the years, one of the things that comes through is that the way to really upset communities is to overload them with new communities. I think that this is probably the most tolerant nation in the world. We have a wonderful record of accepting people, going back to the Huguenots. If one looks at London now, it is the most amazing mixture of different races, colours and creeds. People from all over the world love living here because it is largely safe compared with other major cities, although I am not saying that we do not have our problems. It was remiss of the Labour Government not to tackle inward migration from the European Union by getting the derogations that other European states such as Germany and France obtained. If we are to bring in Ukraine, Turkey, Croatia and other such states, I say to my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench that we must deal with this.
The decentralisation and localism Bill, which hopes to devolve greater powers to councils and local communities, will certainly have an impact on my area. The top-down imposition of planning instructions has been very cack-handed and out of tune with local people’s requirements. We have to make some changes in this respect. One of the issues that we have faced in my area is a huge allocation of housing under the old plan, and I want this to be looked at again. We also have in my constituency Travellers’ sites that are unauthorised; they have been developed on land that is owned by the Travellers, completely riding roughshod over local planning requirements. There is a site called the Good Friday site, which, predictably, was built on Good Friday. I hardly need tell hon. Members why—it was because the council officers were all off work. There was no stop order, and by the following bank holiday Monday the tarmac had been laid and the concrete and infrastructure were there.
I have been approached by councillors from Ratby—Chris Boothby and Ozzy O’Shea—who deal with this all the time. They tell me that the most difficult aspect is circular 01/2006, issued by the then Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, which tips the balance by enabling planning officers to claim that they have to treat the needs of the Traveller community above those of the established community. I do not mind an even playing field, but this tips the balance; it is also used on appeal. I ask my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench to consider immediately suspending this circular. [Interruption.] As my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler) says, this is a major and difficult problem for us. There is an unfair advantage, and it must be put right.
I referred to the man who was claiming disability allowance when he should not have been doing so. I welcome the Bill from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to co-ordinate, slim and make more effective the benefits system and welfare generally. I pay great tribute to him for all the work that he has done. The hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) has also worked very strongly on this. It irritates ordinary people so much to think that people are in there fiddling the system, and it must be made better.
It is a rare privilege, Mr Deputy Speaker, to talk in the Chamber without having a time limit, but I am not going to abuse the situation. In the old days, when we carried out filibusters, I have spoken here for an hour and a half, but I am not going to do that tonight, I can assure you; I shall finish fairly soon. However, I want to say a few words about the academies Bill. I very much welcome the idea that every outstanding school can be an academy. There may be a high take-up in Leicestershire, because we have several excellent schools. However, I have a question: is this going to apply automatically, or will they have to apply for it? In my county, the funding of schools has been an absolutely crucial issue. I would not want academy schools to attract more funding than the other schools maintained by the county council. We are in a most dreadful position. The designated schools grant in Leicestershire is the lowest in the country, and for many years I have been campaigning, with colleagues, to have that situation rectified. We are very much disadvantaged. If we take a lot of schools out of the system and make them academies, that may make it harder for the county council to provide the excellent services that it provides now. However, they will not miss the 4,000 instructions that come down from the Education Department every year. If we can get rid of this top-down, Stalinist structure, that will be very welcome.
I have for many years raised issues of health care in the House, and I am delighted to see in the document produced by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister, the coalition programme for Government, the attention that will be given to providing doctors and patients with more powers. I have been arguing that that should be the case for a long time, and it is really important that we consider the issue of integrated health care with great care. Most people in this country want access to integrated health care, by which I mean alternative therapies such as Chinese medicine, acupuncture, homeopathic medicine and all the back treatments that are available. The issue is whether we have effective regulation. The last Government had a consultation period on the regulation of herbal medicine and acupuncture, but they did not decide on statutory regulation. It is important that the new Government do, and I encourage my right hon. Friends to examine the matter.
The former Member for Oxford West and Abingdon campaigned vociferously against integrated health care and complementary medicine. He lost his seat, and the word is that part of the reason for that was that he was so vociferous about the matter, and people were angry about it. In my constituency, I had a Science party candidate put up against me, to make publicity, specifically because I support complementary medicine. He could certainly use the publicity, because I polled 23,000 votes and he got 176. What kind of message does that send out? It shows that we must examine the matter seriously as something that can make a major contribution to health care.
