I inform the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of Ms Harriet Harman. Once moved, that amendment will limit the scope of debate to the issues mentioned in it. Older hands can expect to be called to order by the occupant of the Chair if they go beyond the scope of the amendment. New Members making maiden speeches can expect some customary latitude.
I beg to move an amendment, at the end of the Question to add:
“but, whilst welcoming the progress made by the previous administration to reform and improve the constitutional arrangements of the United Kingdom, respectfully believe that such changes should be made wherever possible on the basis of a strong cross-party consensus; therefore call for active discussions by your Government on proposals for an elected House of Lords, a referendum on the alternative vote, recall of hon. Members, the period of any fixed-term Parliament, party funding, changes to the number of hon. Members, the drawing of electoral boundaries, and individual voter registration; consider as wholly unacceptable and undemocratic proposals to require any special majority to remove a Government and require an early general election, or to alter the number of hon. Members or the boundary rules in an arbitrary and partisan way; strongly endorse the measures which led to an overall reduction in crime of over a third, and of violent crime of 41 per cent., since 1997; oppose any measures to cut the number of police officers and police community support officers, to restrict the use of the DNA database in accordance with the Crime and Security Act 2010, to extend anonymity in rape cases to defendants, or to politicise constabularies through the introduction of elected commissioners; and urge your Government to reconsider the introduction of a pre-determined cap on skilled immigrants and to maintain the flexibility and effectiveness of the current points-based system.”
I begin by welcoming the Deputy Prime Minister to the Treasury Bench and to the Government Dispatch Box on what I believe is his speaking debut in that role in the House. He takes over from me wide responsibilities for the Government’s constitutional agenda. As my colleagues and I were, he and his ministerial colleagues will be responsible for what is put before the House and the country, but in making his decisions and recommendations he will be blessed, as I was, by having officials of the highest quality, diligence and—certainly with myself—patience. I should like to place on record my thanks to them and to all the officials with whom I worked, and to wish the right hon. Gentleman well in his endeavours.
“Constitutional agenda” is an abstract term that can have the effect of emptying a room quickly, and not just when I am the one making a speech. However abstract, though, it describes something of profound importance to the effective running of any society and its political system, namely the architecture of power—the rules that set down who can make decisions and who can hold in check those who exercise power. In most systems, those rules are enshrined in what the Germans call “black letter law” and are normally subject to special procedures of entrenchment to make it more difficult for those with the power of government to misuse it to change the fundamental rules of the constitution for narrow partisan ends.
We in the United Kingdom do not have a single text, a written constitution or any protective entrenched procedures. Although I believe that over time we should develop a single text, I do not propose or support entrenchment or special procedures for constitutional change. However, the absence of entrenchment places a special responsibility on those in government not to misuse their power, and wherever possible actively to seek and achieve consensus across the House, or to ensure that the final decision is made directly by the people in a referendum.
Of course, the Government must have the power of initiative. When we took office in 1997, there had been no successful proposals for constitutional change for decades. In contrast, the new Labour Administration had a very large agenda: devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; an elected Mayor and assembly for London; data protection; freedom of information; the Human Rights Bill; phased reform of the Lords; independence for national statistics; reform of party funding; and a new system for elections to the European Parliament. All but one of those measures, however controversial they may have been at the beginning of their legislative journeys, were in the end either approved by consensus across the House or endorsed by the people in a referendum, and they are all the better for that.
My right hon. Friend is right that a great deal of constitutional change has occurred over the past 13 years, but I am not clear why he does not want to go an extra step now and have a written constitution—a Bill of Rights. Surely that would be an important way of entrenching and making absolutely clear the rights of our citizens.
As I said a moment ago, I believe that there is a case for bringing together our constitutional arrangements in a single text, and we were working on achieving exactly that. However, the process will take a long time. Entrenchment—in other words, the sovereignty of this House being modified by some super-legislative procedure and by a constitutional court overseeing that—is a bridge too far for me and I do not support it. However, I do not believe that the two have to go hand in hand, and the case for a single text is strong.
However controversial the proposals that we introduced may have been at the beginning—I think particularly of the Human Rights Bill and the Freedom of Information Bill—in the end, we were able to achieve consensus across the House. That may have been a subject of regret later for the Conservative Opposition, but consensus was achieved. There was one exception, which I regret and, in a sense, it makes the point that I am putting to the House—the closed list system for European elections.
I welcome the hon. Lady to the Chamber—I am glad to see her return to the House, albeit, through no fault of hers, a little late. I shall give way in a second.
The European elections system was very controversial. It was subject, unusually, to the Parliament Acts. In my view, it is not a good system and will almost certainly have to be changed in due course. However, no one could have said—no one did say—that it was introduced for partisan advantage. Such advantage has palpably not happened.
The amendment tabled by the Leader of the Opposition mentions the special majority that is required to dissolve Parliament and hold a general election. Having failed to get any sort of answer out of the Government, does my right hon. Friend have any theory about why they arrived at the figure of 55%?
I am delighted to be returned to represent the new constituency of Thirsk and Malton, and I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his comments. He referred to the new electoral system for the European Parliament. Does he accept that, in each European election since the new election procedures were introduced, turnout has dramatically reduced. What would he have proposed had he remained in government to increase the turnout for those elections?
One suggestion—I might even have made it—was that the new system might increase turnout. Even Homer nodded, and that has not been the case, although I think that turnout has gone up a little recently. I am in favour of either an open list, or what is called the semi-open list, which is one of the proposals for the new, reformed House of Lords. I am happy to discuss that further with the hon. Lady in or outside the House.
I have set out the importance of constitutional change being made, whenever possible, by consensus. I therefore greatly hope that the Deputy Prime Minister will resist calls from his side to use the Government’s majority to ram through change for party advantage. That would be wrong—[Laughter.] I say to those who are obviously tempted by that that, with one exception, which was never to my party’s advantage, we worked hard to achieve cross-party consensus because the constitution should not be a partisan weapon in the hands of any party.
Let me consider the key elements of the new Government’s proposals in turn, and then, of course, I will give way to the hon. Gentleman.
First, let us consider the House of Lords. Next year will be the centenary of the first Parliament Act. The preamble of the 1911 Act spells out that it was introduced as a temporary measure, stating that
“it is intended to substitute for the House of Lords as it at present exists a Second Chamber constituted on a popular instead of hereditary basis, but such substitution cannot be immediately brought into operation”
and therefore the Parliament Act was introduced as a poor substitute. It is 99 years since that historic Act and it is probably now time to complete the original proposals of that great Lib-Lab Government in 1911.
Two reforms followed the 1911 Act: the Parliament Act 1949 and the Life Peerages Act 1958, but there was no further change until 1999, when all but 92 hereditary peers were removed and clear conventions about party balance were established. The consequence has been to make the other place a less supine and more assertive Chamber. That is sometimes inconvenient to government, as I witnessed in taking through very many items of legislation, but it was rare indeed for legislation to be amended in the other place but not improved, as I have often put on the record.
I therefore hope that the Deputy Prime Minister will resist the temptation of some on the Government side, as we have read in some newspapers, to pack the other place with up to 200 Conservative and Liberal Democrat Lords to ensure that the previous convention of no one party having a majority, which has worked well, is retained—[Interruption.] I am not clear why there is such objection to that. When Labour was in government, it was absolutely fine for one third of its legislation to be subject to amendments in the House of Lords. If the proposition is that when the Conservative party is in power, with support from the Liberal Democrats, it is fine for them to have an absolute majority in the House of Lords, let that be put on the record.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. To take him back to his phrase, “ramming through change for political advantage,” may I remind the House that Labour rammed through changes to the Lisbon treaty, denying this country an opportunity to vote on it? That is taking political advantage. I hope he now regrets that decision.
I think the hon. Gentleman protests a little too much on that. He needs to explain, as does the Conservative element of the Government, why the Conservative party abandoned its pledge to withdraw from the Lisbon treaty. Perhaps he would like to have a discussion on that with the Liberal Democrats who support the Government.
I will make a little more progress before giving way to the hon. Gentleman.
For seven years after the 1999 change, the absence of any clear consensus blocked further reform. It will be recalled that in early 2003, this House voted against every single one of seven alternative propositions put before it, ranging from an all-appointed to an all-elected House of Lords. I took over responsibility for Lords reform, in that time-honoured passage from Foreign Secretary to Leader of the House, and duly established a cross-party group. Its key conclusions, which worked very well, were set out in a February 2007 Green Paper.
Thankfully, in March 2007 this House voted emphatically in favour of two consistent propositions—an 80% or 100% elected House of Lords—and against all other choices. That proposition for a wholly or mainly elected House has been the foundation for progress since. The cross-party group re-met for 15 months and did a great deal of detailed work on how an elected Lords might operate, and its conclusions were contained in the July 2008 White Paper.
At the most recent general election—for the first time—all three parties were clearly committed to action to secure an elected House of Lords. Further work to ensure that should be straightforward: a great deal has already been done, including, as the Deputy Prime Minister knows, the drafting of many of the key clauses to form the central part of any Bill. I pledge that my party will work constructively on that with him and his Administration, and with luck, we may be able to mark the centenary of the first Parliament Act with legislation finally to meet its long-term goal.
The proposal for a referendum on voting reform is another long-running issue in British politics. It took the expenses scandal for broad agreement to emerge that at the very least the British people should be given the opportunity to decide whether they wish to continue with the existing first-past-the-post system or to move to the alternative vote system. Legislation for an AV referendum was agreed earlier this year by the House by a very substantial majority of 365 to 187. That would have become law by the general election but for the refusal of the Conservative party to allow it to go through in the so-called wash-up. I am glad that the rather spurious objections that the Conservatives raised then have now dissolved. We shall, of course, support clauses on AV if they are put before the House in a similar form to last time.
Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that in the course of the competitive negotiations with the Liberal Democrats as to which side was going to form a Government, his party offered the Liberal Democrats a deal whereby AV would be rammed through this House without a referendum?
The answer is no. I would also say to the hon. Gentleman that a very significant proportion of Labour Members, including myself, would never have accepted such a proposition had it been put forward—let us be absolutely clear about that.
We support proposals for recall, which we proposed before the election, although the detail will have to be carefully thought through.
Many of the other aspects set out in the coalition agreement are non-controversial. I am glad to see the Administration support the proposals of the Wright Committee, and I hope that we will see good progress made on them. I say parenthetically, on a subject that concerned me greatly when I was in government, that I continue to be concerned about how we conduct our Report and Committee stages on the Floor of the House.
There is another unsatisfactory matter, and I hope that the Leader of the House will consider it. Since there is likely to be some element of timetabling, or even if there is not, we need better order when the House is considering legislation clause by clause, not least by allowing the Chair a discretion to set time limits on speeches. One of the most important functions discharged by this House on the Floor of the House is the consideration of legislation. The old system before 1997 led to great frustration, as did the system post-1997. What we have not yet got right is adequate provision to ensure that Back Benchers especially can take part constructively in debates without those debates being undermined either by too hasty Government timetables or, frankly, by some Back Benchers hogging the whole of the time by filibustering.
On the questions of Lords reform and the legislation for a referendum on voting reform, may we have a clarification from Labour that both will be the subject on the Labour Benches of three-line Whips here and in the House of Lords?
The hon. Gentleman will have to allow me to say that I consult my colleagues about the whipping arrangements that would apply. [Interruption.] My right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) is speculating about whether the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) is worried about something. My advice is for him to worry about how he and his party are going to vote and we will worry about how we vote.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way, and I am glad that the sinner is repenting. Does he regret the use of the guillotine on so many important Bills during the last Parliament? In the Housing and Regeneration Bill, for instance, which I was involved in, more than 200 Government clauses were tabled between Second Reading and Report, so Members were not allowed proper analysis and oversight of that important legislation. [Interruption.]
My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) says that there were no guillotines, as they were programme motions—but they come to the same thing.
Let me say to the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) that I regret the use of guillotines full stop, but sometimes they are necessary. However, I sat in the House in opposition for 18 years, and the first Bill I sat on—the Housing Bill, in early 1980, 30 years ago—was the subject of the most ruthless guillotining, and that on a major measure. There are plenty of other measures of profound importance that were also the subject of guillotining.
My view, both in government and in opposition, has been that the House—certainly over the 30 years in which I have been in it—has not got right the way in which it should deal effectively with legislation on the Floor of the House, and I think that there is a better way. We need to provide for more time, but if we do that, the quid pro quo needs to be limits on speeches, so that people can constructively take part. We also need to look at something that I facilitated on at least one occasion, which is ensuring that when the business is subject to programming or guillotining, some Opposition and Back-Bench amendments can also be the subject of votes. I put those proposals before the House for consideration.
I have set out our view on many of the proposals that are, and will be, the subject of a broad consensus. As I have said, on every proposal that the Deputy Prime Minister brings forward, we shall seek constructively to work with the Government to achieve consensus. However, it seems that consensus was the last thing on the mind of the governing parties, when one turns to some of the elements of the coalition agreement. In his first speech as Deputy Prime Minister, outside the House, the right hon. Gentleman told the nation that he proposed to secure the biggest shake-up of our democracy since the Reform Act of 1832. He described the Reform Act of 1832 as a “landmark”, from
“politicians who refused to sit back and do nothing while huge swathes of the population remained helpless against vested interests. Who stood up for the freedom of the many”—
we have heard that phrase before—
“not the privilege of the few.”
Well, not quite, Mr Speaker, for the truth is that even after the passage of the Great Reform Act of 1832, huge swathes of the population—92% of the population—remained without a vote, helpless in the face of vested interests. The Reform Act of 1832 gave the vote, a limited franchise, to the property-owning class, of whom there were remarkably few, and deliberately ensured that nobody else had the vote—no women, no working men; just 16% of men, and no women whatever.
Let me also say to the right hon. Gentleman that had the Great Reform Act been the landmark in democracy that he suggested—I do not know where he got that from; certainly not even from Wikipedia—none of the agitation of the Chartist movement that followed would have been necessary. Those of us who know a little bit of history will remember that it was the wholly dashed expectations of 1832 that fired up the great Chartist movement. However, the comparison with 1832, if not appropriate, is certainly heavy with unintended irony, for, however limited the effect, the first Reform Act at least extended the franchise. The programme to which the right hon. Gentleman has signed up will reduce the franchise, as I will explain. Some reform!
The former Minister is making an interesting speech about equality, but will he confirm that it was actually a Conservative Government, in 1927, who gave full equality to women and the right for them to vote, and that they did so after a Labour Government, under Ramsay MacDonald, had failed in their promise to do so?
First, that was quite a long time after 1832. Secondly, as the hon. Gentleman might recall, the vote was originally given to women over 30 in 1918, and then extended to those over 21 in 1928.
Let me come to the partisan heart of the Government’s constitutional proposals: the plans to cut parliamentary seats, redraw boundaries and speed up individual registration. If those proposals were implemented, they would disfranchise hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of our citizens, predominantly the young and members of lower-income groups. Seats would be cut and boundaries fundamentally altered by rigid mathematical formulae devised on the basis of the current electoral register.
According to the Electoral Commission, however, some 3.5 million eligible voters are missing from the register, and that is just in England and Wales. Earlier this year, the commission reported
“under-registration is concentrated among specific social groups, with the registration rates being especially low among young people, private renters and those who have recently moved home. The highest concentrations of under-registration are most likely to be found in metropolitan areas, smaller towns and cities with large student populations, and coastal areas with significant population turnover and high levels of social deprivation.”
The commission’s study established that in Glasgow 100,000 eligible voters might be missing from the register, quite sufficient to raise all Glasgow seats to the electoral average for Great Britain and to provide for one additional constituency.
Cutting seats and redrawing boundaries in that way, without taking account of the missing voters, will produce a profoundly distorted electoral map of Britain. The map will be even further distorted if this boundary review is undertaken, as the Government have proposed, in tandem with the premature roll-out of individual voter registration, because that process will knock many more eligible people off the register—hundreds of thousands of them.
We are in favour of individual registration. Indeed, it was I who, last year, presented proposals for a new law, which received all-party agreement. But as all the parties agreed just nine months ago, to be fair the process will take both time and money.
I am glad to see the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) in the Chamber, because she played an important and constructive part in securing individual registration. She also went on record as saying, from the Conservative Front Bench, that any future Conservative Government would never take risks with the democratic process. She agreed that we must wait for the 2012 census. It is unclear whether the Deputy Prime Minister is proposing to do that. She also agreed that there must be ways of testing the accuracy of the system, as our legislation does with the requirement for a report from the Electoral Commission in 2014, and she said in terms that we must ensure that the system was utterly watertight. I hope that she still takes that view.
I certainly do still take that view 100%, but the right hon. Gentleman will recall that, when we debated individual voter registration, it was established that the system was intended to increase, not decrease. the accuracy and comprehensiveness of the register. Lessons have been learnt from what happened in Northern Ireland. Under the new system, the register will be more accurate and more comprehensive, and it will be fair to have constituencies that are of equal size, so that every vote has equal value.
That is the aspiration, and I do not for a second doubt the good faith of the hon. Lady. I am glad to hear her endorse those proposals—now, sadly, from the Back Benches. As she knows, however, because we had detailed and collaborative discussions on the issue, if the process for individual registration is rushed—and the phrase used in the coalition agreement is “speed this up”—the consequence will be not what she and we seek, but what happened in Northern Ireland. As the Electoral Commission spelt out, what happened in Northern Ireland in 2002 was that a sudden change in the system of electoral registration, although there was a centralised system, led to the immediate loss of nearly 120,000 names—nearly 10%—from the register. The commission said:
“The new registration process disproportionately impacted on young people and students, people with learning disabilities, people with disabilities generally and those living in areas of high social deprivation.”
I am listening to the right hon. Gentleman’s speech with great interest, but a lot of what he is saying is pure speculation. Does he think that the current system, with its vast discrepancies in constituency size, is fair? The Government in which he served did nothing to address that, yet it needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.
Nobody argues that it is not important to secure electoral equality in England, Scotland and Wales—where different rules have applied, which is a separate issue—but that must also be subject to other rules involving geography and history, as I shall explain. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the data, he will see that nowadays Labour seats in Scotland and Wales are larger than the few Conservative and Liberal Democrat seats in those two nations. In England, our seats are 3% smaller than the electoral average, and those of the Conservatives are 3% larger. There are also some very large Labour seats these days, however, as well as large Conservative seats. We pursued the same rules as previous Administrations, and the reasons for the recent trends is that there has been more rapid depopulation in areas that are typically Labour, mainly inner cities, although that is now changing.
What is crucial is that these changes are done in a fair way, by agreement between the parties, not in a partisan way. Professor Iain McLean, a lecturer at Oxford university and an elections expert, warned last month that
“to move straight to individual registration risks moving straight to mass disenfranchisement of the young, the urban, the mobile and ethnic minority voters”
and that it
“could make Britain in 2011 like Florida in 2000”.
On the question of city seats, is my right hon. Friend aware that the first casualty could be the Deputy Prime Minister in his Hallam seat in the city of Sheffield—unless, of course, they try to manoeuvre the boundaries so as to try to save his neck, which would test the coalition?
There is no doubt that the biggest net losers under the current proposals in the so-called coalition agreement would be the Liberal Democrats, for reasons that I shall spell out.
On election night, when the Deputy Prime Minister heard that people had been locked out of the polling stations and prevented from casting their ballots, he said:
“I share the bitter dismay of many of my constituents who were not able to exercise their democratic right to vote in this election…That should never, ever happen again in our democracy.”
Yet he now proposes a programme that could have the effect of disfranchising not only some hundreds in his own constituency, but some hundreds of thousands across the United Kingdom. I urge him to think very carefully about what is being proposed.
As for the proposal to cut the number of seats, we need not speculate about the Conservative party’s intentions because they are on the record. Just months before the general election, the Conservative Front-Bench team moved the most detailed amendments to cut the number of seats by 10% and to force the redrawing of the boundaries by rules requiring that arithmetical quotas trump all other considerations. I have a copy of one such amendment before me. It says that the electorate
“shall be as near the electoral quota as is practicable”—
only a 3% margin would be allowed—
“and all other special geographical considerations, including in particular the size, shape and accessibility of a constituency, shall be subordinate to achieving this aim”.
The scheme, therefore, is that arithmetic will trump all, so that history, geography, mountains, rivers, and even communities and the sea, are to be subordinated to arithmetical rules.
The effects would be extraordinary, especially in Scotland. The Orkney and Shetland electorate is 33,000. Under these proposals—official Conservative proposals—Orkney and Shetland would have to be jammed in with Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, which has an electorate of 47,000 in order to make a single seat exactly within the electoral average. The Western Isles, with an electorate of 22,000, is the smallest constituency in the United Kingdom. It would have to be jammed in with a vast swathe of the western highlands—of western Scotland, indeed. In England and Wales, too, long-established patterns of democracy would be destroyed in pursuit of the new Conservative formulae. How such changes, defying history and geography and people’s own sense of place, could possibly be said to strengthen our democracy I do not know. Perhaps the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam will be able to tell us whether he is comfortable with this scheme.