It is always a delight to serve under you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and I am grateful to you for calling me this evening. It is a great honour to me and my constituents for me to have been called in the Queen’s Speech debate. I promised them in my acceptance speech that I would not duck the big issue of immigration, which affects and concerns them, and that I would raise the matter of schools in the county and other major issues. I have done that tonight, and I am most grateful to you.
This is my first speech in the House, and I am extremely humbled to be here. I am the newly elected Member of Parliament for Morecambe and Lunesdale, a beautiful constituency backdropped by the Lake district across Morecambe bay and encompassing the area from Sunderland Point all the way up to Silverdale, across to the Yorkshire borders and diagonally through Lancaster back to Sunderland Point.
My predecessor, Geraldine Smith, is a lovely woman and shone particularly brightly in the cockle-picker disaster of about five years ago. I pay tribute to her and wish her well in her future endeavours.
It is strange to stand here after trying to get into the House for 11 years. I have always fought the corner of seaside resorts. A correspondent from The Times, whom I will not name, stated that even though David Morris is a landlubber from a seafaring family, he likes a seat by the seaside, and I have finally got one. On a serious note, I find that seaside resorts have the demographic of an inner city, with all its problems, but a much smaller population. Tourism in this country has declined rapidly over the past 20 years, and in its place there is a lot of deprivation. I should like the coalition Government to do something to address areas of deprivation and the fact that sometimes in the forgotten-about coastal areas, social issues slip through the net. I would like to be a champion for the town of Morecambe and its regeneration plans, and I wish to say here and now that I will always fight the corner of the disadvantaged, not just in Morecambe but in all the other areas of the country that have similar problems.
There is an area in Sunderland Point, in my constituency, that used to be the main port of Lancaster where the slave trade flourished. It was because of an incident there, in which a cabin boy died and was buried in an unmarked grave, that the start of the abolition movement found its way to our House and we were one of the first countries to abolish slavery. The area is like a time capsule—one has to go across to it at low tide, and when one gets there it is like stepping back in time. Under the last Government, the Environment Agency had the criteria for historical recognition withdrawn from the “Hold back the line” coastal defence scheme. As a newly elected MP, I believe that it should be restored, and I will fight to see that it is. Once that area has gone—it is one of probably only two such areas in the whole world—it will be gone for ever. It should be a world heritage site, but it went unrecognised by the previous Government under their plans for coastal initiatives on stopping the tide.
One issue in the Queen’s Speech that I should like to pick up on is the low-carbon energy policy. In my constituency, we have two nuclear power stations side by side, Heysham 1 and Heysham 2. The decommissioning of Heysham 1 has been ordered, and a new power station will, I hope, be built in its place. The power stations are the major employer in the Heysham area of my constituency, which accounts for 20% of the constituency’s electorate. I am pro-nuclear power, as I said I would be from day one on the doorsteps. I will always fight the corner of the nuclear power industry, because I believe it is the future. The House should recognise that, because if we do not, in 10 years’ time the lights will go out.
I also welcome from the Queen’s Speech the fact that localism is starting to be recognised. Again in my constituency, Carnforth station, which some Members will probably know was the setting for the classic movie “Brief Encounter” by David Lean, was left to go to rack and ruin over a period of 30 years. A group of people there called the Carnforth Station and Railway Trust, headed by a gentleman called Peter Yates, started to raise money from the community to restore the station. What is ludicrous about the situation is that Carnforth station is the centre of the railway universe in this country. Everything goes through Carnforth, but it does not stop there. One of my campaigns as a candidate was to say that I would like the Virgin trains to stop there. It is a form of madness that the train stops there for 20 minutes in the morning, afternoon and evening but cannot take on passengers. We are trying to be more efficient in our transport policies in this country—we are trying to get more people on to trains and public transport of all kinds, yet that happens at Carnforth.
Localism has a strong part to play in not only rebuilding the station but amassing the passion to restore the link because Carnforth used to be a west coast main line link stop, but it is no longer one. In the upgrading of the lines that will be unveiled in the course of the Parliament, we should consider Carnforth. It used to be a railway town, where trains were built and serviced, and from where they ran. Its strong heritage should be recognised again.
In my constituency, we have the Lune valley, an area of outstanding natural beauty, yet for some inexplicable reason, wind farms will apparently be planted there if the planners and the companies have their way. I have nothing against renewable energy or wind farms, but I do not want to see them like Martians on the landscape in the middle of areas of outstanding natural beauty. Thankfully, sense has prevailed and wind farms are being placed more out to sea, where the wind comes in. That is common sense.
Much of what has been outlined in the Queen’s Speech applies to my constituency. There has been much criticism of the coalition Government, but in diversity is strength. I represent a very diverse constituency and I repeat that there is strength in diversity. I would like to be the champion of that diversity.
When I was a young man, growing up the 1970s, my father, for whatever reason, could not afford to live in this country. He blamed it on the taxation of the day, so I ended up growing up abroad and I came back in the Thatcher years. In the John Major years, I set up my first business in a recessed town in the north of England, and I made a success of it. That is one of the reasons for my being in Parliament. I can see things that many people cannot—I can see entrepreneurial flair in areas where others might not see it in a month of Sundays. Under Major, I prospered. Over the years, I proudly fought as a candidate under the leadership of my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Mr Hague), who, in my opinion, was the best Prime Minister we never had, and I am proud to say that I am here in this Parliament with my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr Cameron) as Prime Minister. The coalition Government are the product of the strength and diversity of this country.
It is an honour to be re-elected for the great constituency and seaside town of Bournemouth East, and to be called on the first day of consideration of the Gracious Speech.
First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris) for an amazing maiden speech. We both represent seaside towns, and the passion with which he spoke about the importance of tourism and its demise in the UK shows that he will be an asset to his constituency. He will know that tourism is our fifth biggest industry, but successive Governments have ignored its importance. We are the sixth most visited place in the world, but we do not take advantage of that. The industry is worth £91 billion, and the authority, passion and wisdom with which my hon. Friend spoke about his constituency shows that he will serve his constituents well. I welcome him to the Chamber—what a fantastic maiden speech he made.
My hon. Friend’s speech stands next to two other fine maiden speeches by my hon. Friends the Members for Watford (Richard Harrington) and for Sherwood (Mr Spencer). My three hon. Friends have raised the bar exceptionally high for maiden speeches. Some of my hon. Friends from previous intakes are nodding. We have a fine intake in 2010, which bodes well for the House.
Any visit to Parliament by Her Majesty is, of course, a notable occasion, but after a change in Government, the Gracious Speech is an exceptional occasion because it confirms the new direction on which the country is about to embark—not only the policy issues, but the change in style, attitudes and priorities, which underline the different relationship that will be struck between the state and the people, as we heard from the Prime Minister today. That relationship is all the more significant given the uncharted political waters we are entering. I refer not simply to the state of the economy, but to the fact that the Queen’s Speech was tailored for and promoted by a coalition Government. It is a bold programme of legislation, and despite being drafted by two parties, not one, it is not a colourless compromise but a genuine programme of change, able to address the important issues of the day. It rebalances the power between citizen and state, returning responsibility to individuals and communities after 13 years of increasing state power and state surveillance, and it reforms Government structures, too. It also disbands other Labour creations, which so blatantly wasted taxpayers’ money.
I was never sure exactly what the British Potato Council did, but it cost the taxpayer £6 million a year and I am glad to see it go. Likewise, I am pleased to see the South West regional development agency disappear. It costs us in the south-west around £300 million—[Interruption.] I am glad that my Liberal Democrat allies are nodding in agreement, considering that they spent so much time supporting the RDA. I am pleased that it is to disappear: it provided the people of Bournemouth with no assistance, and set unworkable housing targets for areas designated as floodplains.
This Gracious Speech also sows the seeds for improving our economy, reducing Government deficit and our country’s debt, and restoring economic growth. That is something that the previous Labour Government, who had their last Budget as recently as March, signally failed to do. We have a busy year ahead as we seek to hand power back to our schools, hospitals and councils. We also want to reinforce our civil liberties, make our police forces more accountable, ease the regulatory burden on businesses, and introduce overdue reforms to how Parliament works.