Sometimes when we talk about geography, we do not appreciate the full extent of the situation. My constituency is about the size of Luxembourg and will not meet the 75,000 threshold. The constituency of Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, whose Member is here today, is the size of Cyprus; and the Ross, Skye and Lochaber constituency of the former leader of the Liberal Democrats is the size of the Bahamas. It is not just a matter of numbers but of geographical extent, which makes the proposal for a 75,000 threshold ludicrous.
My right hon. Friend makes a very important point, but the truth is that under the amendment to which I referred—there is no need to speculate because this is what is proposed—all the considerations that she and the whole House are concerned about, along, I dare say, with voters across the highlands and islands of Scotland and in many other places as well, would be swept aside, “subordinate”, as the amendment says, to a simple arithmetical rule.
I have said to the House that we favour a referendum on the alternative vote, but I make it clear that we will not allow that to be used as a Trojan horse for an omnibus Bill that will profoundly harm our democracy. The Liberal Democrats would do well to consider the damage to democracy that will arise from these proposals. If appealing to their sense of democracy is not enough, then I appeal to their sense of self-interest. [Interruption.] That is always best with Liberal Democrats. Why do they and the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam think that the Conservatives are now pursuing this idea? It is not out of any principled concern about the size of the House of Commons. The Prime Minister argued passionately against a reduction in the number of Members of Parliament when he was defending the size of his own constituency before the 2003 inquiry into the boundaries in Oxfordshire. The Liberal Democrats have now apparently been pulled along in the wake of this undemocratic proposal to cut seats, yet the Liberal Democrats in Oxfordshire were not then arguing for the status quo of six seats in Oxfordshire––which, at least the Prime Minister was arguing for––but for seven seats, which would have led to a House of Commons of 700.
We need to understand that a 10% reduction in the number of seats and rigid mathematical formulae will change every single boundary in the United Kingdom. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) mentioned, that is where the Liberal Democrats are uniquely vulnerable. Their seats are isolated—tiny dots of orange in seas of red or blue—and they have proportionately twice as many marginal seats as either of the other parties. I hope the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam will accept that this proposal is dangerous—dangerous to his own party, for sure, but to the legitimacy of our democracy, as well. There is to be an argument about reducing the number of seats and the way we conduct boundary reviews, but the better way through, since so many reviews have already been set up, is to have an independent examination of how we conduct boundary reviews. That would be far better than the crude and undemocratic system that is being proposed.
Let me make this last point to the right hon. Gentleman. In the United States—this idea came from there—they have simple, rigid arithmetical rules. As the Electoral Reform Society—no great friend of mine and hard-wired into the Liberal Democrat party––has pointed out, the United States also has the worst gerrymandering in the world.
That brings me to the issue that my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) raised: the proposal for a 55% threshold to secure the dissolution of Parliament. That 55% threshold appeared in no party manifesto. It is a partisan measure stitched up by the coalition partners to protect themselves from each other—nobody else—while retaining their ability to go for an early election if they believe it would be advantageous.
Where does the figure of 55% come from? That is an interesting question. [Interruption.] Well, I am going to give the answer. It comes from the fact that the Liberals and the Conservatives together have—guess what—57% of the seats in the current Parliament. They would, thus, have the power to dissolve this Parliament if the polls and the signs looked encouraging. The Conservatives, on their own, hold 47% of the seats and the rest of the parties hold 53%, so in the event of a Conservative minority Government it would be impossible to reach the 55% threshold required to force an election. If that is not a political fix, I do not know what is.
The Labour party agrees with fixed-term Parliaments, in principle, and our manifesto included a commitment to legislate. However, given that most Parliaments since the war have lasted four years or less, we favour a four-year term.
Before entering this House, I was a Member of the Scottish Parliament. Can the right hon. Gentleman tell me why a 66% threshold was chosen in the Scotland Act 1998 when it went through this House? For what reason was that appropriate then, but not now?
I can give the hon. Member for Wyre and Preston North (Mr Wallace) an answer, and it is not a bad one. He ought to read carefully both limbs of section 3 of the 1998 Act. If he had bothered to read it and if those negotiating this coalition agreement had done so—I have the Act before me for the sake of greater accuracy—they would know what it states. Under section 3(1)(a), the presiding officer has to require an “extraordinary general election”—an early general election—for the Scottish Parliament if two thirds of the Parliament vote for that. However, the provision contains an “or”, not an “and”, because section 3(1)(b) states that if there is
“any period during which the Parliament is required under section 46 to nominate one of its members for appointment as First Minister ends without such a nomination being made”,
after 28 days there has to be a general election. That election is triggered by a simple majority, not by a two thirds one. Therefore, we should hear no more rubbish about there being a two thirds lock in the Scottish Parliament, because it is not true.
Please can we never again hear this comparison with the situation in the Scottish Parliament on this point, because it is totally spurious? The 66% threshold is required for the immediate dissolution of the Scottish Parliament, but 50% remains the threshold for a confidence vote, as it should remain in this House.
I should also tell hon. Members that if they were to read section 3 of the 1998 Act, they would find that if, for example, the First Minister is voted out by a simple majority and after 28 days no new First Minister has been voted in, an election has to take place. That is done by a simple majority, so the only effect of this provision is to delay matters by requirements relating to a simple majority and 28 days. There is no parallel, whatsoever, in these arrangements, and the hon. Member for Wyre and Preston North knows it.
Is the right hon. Gentleman’s real view that the Prime Minister’s unfettered power to call a general election at a time of his choosing should be retained and that we should not have fixed-term Parliaments, or is he proposing an alternative mechanism, be it the Scottish Parliament’s combination of a 66% threshold and a one-month rule or some other mechanism?
I do not understand. Either this has been done for partisan reasons—[Hon. Members: “Answer the question!”] Of course, I am going to answer the question—I always do—but I am allowed to answer the question in my own way. The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) and I have been debating this for long enough. I say to him that either this has been done for the most crude of partisan reasons, or the Government have simply misunderstood how they can establish fixed-term Parliaments and take away the right of the Prime Minister to recommend Dissolution before then. It is very straightforward. We can legislate for fixed-term Parliaments—our view is that we ought to go for four-year, not five-year, Parliaments—and we can also legislate to take away the power of the Prime Minister to recommend Dissolution before then, but what we should not do is legislate to take away the power of the House of Commons to remove a Government. I am afraid that they are doing that on some curious and spurious arithmetic.
In the same speech in which he talked about the 1832 reform Act, about which I have had to correct him, the Deputy Prime Minister also said:
“We are not taking away Parliament's right to throw out Government; we’re taking away Government's right to throw out Parliament.”
That is utter nonsense. It is casuistry in the extreme. We are talking about the Government’s right to throw out Parliament and we are talking about Parliament’s right to throw out the Government.
I remind the House of an excellent article in The Daily Telegraph, inserted by the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), in which he says that the 55%-majority plan will “taint” the “New Politics” and that to
“introduce such a measure in this way is simply wrong.”
He goes on to say:
“The requirement for a 55 per cent majority to dissolve parliament, and thereby dismiss a government, dramatically reduces the ability of Parliament to hold the executive to account. It is a major constitutional change, possibly one of the greatest since 1911.”
He also draws attention to what would have happened in 1979, which some of us will recall, when the Government of the day lost their majority by one vote. The then Leader of the Labour party and the Government said that there would have to be an election—it followed like night follows day. People talk about having a period of looking at a coalition in such a situation, but what do they think was being done in the days leading up to that vote but searching for a coalition? It was precisely because one was not available that the Government ran out of numbers and the vote was lost. In that situation, when there had been a vote of no confidence in the Government, the Labour Government could have carried on—they might no doubt have wished to—until the following October, because the 55% threshold would not have been achieved. If that had happened, they would have been in the ludicrous and wholly undemocratic position—
We are not wrong. It is interesting that whenever Ministers have sought to explain this, they have tied themselves in knots. In the very first Adjournment debate of this Parliament, on the day of the Queen’s Speech, the poor benighted Deputy Leader of the House got tied in knots not only by Labour Members but by most of the Conservative Members. I ask the Deputy Prime Minister to spell out how this is going to work and, above all, to withdraw this ludicrous and undemocratic proposal. I say to him, in the full hearing of a packed Front Bench, that the Deputy Leader of the House also put it on record that the Bill would not be guillotined, so that we could forget about programme motions, and that it would be dealt with on the Floor of the House, but it might never come out of the House, such is the controversy behind it.
Constitutional reform is fundamental for any democracy that wants to renew itself and make itself responsive to the needs of an ever-evolving electorate. The Opposition are in favour of reform that will strengthen Parliament and the democratic process, and we will work constructively to achieve measures with that objective in mind. As it stands, this package of proposals contains far too many partisan political fixes, and is not so much new politics as an old-fashioned stitch-up between the two oldest parties in the House. We oppose those changes and I commend my amendment to the House.
I thank the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) for opening today’s debate, which he did at considerable length—so much so that I am increasingly attracted to the idea of time limits on speeches.
The right hon. Gentleman spoke with great knowledge and at times some generosity about our proposed programme. That is no wonder given what we are proposing: a referendum on the alternative vote—a Labour manifesto pledge; the power of recall—a Labour manifesto pledge; moves to reform party funding, fixed-term Parliaments and an elected Second Chamber—all Labour manifesto pledges. In fact, never before will a Government have delivered quite so many of Labour’s election promises. Who would have thought it would be a Liberal Democrat-Conservative coalition that finally got around to doing that?
I recognise of course that the right hon. Gentleman has great authority on those matters. His Government, in their early days, had a clear reformist streak—devolution, freedom of information and progress on Lords reform. Unfortunately, that momentum was lost, but after the right hon. Gentleman’s speech today perhaps that zeal for political reform, which Labour lost in government, will now be rediscovered in opposition.
I have heard the right hon. Gentleman’s concerns, particularly his lengthy concerns about the boundary review, which seem a little coloured by the almost unsettling suspicion that there is a political plot at every turn. I shall seek to address some of his concerns, although I shall leave debate about the merits or otherwise of the 1832 Act to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) and other historians. I shall focus primarily on the constitutional reforms being pursued by the Government, for which I have direct responsibility, although I shall say a few words about some of the issues raised by the Opposition that will be taken forward by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. She will pick up those issues later.
On the constitutional side, yes, of course we will need to work out the precise detail of the reforms we are proposing, but I sincerely hope that their underlying principles will bring both sides of the House together. Despite any differences, we all share a single ambition: to restore people’s faith in their politics and their politicians. The Government’s plans will do just that, because our programme turns a page on Governments who hoard power, on Parliaments that look inwards rather than outwards, and on widespread disengagement among people who feel locked out of decisions that affect their everyday lives. This is a moment when together we have a real opportunity to change our politics for good.
I do not think anyone in the House, and particularly outside it, would question the value of trying to reduce the cost of Parliament, by making a modest cut in the total numbers. I do not judge the quality of our democracy—nor should the hon. Gentleman—by the simple number of politicians in the House.
Perhaps the Deputy Prime Minister could clarify the issue I put to my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) earlier. Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us with a straight face exactly how he alighted on the figure of 55% rather than 54%, 56% or even 66% in his proposals? What was the logic of 55%—straight-faced?
I shall come to that in greater detail in a minute. Quite simply, the logic is to stop any single party doing what happens at the moment, which is timing the occasion of a general election for pure party self-interest. That is what needs to be removed if we are to have proper fixed-term Parliaments. The hon. Gentleman, if he agrees with his Front-Bench colleagues, supports fixed-term Parliaments, yet he has absolutely no proposals on how to implement them in practice.
I should like to make progress and then I will give way again.
First, we need to relinquish Executive control. The Government are determined that no Government should be able to play politics with the dates of a general election. [Interruption.] I am addressing the point that was made. Parliamentary terms should be fixed for five years.
Let me make some progress, and then I will give way to the hon. Gentleman. Let him hear me out first.
We need a new right for Parliament to request a Dissolution, taking away the Prime Minister’s exclusive and traditional right to call an election when he or she wishes. The majority required for early Dissolution—set at 55% in the coalition agreement—has clearly sparked a lot of anguish among the Opposition. It should; it is an important decision that will, of course, be properly considered by the whole House, as the legislation progresses. But the Opposition in their amendment today are wilfully misrepresenting how that safeguard will function. Their amendment deliberately confuses that new right with traditional powers of no confidence, which will remain in place intact.
Let me assure the House that we are already conducting detailed work on the steps that are necessary to remove any theoretical possibility of a limbo in which a Government who could not command the confidence of the House would refuse to dissolve Parliament and give people their say. That would clearly be intolerable. Any new arrangements will need to build on existing conventions, so that a distinction is maintained between no confidence and early Dissolution.
The right hon. Gentleman referred earlier to hoarding power. Will he explain the length of time that he is talking about—the five-year term—bearing in mind the fact that, since 1832, the average peacetime Parliament has lasted for considerably less than four years, at three years and eight months. Australia and New Zealand have three-year Parliaments. The countries with five-year Parliaments are Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and France. Which is he measuring against?
The hon. Gentleman normally talks with some knowledge, but he appears to have forgotten that the Parliament Act 1911 instituted five-year parliamentary terms and that the Labour party has just had a five-year parliamentary term. It is difficult for him to see the coalition Government introduce all the changes that he used to talk about and failed to deliver. You had 13 years finally to do something and introduce political reform. We are finally going to go on and do it.
Yes; I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for, once again, really picking out the important things in the debate today.
We are also committed to strengthening Parliament by introducing the Wright Committee’s proposals, starting with the proposed committee for the management of Back-Bench business before the subsequent introduction of a House business committee to consider Government business.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
I should like to make a bit of progress if I may.
We also plan to strengthen the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, too, by implementing recommendations from the Calman commission’s final report. Equally, Wales will get a referendum on further devolution—a decision that will be taken by the Welsh people.
Yes, the Government do support a yes vote in that referendum. As for the referendum’s timing, as the hon. Gentleman may know, the Secretary of State for Wales and the First Minister are meeting today, with a view to identifying a date—most likely, in the first few months of next year—to hold that referendum.
Here in London, as we strengthen Parliament, we must of course ensure that we have cleaned it up, too. Radical steps have already been taken to put in place a new expenses regime. Although the way that the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority is working in its early days may be controversial to some hon. Members on both sides of the House, I am sure that everyone agrees that public confidence in how MPs are paid is absolutely crucial. Our personal arrangements should never be so grossly out of step with those of our constituents, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is already talking to IPSA about how we can move away from the generous final salary pension scheme enjoyed by Members of the House.
Expenses were only ever the tip of the iceberg. The influence of big money runs much deeper. It is time to finish what was started three years ago in the cross-party talks on party funding. Every party has had its own problems, but we all now have an opportunity to draw a line under them, so we will seize that opportunity. We will pursue a detailed agreement on limiting donations and reforming party funding to remove big money from politics for good.
Equally, we all remember the outrage felt in all parts of the House at the lobbying scandals that unfolded just a few months ago, before the general election. Much lobbying activity is perfectly legitimate. Much of it serves an important function, allowing different organisations and charities to make representations to Parliament, but it is a process—I am sure everyone agrees on this—that must be made completely transparent. We are committed to ensuring that transparency and we will introduce a statutory register of lobbyists.
Finally, if, once all those reforms are in place, there are individual parliamentarians who still break the rules, we will also guarantee that the House of Commons is not a safe house. We will introduce legislation to ensure that, where it has been proven that a Member has been engaged in serious wrongdoing, their constituents will have the right to organise a petition to force a by-election.
When people have been let down by their MP in that way, they must not be made to wait until the next election to cast their judgment, but I also want to be clear: recall will not collapse into some tit-for-tat game between party political rivals, with parties seeking to oust each other through those petitions. When MPs are accused of doing something seriously wrong, they are entitled—everyone is entitled in the House—to expect a fair and due process to determine their innocence or guilt. That is why I certainly would not be content for a body composed only of MPs, as the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges was, to be the sole route by which we decide an MP’s culpability. That is why we are looking into exactly what would be the fairest, most appropriate and most robust trigger. I shall outline those plans very soon.
May I take the Deputy Prime Minister back from recall of MPs to the issue of recall of Governments? I am still not entirely sure that he answered the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan). I understand the point that the Deputy Prime Minister is making about there needing to be a 50 per cent. majority vote of no confidence. The issue under debate is how that would trigger a general election. Will he explain why the Government appear to have hit on a figure that bears a dramatic resemblance to their own figures and their own strength, rather than the general party balance in Parliament? Why that figure?
I have already explained, and the hon. Gentleman must accept, that, clearly, there needs to be a different figure for the motion of no confidence, which stands, and the figure for dissolution—a new right for Parliament.
I have also explained that, when we table the legislation, we will of course ensure that no Government can fall between those two things—a motion of no confidence and a vote of dissolution. We will, as is the case in many other parliamentary systems, set out how we can avoid a limbo in which a Government do not enjoy the confidence of the House yet a vote has not taken place, or cannot take place, to dissolve Government. That is what we will do. Instead of constantly seeking to see plots around every single corner, driven by a touch of party paranoia, I ask the hon. Gentleman to relax and wait until he has seen the legislation. Then we can have the debate.
Frankly, if these proposals are formed already, the Deputy Prime Minister needs, if I may say so, better to spell out how they would operate. Will he please, for the benefit of the House, explain what would happen following a vote of no confidence? Let us take as an example what happened in ’79—the vote of no confidence. Everybody knew that that would trigger a general election. If there had been a 55% threshold, there could not have been a general election; there would have been limbo. What is his proposal for filling that gap?
The Government are three weeks old. The right hon. Gentleman has rightly pointed out that these are very important matters. We want to get them right. I have indicated today, quite clearly, that this is not just a matter of the vote of no confidence and a threshold for a vote for dissolution, and that we need to fill in the details of the legislation to prevent what I think he is rightly concerned about, which is a Government not enjoying the confidence of the House, yet a vote of dissolution—
The Deputy Prime Minister knows that I approve of and support the power of recall, but I have talked to him about the scope for individual injustice in a scheme that is triggered by something that is not judicial. In his remarks about the power of recall, is he telling us that the triggering procedure, which would currently be the Privileges Committee, would become more quasi-judicial than it is now?
I can confirm that I believe it would be wrong for a Committee that, as constituted previously, is composed only of other politicians, to act as judge and jury for something as important as the trigger that would lead to a by-election and a Member losing their seat. Exactly how we could provide a fairer form of due process so that MPs are not unfairly ensnared in the mechanism of recall is the subject of reflection now. If the right hon. Gentleman or any other Member has any ideas about how we should do this, I should be grateful to hear from them.
I am grateful to the Deputy Prime Minister, who is being very generous. I do not expect that he will be able to represent the whole of the Conservative party in terms of policy, but if the Conservative party is committed to fixed-term Parliaments, can he explain why, during the general election, the Prime Minister committed his party to holding a general election within six months if the Prime Minister was removed? That is hardly compatible with a commitment to a fixed term.
The coalition agreement, which binds the Government as a whole, is very clear that we want to see fixed-term Parliaments. We will table legislation for a fixed-term Parliament. We will table a motion before the legislation is introduced to make sure that the political commitment to a fixed-term Parliament is made completely clear. There is consensus across the whole House on the virtues of fixed-term Parliaments. This is another issue on which the hon. Gentleman and so many others on the Opposition Benches, having failed to introduce this change for the past 13 years, are coming up with a series of synthetic reasons why they should oppose something that they themselves used to propose.
We also want—[Interruption.] I shall make progress. We want people to be able to initiate debates here in the Commons through public petitions, we want a new public reading stage for Bills, we want people to be able to instigate local referendums on issues that matter to their neighbourhoods, and we want people to decide directly if they want to change the system by which they elect their MPs, which is why there will be a referendum on the alternative vote. I will announce the date of that referendum in due course.
Electoral reform should, the Government believe, also include—
I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for giving way. He will have heard the answer that the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) gave when I asked him whether it had been the case that the outgoing Labour Prime Minister had offered, during the coalition negotiations, to ram through the alternative vote without a referendum. I am not giving away any trade secrets when I say that Conservative MPs were told that that was the case. The Deputy Prime Minister is in a position to know. Were the Liberal Democrats offered by the Labour party the alternative vote without a referendum? Can he set the matter to rest?
Does the right hon. Gentleman intend to address the issue of low voter registration? He may well know that on 23 February 2006 in Islington town hall there was an attempt to increase voter registration by the Labour group, which was voted down by the Liberals. After the proposal was voted down, the leader of the Liberal council shouted across the chamber, “That’s how we win elections.”
We believe, as did the previous Government, that we need to introduce individual voter registration. I agree with the right hon. Member for Blackburn that that should be pursued, particularly if it is accelerated, with great care. It is a resource-intensive thing to do. We need to get it right.
The current legislation, which the right hon. Gentleman and others introduced, allows for voluntary individual voter registration to start now, with a view to moving towards a compulsory system by 2015, if I am correct. There is now an issue about whether we want to accelerate that process, but we can all agree that if we do so it must be properly resourced and organised.
I should now like to address the issue that the right hon. Gentleman raised at quite some length: the redrawing of Britain’s unfair electoral boundaries. I completely agree with the right hon. Gentleman that that must be done with care, but he must agree with me that the need for care is not a reason not to act at all. The most recent boundary review in England began in 2000 and took six years to report. By the time the new constituencies were used in the general election last month, the population of one in five constituencies in England was more than 10% above or below that review’s target figure of 69,900. In the most extreme case, we have one constituency that is five times the size of another. That is simply not right. It is the ultimate postcode lottery, whereby the weight of one’s vote depends on where one lives, so I ask the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues to engage fully with the process as, over the coming months, Parliament has its say on an overall but modest reduction in the number of House of Commons seats.
The right hon. Gentleman refers to the contrast between the Western Isles, with 22,000 people, and the Isle of Wight, with more than 100,000. I do not argue that the Isle of Wight be represented by only one Member, but does he suggest that the separate considerations that have been made for island communities, including separate seats for the Western Isles, for Orkney and for Shetland, be abandoned in favour of a strict electoral quota, as the Conservatives proposed before the election?
I am not saying that there will be a rigid, arithmetical formula which—[Interruption.] No, there will be—[Interruption.] Let me finish. There will be a consistent approach towards the equalisation of constituencies throughout the nation, but of course that approach will need to accommodate some of the specific characteristics and features of the nations and regions of this country. We are now working on how we do that, and of course we will come forward with proposals.
However, I again ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he seriously thinks it acceptable that one fifth of constituencies in England are now 10% above or below the target population figure that was set when those boundaries were last reviewed? Surely he must accept that that issue requires another look, and that it is not wrong to aspire to such a House of Commons, which, in terms of the total number of MPs, is already far, far larger than was originally envisaged.
First, on the size of the House, the right hon. Gentleman will know that the number of MPs has gone down a little since 2005, and that, although the size of the House has increased by 3% in the past 50 years, the electorate for which we are responsible has increased by 25% and our work load has shot up dramatically. I regard as completely spurious his argument that there would be some net saving by reducing the total number of MPs, unless our constituents are to receive a far less good service than they receive at the moment.
Secondly, of course we will examine proposals for ensuring that the system can be speeded up, but does the right hon. Gentleman accept that, if future reviews are to be sensible and fair—[Interruption.] If future reviews are to be sensible and fair, they must take account of not only registered electors, but the 3.5 million people who, the Electoral Commission says, are eligible to vote but not on the register.
That is a problem, and that is exactly why the acceleration of the individual voter registration system must be done in a way that successfully addresses that problem, rather than exacerbates it.
The right hon. Gentleman and all his colleagues basically have a choice about the issue of a referendum on the alternative vote and the linked issue of a boundary review. Either he tries to see the issue—slightly neurotically—through the prism of pure party interest, whereby all he wants to do is to adopt a defensive position to protect his own party’s arithmetical standing in this House, or he and his colleagues should in my view be prepared to engage with the serious issue at hand, which is that constituencies are unequal, the weight of people’s votes is unequal and that that is simply not an acceptable position at a time when we have this great opportunity to renew our democracy from top to toe. That is a choice that he should make.
On everything from this matter to the 55% threshold, I would say two things. First, it is a political choice for Labour Members as to whether they want to leap straight from government, having failed to move on all these things, to outright oppositionism driven by the slightly paranoid sense that everything is targeted at them and no one else, or engage seriously in what I believe is a promising moment in our political history to reform things, and reform things for good.
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the basic democratic right is the right to vote and that nobody can exercise that right without being registered to vote? Therefore, dealing with the 3.5 million or so individuals who are not registered to vote is not just something that comes after the sort of changes that he is seeking—it needs to be dealt with as a matter of urgency.
Urgency? The right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues had 13 years to do this. How often are they going constantly to ask us to do things urgently when we have had only three weeks and they had 13 years? Of course we need to find the 3.5 million people who are not on the register, alongside the progress towards individual voter registration, but I say this to him: please do not sit there all high and mighty and pretend that we are somehow responsible for a problem that he and his colleagues in government created over the past decade.
I am delighted to hear that my right hon. Friend is not bound by any strict and rigid arithmetical formula, and I applaud his commitment to more equality. Within that, does he accept that the quality of service that one can give with a constituency of 3,400 square miles is dependent on the time available, which is greater in metropolitan constituencies where travel is not such an issue? Will he ensure that that aspect of rurality is taken into account in any plans that the Government have?
Clearly the job of being an MP in sparsely populated and very large rural constituencies is a great challenge, which my hon. Friend knows more about than most. That is exactly the kind of thing that we will need to take into consideration as we progress with this measure.
I should like to turn to reform of the other place, which we all agree must now happen. It should be up to the British people to elect their second Chamber—a second Chamber that must be much more representative of them, their communities and their neighbourhoods. To that end, I should like to announce the following measures. First, I have set up a committee, which I will chair, to take forward this reform, composed of Members from all three major political parties, as well as from both Houses. Secondly, the committee will be explicitly charged with producing a draft Bill by no later than the end of this year—the first time that legislation for an elected second Chamber will ever have been published. Thirdly, the draft Bill will then be subject to pre-legislative scrutiny by a Joint Committee of both Houses during which there will of course be ample opportunity for all voices to be heard.
Make no mistake: we are not starting this process from scratch. There is already significant shared ground between the parties that will be taken as our starting point. I am not going to hide my impatience for reforms that are more than 100 years overdue. Subject to the legitimate scrutiny that the Bill will deserve, this Government are determined to push through the necessary reforms to the other place. People have been talking about Lords reform for more than a century. The time for talk is over. People must be allowed to elect those who make the laws of the land. Change must begin now.
Let me just confirm that the committee will hold its first meeting as early as next week, and that its members will be the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), who is the Minister with responsibility for political and constitutional reform; the Leader of the House of Lords; the Deputy Leader of the Lords; the shadow Leader of the Lords, the Leader of the House of Commons; the Deputy Leader of the Commons; the shadow Leader of the Commons; and, of course, the shadow Justice Secretary, to whom I give way.
No, I should like to make progress now.
I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Blackburn for his support, and there is something else that he can help me with. He may have heard that as part of our plans to rebalance the relationship between citizen and state, we are inviting people to tell us which unnecessary laws they believe should be repealed. The right hon. Gentleman is well placed to advise us on where to start, given that he held so many high offices of state in various Departments over many years at a time when the statute book groaned with the addition of countless new laws, regulations and offences. The process of identifying unnecessary laws is part of a broader programme to end the unjustified intrusion of the state into ordinary people’s lives. Legislation has already been introduced to scrap ID cards and cancel the national identity register.
I will not, because many other Members wish to speak in the debate and I have been very generous in giving way. I now want to allow others to have their say.
Action will follow on proper regulation of CCTV, on preventing schools from taking children’s fingerprints without their parents’ consent and on restoring rights to non-violent protest.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. The Deputy Prime Minister has just announced a major new committee to look into the second Chamber of this Parliament, without any consultation with most of the parties in the House. He has announced that it will involve the three main London parties without any participation by or consultation with the smaller parties in the House. Is it in order for him to so brightly exclude the minority parties in the House in such a despicable way?
Further to that point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. It has been customary in the House for the appointment of Committees to be subject to votes in the House, so it is not for the Deputy Prime Minister to announce the creation of a Committee of this House or of another place.
Further to that point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I have listened carefully to your ruling that that is a point for debate, but the problem is that the Deputy Prime Minister will seemingly not be willing to debate it with those Members who are not from the three major parties.
May I first remind Opposition Members that what was customary over the past 13 years was that an announcement such as this would have been made in the press before it was made in the House? At least I have come to the House. Secondly, it is totally legitimate for us to create a committee composed of the three UK-wide parties, all of which were united in having manifesto commitments at the general election to reforming the other place. As I have announced today, the draft Bill that we will publish before the end of the year—the first one on the subject in the past century or so—will be followed by proper pre-legislative scrutiny by a Joint Committee of both Houses.
I am grateful. Before my right hon. Friend concludes, may I raise a matter that has been of concern to Members in all parts of the House, which is that of extending anonymity to defendants in rape cases? Will he make a few remarks on how he sees the Government being able to incorporate the views of all Members in taking the matter forward?
The Deputy Leader of the House tells me that there is an Adjournment debate about the matter tonight. It is a difficult and sensitive issue, which my hon. Friend is right to raise. It has been raised many times and I read some articles in the press about it again this morning. Everybody is united in wanting the conviction rates for rape to increase. Everybody wants more support to be provided to victims of rape so that they come forward in the first place, while also wanting to minimise the stigma attached to those who might be falsely accused. However, I want to make it clear that, although the Government have proposed the idea, we want to listen to everybody who has a stake or expertise in or insight into the matter. If our idea does not withstand sincere scrutiny, we will of course be prepared to change it.
Today is only the start of many hours of lively debate on the issues that I have mentioned, and I welcome that. We have a hugely ambitious programme to transform our constitutional and political landscape so that we achieve a better balance between Parliament and the Executive, clean, transparent politics and power handed back to people. Given the scope of that package, we will inevitably disagree about some of the detail. However, let us not lose sight of the things about which we agree. Let us not forget the scale of the damage that this Parliament needs to repair, and not take for granted the chance that our constituents have given us finally to get it right.
Given the limited time, I will concentrate on crime reduction, the work of the police and community cohesion.
The slaughter in Cumbria last week showed how difficult it is to anticipate and prevent every event, but so far politicians of every hue have wisely resisted the temptation to produce instant solutions or demand legislation. The only instant comment that I have seen was a suggestion about merging police forces. I hope that Ministers in the new Government will treat that favourite Whitehall recipe with deep suspicion. The previous Conservative police Minister, whom I shadowed in the mid-1990s, was David Maclean and he resisted an over-centralised approach. I commend his approach to the new Ministers present. The larger the force, the more remote its leaders from the community that they police. Although there is tension between dealing with terrorism and major incidents and policing local communities, good management and co-operation are the answer rather than structural change.
We had a good example of that in Cardiff on Saturday. The bigots of the English Defence League came to our city to spread hatred and division. The police had to handle them and those of us who marched to oppose them. They had to do that on a day when the South Africans were playing Wales at rugby, the West Indians were in town for a cricket match and the Stereophonics were performing in concert. Hundreds of police were ready for problems and I commend all the forces who sent officers to help South Wales police maintain order. I also commend the good sense and good humour with which South Wales police managed the day. In the end, a couple of dozen English Defence League members came and went, while 1,000 people of all colours and religions marched under the banner of Unite Against Fascism in a quiet, peaceful demonstration that had real authority and truly reflected Cardiff’s nature as a multiracial city that is determined to maintain harmony. We want to celebrate difference and value each other’s strengths instead of looking for division. The police lead showed that they get that point.
My second home truth from Cardiff is the success of our violence reduction project. It is not led by police or politicians, but by a medic, Professor Jonathan Shepherd, an A and E specialist, who brought his skills as a scientist to an analysis of violence. Basically, he asked why the number and seriousness of injuries in car accidents were decreasing while injuries from violence were increasing. Over more than a decade, painstaking analysis has revealed a lot about violence in our city—things about which we thought we knew, but did not. Joint work by the NHS, the police and other agencies through the local crime reduction partnership has worked—measured not by police statistics or arrests, but by a drop of more than 40% in the number of victims coming to A and E for treatment. That is a real drop.
We need such a scientific approach to crime and policing, and I commend to Ministers the report on justice reinvestment that was published by the Select Committee on Justice a few months ago. Good work is being done by the police, Crown prosecutors and prison officers, but our report showed the need for better co-ordination and greater co-operation across agencies, both inside and outside the criminal justice system.
Too great a focus on agency priorities and targets blurs the clarity of purpose to which all parts of the criminal justice system ought to contribute. In particular, the Sentencing Guidelines Council needs clearly to focus on the extent and gravity of reoffending. I hope that Ministers in the new Government will require great clarity of purpose from that body, which is dominated by judges. I am not sure that that is a good thing, because as Victim Support told the Committee very clearly in its evidence, other than not to have been victims in the first place, victims want confidence that they will not become victims again in future. That must be our purpose in this House.
I am proud to have played a part in drawing up the Gangmasters (Licensing) Act 2004. That measure made life hard for the bad guys and avoided burdening the good guys with bureaucracy, and it has worked, so I commend to Ministers the idea of extending its remit beyond agriculture and food packaging to industries such as construction and catering. The temptation for Ministers—and indeed for Members of Parliament—is to legislate when we see a problem, but that is not always the right answer. The challenge is to design legislation that works. As Gibbon warns in “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”, laws rarely prevent what they forbid.
I urge Ministers to heed that warning in relation to the growing issue of internet-related crime. There is a consensus that teamwork is the answer, with the Government working with industry, MPs of all parties and civil society to design out internet-related crime. The United Kingdom has led the world on internet governance. If that term puts people off, may I point out that the governance of banks seemed boring and esoteric before everything went pear-shaped? Governance matters. A partnership approach is vital, because the internet is so fast-changing, chameleon-like and universal that traditional legislative approaches will not work. There is not the time.
Let us promote a co-operative approach to internet safety as well as to the more mundane aspects of criminal activity in our local communities. What counts is what works—what counts is what reduces crime and the number of people who are made victims. The partnership approach works, and I commend it to Ministers and the House as the right approach.
With only seven minutes, I must be brief on the issues I want to raise.
The Deputy Prime Minister will not be surprised that I am a strong supporter of much of his great repeal Bill which, after all, is the natural conclusion of the great battle over freedom that has taken place in the past five years. I hope that that Bill represents a step change not only in the law, but in attitudes in the Government, so that they will not think that in order to catch the guilty, we must punish the innocent, or that to prevent terrorism and crime, we must treat the whole country as suspects. If that step change happens, it will augur well for the future.
It is a paradox that the new politics is ushering in a return to some ancient rights. The reform of the libel laws re-establishes freedom of speech; the reform of freedom of information re-establishes open government; and reform of the DNA database re-establishes the presumption of innocence. In addition, the prevention of unnecessary intercepts, along with measures against the retention of data and the proposals on CCTV, re-establishes privacy. All those are worth while, and by themselves would justify the existence of the coalition if nothing else did.
Of the three pillars of our national traditions—liberty, justice and democracy—those proposals support the first two, so I offer two cheers for the great repeal Bill, not three. The reason for two rather than three cheers is that some things are missing from it. There is nothing on those great blots on our judicial landscape, by which I mean, first, the use of secret trials in which suspects—usually, but not always, terrorist suspects—are tried without knowing the allegations or the evidence against them, which is completely inimical to British law. That was introduced by the previous Government and I hope that this Government will remove it.
There is nothing yet on control orders—another measure inimical to British traditions, using house arrest and effective internal exile for suspects rather than for the convicted. There is still nothing yet—I hope we will see it and I hope that the Home Secretary will respond to the point when she concludes the debate—on reduction of the 28-day period for which prisoners can be held without charge. We fought over 42 and 90 days, but 28 is still too many, and I hope that the Government will take that on board. I trust that these are deferrals, not oversights, by the Government.
Another issue for the Government to think about in connection with the great repeal Bill is the need to revisit the Digital Economy Act 2010. It was passed in the final stages of the previous Parliament, and it was an error for us to allow it through, as we did in the wash-up.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
Like the right hon. Gentleman, I voted against the Digital Economy Bill on Third Reading, before Dissolution. Given that the Liberal Democrats also voted against that Bill being given a Third Reading and given that the Secretary of State now responsible for that measure is indeed a Liberal Democrat—the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Vince Cable)—would it not be particularly appropriate for the Liberal Democrats now to act on this issue in the way that both the right hon. Gentleman and I would like?
The hon. Gentleman restates my wish for the Government to take that issue on board. I hope that they do, and that they do so in the great repeal Bill as part of a process that the Deputy Prime Minister quite rightly laid out—a process in which the Government were listening for proposals on things to be repealed.
The trouble with the Queen’s Speech from my point of view rather coincides, I am afraid, with some of the comments made by the shadow Lord Chancellor, particularly when he quoted from an article that I wrote for the newspapers about the 55% proposal. Indeed, I have problems with three elements of the proposed Bill. One element is the alternative vote, which is no surprise; one is the issue of recall, which I believe the Deputy Prime Minister has gone some way to meeting. However, the 55% requirement is undoubtedly a significant constitutional change. We cannot sidestep that fact. It was not in a manifesto, so the proposal is, by definition, likely to be ill thought through and to require greater consideration by the House.
The issue has been represented as one that is a necessity for fixed-term Parliaments. I am in favour of fixed-term Parliaments and I have absolutely no problem with the Prime Minister giving up his right to call an election at any point in time. He can do that and I am happy that he has done so; it is entirely proper. By contrast, altering the circumstances under which Parliament can dismiss a failing Government is a massive constitutional change, which goes to the heart of Parliament’s ability to hold Government to account. One of the leitmotifs of this Government, I hope, will be giving Parliament more powers, not fewer. Such a major change would normally involve prior consultation, a prior manifesto commitment, a White Paper and ideally both the acquiescence of the Opposition and a referendum. That is the sort of pattern that should precede a major change in the constitution.
Let us think about what the proposal entails and whether we can give it the sort of scrutiny and reform that it needs. For a start, it has not been very clearly explained and it may have changed to some extent in the course of negotiations, but it is basically in two component parts. One part—and I do not think that the shadow Lord Chancellor understood this—is that a vote of confidence will still exist at 50% plus one. What usually happens now under such circumstances is that the royal prerogative is exercised to judge whether to have a Dissolution thereafter or to allow a reforming of some other Government. That is the current situation. What is being proposed, I think, is replacing that system with a Scottish-type situation under which if, 28 days after a vote of confidence, no Government can be formed, Dissolution will then automatically occur. That is my understanding of the proposal as it now stands, and it is based on what happens in the Scottish Parliament. However, I have to say—and the Scottish nats will have to forgive me—that the Scottish Parliament does not represent an independent state. For the Scottish First Minister not to exist, or to be a lame duck or retired and not replaced for 28 days, would be a problem for Scotland, but it would not be a disaster internationally.
The nature of confidence votes is that they happen only four times a century. That is the first point. Secondly, confidence votes almost always happen under circumstances of crisis—wars, depressions, breakdowns in society. Under such circumstances, for us not to have an effective Prime Minister for 28 days seems untenable. Let me say to the Deputy Prime Minister that I hope those on the Front Bench will take that point on board, because as it stands, what is proposed is not a zombie Government, but at least a zombified country for 28 days, and possibly at a difficult time.
What is the other part—the 55%—for? It is for dissolving the House without the embarrassment of a vote of confidence and for the Executive, effectively, to use their power—their whipping capability—to dissolve the House. That does not seem to be a proper thing for us to do as a Government. It is not the sort of approach that I would expect from the new politics, frankly. That is why I have some sympathy for the suspicious view that says, “Why 55% and not 66%?”, when the Government have 56 or 57% of the vote. That approach diminishes the proposals and it diminishes the Bills that the Government are bringing before the House. In truth, I would like to see my Government—because that is how I see them: as very much representing my views—putting that aside and recognising that it is something that the House will not take.
I am a little worried that the new politics might be encapsulated by the fact that I find myself in agreement with the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), and particularly on the 55% rule. Perhaps that is a sign of how we will go forward.
I am a little worried by the debate today, because there has been no mention of what is supposed to be one of the coalition Government’s fundamental propositions: the ideas that have been set out about the big society. The issues that have been discussed today—high-level constitutional reform, reform of the second Chamber, boundary changes, the right to look at alternative voting systems—will merit discussion, and I have no doubt that, in endless sittings in this Parliament, as has happened previously, we will go over that ground. I hope that we will resolve some of those issues in the next period. However, unless those high-level constitutional changes are underpinned by empowered citizens who really feel connected with their political system, we will end up talking to ourselves, and we have done that for far too long in previous Parliaments.
I sought guidance from Mr Speaker about when I could raise issues to do with the big society. In five days of debate on the Queen’s Speech, there has been no appropriate point at which those issues could be properly debated. That worries me enormously, because those issues are not easy to solve, but they should be permeating every Department, and they should become cross-departmental. I want to say a few words about how important it is to reconnect ordinary people with the political process at local and central Government level.
The issues that will be important for us fall into three categories. In the time that I have this evening, I want to set out three big tests for the Government. If they are really serious about the big society and about how reconnecting people with politics is about establishing trust and establishing a new relationship between politicians and the people in this country, they will have to make that real, because otherwise the whole agenda will be rhetorical. It might be full of great slogans and great ideas, but unless there are three things in place, it will simply not work.
The first test for the Government that I would like to set out is on funding. It is all very well to talk about involving people in decision making, or about having a new big society bank, as I think it is called, and community organisers active in every part of the country, but how much money will be in the big society bank, for instance? Nobody is telling us where the funds will be available. Why do the 5,000 new community organisers have to raise their own salaries and their own funding? We have genuine concerns, in that if the idea of connecting people to politics, sharing power, devolving power and involving citizens is to be made real, the funding has to be put in place. However, I am very sceptical indeed that the Government will prioritise the funding to enable that to happen in the current financial climate. I therefore seek some reassurance from the Government on that point.
The second serious test is whether there is a proper framework for setting out the ideas around the big society. Are the Government going to say to local government in particular that it has a responsibility to devolve power to citizens and neighbourhood organisations, to people who want to take over assets and run services in their communities? That will be a big political test. Are the Government prepared to create not just a national framework, but a local framework that works?