Much of the Queen’s Speech rightly focuses on domestic issues, but we are inheriting from Labour one problem that is in urgent need of attention—our involvement in Afghanistan. It is on that that I wish to focus the remainder of my speech.
I use the word “inherited” because we went into Afghanistan in 2002, and we took responsibility for security in Helmand province in 2005. More than half a decade later, we are still there, thanks to a flawed strategy, limited support for our troops and a complete failure to commit to post-conflict reconstruction and governance. We did enough not to lose, but never enough to win. Now we require the assistance of our US allies, and our once superior knowledge of fighting counter-insurgency operations has been overtaken by the Americans.
Lessons were not learned from what happened in Basra in 2003, when we failed to follow up a solid security position with immediate support for local governance and reconstruction. The people liberated in Basra at that time were very pleased to see the back of Saddam Hussein, but they were soon ganging up on us, their liberators, because progress was so slow.
Sadly, we are repeating exactly the same mistakes in Afghanistan all over again. The window of opportunity in that country disappeared between 2002 and 2005, when the irresolute failure to improve the lives of local people allowed the Taliban to regroup and get involved with the resident population. That has kept us there far longer than we expected.
When we look at how much our involvement in Afghanistan has cost the taxpayer, it becomes very clear that we did not properly support the operation’s funding. In 2003-04, we provided a paltry £46 million for security operations in Afghanistan. By 2006-07, that had to be increased to about £750 million. Now we spend £5 billion on that operation annually. What a shame it is that we did not invest the amount of money required to do the job properly between 2002 and 2005 because, had we done so, I predict that our troops would be heading home. That is exactly what many people are calling for now, but we would have done the job properly and left Afghanistan in the state that we wanted it to be in. Another problem that we face is the death toll among our troops. The average is one death and four life-changing injuries per week.
Afghanistan is likely to dominate this Parliament. If we are serious about successfully concluding military operations in that country we must recognise the mistakes that we made, and not repeat them. The first of the basic schoolboy errors that were made was the poorly written blueprint for the governance of Afghanistan—the Bonn accord. It meant that we applied a Kabul-centric rather than a regional or local approach to helping the Afghan population. We poured funds into brand new Government ministries in the capital and expected those funds, and their associated ideas and support, to trickle down into the towns and villages in distant provinces, but that was never going to happen. We ignored the existing powerful tribal structures that make communities work at a local level and only now, very late indeed, are we beginning to recognise the importance of provincial and district support.
The second error was that Britain made a confusing offering to the overall mission. In counter-insurgency, the local population is always the prize, so why did we waste years going after territory rather than winning hearts and minds, which is what is what now happening under General Stanley McChrystal? Why did we not also have the forethought to avoid sending troops into a part of Afghanistan where our appalling reputation proceeds us? Those of us who have bothered to look at the history of Afghanistan will be aware that the treaty of Gandamak in 1879 was considered one of the most humiliating treaties ever signed by an Afghan leader, as it ceded huge chunks of that country to the UK. The battle of Kandahar just afterwards was the last major conflict of the second Anglo-Afghan war, but resulted in the defeat of the Afghans, involving a series of battles in the very areas into which we are now sending our troops. The Taliban are aware of this, and they use it as a basis for recruitment, offering people the chance to get their own back on the Brits who caused the nightmare of more than 100 years ago. It might have been better to send other members of NATO, with less dubious historical connections, to the RC South area.
Thirdly, why did our offering not come with any post-conflict reconstruction capability, consideration of training for local Afghan forces or proposals for the development of local governance? Those are the simple factors that go back to Sir Gerald Templer and what he did in Malaya, as well as to the civil war in the United States. After that war, the military went in and set up the reconstruction organisations, sorted out the transport and even ran the elections. Why do we not learn from the past and ensure that we correct those things for today?
The attitude seems to be that reconstruction and development are somebody else’s problem, and our military are not allowed to do it. It is suggested that it is done by the UN, an NGO or DFID—somebody else. Unfortunately, as soon as the situation becomes dangerous, those organisations disappear and the military are left to pick up the pieces.
What needs to change? My first recommendation is to stay the course and maintain momentum. We need to prove to the US, which has doubts about our capability, as well as the UK public and the Afghans, that we are intent on completing our mission. That means spelling out why we are there. We must be there, because if Kandahar were to fall to the Taliban, Pakistan—with its nuclear arsenal—is also likely to fall. That is a scenario that we cannot allow.
Secondly, we need to end the turf war in Whitehall, including the confusion over who is actually in charge. I hope that the National Security Council will enable us to do that. Thirdly, we need to get better at post-conflict operations. I am pleased to see that the need for a more integrated approach to post-conflict reconstruction made it into the coalition document published last week, on page 22. Before the election, I proposed a stabilisation and reconstruction force to bridge the gap between the military and the reconstruction effort. The US Marines in Helmand are already tasked with the full spectrum of comprehensive operations, and now see governance and development as the main effort of their campaign. They have overtaken us in dealing with counter-insurgency, and we have some catching up to do. We can do better than this. We have sent one brigade commander after another into Helmand province to reinvent the counter-insurgency wheel. We also need better equipment, and the strategic defence review that is shortly to be conducted must consider stabilisation ops as well as war fighting.
Fourthly, we need to take the issue of opium growth seriously. Half of the income of the Taliban goes on wages, and that income comes from the growth of poppies. If that income is cut, fewer foot soldiers will attack NATO troops and fewer improvised explosive devices will be planted. However, it is pointless to convince farmers to abandon poppies for wheat if they have no access to local markets. A comprehensive local plan is needed, not just to provide the wheat seeds but to create the market conditions to allow those individuals and families to put food on the table and make money.
Finally, we also need to think about the long term. The last time I visited Helmand province in March this year, I asked what the UN was doing there, but it has no presence there at all. I asked who was designing the plan for five, 10 and 15 years’ time, to help that area to prosper in the future. It seems that no one is thinking like that. In the 1950s and 1960s, Helmand was one of the richest and greenest areas of east Asia. It actually exported more peanuts than California, believe it or not, and there are more marble deposits there than in any other area of south Asia. There is huge wealth there, but nobody is considering how to allow the mechanics of the markets to be developed. We are doing security and thinking a little about reconstruction and development, but nobody is working out how to get an existing train line up to Spin Boldak on the border with Pakistan in Kandahar. It is a distance of only 40 km, but nobody is even considering it. We must consider those things. We want to leave Afghanistan in a condition to look after itself.
In conclusion, we must get better at intervention operations. The nation will not tolerate winning a war in 10 days and then spending 10 years to consolidate the peace. We must improve our strategy, because we are likely to need these skills in the future. There are many other locations, including Iran, Yemen and Somalia, where we might require some form of intervention force. We cannot have a repeat of Afghanistan and Iraq, so the role of our armed forces needs to change. Let us not forget that it was a military force that went into Haiti after the earthquake; it was a military force that helped Britain with foot and mouth; and it was a military force that helped Indonesia when it was hit by an earthquake.
Today, military forces carry out reconstruction and development when the United Nations, DFID and other agencies find the scenario too dangerous. Let us legitimise the part that our armed forces can play in helping successfully to conclude our involvement in Afghanistan. The forthcoming strategic defence review provides a vehicle for this, but must include Foreign Office and DFID involvement as well. The economic, social and international challenges facing the UK are formidable. It is a tribute to the Prime Minister’s energy and determination that Britain’s first peacetime coalition for 80 years is already spelling out such a positive and ambitious yet responsible blueprint for change. We must all do our part for the sake of the nation to make this work.
Mr Deputy Speaker, thank you for calling me to speak on this first day of the Queen’s Speech. It is fantastic to see you in the Chair.
There are so many new things going on: this is the first time that I have been on the Government side of the House and I am getting a new perspective on the Chamber; and it is the first time that I have been in the House with a Conservative Prime Minister, and I would like to pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr Cameron). He spent four long, hard years getting us to this position. He made huge personal sacrifices in his life, and I wish him the very best as he leads this country through some difficult times. He has it in him to be an outstanding young Prime Minister. I also welcome the Liberal Democrats to this side of the House. I have many friends among the party—I like them very much—but it will take me some time to get used to them being in government with us. I will get used to it, I promise, but it will not happen over night. However, I have a great deal of time, particularly for the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath), the Deputy Leader of the House, whom I know has a great love and passion for this Chamber.