The third test concerns fairness. There is a massive gap between the capacity of people in better-off, more affluent areas and people in poorer areas to step forward and take positions of responsibility. I do not think for a moment that that disparity should be used in a patronising way—that it should be suggested that poorer people cannot do that—but our Government must give an absolute commitment to providing the capacity building, the funds, the support and the organisation that will enable people from those communities to take advantage of some of the devolutionary powers that will be created.
The issues involved in those three tests—funding, a proper framework, and fairness—are the issues on which the Government’s real commitment to devolution and involving people in their communities ought to be judged.
I want to be a constructive critic of this agenda. It is something in which I have believed throughout the 30 years that I have been involved in politics, but I know from engagement in my own community that it is not easy. We cannot simply shout the slogans about community engagement and hope that people will step up to the plate. We must back them up. We must say that ours is a long-term commitment, and that we will not move the goalposts halfway through the process when people have given their own time, commitment and, in many instances, their own resources and money to make projects work in their communities.
I think that this issue, just as much as the big, high-level constitutional issues, will be the test of whether we are really serious about new politics. New politics is about trust, but at the moment hundreds of thousands of people in the country feel utterly excluded from the political process. They do not know where the levers are, or what they should press to make things work. How can they ensure that the projects that are important to them come to fruition?
We miss a huge opportunity if we simply talk to ourselves about how we will rearrange the constitution. The way in which we run our democracy is hugely important, but unless it is underpinned by people who are genuinely empowered and feel that they can make a difference, that the Government are taking them seriously, and that local government is prepared to support them with money and practical help so that they can turn their projects into reality, we shall break that trust.
There is nothing worse than setting people up to fail. This whole area has been littered with the shattered dreams of people who have stepped forward and been prepared to put their families and communities on the line. They have not been given backing, and their projects have foundered. I do not want ever to see that happen again. We need a real commitment to building a big society in which citizens have more power and influence over things that matter to their lives. This will be an incredibly important test of the Government’s commitment to ensuring that they really mean what they say—that it is not just words, slogans and rhetoric—and that they really mean to make a difference.
It is a pleasure to speak after the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears). I am sure that she means what she says; I am sure that she wants to see the changes of which she spoke, in her constituency and throughout the country. It is just a great pity that the Government of whom she was a member for 13 years spent all the money. She says that we have ideas for the big society, but the money is not there to do it. She is right. The money is not there because of the mismanagement of her colleagues for the past decade and a bit, and the country must remember that.
I want to make three brief points about constitutional reform. The first concerns the electoral system itself. As the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw)—I am so used to calling him the Lord Chancellor—rightly said, some good and worthwhile changes are already in the pipeline. Individual voter registration is a very important change, because it will improve the integrity and the comprehensiveness of the electoral register. It will also improve the accuracy of the ballot. However, other matters also need to be dealt with.
We need a total overhaul of the electoral system, as we discovered during the debacle about the timing of counts at general elections. I am glad to say that once again the right hon. Gentleman and I are in complete agreement on that: I tried, and he succeeded, in changing the law on it just before the general election. We discovered that there is no clear line of accountability for returning officers. That is wrong. We also discovered at the general election the disgrace of people being denied the vote as the polls closed at 10 pm. That occurred partly because many returning officers think they are a law unto themselves. Under the current system, it is impossible to ensure consistency. This matter requires attention, and when the Government bring forward proposals on it—as I am sure they will—they will have support from both sides of the House.
I rise just to put it on record that, yes, it was I who legislated for early counts wherever possible, but that that was on the basis of amendments that the hon. Lady had moved and it would not have happened without them. I entirely accept what she says about the lack of accountability of electoral registration officers and returning officers and the need for change, but does she accept that ring-fencing of the funding for electoral administration would inevitably go with that—that is a conclusion that I reluctantly came to—and that whatever other arguments there might be about ring-fencing, we have to see this as part of a national system?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his point, and it gives me great pleasure to be able to say for the first time in a long time what I actually personally think, because as a Back Bencher I am bound by no collective responsibility. I agree with him entirely. I personally believe that those funds will have to be ring-fenced and not simply put into the local government pot, because some local authorities, such as Epping Forest district council, handle these matters extremely well, whereas others do not do so quite so well. I therefore agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the funds will have to be ring-fenced, and also that that review of the electoral system must be undertaken as a matter of urgency.
The issue of a fair electoral system is also important. There has been much talk this afternoon about the alternative vote or AV, but there is a far more glaring anomaly, because as the right hon. Gentleman mentioned in his remarks—I think I mean my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, although that is also quite difficult to say—constituencies should, of course, be of the same size. Every vote cast in a general election should be of equal weight and value. Some Opposition Members talked about the size of certain constituencies in terms of square miles, yet we are elected to represent not pieces of land but people. What matters is the number of people in a constituency, not its geographical size. Every vote should be of equal value, but the argument over the alternative vote is a red herring—
Yes, I will accept that. AV would not create fairness; it would be even less proportional than first past the post. I ask the House to consider this: why should someone who supports a minority party effectively get two votes in an election, whereas someone who votes for a mainstream party have only one vote? More importantly, although I understand why my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench have agreed to a referendum on AV, the facts have not changed since we debated this matter only a few weeks ago, as the right hon. Member for Blackburn said. A referendum will cost in the region of £80 million. How many special needs teachers, how many cancer nurses, could we employ for £80 million? How many serious matters could be dealt with in this country for £80 million—matters of far greater importance in the current economic climate than arguing about how people are elected? The fact is that the British people do not care about or want a referendum on AV. If they did, they would have voted for it. Far more people said at the general election “I don’t agree with Nick” than said that they do.
The third point concerns the principle of fixed-term Parliaments, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) dealt with extremely well. The general election has changed the political picture, but it has not changed the constitutional principle. I cannot speak here today from the Government Back Benches and say something fundamentally different from what I said at the Opposition Dispatch Box only a few weeks ago. My principles have not changed and I do not believe that the constitutional principles of this House should change. I am very concerned about the proposed imposition of a 55% threshold, which takes power away from Parliament and gives it to the Government. Perhaps I will be persuaded in due course, but principle does matter. It is the duty of elected Members of this House to do not what is popular but what is right.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to make my maiden speech today. It is a delight to follow the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing).
I should like to begin with a few words about a young woman, Ashleigh Hall, who lived in my constituency. Ashleigh was 17 years old and lived in the ward that I represented on Darlington borough council—I was lead member for children’s services—when she made one fatal error in her life. She was groomed on Facebook by Peter Chapman, who, it transpired, was a 33-year-old registered sex offender from Merseyside.
Peter Chapman, I later discovered through the trial, had absconded from his home in Merseyside, and it appears that Merseyside police were aware of this. I also learned that there was no obligation on Peter Chapman to register his credentials and his identity online, and that any breach of an obligation to do that would be met with no action whatsoever. I wrote to my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) about this at the time, and I commend his efforts to get the law changed. I hope that the Government will continue those efforts and will ensure that registered sex offenders are obliged to register who they are online, and that any such breaches will be taken as seriously as those involving their hanging around outside school gates.
I want also to say a few words about my predecessor, Mr Alan Milburn. Alan was elected to Parliament for the first time in 1992, bucking the national trend by taking Darlington for Labour from the Conservative, the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon), as he now is. Alan was a fierce campaigner for Darlington and the north-east, speaking in his maiden speech about the need for investment in skills, education and support for business in our region. Alan spoke powerfully against the proposed Tory cuts of the day in training for young people. It is hard not to make similar comments today regarding cuts to the future jobs fund.
Alan served the Darlington constituency for 18 years. His achievements include campaigning for the repeal of the unjust “year and a day” rule in murder cases, and working to bring a new university centre to Darlington. Alan also served the country as Secretary of State for Health where, using his understanding of the practicalities of modern life, he introduced NHS Direct, devolved power to localities through primary care trusts and ended the disgrace of deaths among people who had spent 18 months or more on waiting lists for heart operations. Above all else in his political life, Alan worked to make sure that we are rewarded according to who we are, not what we are. Alan believes in social mobility, fair access to the professions and encouraging access to higher education for everyone, regardless of their background. It is, therefore, no coincidence that Darlington is to be home to a new university centre, which is to be run by Teesside university, this year’s university of the year.
Innovation, entrepreneurship and ingenuity are no strangers to Darlington. My constituency is the birthplace of the railways and home of the first national newspaper, The Northern Echo. Darlington is where the world’s first black professional footballer, Arthur Wharton, got his break and where a local entrepreneur is campaigning to build a statue in his honour. Darlington people are single-minded; they voted “no” to Tesco, no to an elected mayor and no, this time, to Tory cuts to our school-building programme, the police, health and jobs.
I have helped young people in Darlington to establish a new charity to organise live music events. Now in its third year, Newblood Live regularly attracts more than 200 young people a fortnight. Beauty and the Bike is an international, Darlington-based initiative that encourages young women to take up cycling. First Stop works with some of the most disadvantaged people in our town—people who are homeless and often suffer from problems with alcohol and drug abuse. The Darlington rape crisis centre works quietly with women who have suffered violence and abuse. Resident-led community partnerships work in many areas, and our local council for voluntary service, eVOLution, is there to help third sector groups and volunteers to improve. Our citizens advice bureau and newly formed credit union work to provide affordable credit and debt advice to those who need it. I agree with the Government that the voluntary and community sectors have a great deal to offer in delivering services and regenerating communities, but the Government need to understand that it is worklessness, above all other causes, that leads to the exhaustion, isolation and loss of hope in our communities.
The story of the north-east is not over. Our proud industrial heritage strengthens our potential for future success, and new technologies are thriving in the north-east. Thanks in no small part to support from our regional development agency, One NorthEast, we have grasped opportunities to compete globally in new energy production, green manufacturing and digital technology, thus bringing new jobs and skills to my region. That has happened not by chance, but thanks to the ability of our businesses, councils, colleges and universities to work together.
Darlington companies such as AMEC, Cummins, Marchday and Northgate all show what a great place the north-east is to do business, but to stay ahead we need, above all else, to keep on improving the skills of our people. Darlington is fortunate to have two outstanding colleges and its schools have some of the fastest-improving results in the country. Those have been achieved despite the fact that three of our secondary school buildings are in a serious state of disrepair: Branksome, Longfield and Hurworth schools have lost days of education because of heating failures, gas leaks and floods. I am delighted that they have been successful in getting to the heart of the Building Schools for the Future programme, and I encourage this coalition Government to stick to the agreement that we made with the community in Darlington to rebuild those schools.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to make my maiden speech to the House, and I am delighted to be the first to congratulate the hon. Member for Darlington (Mrs Chapman) on her maiden speech.
I wish to start by paying tribute to my predecessor, Lynda Waltho, who was a conscientious constituency MP and a powerful advocate for our area’s many voluntary and charitable organisations, more of which later. She was a teacher by profession and she used her knowledge of that profession, and of children, to champion the causes of education and the needs of children, particularly those from our most deprived communities. She also served as a member of the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families.
My constituency lies on the border of north Worcestershire and the old industrial black country. For many years, people have argued about where exactly the black country lies, and I am pleased that, thanks to our local Black Country chamber of commerce and others, we finally have the black country delineated on the Ordnance Survey map. I am very proud to represent the old black country towns of Lye, Quarry Bank and Cradley, as well as the townships that make up modern-day Stourbridge.
Lye, Quarry Bank and Cradley have a very proud industrial past of forging, nail-making and chain-making, but it is really the glass industry for which Stourbridge is best known. I was delighted to be invited to 10 Downing street a few weeks ago for drinks. It was my first visit and I was proud to see all the glass, candelabra and chandeliers on display, many of which would have been made in Stourbridge. I gather that there is also some fine work on display in Buckingham palace and the Mansion House that was made by the famous Stourbridge firms, Stourbridge Glass, Webb Corbett and Stuart Crystal.
The people of Stourbridge are proud not just of our wealth creation, but our long tradition of philanthropy. I would like to pick out one individual who inspired me as a relative newcomer to Stourbridge. He is buried in the church of St Mary’s in Old Swinford, near where I like to walk my dog. Ernest Stevens died in the year I was born, aged 100. He was the son of a miner, and tragedy struck him when he lost his young wife in childbirth. He created a vast fortune through hard work and ingenuity in the manufacture of pots, pans, baths and kettles. He responded to his wife’s death by acting in the interests of the town, donating vast sums of money, land and civic buildings. We have our Mary Stevens hospice and many parks and areas of natural beauty thanks to him and that philanthropy. The strength of our voluntary and charitable sector is a testimony to that philanthropy, and we have many such organisations. I should like to speak up for Age Concern in Stourbridge, where many thousands of older people go, 364 days a year. It is absolutely remarkable what that organisation achieves.
Social change has been paramount in Stourbridge. The Muslim community arrived from Pakistan in the 1950s. I have done much work with that community and others, and I am very proud to represent the community in Lye with all that it represents to us.
We are very proud, in Stourbridge, of our industrial history, and there is sometimes a tinge of regret at what many see as its passing, but of course it has not all passed. Many firms and manufacturing and engineering companies are still doing wonderful work in our constituency, but many people have suffered in the transition, and there are now families in which no one works and generations of people live on state benefits. That cannot go on. There is a rising sense of injustice among people who work—many for low pay—and those who have worked their whole lives and are now on state pensions. The Prime Minister is saying today that there is much pain on the way. I feel very strongly that the people of Stourbridge will face up to the very difficult decisions that the Government and local authorities are going to have to take in coming years. The people of the black country and Stourbridge hold on to certain basic truths that are not just old-fashioned notions that can simply be cast aside—for example, that one should never borrow what one cannot pay back, that we should not foster a culture in which people are led to expect something for nothing, and that, in the more elegant prose of Abraham Lincoln:
“You cannot help men permanently by doing for them what they could and should do for themselves.”
Finally, as a Christian country, and indeed a country of many faiths, we should always look after those who cannot look after themselves. During my time of service in the House, I will work to reflect those enduring values for my constituents in Stourbridge. I am so proud to represent Stourbridge, and I am deeply grateful to my constituents for giving me this opportunity.
May I say how much I enjoyed the maiden speech of the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Margot James)? She was extremely generous to her Labour predecessor. Her speech was compassionate and I am sure we shall hear a great deal from her in the months and years ahead. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mrs Chapman) on the things she said about her predecessor, my old colleague Alan Milburn. Both hon. Ladies have a tremendous career before them.
I am not quite so sure about the third maiden speech I heard this afternoon—the one made by the Deputy Prime Minister from the Treasury Bench. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), I agreed with some of the right hon. Gentleman’s remarks. The Deputy Prime Minister seemed pretty convinced about the alternative vote, but the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) probably represents the true feeling of the Conservative party. Anybody who heard what Liberal Democrat spokespeople said about our proposals for a referendum on the alternative vote some months ago would hardly have found them encouraging. Only the Labour manifesto proposed the alternative vote, so this conversion is very welcome.
The Deputy Prime Minister was a bit ungenerous about what the Labour Government did on constitutional reform over 13 years. After all, we brought in the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and the Human Rights Act 1998. We almost completely abolished hereditary peers in the other place. By the way, I believe that the minority parties should be involved in discussions about the House of Lords. My name is not on any ballot paper this week, but I agree with what has been said on that issue.
We brought devolution to Scotland and London and, in my own field of ministerial responsibility, there was devolution for a Welsh Assembly and the establishment of the Assembly in Northern Ireland. Those huge constitutional changes were brought about by the last Government, so the Deputy Prime Minister’s references to 1832 are a bit daft and do not accurately reflect the history of the last 150 to 200 years.
A million years ago, I was taught by Michael Brock, who wrote the best book on the Great Reform Act of 1832. He wrote about the Bill’s passage through Parliament and how the then Whig—Liberal—Government wanted to stuff the House of Lords with extra peers to get their way. They tried to do the same thing in 1911, probably for the best reasons. However, the Deputy Prime Minister simply did not answer the points made to him today about the number of people he and his friend the Prime Minister intend to put into the House of Lords. That is a huge issue that we must all address in the days to come.
My right hon. Friend the shadow Justice Secretary rightly referred to the fact that for all those 13 years Labour could have packed the House of Lords, but did not. That was right. Only in 2005 did Labour have the biggest vote, although not the majority, in the House of Lords. Our Government were defeated in the other place 528 times between 1997 and 2010. No Government should have an overall majority in the House of Lords. They could be the biggest party, but not with an overall majority. That issue, together with how this House decides on a vote of confidence, is something that the House of Lords in its capacity as guardian of the constitution should examine in huge detail in the months ahead. I was not convinced by the arguments for 55%. I do not think that people outside—whether academics, political people or the ordinary man in the street—believe it either. I am told that at least 8,000 people on Facebook have already said that they disagree with the 55% proposal for a vote of confidence.
As for boundaries, the proposal for equal electoral districts is okay, so far as it goes, but it would be impossible to have absolute, rigid electoral districts. In Wales, for example, that would produce huge—mostly Liberal, by the way—constituencies in our rural areas that Members of Parliament would find it impossible to manage. Similarly, in south Wales, people can look at a map and draw lines, but those maps ignore the valleys, the mountains and the geography. The Government have made no attempt, so far as I know, to talk to the Welsh Assembly or the Welsh Assembly Government about these changes. The reality is that changing the boundaries and composition of parliamentary constituencies has a direct effect on how the Welsh Assembly is elected, as indeed it does in Scotland.
The necessity for wide-ranging reforms is a case that cannot, could not and should not be ignored, but the way that the Government have done it is a bit clumsy and calculated. They have a big job of work ahead of them to convince the people of our country that these proposals are not about rigging, gerrymandering or fiddling the rules to keep themselves in office. This is not new politics, but bad politics of the oldest kind.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker for inviting me to make my maiden speech. I congratulate the hon. Member for Darlington (Mrs Chapman) and my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Margot James) on their impassioned speeches on behalf of their constituents. Having spent some 24 years in local government and made three previous attempts to join the House, I think that I have served my apprenticeship, but little did I think that it would take me 25 years to make this speech. I hope that it will be worth waiting for.
I pay tribute to my predecessor, Tony McNulty, who served the House for 13 years as a diligent Member for Harrow East and 11 years prior to that as a councillor in the area. He rose through the Labour party’s ranks to government and high office and eventually to become the Minister for London, and I am glad to say that that is one of the positions that we have abolished in this new Administration. I have served as a local councillor in coalitions, Mr Mayor—Mr Deputy Speaker; a Freudian slip—and I have spent the past four years in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. That demonstrates that going from one place to another is not such a big step after all.
I speak on behalf of my constituents and pay tribute to my constituency, from the great beauty of Old Redding in the north to the deprivation of Wealdstone in the south, from the opportunity areas of Edgware in the east to the tradition and history of Harrow Weald in the west. Harrow West abuts the constituency. Harrow East is the most diverse constituency in the country. We have 22 churches—not only of the Anglican and Catholic faith, but the Greek Orthodox church as well, to the south of the constituency. We have two Hindu temples, two synagogues, an Islamic centre and, indeed, the first Hindu state-sponsored primary school in the country. Some 35,000 residents stem from the state of Gujarat in India. There is a broad swathe of Muslim population, some 15,000 Jewish people and a range of people who come from every country on the planet, including some 5,000 European Union citizens who have come from the new emerging states.
This Government will do one thing of vital importance for all those people: restore civil liberties in this country. The threat of identity cards, the threat of being detained for 28 days without charge, and the huge amounts of data on individual people who are innocent of any crime kept on police DNA databases—the police state that has started to grow in this country—will be swept away. I believe that that is something for which people who are relatively new to this country will feel immensely grateful. Indeed, right across my constituency, there is a demand for better policing, better law and order and a more consistent approach to that whole process. There is also great demand in the constituency for more schools, and better schools as well. I look forward to them being set up under this Administration.
I intend very firmly to hold the new Government to account on the promises made before the election to ensure that the Royal National Orthopaedic hospital in the north of my constituency is rebuilt to the standards that everyone expects. That hospital is a national treasure, with people doing brilliant work in sub-standard conditions—standards that should not be accepted in the modern world. I look forward to that rebuilding starting in 2012. I also look forward to the opportunity of safeguarding Northwick Park hospital, which, of course, has been under threat, with the potential closures in north-west London under the previous Administration.
I am very proud and privileged to represent the people of Harrow East, and I have set out my course of action over this Parliament to be their representative here, speaking up for them at every opportunity, not to be the House’s representative in Harrow. I intend to make sure that those people who depend on me will have a stern, very fierce advocate on their behalf.
It is a great privilege to be called in this important debate to make my maiden speech and to be the first to congratulate the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) on his wonderful maiden speech, his description of the multicultural Mecca of Harrow and his generous comments about his predecessor, Tony McNulty, which many Labour Members share. Let me pay my tribute to my esteemed predecessor, Mark Fisher, who sat in the House for 27 years and conscientiously, effectively and passionately represented the interests of Stoke-on-Trent Central.
Mark’s connections to the Potteries began, improbably enough, when he was writing film scripts in Staffordshire Moorlands—an ambitious venture at the best of times in California, even more so in the Roaches of north Staffordshire. He then stood for Staffordshire Moorlands and was selected to succeed Bob Cant in Stoke-on-Trent—all the while as an old Etonian son of a Tory MP. People in the Potteries are, as I have discovered, enormously forgiving of one’s past.
Mark’s maiden speech to the House in 1983 was a heartfelt lament at the state of the national health service in north Staffordshire owing to sustained underfunding. He spoke of old buildings, outdated operating theatres, waiting lists for general and orthopaedic surgery of more than 12 months. Now, after 13 years of good Labour Government, that decline has been reversed and Stoke-on-Trent has a brand new £370 million university teaching hospital, springing up around the old City General—it is the first new hospital for 130 years. In addition, we have new GP surgeries, walk-in centres and marked improvements in public health.
Mark was also highly active in the House, working closely with Tony Wright on reforms to the workings of Parliament, the all-party parliamentary history group, which, in a different incarnation, I once had the pleasure to address and was mildly surprised at the intimate knowledge of the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley) of dialectical materialism and the life of Friedrich Engels.
Mark also made a contribution to the management of the art collection in the palace. He was, indeed, an Arts Minister in 1997 and formed part of the heroic team in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport that delivered a great Labour pledge of free entry to Britain’s museums for the people of Britain. As his successor, I will be watching closely the incoming Administration’s commitment to honour that pledge. It is now my great privilege to take up his place in Parliament.
In an excellent maiden speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) made an ambitious play for his city being the birthplace of the industrial revolution. While I am a deep admirer of the Derby silk mill and the Derby arboretum, and even the Derwent valley, we all know that the historic, earth-shattering event—the dawn of modernity, the dawn of industrialisation—began in my constituency with the opening of Josiah Wedgwood’s factory in Etruria, near Shelton, in 1769. Since the 1770s, Stoke-on-Trent has become the premier global brand-name for ceramics.
In a recent programme of his excellent series “A History of the World in 100 Objects”, British Museum director Neil MacGregor described the fact that
“human history is told and written in pots… more than in anything else.”
He went on to quote Robert Browning:
“Time’s wheel runs back or stops; potter and clay endure.”
At the heart of the English enlightenment, and indeed global civilisation, Stoke-on-Trent makes its place in history, but out of the six towns has emerged more than just pottery—from the rise of primitive Methodism to the works of Arnold Bennett, from the football of Stanley Matthews to the lyricism of Robbie Williams and the social justice politics of Jack Ashley.
The area has also faced profound challenges, and to be frank, globalisation has knocked the north Staffs economy sideways. Cheap labour in east Asia sparked a freefall in ceramics employment, the steel industry could not compete with China or India, and Michael Heseltine did for the last of our coal mines.
This process of economic dislocation—when “All That Is Solid Melts Into Air”— has by no means ended, but there are signs of hope. A vibrant university quarter is springing up around Staffordshire university. Onshoring is seeing the return of ceramics jobs to Stoke-on-Trent, while a new generation of designer-makers, led by the likes of Emma Bridgewater, are creating high-value, high-design, locally rooted companies. The Portmeirion business, which produces the iconic Spode designs, is successfully growing from its Stoke base, exporting to Europe, America and South Korea.
However, we have much to do in rebuilding our engineering supply chain, raising skills levels across the constituency and exploiting the human capital of Stoke-on-Trent. While we welcome the Government’s commitment to rebalancing the British economy, perhaps the best way to do that is not to begin by cutting the regional development agency funds or the Building Schools for the Future programme.
My seat is an old if not ancient one. It has a proud pedigree. Born of the Great Reform Act of 1832, of which the Deputy Prime Minister is now such a student, it was first represented in this place by Josiah Wedgwood, the son of the potter. Wedgwood was a liberal—in the proper sense of the word. Like his father, he was committed to the abolitionist cause and was a stalwart of the anti-slavery movement. It was a great pleasure to have seen that spirit reawaken in the general election this year as my constituents sent the racist, reactionary and frequently criminal British National party packing.
However, Stoke-on-Trent also knows that change has to be matched with continuity, and my constituents share a deep apprehension over the Government’s ill-thought-out plans for constitutional reform. They want to know that when a Government fail to win a vote of confidence, Parliament can be dissolved by 50% plus one vote, rather than the absurdity of the 55% self-protecting ordinance.
Then we come to the five-year Parliament—again, a retrospective, constitutional fix to get this Government through some muddy waters, and that is before we get on to flooding of the House of Lords with new Members, redrawing the boundaries, leaving 3.2 million voters off the register and underfunding the individual registration scheme. However, my hon. Friends and I will come back to those issues in the coming weeks. In the meantime, I simply thank the House for the indulgence of this, my maiden speech, on the Gracious Speech.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for calling me at this point in the debate. I beg the patience of the House in making my maiden speech, and pay tribute to and commend the maiden speeches made by hon. Members on both sides of the House.
For new Members such as me, this is a humbling experience. For me, it is especially daunting, as my predecessor, Ian Taylor, did such a good job over the past 23 years that when he announced his retirement last year, The Times described the constituency as
“the closest thing to paradise in the UK”.
Ian set the bar high. He promoted our diverse local enterprise. He fought for our community hospitals, which are cherished in Walton, Molesey and Cobham, and he promoted local charities, from the inspiring philanthropic legacy at Whiteley retirement village to more modest but no less vital groups such as Lower Green Community Association—the “little platoons” that define our local civic spirit, which we must revive and empower across Britain today.
Ian Taylor’s contribution to national life was no less important, particularly as Science and Technology Minister at the Department of Trade and Industry from 1994 to 1997. He pioneered free trade, leading a business delegation to Cuba in 1994. He was the first British Minister to visit Cuba in 20 years—the only one to return with cigars from El Presidente. Ian’s immense contribution to science and technology will be sorely missed as we seek to diversify and reinvigorate our economic base.
The history of Esher and Walton counsels against taking anything for granted. The constituency was once home to the Diggers—agrarian communists during the civil war—but later to US President Herbert Hoover, the intellectual architect of “rugged individualism”, which inspired the economic liberalism of Thatcher and Reagan, but also the aspirations of a certain Derek Trotter from the TV series “Only Fools and Horses”. When Rodney asks where the tenants will live if all the council homes in Peckham are sold off, Derek shrugs and, unblinking, replies, “Esher, or somewhere like that.”
My constituency is an aspirational place, and generally my constituents enjoy a high quality of life—generally, but not uniformly. Last year, the “Hidden Surrey” report for Surrey Community Foundation found that child poverty in Walton Ambleside was double the national average, and that poverty among the elderly in Walton North was two thirds above the national average.
No county pays more to the Treasury than Surrey’s taxpayers, yet we get back just one third of the national average level of funding for local services, resulting in the neglect that I have mentioned. The “Hidden Surrey” report concludes that the previous Government had choked money for local services in the area because there was “no electoral cost”. I hope that in the forthcoming spending reviews we can ensure that the funding formula reflects a truly objective, and less political, assessment of local needs.
Turning to the national picture, there is much to cheer in the coalition Government’s programme, and in particular the commitment to defend our freedoms by scrapping identity cards and by enacting a freedom Bill to restore our proud tradition of liberty in this country—eroded after 13 years of legislative hyperactivity and government by press release.
In particular, the coalition programme pledges to defend trial by jury—that ancient bulwark of British justice, dating back to Magna Carta. Steeped in our history, it was a jury that acquitted William Cobbett when he was prosecuted for campaigning for social and political reforms in the 1830s. But that is also relevant today, and not just to whistleblowers and political activists. Take the vindictive prosecution of Janet Devers, the east end market trader prosecuted for selling vegetables in pounds and ounces. She was convicted in the magistrates court of a string of petty offences, but the additional prosecution in the Crown court collapsed on day one when faced with the prospect of trying to convince a jury.
Juries are the reality check on bad law and abuse of state power. Lord Devlin famously described trial by jury as
“the lamp that shows that freedom lives”.
That light has flickered of late. In 2003, the previous Government tried to remove juries from complex fraud cases, and in 2008 an attempt was made to remove juries from coroners’ inquests—both with scant justification. Parliament defeated or diluted both those attempts, but a third attempt landed a more telling blow.
The Government enacted part 7 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, allowing for removal of juries where there is a risk of or actual tampering with a jury. In January, we had under those provisions the first criminal trial in 400 years to dispense with a jury. Four men stood charged with armed robbery of a Heathrow warehouse. Three previous trials had collapsed, at a cost of £22 million to the taxpayer, with evidence of jury tampering. The High Court refused on application to dispense with the jury, but was overturned on appeal. The four men were found guilty in March, and in the process we junked a fundamental safeguard of fair trial in this country. Immediately after that case, prosecutors lodged a string of applications to dispense with juries in further cases.
A dangerous precedent has been set. A slippery slope beckons. So I wish to put the question why, for the first time in our history, are we now uniquely incapable of protecting the integrity of our justice system? Why, after the billions invested and the enormous legal powers bestowed on our police are they today, in 2010, incapable of shielding juries in criminal trials? Let no one be in any doubt. This development is no sign of strength in law enforcement, but rather the most feeble weakness, and it is not a resource issue, given the huge amounts squandered on the previous trials that collapsed.
British justice should be firm but fair, two sides of the same coin. So I urge Ministers to review and consider the case for repeal of part 7 of the 2003 Act, in the forthcoming freedom Bill. The light that shows that freedom lives is flickering, but we have an opportunity to restore it. I hope we can take it.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) on his maiden speech. It is always daunting for Members in all parts of the House to make their first contribution to Parliament, but I wish him well in his time on the Conservative Benches. I also congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) and for Darlington (Mrs Chapman) on their maiden speeches. In all maiden speeches and the coverage of their constituencies, it is important for hon. Members to remember that, whatever happens in the House, they are first and foremost constituency MPs. If anything weakens that link, it would be a sad day for British democracy.
I shall touch on three topics in the debate. First, in relation to the constitution and political reform, I understand that the coalition programme for government contains an agreement which states:
“Lords appointments will be made with the objective of creating a second chamber that is reflective of the share of the vote . . . in the last general election.”
We have already heard today that there are plans to reduce the size of the House of Commons and redraw constituency boundaries to equalise constituency sizes.
To achieve the first objective would require the creation of more than 172 new peers. That would be an increase in Tory peers from 186 to 263 and in Liberal Democrat peers from 72 to 167. I question the size of the second Chamber. The House of Lords is already one of the largest parliamentary Chambers in the world. At present, it has 734 Members, and 56 new peers were created in the dissolution honours, taking the total to 790. It is extremely unusual to have a second Chamber larger than the first. Indeed, now that Burkina Faso has abolished its upper house, there is no other country in the world with a second chamber larger than the first.
I entirely agree with the right hon. Lady. She may be interested to know—I have checked—that the other place is the largest democratic Chamber in the world, except for the national people’s congress in China. We can all make up our own minds about the level of democracy available there. Does she agree that the only way we can deal with the issue is to dispense with a House of patronage and appointment, and get to a point where we can have a democratically elected second Chamber?
I absolutely agree. In previous votes, I voted to abolish the second Chamber. I do not think that is going to happen, but in the discussion about changes in the House of Commons, we must also discuss changes in the House of Lords, as well as the purpose of the two Houses, the purpose of constituency MPs and whom the other place represents.
Does my right hon. Friend think it possible that those appointed to the House of Lords by the Government in such a generous spirit would find once they got there that they were not so keen on democratic elections as they might have been previously? Perhaps we should insist that any appointment of extra peers comes after we have changed the democratic basis of the House of Lords, not before.
I agree with my hon. Friend, and I have heard rumours of grandfather clauses, which is rather frightening. It suggests that whatever system we end up with, and whatever voting might take place in future for a second Chamber, those who are currently there could continue until they die. I have many friends in the other place, but this is not the right way to talk about what we are here to do in both Houses of Parliament.
The second chamber that comes nearest to the House of Lords in size is the French Senate. This year it will have 346 members, half the size of the House of Lords. We know that the United States Senate has 104 members, and internationally the average size of a second chamber is 82. It is a matter not just of size, but of cost. We have heard that one of the reasons for reducing the number of seats in this place is cost. In 2007-08, the House of Lords cost £121.5 million, which works out at £168,000 per Member. If the House of Lords were reduced in size to, say, 100, it would save more than £115 million a year—much more than the savings projected by reductions in the size of the House of Commons by 10%, yet the coalition is planning on creating nearly 200 additional peers, at a cost of more than £20 million a year, while at the same time cutting the number of MPs.
I object to the idea of reducing the Commons arbitrarily by 10% when, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) said from the Front Bench, the workload of MPs is growing, not decreasing. In addition, we have the proposal for a new super-majority of 55% of the Commons. What we see in the coalition’s reform package is a manipulation of our democracy, not an extension of it. It is not new politics to pack the Lords and rig the Commons.
The second topic that I shall touch on is the DNA database. The coalition proposal is to remove people not convicted of a crime from the DNA database. The database exists to provide justice for victims and their families. Having one’s DNA profile held on the database is not a punishment. It is intended to assist in the prevention and detection of future crimes, to help eliminate the innocent from inquiries, and to deal with past crimes. Many cold cases have been solved because of the DNA database. Without the database, thousands of crimes would go unsolved and many serious and dangerous criminals would be walking our streets.
Between March 1998 and March 2009, DNA evidence helped to solve over 304,000 crimes. In 2008-09, there were 252 homicides and 580 rapes with a DNA scene-subject match. In 2008-09, 79 rape, murder or manslaughter charges in England and Wales were matched to the DNA database from DNA profiles that belonged to individuals who had been arrested but not convicted of any crime. The only civil liberties being extended by the proposal from the coalition Government are those of rapists, murderers and other serious criminals to walk the streets for longer to commit crimes because a DNA record has been deleted.
The evidence shows that there is a justification for retaining the DNA of people who have been arrested but not convicted, because their risk of offending, as measured by the risk of re-arrest, is higher than that of the general population. Analysis suggests that this risk is higher than that of the general population for six years following the arrest.
We should also not forget the potential deterrent effect of DNA. People are less likely to commit crime if they know there is a good chance that they could get caught. So if people know that DNA could play a significant role in securing convictions, they will be less likely to commit the crime in the first place. I shall save my contribution on the proposal to give anonymity to defendants in rape trials for my Adjournment debate at the end of the evening.
My final point is on police accountability. We all agree that there should be police accountability, and perhaps we need to look at police authorities and how they could be made more accountable. I am worried about the proposal to introduce elected police commissioners. We must recognise that some of the policing at force level and between forces concerns serious crimes involving organised criminals and organised networks. It is about counter-terrorism. Those are always the issues raised by my constituents on the doorstep. We need to make sure that in relation to accountability, we do not allow the work of the police to be distorted by what is most popular in our communities. I understand that there are other sorts of crime that have to be dealt with.
We have Safer Neighbourhoods teams in Doncaster and elsewhere around the country because the Labour Government decided that local policing is important. The Conservatives opposed them when we introduced them. We now have local police teams dedicated to one particular area who will not be moved to another part of town and who spend their time out on patrol working with police community support officers and setting their priorities with local people. At the regular monthly meetings with the public, residents can demand action on gangs hanging around near an off-licence, on speeding cars or on motorbike nuisance. The mixture of local intelligence and public pressure provides real and practical accountability. What worries me about the hype surrounding elected police commissioners is that we will lose not only the plot on local accountability, but the commitment and funds to ensure that it continues to grow, not decline and wither on the vine. At the same time, we need effective policing to ensure that the public are protected from increasingly complicated crime.
On all those issues, there are many questions that the coalition Government have to answer in the days, the weeks and, it would seem, the years ahead.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for calling me to make my first speech to the House. I congratulate all those who have also made their first speeches today. I am very struck, and a bit awestruck, by the erudition that they have all displayed. As the Member for Redcar, I am proud to be the first Liberal to represent the area since 1923 and also very pleased to hear this afternoon’s debate about potential voting system changes, which might do something to add to the House the 100 Liberal Democrats who ought to be Members but, due to our current voting system, are not.
My constituency comprises the north-east corner of the historic north riding of Yorkshire, flanked by the River Tees to the north, the North sea to the east and the Cleveland hills to the south. The coast boasts miles of golden beach, the site of the recent British kite-surfing championships and is adjacent to Yorkshire’s only proper golf links. Redcar is a bustling coastal town, incorporating the formerly separate villages of Coatham and Dormanstown, and it has a race course with one of the few straight, level miles in the country. There was much excitement in 2007 when for a few weeks our sea front became Dunkirk for the shooting of the Oscar-winning film “Atonement”.
Local delicacies include chicken parmesans, which we all know as “parmos”, and lemon top ice creams—probably not a diet that the Secretary of State for Health would choose, but nevertheless absolutely delicious. Down the coast is the pretty village of Marske, which has history going back to Viking times, and inland we have a port and industrial complex of national importance. Teesport is the second biggest port in the UK, and I am glad that this Government moved quickly to freeze the extra taxes that were imposed on PD Ports, because they put it at a disadvantage to ports in mainland Europe.
The Corus steel site still employs more than 2,000 people in steel processing, but we were all devastated in February when the blast furnace closed, ending 150 years of steel making on the River Tees. We are hopeful that the blast furnace will be sold to a new owner and that steel making can be resumed. My constituency also contains the UK’s biggest chemical manufacturing site at Wilton, another powerhouse of the national economy, where I worked for many years.
To the west of the port, steel and chemical complex lies an area that, to the uninformed visitor, looks like a continuous area of housing—casually referred to as Greater Eston by Redcar and Cleveland council. People who live there know that it actually comprises a number of separate places: the historic villages of Normanby, Nunthorpe and Ormesby; the proud former ironstone mining village of Eston; and the struggling industrial settlements of South Bank and Grangetown. They all have their own distinct centres and unique stories.
I must pay tribute to my learned predecessor, Vera Baird, QC. Vera has a tremendous capacity for work and is a formidable campaigner for women’s rights in particular, fighting on behalf of women who are the victims of violence and abuse. She was a notable parliamentarian, having won The Spectator Back Bencher of the year award in 2004 and then rising to ministerial level as Solicitor-General in the previous Government.
I cannot represent Redcar without mentioning Vera’s predecessor, the late Marjorie Mowlam. Had her health remained good, I am sure that she would still be in Parliament today. As well as her towering achievements in government, particularly on the Northern Ireland Good Friday agreement, she was, and still is, much loved in the constituency. She must have had a prodigious ability to consume tea, judging by the number of houses that I canvassed where they all said, “We all loved Mo, and she was always popping in for a cuppa.”
The No. 1 issue in my area is jobs. The headline unemployment figure is about 9%, but that does not tell the whole story. There is a lot of hidden unemployment, a lot of people on incapacity benefit and many other people are out of work. A Financial Times reporter visited during the general election and had no trouble finding a woman who had just lost out as one of 490 applicants for a job cleaning the local supermarket. I hope that when this Government carry out the much-needed review of benefits policy, they will not unjustly penalise those who desperately want to work but simply cannot find a job.
There have been numerous job losses in our area: 98,000 manufacturing jobs have gone since 1971—particularly under the previous Government, during whose period in office manufacturing declined from 22% of the national economy to just 11%. I am very pleased that the new Government recognise the value of manufacturing and, in particular, want to stimulate the green manufacturing economy. Teesside is a great place to do that.
Before leaving jobs, I must mention Government jobs. After recent remarks by the Prime Minister, people might have got the impression that any cutbacks in the civil service would somehow be in the north-east of England. In fact, of well over 520,000 civil servants, only 36,000 are in the north-east, and of those very few are in the Teesside area. I shall constantly press the case for the Tees valley to be the new location of a Government agency. Indeed, the hon. Member for Stockton South (James Wharton) and I have already written to our Cabinet colleagues, suggesting Teesside as a good location for the administrative centre of the new green investment bank. I welcome the Government’s commitment to localism on planning laws and hope to see more local control over schools, rather than the central diktats that went with the Building Schools for the Future programme. Many of my constituents know how important that is.
It is a fantastic honour and privilege to have been chosen to represent the passionate and proud people of Redcar, and I shall constantly fight for what I feel is in their best interests.
I am grateful for the opportunity to make my maiden speech, and I congratulate Members from all parts of the House on their excellent maiden speeches.
It is an immense privilege to have been elected to serve as the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South. I have lived and worked in Sunderland all my life, and I am especially honoured to serve my local area. I should like to thank the party members and voters who put their trust in me, and I sincerely hope that I can repay them. Houghton and Sunderland South is a new constituency that was formed from the former constituencies of Houghton and Washington East and Sunderland South. I therefore intend to pay tribute to the former Members for both constituencies.
Fraser Kemp was elected in 1997 as the Member for Houghton and Washington East but had worked as an organiser for the Labour party since his late teens. He played a pivotal role in making the Labour party electable once again and secured a reputation as a fierce opponent whose success as an organiser and an election strategist was unparalleled. Fraser is a very modest man who never sought accolades or recognition for his achievements, but many of us know the debt that we owe to him. I pay tribute to Fraser not simply because he is my predecessor, but because of his values, integrity and decency. He fought many cases on behalf of vulnerable and desperate constituents whom he always treated with the utmost sensitivity and compassion.