I have been very disturbed by today’s maiden speeches, because they have been awfully good. My hon. Friends the Members for Sherwood (Mr Spencer), for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris) and for Watford (Richard Harrington) have been dangerously erudite. They are either geniuses or total creeps, but I think that they are geniuses, because I have never heard such good speeches in this Chamber from new Members—I certainly did not hear them in my first six months, and I doubt that we will hear much better in the months ahead. They were fabulous speeches, and I am sure that their families are extremely proud of them. I bet that their constituents are very grateful that they have them as their Members of Parliament.
I am enormously excited by the number of new colleagues on the Government and Opposition Benches. They are a very self-confident and vibrant bunch, but what excites me most is that they are independent-minded. I am sure that that does not excite the Whips on the Front Bench so much, but I think it is a great asset to this place to have independent-minded Members of Parliament who will go on to be brave and courageous, because if our constituents want anything, they want people who say something in their constituency and then go down and do it in the House of Commons. They want consistency. They want their Members of Parliament to deliver on their promises.
We in this House will be faced with an enormous number of challenges in the weeks, months and years ahead. We will have to make some enormously difficult decisions—decisions that will cause us personal pain and, I am sure, personal pain for our constituents, but decisions that need to be made. They need to be made for the sake of our children and grandchildren. We need to rebuild our economy. We need to have a strong and vibrant economy that can support high levels of employment. It does not matter if we represent a Labour seat, a Conservative seat, a Lib Dem seat or, now, even a Green seat; the most important thing to the majority of our constituents is having a job, because with a job comes self-respect and the ability to put a roof over their families’ heads and food on the table. We in this House have a duty to ensure that we have a vibrant economy that can continue to generate high levels of wealth. I and others will be working to achieve that.
We also have to deliver on our promises. All of us—or almost all of us—said that immigration was a concern that needed to be addressed. My constituents in Broxbourne are fair-minded, decent and compassionate people. They want skilled workers coming to this country who can add to the wealth of this country and pay taxes that help to support hospitals, schools and infrastructure. My constituents also want to provide genuine sanctuary to those who are in genuine fear for their lives. However, we have to recognise in this place that uncontrolled immigration is not an unalloyed good for everyone.
Immigration tends to work very well for the middle and upper classes, but many of my constituents are competing for scarce public resources, such as education, health, transport and housing. That has created a level of concern and bad feeling which has caused me a great deal of concern, because in my constituency and others we still see the British National party getting a foothold and gaining traction. I am delighted that the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas) and the right hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge) had such fantastic results against the British National party, not only turning back Nick Griffin, the leader of that party, but ensuring that night that many BNP councillors lost their seats. We need to continue that progress, but if we are to do so, our constituents need to know that we are serious about addressing their concerns.
I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend when he is in full flow, but may I just point out two things? First, I come from an immigrant family—I am third generation—and the thing that made it work was that my ancestors came to this country because they admired it and wanted to be part of it, to learn the language and to integrate. That is an essential component to which he might give some attention. The second thing is that if we were unwise enough to have changed the voting system, we might have BNP MPs in this place right now.
My hon. Friend makes two powerful points. Of course we want to enable people to integrate into our wonderful society. It has many benefits—freedom of association; freedom to hang out with who we want to hang out with; freedom to marry who we want to marry; freedom to go to a polling station and vote for the person who we want to represent us, for better or for worse—so I agree with him: there are many, many things that need to be done.
While I have the attention of the House, let me say that it is so nice to speak to such a packed House. Many new Members will smile at that, but let me tell them that there will be evenings when they are speaking to no more than three or four people, so this is a good outcome for those who have made their maiden speeches today.
Within the Government’s priorities, of which there are many, they have paid great attention to the issue of health and the provision of health care to our constituents. I would make one plea to them. I see my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) in the Chamber; he has played a great part in raising in this place the profile and status of mental health. Nevertheless, mental health remains a very unfashionable subject, and that is a great shame. Many of our constituents live daily with terrible conditions that impact on their lives, on their happiness and that of their families, and, collectively, on their families’ prospects.