Fraser dedicated his life to the Labour movement, and I wish him every success in his life away from front-line politics. I know that Fraser felt it was a huge privilege to serve his home seat. I very much share that sentiment, and I hope that I can show the same dedication and commitment in fighting for the people of Houghton and Sunderland South.
I also pay tribute to Chris Mullin, who represented Sunderland, South from 1987. He was never afraid to champion unpopular causes and often found himself ostracised in the process. I am sure that there is a lesson there for us all—that we should never be afraid to speak out, even if the cause appears at the time to be an unpopular or a difficult one.
My constituency contains a series of mining villages in the former Durham coalfields, and also areas of the city that were built following the post-war expansion, such as Grindon, Thorney Close and Farringdon. Shiney Row is home to the Penshaw monument. It was erected in tribute to the first Earl of Durham, known locally as Radical Jack because of his support for the extension of the franchise in the Reform Act 1832. There has been much debate today about the Great Reform Act, and I am sure that my constituents will follow developments with great interest. On the issue of voting, I am delighted to note that Sunderland city council once again delivered the first and fastest result in returning me as the Member of Parliament for Houghton and Sunderland South.
In Hetton-le-Hole, George Stephenson, one of the founding fathers of the railway industry, designed a line to serve the colliery before designing the more famous Stockton and Darlington route. I am also proud that the tongue of Big Ben, which we hear every time the bell sounds, was forged in the historic town of Houghton-le-Spring in my constituency.
We have made tremendous progress in Houghton and Sunderland South. Our area has adapted remarkably to significant economic, industrial and social change, much of it not of our choosing during the 1980s and 1990s. We are resilient and faced adversity in the past; I am confident that we can now show the same kind of determination again in meeting new challenges.
I will be unafraid to speak out where I see injustice that will damage the lives and living standards of my constituents, which have improved so greatly in the past 13 years. I will resist any measure that will damage our economy, our families, and the services on which we all rely. I remain committed to tackling inequality in all its forms. We have seen significant advances in my constituency in the past 13 years, not least in terms of the provision and resources in our schools, but it is still all too often the case that children born in my constituency are held back because of their backgrounds and unable to achieve all that they are capable of.
The north-east led the world during the industrial revolution, and I am confident that we can do so again in being at the forefront of developing new green technologies and industries. I was therefore concerned by the Prime Minister’s refusal to confirm whether the Government would honour the £20.7 million grant awarded to Nissan to develop the next generation of electric cars. The plant is not in my constituency, but many of my constituents are employed by Nissan or indirectly in supply chain jobs. I will continue to press for answers, not only on the Nissan grant but on the vital, ongoing investment that is necessary to protect the north-east economy. I know that I will have the full support of my local newspaper, the Sunderland Echo, in fighting Sunderland’s corner and championing local business. It remains of deep and lasting concern to me that unemployment remains higher than is acceptable in my constituency and that there are areas of continuing deprivation. The people of Houghton and Sunderland South need a Government who will support business and enterprise, not tip us into a second recession.
I am particularly grateful to be called to make my maiden speech during the debate on home affairs. Prior to my election, I worked managing a women’s refuge based in my constituency for families fleeing domestic violence. It is through my work with victims of sexual violence that I have such deep reservations about proposals to introduce anonymity for defendants in rape cases. I ask the Government to look carefully at prioritising measures that will increase the number of rape convictions instead of deterring vulnerable women from coming forward.
I give my pledge that I will try to speak often in the House to raise the concerns of my constituents. I intend to be a strong and tireless voice here; the people of Houghton and Sunderland South deserve no less.
Order. I do not intend to alter the time limit, as that would be unfair, particularly to those who are waiting to make their maiden speeches, but anyone who can clip a minute or so off their speech will certainly gain the gratitude of some of those we might otherwise find it very difficult to fit in.
Let me begin by saying that that was an outstanding maiden speech by the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson). It was full of interesting content and probably gives us an idea of where she will concentrate her interests. I was particularly interested in some of the things that she said about the area she represents, because I contested the old seat of Houghton and Washington, as it was then known, in 1992, and I know well many of the places that she mentioned—the Penshaw monument, Shiney Row community college, and much else. I very much take her point about the Nissan plant and the effect that any Government decisions will have on the whole region if things do not go well. I was touched by her commitment to speak up on behalf of the most vulnerable in her constituency. Having got to know it quite well, I know what she is talking about as regards those former mining villages.
It is clear that the two great themes in the Queen’s Speech are the economy and the constitution: they loom large, and they are closely connected. Constitutional reform is needed, among other things, to restore confidence in our institutions, particularly Parliament and political parties. Without some progress on that, the coalition Government will struggle to secure legitimacy for the tough economic measures that are now needed. Without some public trust in politicians, leadership on the economy will be impossible. I think that that is what the Prime Minister was trying to make a start with in his speech today.
Despite appearances, there is, on both the constitution and the economy, a great deal of common ground across the House about the overall direction of policy and the importance of acting. However, before I get on to the areas of agreement, let me start with a controversial measure—the attempt to entrench fixed parliamentary terms with a 55% threshold. That certainly will not be a consensus measure; the controversy has been evident today. We have not seen the proposal written down, so it might be premature to judge it, but I have to say that I do not like what I have heard so far. How could I put it? Let me just say that it could be misconstrued as, or as looking very much like, an arbitrary fix to bolster this particular coalition with a constitutional change. After all, why 55%, not 60% or some other number? At least, that is how the other place will see it. Nor does it benefit from any protection under the Salisbury convention, and I therefore expect that their lordships might carve it up. To sugar the pill for them, I have already asked those on my Front Bench to give it pre-legislative scrutiny. If it survives that, their lordships may be more accommodating.
The 55% proposal is so clearly born of the particular circumstances of this coalition that I cannot see why it should remain on the statute book beyond this Parliament, and I therefore ask my Front-Bench colleagues to consider adding a sunset clause. Of course, we have not heard all the arguments on the proposal—as I say, it has not been published—and I am not going to rush to take a view on something that I have not even seen, but my instinct would be to try to entrench fixed terms with something less radical. Better, for example, to legislate a requirement that the Prime Minister can ask the Queen for a Dissolution only if he has been defeated in a vote of no confidence. Of course, he could still manufacture a defeat, but at least the electorate would see that ploy for what it was and could judge it accordingly at the polls.
I said that I would start with some disagreement, but I ought to refer to the large measure of agreement across the House on all sorts of things. The principle of fixed-term Parliaments is pretty much agreed across the House. During the last election, Labour was more supportive of fixed-term Parliaments than the Conservatives; likewise on the idea of a vote on a Dissolution. On the House of Lords, there is now a huge amount of cross-party agreement. All three parties are agreed on the need for a largely or fully elected House of Lords. I have to say, as there are a lot of new Members present, that when I was first elected 13 years ago it seemed to me that in the 21st century only those who have received some sort of democratic mandate should have the right to make our laws. These days, that is the majority view right across the House, and in my party too. I strongly welcome that.
The main opponent of change, of course, will be the biggest vested interest in our constitution, by which I mean the life peers. They are deeply opposed to any meaningful change and may even threaten to wreck the coalition’s legislative programme if the elected House were to force the issue. At the moment, with the coalition facing the biggest economic crisis since the second world war, this House may decide that it has other priorities. Much depends on the arithmetic of coalition politics in the Lords and whether a measure could be whipped through the other place, but I am not optimistic. I cannot see the coalition risking a massive row and using the Parliament Act with so much other vital legislation to get through. It would be a bloody battle and a rerun of another Lords-Commons clash exactly a century ago.
In the few seconds remaining to me I add one more crucial matter. We must clean up party funding. The stench in the electorate’s nostrils about the apparent purchase of access, influence and honours is serious and knocks into a cocked hat what we have had on expenses. The problem can be solved only if all parties are prepared to bring the big donor culture to an end, whether the source is corporate, institutional, trade union or individual. We must find ways to protect parties that will be adversely affected by that change and ensure that democratic politics can remain fair. We cannot leave things as they are, and I hope very much that the coalition Government will have further talks to try to secure agreement. I find the Queen’s Speech very exciting, but there is a lot of work to be done and debate to be had on it.
I congratulate the hon. Members who have made their maiden speeches. They have been very interesting and have paid tribute to the Members who have gone before them.
When I listened to the Deputy Prime Minister’s speech, I was very disappointed that he showed a lack of respect for the smaller parties in the House. I suggest to him that he should give minority parties more respect, because he could find himself on the Back Benches shortly. One should never allow power to go to one’s head. We will put today’s episode down to inexperience, and I look forward to meaningful exchanges with him in the days to come.
Many matters in the Gracious Speech merit our attention, and constitutional issues are vital. It states:
“Measures will be brought forward to introduce fixed term Parliaments of five years.”
That would command support from my right hon. and hon. Friends from Northern Ireland and is probably one of the few examples of the coalition making changes that are not designed to improve its own chances in a future election. The governing party—or parties, in this case—has always had the ability to use a snap general election to its own advantage, and the date selected has had much more to do with the political fortunes of the Government than the national interest.
However, there are practical implications to be thought through. In Northern Ireland, we already face an election practically every year, and the dates involved mean that it could be possible to have a general election, an election to the Northern Ireland Assembly and a local government election on the same day. One can imagine what that would mean to the voters. We are not opposed to fixed-term Parliaments and see many benefits to them, but it will be necessary to consider the practical implications and the problems that could arise from attempting to organise up to three elections on one day.
We have major concerns about the introduction of the 55% rule. We wish to put a clear marker down on that, and I do that in the House tonight. We must do nothing that diminishes the authority of Parliament or its right to hold the Government to account. Parliament must have the ability to give the Government a vote of confidence when they are worthy of it, or a vote of no confidence if they have lost the confidence of the country and the House.
The Gracious Speech also states:
“A Bill will be introduced for a referendum on the Alternative Vote system for the House of Commons and to create fewer and more equal sized constituencies.”
The problems that have been mentioned today in the case of certain constituencies in the United Kingdom must genuinely be taken into account. Simply to divide the country up and say that every constituency must have the same number of electors would not be to take in the reality of the vast geographical areas of some constituencies. Constituencies need to be given appropriate and proper service. We represent not land but people, who have a right to the most appropriate and best possible representation.
There is to be legislation
“to restore freedoms and civil liberties, through the abolition of Identity Cards and the repeal of unnecessary laws.”
I can say on behalf of my colleagues that we support the proposal to abolish identity cards, which were introduced in probably the most ridiculed piece of legislation that the previous Government brought forward. It will be good to see the end of them.
There is to be legislation
“to ensure that in future this Parliament and the British people have their say on any proposed transfer of powers to the European Union.”
We must all hope that the promise of a referendum is not another cast-iron guarantee. Perhaps it is cast-iron with only Lisbon-shaped exceptions. The refusal to allow a referendum in the past has always been driven by the fear of the House actually hearing what the people of the United Kingdom have to say on the subject, but hearing the people and acting accordingly is what democracy should be all about. We will see how keen the coalition Government are to listen to the UK’s views on the European Union should the opportunity for a referendum on any subject arise during this Parliament.
I have a question for the Government. Will only one referendum be held on any proposal, or will the tactic that was displayed and deployed in the Republic of Ireland be used here in the UK? The people of the Republic of Ireland were asked about the Lisbon treaty and said no to it, and then they were asked again because the Government and the rest of Europe did not get the answer that they wanted. We cannot treat the people with disrespect. It will be interesting to see what the coalition partners do, as they will probably have different views and put different opinions to the general public. My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) introduced a Bill in the last Parliament in an attempt to ensure that the previous Government would honour their pledge to hold a referendum. People will rightly be sceptical until the Government give a real demonstration that they are willing to listen to the British people’s views on the issue. All three major parties will have heard that being emphasised, and I say to them that there are other parties—
I am grateful for the opportunity to give my maiden speech today, although not quite so grateful to follow the excellent maiden speeches of so many of my colleagues on both sides of the House. They have set the bar almost impossibly high.
Many Members will know my predecessor, Evan Harris, as an energetic and uncompromising Member of this House, and although we often disagreed on points of principle, he was one of the few politicians who never put popularity above principle. I know that he will go on to make a significant contribution elsewhere. Dr Harris was not my only predecessor to make an appearance on the campaign trail. Far too often on the doorstep, constituents would look at me, sigh, and say, “Well of course, I remember Airey Neave”, or “Now John Patten, he was a good constituency MP.” It is a little too early to work out exactly where I will end up in that illustrious line-up, but I hope that it will be recorded that I did everything in my power to serve the constituents of Oxford West and Abingdon with integrity and commitment, and that I became the dedicated constituency representative that they so deserve.
Let us be honest—there could not really be a better constituency to represent. My home town, Oxford, is surely one of the most beautiful cities in the world and its history of scholars, authors, artists, inventors and Prime Ministers fills library after library. I am particularly pleased that, even after boundary changes, I still have the opportunity to represent my undergraduate and graduate colleges—St. Anne’s and Somerville.
Oxford university and Oxford Brookes have international reputations in field after field. I know that many scholars and students are watching the university fees review with anxiety. I know exactly what it is like to pay tuition fees, having been in one of the first years to do so, and we must ensure that university funding reform is open and fair, properly supports students from more disadvantaged backgrounds, creates an academic environment that supports research, and enables our top universities to remain competitive—and even become more so—on the international stage.
Oxford West and Abingdon’s excellence is not confined to education. The NHS in Oxfordshire hosts many centres of excellence and an enormous number of dedicated health professionals—my father for one. I know that they join me in welcoming the coalition Government’s commitment to increasing NHS spending and to introducing the revolutionary idea of letting local health professionals set local health priorities.
As we struggle to maintain the recovery, it is ever more important that we support Oxfordshire’s vibrant private sector. That includes ventures at every stage of growth, from start-up university spin-offs in biotech and renewables at Begbroke science park to long-standing international publishers such as Oxford University Press and Blackwell.
Beyond the dreaming spires lies Abingdon—a beautiful market town that is one of the oldest continuous settlements in the UK. However, Abingdon’s fantastic location on the banks of the Thames and the River Ock has been a thorn in its side, creating difficult traffic problems and allowing terrible floods in 2007. Climate change means that there is an increasing risk of flooding in that area. As research shows, it is incredibly important to maintain our commitment to flood defences, which are far cheaper than the catastrophic results of unmitigated flooding. Those defences are much needed by the residents of Osney, Abingdon and nearby villages such as Kidlington. I look forward to supporting their campaign for them.
However, I have chosen to speak in today’s debate because of my commitment to another local campaign. Despite chronic under-reporting, research shows that domestic abuse accounts for 16% of violent crime. It affects one in four women and one in six men. Despite the fact that most people still think of it as a women’s issue, a third of victims are men.
The social and economic impact of domestic abuse is becomingly increasingly unsustainable. Domestic abuse claims more repeat victims—that is more police time and more repeat visits to A and E—than any other crime. It leads to the murder of four women and one man a fortnight, and affects four children in every class of 30. All that costs our economy an estimated £23 billion a year, and front-line services bear the brunt. In the current economic climate, that will only get worse. United Nations research has confirmed what common sense has told us for years: unemployment and financial instability exacerbate domestic abuse.
Surely if those on both sides of the Chamber can agree on anything, it is that no one should fear being raped or beaten in their own home, forced into marriage or killed in the name of honour. However, there are still worrying gaps in provision. In theory, the introduction of sexual assault referral centres is a good thing, but the nearest one for us is in Slough—a long way to go for someone who has been brutally raped. To add insult to injury, my local rape crisis centre currently faces a funding crisis. There is also the gender problem. Although roughly a third of victims are male, only 1% of refuge space is available for men. In Oxfordshire, there is no provision for male victims fleeing domestic abuse.
There is also a serious lack of perpetrator programmes. Despite the fact that a quarter of male probationers and 17% of male prisoners are domestic violence perpetrators, there is such a shortage of places on those programmes that, recently, some courts were expressly prohibited from using them as a sentencing option. No perpetrator programmes are available in Oxfordshire.
However, we have one thing to boast about: the champions network. When research revealed that victims can go to as many as 10 agencies before finding the help that they need, the Oxfordshire county domestic abuse service decided to short-circuit the problem and train a network of volunteers in other agencies. They were called champions. They are seen as the lead on domestic abuse issues in their agency and they can advise colleagues on management of individual cases and ensure access to local resources. There are now more than 300 champions in 60 agencies. They are all volunteers, all trained and they all make an enormous impact. As far as I am aware, it is the only network of its kind in the UK. I am proud to be a champion myself, to speak up for that excellent work. I thank the Deputy Speaker for giving me the chance to speak in this debate.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for calling me to make my maiden speech in this important debate.
I thank the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood) for an eloquent and elegant contribution. I also single out my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson). It is so good for the House that women with her experience have been elected to serve.
It is customary to pay tribute to one’s constituency in a maiden speech. I am pleased to say that I am not in the position of my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), who appeared to have to work hard in 1997 to find something interesting to say about his constituency. However, he managed the story from June 1889, when a giant circus elephant collapsed and died on Castlebar hill. I quote from his maiden speech:
“The great pachyderm, with its last few breaths, bravely staggered forward, and is, to this day, to be found beneath the road—unfortunately, just over the constituency border in Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush.”—[Official Report, 10 November 1997; Vol. 300, c. 608.]
I am delighted that, for me, the task is entirely easy and pleasurable. East Lothian is, without doubt, a constituency blessed in almost every way imaginable. It positively drips with scenic beauty. Not only is it blessed with breathtaking natural beauty, it has a continuous golden thread of historical significance. Those golden colours are reflected in the wonderful art of local artist John Bellany, who grew up in Port Seton. The constituency’s natural beauty ranges from magnificent beaches, through agricultural farm land to rolling hills, and features everything from Cistercian monks to the resting place of Concorde.
Even with that embarrassment of riches, I have not mentioned its greatest asset: its people. East Lothian is blessed with genuinely close-knit and vibrant communities. It is a part of this country that has a real and thriving sense of self. Its strong sense of identity means that, even in these most difficult times for the newspaper industry, it is served by three local newspapers. The existence of the East Lothian Courier, East Lothian and Musselburgh News and the Evening News is not a leftover from a past age but the reflection of a community with deep roots and a strong sense of social justice.
The communities of East Lothian range from former mining and fishing villages through to castles and keeps, from the market town of Haddington to the fiercely proud mining-built communities of Prestonpans, Tranent, Wallyford, Macmerry, Ormiston, Elphinstone and Whitecraig. At the east end of the constituency sits Musselburgh—the “honest toun”—which now has one of the top five race courses in the country.
The constituency’s people have a long history of not being easily pushed around and not tolerating social injustice. Those battles have not been fought only in this country. The men who left East Lothian to fight against Franco’s fascists in the Spanish civil war have their names inscribed on a plaque in Prestonpans.
As well as brave men, East Lothian also has a proud history of brave women. My predecessor, Anne Moffat, was the first woman to represent East Lothian. She began her working life as a nurse and went on to become president of Unison. Becoming the Parliamentary Private Secretary to my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) when he was Secretary of State for Health was a real source of pride to Anne. She cared deeply about the NHS and her first-hand experience of working in the wards equipped her well for that post.
The House will be aware that Anne has suffered poor health in recent months, and I am sure all hon. Members will join me in wishing her good health and happiness. Anne paved the way for other women to represent East Lothian—I am sure that I will not be the last—but she was not the first woman to stand up for working people in my constituency. There is a statue in Tranent, by sculptor David Annand, of Jackie Crookston beating her drum with a small child at her side, to commemorate the massacre of Tranent in 1797. Women from mining communities across the county beat their own drums to protect their communities during the miners’ strike of 1984. That dispute and those months of hardship almost tore those communities apart as some men returned to work. Fiona Hunter, then aged only 12, wrote a poem called, “Hang on Dad” for a school project:
“Don’t go down the mine Dad
Where some of them have gone
Hang on a little longer Dad
Don’t let them think they’ve won
I know it’s hard to feed us Dad
But we’ve hung on so long
It can’t go on much longer Dad
Much better times must come.”
It is hard to believe that those are the words of a child of 12.
The common endeavour of the miners, their families and the communities of East Lothian bound them close together, so my constituency is clearly one that does not easily lend itself to dissection, the arbitrary redrawing of boundaries and the random consequence of arid mathematical formulas dreamt up in Conservative central office and breathed into life in Whitehall. The coalition Government cannot take a community such as East Lothian, with its sense of self, its sensible and natural boundaries and institutions, and its hundreds of years of organic community development, and simply apply the chainsaw of narrow party advantage in the way that has been proposed.
As I was campaigning, I was proud to mark Labour’s record, and I now want to make a pledge to the people of East Lothian: Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition will fight to stop the Government’s proposals to weaken democracy and my role in representing you. I thank the House.
Thank you very much, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I am delighted to have caught your eye to give my maiden speech. May I take this opportunity to congratulate those on both sides of the House who have given their maiden speeches in this debate? It is an honour and privilege for me to have been elected by the people of my home town, Northampton, where I was born and brought up, and to represent the Northampton North constituency.
Northampton has sent some distinguished representatives over the years, both for Northampton North and Northampton South. Sally Keeble, my immediate predecessor, was a fine constituency Member of Parliament who dedicated her 13 years in Parliament to public service. She was a passionate protector of the disadvantaged and a keen supporter of, and advocate for, the poor, as many in the House will have witnessed, particularly in her work on international development. At an election campaign hustings, Sally discreetly mentioned that she was missing her son’s 14th birthday party, which is evidence of the dedication and commitment that she gave to representing the constituency. As many in the House will know, Sally’s late father was an illustrious ambassador from the Court of St James to the Soviet Union, and no doubt her dedication to public service was fostered from an early age. I wish her and her family all the very best for the future.
As I said, Sally was the most recent in a long line of distinguished Members whom my home town has sent to the House. They have not always been without controversy. In fact, there is a worrying predilection toward deselection—of both Labour and Conservative Members. The first Member sent here in 1974 from the new Northampton North constituency was Maureen Colquhoun, who I understand underwent a rather difficult time for reasons that were not unconnected to her personal life—reasons that nowadays would be a positive attribute to candidacy in the Conservative party. Maureen was followed by Tony Marlow, whose boating blazers are the stuff of legend in this House. He, too, was threatened with deselection, for reasons that were something to do with a place called Maastricht. That would not be a positive attribute for candidacy in the modern Conservative party, so some things do stay the same.
Sally Keeble actually bucked the trend, because she was not threatened with deselection. Instead, she attempted to deselect the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), the then Prime Minister, in one of the coup attempts against him. I am sure it will be noted by my hon. Friends that I do not intend to follow those traditions—either of deselection or decapitation.
Going back a little further, this House has dealt rather harshly, if I may say, with some Northampton representatives. One was imprisoned in the Clock Tower, another was fined for voting without having sworn the Oath of Allegiance, and one—Spencer Perceval—was assassinated in 1812 while entering the House. I hope there will be less dramatic opportunities for me to make my mark on this place.
Northampton is an historic market town with excellent communications—we are only one hour up the motorway or from Euston on the railway—and we excel on the sporting field. We have the Saints rugby team, the Cobblers football team and the county cricket ground. The town also has an excellent business ethos, and I invite all hon. Members to visit us.
As many will know, the town has an ancient history of boot and shoe making. Many in the House—on both sides—have benefited from shoes made in Northampton, not least my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor. He is often accused of wearing Hush Puppies, but in fact they are brown suede shoes made in Northampton—although I was pleased to see that he did not wear them with the full-bottomed wig when he gave Her Majesty the Gracious Speech in another place.
I thought it would be suitable to make my maiden speech during the part of the Gracious Speech that relates to home affairs, because I have been in practice as a barrister for the past 16 years. In 13 of those years, I have witnessed some rather extraordinary events that reflect the current concern with the criminal justice system in the country at large. Some 3,600 new criminal offences have been created in the past 13 years, a rate of about one every weekday. You will be reassured to hear, Mr Deputy Speaker, that it is now illegal to sell a grey squirrel and to explode a nuclear bomb. Many hundreds of other pieces of legislation have been passed: 404 forms of behaviour are illegal now that were not illegal in 1997. To give one an idea of the progress—or lack thereof—whereas for most of the past 100 years there was about one criminal justice Bill per decade, there were 60 in the past decade.
I am afraid that we have not had the progress that we would like. To give one example of that quickly, within the last several months at court, several barristers were kept waiting while prisoners refused to alight from a bus because they were worried about losing their places in an overcrowded prison system. The prison officers refused to force them off the bus, because doing so would breach their human rights. Many were kept waiting for many hours. One prisoner decided that he needed to use the facilities and was allowed to alight from the bus, go into the cells, use the facilities and go back, voluntarily, and get back on the bus, because to have forced him to do otherwise would have been a breach of his human rights. Meanwhile, many were kept waiting in court.
I hope that my time in the House will help to ameliorate some of those discrepancies and disconnections that now exist in our system.
I start by commending the hon. Member for Northampton North (Michael Ellis) on his excellent and illuminating maiden speech. I am sure we will hear much more from him in the years ahead. I wish well both him and all those who either have already or are about to give their maiden speech.
Since the formation of this Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, we have heard much in the press in Scotland about the fact that there is to be a “respect agenda”, with the UK Government improving relations with the devolved Governments and the parties of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is thus with some regret that I noted the Deputy Prime Minister failing even to mention that agenda in his speech; he made an announcement of important constitutional progress on the reform of the House of Lords in respect of which he saw fit to invite Members from only three parties in this House.
The shadow Secretary of State is not in his place, but I ask his colleagues to pass on to him the comments that I am about to make, because I have not been a blushing violet—or even a shrinking violet; I am now blushing, and not for the first time—when it comes to criticising the last Labour Government. During the last Parliament, there was much I needed to criticise the Labour Government on when it came to constitutional matters, but in recent times the previous Government worked hard on issues such as the reform of party and MP finance to include all the parties. Indeed, the then Justice Secretary was exemplary in his relations with the political parties of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is totally unacceptable that we are to see major constitutional reforms in the United Kingdom on the basis of excluding the parties of government from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. I was pleased to note that other Members on the Opposition side, not least the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy), recognised that as an important issue.
Moving on to discuss the Queen’s Speech, we understand that progress is to be made on further devolution of powers to Scotland. That would mean safer streets and safer communities, which is something that we welcome, as we also welcome the willingness to consider improving the financial powers to be devolved to the Scottish Government and to the Scottish Parliament. This comes at a time when we are hearing growing calls from academics and senior business leaders who want Scottish Ministers to control taxes and social welfare and to have borrowing powers.
The Campaign for Fiscal Responsibility has been triggered in part by the new coalition Government’s pledge to raise the income tax threshold to £10,000. Among the leading members of the Scottish business community who are calling for fiscal responsibility in Scotland is Jim McColl, the chairman of business development firm, Clyde Blowers, which is involved in the campaign. He said recently:
“I believe we’re at the crossroads of a fantastic opportunity to take more responsibility in Scotland for its economic health… We need to have a financially responsible Parliament where politicians take full responsibility for raising the money that they spend and for the economy that they manage. We need the levers to stimulate that economy”.
That has been underlined by Ben Thomson, the chairman of the think-tank Reform Scotland, who said that there is “surprising” breadth of support for radical change, which was further underlined in The Times today by Sir Tom Hunter, who writes:
“Tinkering is not the answer to these challenges—Scotland must take a radical look at itself and change markedly. Scotland needs to control the levers necessary to stimulate growth—and benefit from the receipts that come from that growth.”
I very much hope that the coalition Government will take all these voices into account and follow their own advice on the respect agenda and on working constructively with the Scottish Government in pursuing these matters.
In the time remaining, I would like to touch on a number of other constitutional reforms: fixed-term Parliaments, the 55% threshold, democratisation of the House of Lords and reform of the electoral system. We in the Scottish National party have long supported the introduction of fixed terms—experience of which, of course, we have in the Scottish Parliament. To illustrate and underline the point made by colleagues from the Democratic Unionist party earlier, it would be a real mistake to set the date of a fixed Parliament to match exactly the date of elections for the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly. If we are to have fixed terms, why not pick four-year rather than five-year cycles? Experience in the last Scottish Parliament election showed that the more elections one holds on the same day, the more problems can ensue.
Turning to the so-called threshold question, we need only a simple majority to form or bring down a Government in the Scottish Parliament. If no Government can command 50% of support among voting MSPs within 28 days, Parliament is dissolved. The 66% barrier exists only to ensure that there is time to allow a new Government to be formed if an old one collapses. I really hope that the Government listen on this issue. For people who have practical experience of the system as it works in action, the 55% threshold is a gerrymandering effort to hold on to power, as are the boundary reviews, which seem to take no account of the geographic diversity in some parts of the United Kingdom. It is also hard to conclude anything but that this is an effort to target poorer and more rural constituencies. If there is a need to reform the size of constituencies, the Government must take account of manageable size and geography.
On democratising the House of Lords, our party is in favour of a unicameral set-up, but should there be a second chamber, it must be elected. On electoral reform, if we are to have a referendum, we should include more than one option: the alternative vote is not proportional representation.
In conclusion, we heard today from the Deputy Prime Minister in soaring reformist rhetorical tones what was in actual fact his falling at the first fence. Inclusion, debate and participation are all fine and well, but they need to include all—
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to make my maiden speech. It is a maiden speech that comes at last to me, having been selected as the candidate for South Swindon some six years ago. That means that in 2005 I was beaten by my predecessor, Anne Snelgrove, to whom I pay warm tribute today. She worked extremely hard for her constituency and for her constituents. It is interesting to note that many of the challenges that she raised in her maiden speech are the challenges that face Swindon today—on jobs, for example. In fact, the unemployment position in Swindon is now twice as bad as it was back in 2005. Town centre regeneration is another challenge; the recession has sadly put paid to many of the fine plans laid out for our town centre.
I do not want to start, however, on an unduly pessimistic note because, like the peal of 10 bells at Christ Church in Swindon, celebrated in the poetry of Sir John Betjeman, there is much to ring the praises about when it comes to the town I represent. This is the part of my speech that is entirely uncontroversial, because it is a known fact that Swindon is a cultural hub. We are the home of the National Trust and the base of English Heritage. We also have the museum of the Great Western railway—God’s wonderful railway, in other words—this year celebrating 175 years of its existence by Act of Parliament. We are home to the National Monuments Record office.
We have splendid country parks, including Lydiard park, the former ancestral home of the Bolingbroke family—a political family well known to this House and to the other place. It is now a delightful country park to the west and on the western fringes of my constituency. To the east, we have Coate Water country park, much loved by local residents, home of a miniature railway and, on the edge, home to the museum of the 19th century writer and naturalist, Richard Jefferies.
There is much to commend the constituency that I represent. It is town, suburb and country, lying as it does between the ancient Ridgeway path and its iron-age forts, and the iron road of the railway that meant so much to the development of Swindon in the 19th century. Bisecting my constituency through the middle is that 20th-century innovation, the M4. Make no mistake about it, Mr Deputy Speaker: Swindon is well and truly at the heart of our country.
Swindon’s communities, whether they be in the town centre or out in the suburban fringes, are all united by several concerns. One of those concerns is about the need to protect and preserve our green spaces, and to ensure that the development that we know will come to Swindon—it is a town that has grown over the years and reinvented itself to quite brilliant effect—is sustainable. I therefore welcome a change to the planning regime, so that my town can survive, thrive and prosper in the years ahead.
One issue that comes up time and time again with the people I now represent is their concern about the system of criminal justice in our country. It might sound like special pleading—I make no apology for that—but having spent most of my professional life working as a barrister in the criminal justice system, I think that I am allowed to make some observations about the gap between political rhetoric and the sad reality of what is happening in our system today. We have confused legislative hyperactivity with effectiveness. The sausage-factory approach that saw Criminal Justice Act after Criminal Justice Act has not resulted in a better system; in fact, it has made it a great deal worse. The law of unforeseen consequences means that the extra burden placed on the system is causing it to creak at the hinges.
The words of politicians in this House and other places sound particularly hollow to those at the chalk face trying to grapple with the reality. We have spent too much time concentrating on the consequences of offending, instead of looking at the means of preventing it in the first place. The rhetoric of being tough on crime so loved by a former Prime Minister misses the point. It is time for us to be smart on crime, by looking at the causes of that criminality and dealing with them, lest we reap the whirlwind of social problems and increased expenditure.
When there is no option, we must stop being spellbound by the complexity of things. Prison is there to perform three simple functions: to protect the public, to punish offenders and to offer the hope of rehabilitation. None of those important functions seems to have been properly valued, as the events of recent years bear out. It is a scandal that those who have to pass sentences in the Crown court and other places are influenced by pressures on prison numbers. It is simply unacceptable and literally a denial of justice.
If we are to deal most effectively with criminality in our country, we need to call criminal offences crime, move away from the unproductive and costly antisocial behaviour structure and all the rhetoric surrounding it, and remember that at the root of it all, it is crime prevention and early intervention, particularly in the lives of young people, that we will see reaping real rewards, when we come to look back at our time in office. My plea today is for effective action on crime—for a bit of cleverness, rather than the rhetoric of tabloid newspapers. I look forward to, I hope, playing my part in the debates on crime and other issues that are important to the constituents I represent in the years ahead.
Thank you for the opportunity to deliver my maiden speech in this august Chamber, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am the first woman from Glasgow East to represent the constituency. Indeed, I am delighted that my city of Glasgow has simultaneously provided two women to represent it. We are indeed on the march.
I was intimidated before coming to this Chamber and, having listened to so many wonderful speeches, I am now completely intimidated—even more so than before. I have served in the Scottish Parliament since its inception in 1999. The transfer to these Green Benches has been daunting; indeed, this is a very different parliamentary experience.
I arrive in Westminster at a time of great and momentous challenge, in the tailspin of one of the world’s worst financial crises and an unprecedented breakdown in public confidence in the political class. In such a Chamber, we inevitably look to the voices and influences of the past. We must learn from and understand them. In this era of supposedly new politics, I hope that we do not forget the major advances of the past, including those of the preceding Labour Government. Among the most radical acts of that Labour Government was the constitutional arrangements that they introduced, including the advent of devolution, which was perhaps one of the most significant shifts in Government power that any of us is ever likely to witness.
Devolution has played a vital part in the economic and social renewal of Scotland. I have seen the Scottish Parliament become firmly embedded in the body politic of Scotland, with a programme of reform that has a deep and lasting impact in my constituency of Glasgow East. That constituency has many challenges to face. It ranges from the relatively prosperous areas of Mount Vernon and Garrowhill, through to hard-working communities such as those in Craigend and Carmyle, all of which include communities that have paid too high a price for the economic policies of the 1980s. We once had a steelworks that at its peak employed 40,000 workers. Now, United Biscuits, although perhaps the largest employer in the constituency, has 800 workers, making a vital contribution to the local economy.
Work was done by the previous Labour Government to develop the economic base of the east end of Glasgow. In the past 10 years, there has been an increase of businesses of nearly 50%, and increasing every year of that Labour Government. But as I say, Mr Deputy Presiding Officer—forgive me, Mr Deputy Speaker; that was bound to happen—challenges remain. We have an unemployment rate of 7.3%, against a Scottish average of 4.3%. However, it is also incumbent on me to say that there is deep resentment across the east end that its many achievements are overlooked or undermined.
There is much to celebrate in the east end of Glasgow. We have some of the highest-performing state schools, in brand-new buildings. In 2014 we will host the Commonwealth games; and, of course, we are home to one of the world’s best football teams, Glasgow Celtic. I know that my speech is meant to be uncontroversial, but I must challenge a Member who spoke previously who claimed paradise was in his constituency. Paradise is, in fact, in the east end of Glasgow. Let me be clear: Glasgow East is a place of significant opportunity, but much more needs to be done; a place of great aspiration, too much of it unfulfilled; and a place of enterprise and effort, not always rewarded as it should be.
I am sure that in tackling that agenda I would receive strong support from my predecessor, Mr John Mason. Although I did not share his nationalist beliefs or those of the Scottish National party, I know that he had a strong dedication to his cause. In an age of spin and public relations, that is very much to be respected. I was in the unusual position of having fought John in two elections. I witnessed first hand what a strong defender of our democratic process he is. I am sure that everyone in the House would wish John Mason well in his future endeavours.
John Mason and I both share an appreciation for the work of our mutual predecessor, David Marshall, who served Glasgow, Shettleston—and subsequently Glasgow East—with great distinction for nearly three decades. In fact, the east end of Glasgow has produced parliamentarians of outstanding character and achievement. Most towering of all was John Wheatley, who combined inspiring politics with practical actions and is best remembered for the Housing Act 1924, which for the first time provided affordable housing for working people in Scotland. His legacy continues in my constituency.
I am well aware that my constituency is well known to many Members, particularly the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, who claims Easterhouse as part of the inspiration for his welfare reform. Easterhouse is an area of genuine warmth and friendliness, and of course he was welcome. However, I am told that local people were intrigued: they had never seen a Tory before—and after he left, they have not seen one since.
The Secretary of State has made great claims for the changes that he will introduce. He has raised enormous expectations. I should tell the House that I will endeavour with some energy to ensure that he does not dispense that sick old Tory medicine, which is that when times are hard, benefits for the poorest are cut and the better-off are given tax cuts to see them on their way. His argument will be seriously weakened if he tells people that the only answer is work when there is no work to go to, and cuts all the supports that help individuals and families to get back on their feet. The effects of Thatcherism seem to have taken him by surprise. I do not know where he was during those years, but he certainly was not in Easterhouse then. I will say this about his reform programme: the people of Easterhouse and Glasgow East will be watching his work very closely indeed.
Mr Deputy Presiding Officer—Mr Deputy Speaker; I do apologise. I have won elections and I have lost elections, and from the recent election I draw the conclusion that no one party received ringing endorsements, and there was a very marked voting pattern throughout the country. I hope that the coalition Government pay close attention to the voting patterns in my constituency, my city and my country, because those people made it very clear that they did not want to return to an agenda of cuts and unemployment. I hope that, in the spirit of the new politics, the Government will pay due attention to that.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow East (Margaret Curran) on a tremendous maiden speech. Those of us who know something about Scottish politics are well aware that she has a good reputation—a great reputation—and I am sure that she will continue her work in the House of Commons. She spoke with great passion and commitment, and she joins a number of ladies from Scotland on the Labour Benches who are a tremendous asset to this place.
May I express a little sympathy with the hon. Lady? Having also come to the House of Commons from another Chamber, I spent my maiden speech addressing the assembly as “My Lords”. Happily, I was cured of the habit pretty quickly, and I am sure that the hon. Lady will soon find it very easy to address the Chair as “Mr. Speaker” or “Mr. Deputy Speaker”.
I intend to talk about House of Lords reform. However, I am tempted first to make a brief comment about boundaries, particularly after hearing the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) say that absolute numbers were everything. I politely beg to differ. If, indeed, pure mathematics dictates that this Chamber should represent absolutely the votes cast in an election, the answer is extremely simple: it is called the single transferable vote. We all accept, however—I certainly accept—that there is something very special about the link between Member and constituency, which goes beyond simple mathematics.
There are other points to be taken into account. I am very happy with the argument advanced by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister that we should have more equality, for who could be against more equality? But what sort of equality are we to have? I want to ensure that my constituents experience the same equality of quality of service that they can expect from their Member of Parliament. In an average weekend, I spend four, five or six hours in a car in order to see my constituents—because why on earth should they come to me?—as well as the 12 hours that I spend commuting to and from this place. I should not be penalised for that. I must tell my right hon. and hon. Friends that a constituency that stretched from Shetland to Argyll would be utterly unworkable. It must be possible to take account of the differences, and to achieve a proper balance between numbers and size.
The hon. Gentleman is right to emphasise the importance of maintaining the constituency link, but would not including the option of the AV-plus system proposed by the Jenkins commission in the proposed referendum on the electoral system make it possible to maintain that link while at the same time adopting a fairer voting system? That would give us a real choice, rather than our being limited to an option that neither of the governing parties support.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point, but I must not become involved in a discussion on the subject. I am looking at the clock, and thinking about House of Lords reform. I can usually bore for Britain about House of Lords reform for hours on end, but I see that I have only four minutes and 48 seconds left. I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but perhaps we could discuss it on another occasion.
I want to talk first about the “why” and then about the “how” of House of Lords reform. For me, reforming the House of Lords represents the linchpin of constitutional reform. Without a legitimate upper House, we do not have a legitimate Parliament. It is unacceptable for one half of our Parliament to debate, with quality, and reach a decision, and for that decision to be rejected by the other half, simply because it is not legitimate—and it is not legitimate because it is not elected.
There are many countries in the world where appointment is regarded as legitimate, but in this country—given the way in which the media in particular, but also this place, have discussed the upper House—the other place can be considered legitimate only if it is either wholly or in very large part elected. When that happens, and it has legitimacy, it will become the true check and balance on this place that it ought to be.
I am not the slightest bit worried about this House losing its primacy. A strong House of Lords, properly elected on, I suggest, a different model from this place—a fully proportionate model—and operating in the way in which it should, would complement Parliament. A strong upper House means a strong Parliament. I believe that much of what has happened in the past could have been avoided if Parliament had been strengthened to allow two functioning Houses to hold the Executive to account, each undertaking its separate functions.
That brings me to the “how”. First, we must consider the strengths of the House of Lords, of which there are many. The quality of debate is tremendous. The House has no instructions from the Chair, and Report stages and Third Readings proceed in a timeous manner. We could learn from those examples in this place. The quality of the scrutiny given to legislation, and of debates, is very high in the House of Lords, and the lack of a constituency link is essential: we cannot allow a competition with a Member of Parliament representing a constituency. It is traditional for peers to discuss their regions, but they do not become involved in constituency cases. I have long held the view that a House based on large regional constituencies, with one third elected at each election for a longish period with no re-election, would capture the majority of the benefits that currently exist in the upper House. It would become both a smaller and a stronger House.
I want to say a little about what has been called “grandfathering”. High principle and low politics are involved. The interesting thing about life peers is that they all go native. It seems that the hereditaries are the only ones who are happy to leave. Life peers are seduced by the glories of the place. I propose that they should all be allowed to stay there, and that we elect the first third, the second third and the third third. We will get there eventually. The grim reaper will take care of quite a lot of them, and I suspect that if—as I suggested on Second Reading of the Bill that became the House of Lords Act 1999 when I was in another place—we make it possible for them to retire, a great many noble Lords who have served for a long time and in an illustrious way will take that opportunity.