I know that tough decisions will need to be taken on the allocation of scarce resources, but, for too many decades, mental health has been left behind. It has been at the back of the queue. It would be churlish if I were not to pay tribute to the previous Government, because they did start to address the shortcomings in funding and to ensure that the mentally ill got the care that they deserved. I have every confidence that my Government—this Conservative Government supported by my Liberal Democrat friends—will pay the same attention to mental health and elevate it further up the list of priorities in the NHS.
There is nothing more rewarding, having made a speech in this place raising an issue of great concern, than to have someone come up to you very quietly in your constituency, take you by the arm and thank you in a private, understated way. That is when you know that you are making a difference and giving people a voice who would otherwise not have one.
Mental health issues affect almost a quarter of people at some stage in their lives. During the last Parliament, I was surprised to discover how many people on incapacity benefit had mental health problems. They have particular difficulty in getting back into work, and they need special packages. This is a key issue, and my hon. Friend is perfectly right to raise it.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The longer people are out of work and not socialising with people in the workplace, the worse they feel about themselves. They disengage from society, which has an impact on their mental health and on their ability to lead fulfilled lives. It is incumbent on the Government to ensure that people who are not in the workplace and not actively involved in the economy are given every chance to take part in the world of work again, and to make a useful contribution to society—a contribution in which they can take great pride. This is not just about the amount of money they earn; it is about giving them a sense of self-worth. My hon. Friend has made a very good point.
My hon. Friend is making a compelling argument. A key point is that many of those people were persuaded to take jobs on the basis that they would receive support packages—perhaps to do with travel or other forms of support—that have not necessarily turned out to be as good as they expected. The difficulty is that, once someone comes off benefit, they find it very difficult to get back into the benefits system if a job does not work out. The transition from benefit to work is an important stage at which to ensure that they get the support that they need to undertake a fulfilling job.
Again, my hon. Friend makes a good point.
In concluding my remarks on mental health, I must point out that there are far too many initiatives. There are also far too many different groups and professional set-ups providing support services to people with mental health problems. We need to streamline all that. People with mental health problems do not want to have to relate to seven, eight, nine or 10 teams; they want to relate to one team that can give them the support that they need in order to manage their illness, recover from it—if that is possible; it is not always so—and get back into work to lead a fulfilling professional life.
So, Mr Deputy Speaker—Mr Speaker! I see that you are back in your Chair! How exciting! I have waffled on for far too long, but I should like to conclude with these few slightly rebellious remarks. There is a great tension in this place between Parliament and the Executive. For 100 years, the Executive have cleverly taken powers out of the hands of Parliament, taken them on board and used them for themselves. I hope that in the years ahead we will start to take some powers back from the Executive, find our collective voice on behalf of this nation and restore people’s confidence in us.
I say to new Members, “Do not look towards any Government to raise the status of the House of Commons.” That is not the responsibility of the Government and I assure new Members that if the Government try to do it they will not do a particularly good job. It is our responsibility to raise the status of the House of Commons, and I am very much up for the challenge, just as I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East, who wants to intervene, is up for it.
I intend this to be an intervention rather than a subsequent speech. Before my hon. Friend sits down, may I say that should he be successful in becoming a vice-chairman of the 1922 Committee—a matter that I know he is far too modest to raise himself on the Floor of the House; it is being voted on tomorrow—I am sure that he will put into practice the very message that he is preaching to us tonight.
I thank my hon. Friend for doing that advertisement for me.
Let me conclude by saying that a self-confident Government and a self-confident Opposition will tolerate and encourage independent-minded Members of Parliament. They will actually derive great strength from such independence of mind. I am delighted that there are so many new and able colleagues on both sides of the House. We have said goodbye to some very talented individuals who until six weeks ago were respected Members of Parliament for their constituencies. What I have seen over the last few days quite frightens me, as we have seen some enormously talented people here and the Whips are going to have their job cut out for the next five years—if it is five years. I wish new colleagues every success. This is a great place to be; it is the mother of all Parliaments; new Members have done fantastically well in getting themselves here.
Ordered, That the debate be now adjourned.—(Miss Chloe Smith.)
Debate to be resumed tomorrow.