There is also a high principle, however. The high principle is that much of what is good about the House of Lords, and is in its DNA, needs to be passed on. If the House of Lords as it is today were changed completely and became wholly elected, that would be lost. As I have said, there is low politics, but there is also that high principle.
As the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) said at the outset, it is nearly 100 years since my party started this process off. Would it not be a fitting tribute if we celebrated the hundredth anniversary by completing it?
Thus far, today’s debate has been elegantly poised between rhetoric and reality. The reality we all face is the economic situation, which has been mentioned, and some Members—even among those of us who are not born-again cynics—might wonder whether some of the rhetoric coming from the coalition Government is intended to mask some of the reality of the pain they are currently proposing. I felt that somewhat when I heard the Deputy Prime Minister’s speech, with its silken strangulation of the public sector: “I feel your pain.”
Let me turn, however, to some of the specific issues, especially voter registration, electoral reform and equal boundaries. We have heard in contributions from both sides of the House about the disadvantages of sweeping away all consideration of natural and constituency boundaries, and I very much welcome and admire the remarks of the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) about getting the balance right, but we all draw on our own circumstances, and I want to say tonight that behind the rhetoric of individual registration and equal constituencies lies the reality of the existing situation in constituencies such as mine where there is under-registration. There has been talk about the need to have equalised constituencies, but not so much emphasis has been placed on equalised registration. In Blackpool and many other seaside towns, and many urban centres as well, the issues of transience and of areas of higher deprivation are key, too. If we are truly concerned about that process, we need to heed what the Electoral Commission has said about the matter. If we are truly concerned about connecting with people in a practical way in addressing voting reform, we ought to return to the issue of weekend voting, which has gone around this place like a miasma, although nobody has ever actually focused on it.
Despite the elegant attempts of some Liberal Democrat Members to defend the indefensible, I must say that they have been sold a pup. They have been given a referendum on the alternative vote, which the Prime Minister and most of the Conservative party, and, sadly—I say that as a supporter of AV—a significant proportion of my party, will campaign against. Its prospects of getting through in a referendum are therefore relatively small. In return for this, there will be a gerrymandered system that will hit hardest at the Liberal Democrats. The Prime Minister gets the gain, and the Liberal Democrats get all the pain.
There were two interesting quotations when the 55% agreement emerged—I think that is the best way to describe them. The Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell), was a leading participant in the Liberal Democrat discussions that led to the creation of the coalition, and he said on Radio 4 on 14 May:
“It was a small matter for us to say we accept”
the Conservative party’s “concerns” and agree to this. The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, who was serving on the Conservative team, had a different take, however. He said it was a “considered constitutional innovation”. Clearly, he had not been in the same early-hours cabal as the Under-Secretary. It has been said that the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills made his reputation by referring to the former Prime Minister as having gone from Stalin to Mr Bean. I say that the hon. Member for Hazel Grove went from Mr Bean to Stalin in an instant.
Whether we have, for good or ill, an unwritten constitution, we have it, and custom, practice and precedent are weighty matters. In that constitution, prerogative issues and the fact that the House cannot bind itself because of parliamentary sovereignty to future things, the fact that the 55% figure would insulate the Executive against Parliament and the unease that the convention of dissolution would be eroded are all significant issues. That is why there has been a chorus of protest and concern in Parliament and outside.
I shall quote a few examples. Peter Hennessy, a leading academic and constitutional expert, has said:
“It looks as if you are priming the pitch, doctoring it a bit. Not good. It’s meant to be a different politics, new politics.”
We have heard today of the reservations of the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), and the hon. Members for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway) and for Broxbourne (Mr Walker), and there is a degree of sublime humbug about a Conservative leader who hammered away week after week in a general election campaign about the effect on markets of the uncertainty of a hung Parliament, but who now as Prime Minister blithely proposes to impose a system that, if it led to a lame-duck Government under the 55% rule, would create weeks of turmoil in the markets.
The Scottish issue has already been discussed in that respect. There is a pattern here in respect of the Prime Minister, of course. He said on 14 May:
“I’m the first Prime Minister in British history to give up the right…for a dissolution of Parliament…Others have talked about it, people have written pamphlets and made speeches…I have made that change.”
It is, however, very much the 21st-century equivalent of Louis XIV’s “I am the state”—he is, of course, the monarch who was associated with the story of the emperor’s new clothes. We should not take forward the innovation-on-the-hoof that this Prime Minister is proposing, and the naivety of the Deputy Prime Minister in that respect in talking about verdict first, trial afterwards, because he had not worked out the details in the debate today, is a telling observation for all of us.
I do not have the time to talk about the broader issues, but they were touched on by my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears). If we do not look at the broader issues of connecting with people, which would require reforming local government, bringing in the third sector and so forth, we will lose the plot. Substituting the coalition’s rhetoric for the hard practice of what connecting with local people actually means is a big issue.
I am grateful for this opportunity to speak in today’s debate, and I congratulate the other Members who have made their maiden speeches as they have raised the bar. I also thank the people of Amber Valley for electing me as their Member of Parliament. It is a tremendous honour and privilege to serve them, and I will do my utmost to live up to the trust they have placed in me.
The seat of Amber Valley was created in 1983 and was previously represented by Phillip Oppenheim, whom I am sure some Members will remember, and since 1997 by Judy Mallaber. I would like to take this opportunity to thank her for her work on behalf of the people of Amber Valley. She can be rightly proud of what she achieved, especially on the introduction of the minimum wage, on which she worked before entering the House as well as while she was here. It is a tribute that something that was originally a political controversy has become accepted on both sides of the House. I wish her well in her future endeavours.
Whatever our differences on political issues, we have been in agreement on the need to address the support for the British National party in Amber Valley; it had two councillors elected in 2008. I am sure the whole House will share my relief that we are not joined in this place by any members of that party. I suspect that that concern is part of the reason for the conversion of the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) to thinking the European list system we currently use is a bad idea.
It is, however, incumbent upon all politicians of the mainstream to address constructively the issues that have been taken up the BNP. Immigration was the issue most often raised in my seat, and I am pleased that the Gracious Speech includes our pledge to introduce the annual cap on immigration from outside the EU—and I am a little surprised that, as today’s Opposition amendment highlights, they are still concerned about that measure, which, as I have said, had widespread support in my seat.
My predecessor referred in her maiden speech to the importance of putting Amber Valley on the map. I think I can best describe that as a work in progress. This may be the only case that data protection rules allow me to take on from her. The seat is in Derbyshire—not in Wales, as some appear to think—running from the Nottinghamshire border to the edge of the Peak district, and includes the towns of Alfreton, Heanor and Ripley, and many surrounding villages. It is a former mining area, which has developed diverse industries since the closure of the pits in the 1960s.
The seat shares its name with a borough council, although that borough council of about 100,000 electors now has three MPs. Perhaps certain measures in the Gracious Speech will reduce some of that confusion, although I will take care in saying that, as part of the council area is also represented by my Chief Whip, my right hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire Dales (Mr McLoughlin), and I would hate to be seen to be trying to steal part of his seat.
While some Members might not have been able to place Amber Valley on a map, I am sure they are familiar with some of its businesses. These include Denby pottery—and I disagree with the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) in that I claim it as the producer of by far the best pottery in the country, and I am disappointed that I have not as yet found any of its products in use in the House. They also include Matthew Walker Christmas puddings and Thorntons chocolates. If I indulge in too many of their products I can avail myself of the services of another local business, Slimming World.
Of great concern in my constituency is the need to provide good-quality jobs for local people. A recent sadness has been the final closure of the Butterley plant, in Ripley. My two predecessors referred to the great steel work made there that forms the roof of St Pancras railway station; at least they had the pleasure of the business still being around at the time. Part of the Butterley site has already been replaced by houses, much against the wishes of the local council. I therefore welcome our proposal to change the planning system to allow local people to have far more of a say not only in protecting brownfield sites on which we would like to keep manufacturing businesses, but in preventing houses from being built all over our green belt.
I turn to the issue that prompted me to speak in today’s debate. While the tragic events in Cumbria were unfolding last Wednesday, there was also a tragic event in the peaceful village of Holbrook, in my constituency, where a young woman and her two-year-old child were stabbed to death by her estranged partner. My thoughts are with the family and friends of the victims at this difficult time. This case is made more difficult by the fact that the alleged perpetrator of these offences had been arrested twice by the police the week before, following accusations of domestic violence, and had also been receiving treatment for mental illness. I therefore welcome Derbyshire police’s calling in the Independent Police Complaints Commission to review their actions. I in no way wish to pre-judge the outcome of that review—it is easy to do so with the benefit of hindsight—but I hope that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will closely follow the progress of this case. If any lessons need to be learned, I hope they can be learned to ensure that the risk of such tragic events happening again is as low as possible.
It is at times like these that we come to appreciate the difficulty of the job carried out by our police, and I would like to pay tribute to the courage of the officers who broke into the house to try to stop those tragic events. I wish them all the best as they come to terms with the awful situation that they found.
We know that the size of the budget deficit run up by the previous Government means that difficult decisions need to be taken, and Derbyshire police will have to take their share of that pain. I note that the amendment that bears the name of the right hon. Member for Blackburn contains a request that the cuts do not damage the number of police officers. I point out to the Minister that the police funding review carried out some six years ago noted that Derbyshire police needed a significant increase in funding, of approximately £5 million a year. However, that funding has still not been provided to this day, due to the damping mechanism. I urge the Government to have a full review of the allocation of funds for police forces, to ensure that Derbyshire police—who are currently being deprived of the 100 officers whom those funds could be used to provide—get the fair funding they are entitled to for the level of crime in Derbyshire. Only by ensuring a fair allocation of funding can we make sure that we have police services that are both effective and efficient.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) on an excellent maiden speech. It is with some trepidation that I rise to address the House to make my maiden speech, conscious as I am of the esteem and veneration in which it is held in all corners of the civilised world, of the very high standards set by previous maiden speakers in this debate, and of the very great honour that is mine in representing the people of East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow.
Before I tell the House a little more about my constituency, let me pay a warm tribute to my predecessor and friend, the right hon. Adam Ingram. Adam was a trade union official and local councillor before he was first elected to this House in 1987. His talents were soon recognised by Labour Front Benchers, and he served in various positions in opposition, working hard with others for the election of a Labour Government. It was in 1997, when Labour finally took office, that Adam took his first ministerial position under Tony Blair, as Northern Ireland security Minister.
Some Members may have seen the award winning Channel 4 drama “Mo” at the end of January, in which Adam was portrayed by the actor Gary Lewis. Adam explained to me that had Gary Lewis not landed the part, both Brad Pitt and Sylvester Stallone were keen to play the role.
On a serious note, it is easy to forget what has been achieved in Northern Ireland, because nothing is more certain in politics than that, once a commitment is delivered, it is human nature to look forward, not back. None the less, Northern Ireland is a safer, more peaceful place thanks to many people, and Adam Ingram is one of them.
After his time in the Northern Ireland Office, Adam was moved by Tony Blair to the Ministry of Defence. He became the UK’s longest serving defence Minister in modern times, dealing with many complex and difficult problems on the global stage. In total, Adam served for 23 years as the MP for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow and its predecessor constituencies, including 10 years as a Minister. During those 23 years, he never forgot who put him in Parliament, and he always put the interests of his constituents first. I pay tribute to Adam Ingram’s service to my constituency and to our country.
My constituency is a mix of rural and urban. Its most densely populated area is East Kilbride, Scotland’s most successful new town, where I have lived man and boy. Equally important is our rural area, an eclectic mix of villages, each one retaining its distinctive features. Other Members have asked me, “Which constituency do you represent?” They have been rather baffled by the triple-barrelled title of East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow; alternatively, they have had no idea what I am actually saying. However, they should be grateful for the brevity of the title, because many of my constituents remain upset that it does not include their areas of Auldhouse, Blackwood, Brockets Brae, Chapelton, Drumclog, Gilmourton, Glassford, Jackton, Kirkmuirhill, Sandford, Stonehouse and Thorntonhall. I suspect that after hearing that list, Members will be grateful that the constituency name was shortened.
My constituency has a history of providing jobs in both new and established industries, and my constituents do not fear hard work—in fact, they relish it. For the last 13 years, the constituency has had both private and public sector investment. Public sector investment has led to the building of a new hospital, six new high schools, 10 new primary schools, new care homes for the elderly and vulnerable, and new houses. However, that investment is now under threat, both from decisions that will be made in this House and in the devolved Parliament in Edinburgh. We have lost manufacturing jobs in the semiconductor sector and other parts of the economy, but the people of my constituency are resilient. If they are given the opportunities—and their fair share of Government support—they will succeed.
I turn now to the constitution. I learned at an early age in the trade union movement, from my former wise leader, Mr Barry Reamsbottom, that those who seek to amend constitutions rarely do so with the best intentions. That is why I listened intently to the Prime Minister on the day of the Queen’s Speech. I have to say that I was disappointed. In attempting to justify the proposal to move to a 55% majority in order to dissolve this House, the Prime Minister used the example of the devolved Administration in Scotland to suggest that the proposal was constitutionally sound. In doing so, he revealed a profound misunderstanding of the devolved settlement.
The devolved Administrations in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales were created by legislation in this House. Under the principle of subsidiarity, decisions previously taken in this place were devolved to Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. This House of Commons retains its overarching authority over the devolved Administrations because this is the sovereign Parliament of the United Kingdom. For the Prime Minister to pray in aid rules governing the dissolution of a devolved structure to justify a change in the rules of this House demonstrates an alarming lack of respect for the status of the United Kingdom. The argument of the tail wagging the dog does not stand up even to light scrutiny. My constituents have been steadfast in their support of this democratic Chamber, which is rightly revered around the world. Do not let us diminish its authority based on the result of one election.
This House comprises people of many different backgrounds and talents—business people, lawyers, economists, doctors and academics—but for this place to be truly representative we need diversity. It is therefore right that this House should also include trade unionists, plumbers, electricians and people who have worked in the voluntary sector. My late father, Charles McCann, was a boiler maker/plater, and my mother, Bridget, was a housewife who brought up five children, three of whom were born profoundly deaf. I have been a civil servant, a trade union official and an elected councillor; my parents taught me the values that have made me the person I am today. I am proud to have been elected on 6 May, and I will strain every sinew to represent to the best of my ability the people of East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow in my role as their new Member of Parliament.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I am grateful for the opportunity to thank the people of the Hexham constituency for allowing me to represent them in the House of Commons. I will never forget that they are the people who put me here. I follow on from Peter Atkinson, and I must say that one could not meet a kinder, gentler man. He served Hexham for 18 years with great distinction and I pay tribute to the work that he did. I will do well to copy his calm and effective representation.
The Hexham constituency is the second biggest in England, stretching from the outskirts of Newcastle to the Scottish border, and down to the far reaches of south and west Northumberland. The town of Hexham, with its famous abbey, may be the centre of the constituency, but it is surrounded by hundreds of beautiful villages and towns, Hadrian’s wall, the Pennine way, Kielder forest and reservoir, and Northumberland national park. While I am on the subject of tourism, I should mention that we are showing the way, as our scenery and history are second to none; ours is the land of the Romans, St Oswald, the marcher lords, Harry Hotspur, the border reivers and George Stephenson. Our area is at the heartbeat of history, having survived historical Scottish raids and political Liberal raids—I am pleased to say that both those former enemies are now our friends. I invite any hon. Member who has not visited our area to do so. Its people are second to none, and I shall do everything that I can to promote such a beautiful part of the north-east.
However, this special place also has serious issues that need to be addressed. My area contains hospitals that need to be retained, military barracks full of soldiers who need to be supported and schools that, despite the best efforts of the amazing teaching staff, have been underfunded and poorly supported for years. I should also mention our wealth of small and medium-sized businesses that need assistance to get through tough times. My family has run manufacturing businesses for more than 100 years since coming to this country as immigrants, so I am acutely conscious of the fact that the creation of long-term jobs will be at the heart of my role as the Member for Hexham.
Farmers are struggling, hill farmers particularly so, and they all say that the Government of the past 13 years were totally disinterested in the rural way of life. However, our area’s biggest problem is the chronic lack of social and affordable housing, which is having an impact on the local economy and schools. To put it simply, young people cannot afford to buy homes in my area. Some planners call this “Cumbriafication”, whereby a community is simply priced out of its birthright as all the families have to move elsewhere to live. If we do not stop this process, we will see the ever greater loss of our vibrant rural communities. But there are answers to this problem, because what is a speech in this great House without hope, aspiration, and an ability to believe that one’s reach can exceed one’s grasp?
We face a simple choice between supporting either the British farmer or still higher profits for the big supermarkets. We in this House have to make that decision, because the farmer simply will not survive without support in this House. We have a simple choice to make, and we should provide local homes for local people, decided upon by local people. We have a simple choice: do we allow village communities to slip away or will we halt the closure of post offices, shops and pubs? Without such amenities, the rural way of life loses its heart, its soul and so much more,
I have chosen to speak in the home affairs debate because I have spent too long as a criminal and civil barrister watching while Home Secretaries meddle with the criminal justice system to little positive effect. There have been dozens of criminal justice Bills in the past 13 years, very few of which were any good. No one has introduced a prison reform Act since 1952. I, like others, have worked at the criminal Bar, prosecuting and defending in many murder trials, and I have seen enough of the inadequacies of prison life to know that wholesale reform is required. To fail to reform the Prison Service would be a crime, because we are simply not solving the problem of crime and punishment. We have doubled the prison population in the past 18 years, yet reoffending rates remain in excess of 70%. We send more people to prison than anyone else in Europe, yet we are not safer. I will campaign for a better focus on sentencing, rehabilitation, drug testing and simple education in prisons. It is often said that too often Governments consult but do not listen. I want to ensure that the victim has a voice in this House. I am proud of the fact that the previous Labour Government, in their wisdom, gave me two separate national awards, one for my help to victim support and one for my campaign to challenge the state on unlawful hospital closures. I expect no such generosity from my hon. Friends in this Parliament.
People do not expect government to solve everything; in fact, in my experience, people are amazed when government does anything good at all. But we have a fresh chance, after the dark days of economic meltdown and a broken political system, to establish a new beginning. I accept that it will not be easy, but I am ambitious for my constituents and for this country. You will probably have noticed that I have fallen in love with the constituency of Hexham and its people, Mr Deputy Speaker—that is easy to do, because it is a very special place. I hope to play my part, however small, in delivering success for all the people of my constituency—that is an ambition worth striving for.
It is probably just as well that this is not a maiden speech, because I would hate to have to compete with the outstanding contributions that we have heard today, not least that of the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman). On the basis of what I have heard, I am sure that he will make a major contribution to this place in the years ahead. This is not a maiden speech, but it is a long time since I have had an opportunity to address the House and I have a new constituency—new Selly Oak—which I am very proud to represent.
Apart from the rather dubious proposals on anonymity for rape defendants and the likely impact on rape victims, we have not heard much in the Queen’s Speech about the victims of crime and antisocial behaviour. What plans does the coalition have to ensure that the needs of that group are put at the centre of our criminal justice system? It is the lack of consideration for victims that causes some people to think that the system is broken and many to believe that it is weighted entirely in favour of the offender. I have been working with victims for some time now, the most recent phase of which culminated in an input into Sara Payne’s report. I take this opportunity to wish her well. I hope that she makes a full recovery, because she is a remarkable lady.
I have become convinced that we need local charters for victims that all criminal justice and public agencies must sign up to so that everyone knows what is expected of them, and that we must reweight the system by putting the rights and needs of the victim ahead of the demands and desires of the wrongdoer. I ask the Government to examine how to reshape the criminal justice system so that the victim becomes our top priority.
I understand the coalition’s desire to abolish identity cards. I do not agree with its view, nor do a great many other people who have worries relating to the contribution that ID cards can make to combating crime and fraud. Will there be any compensation for those who, in good faith, have already purchased ID cards, or are they to become the first uncompensated victims of the coalition? As the databases are dismantled, what will happen to ID cards for foreign nationals? Without that infrastructure, how will we tackle illegal immigration?
I should like to know more about the priorities on police reform. Money is tight, so why, as the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) might well ask, is it a priority to have elections that nobody wants at a cost of perhaps £50 million per throw? Where will that money come from? Can my constituents in Selly Oak have an assurance that it will not be stripped from their policing budgets? What will happen to the policing pledge under elected police chiefs? Can it simply be ditched? If so, how will the Home Secretary safeguard against massive variations in behaviour and performance across police forces? Is incentivised and common-sense policing still on the agenda? On DNA and reducing the retention period for DNA profiles—not abolishing them as a matter of principle, but reducing the period—is the Home Secretary convinced that her proposals will not result in an avoidable tragedy? How will she sleep at night if a murderer or rapist who could have been caught goes free and does it again?
Finally, what are the Government’s intentions in relation to closed circuit television, and what was the purpose of the Deputy Prime Minister’s outburst against it? Is he merely trying to rekindle his liberal credentials and using CCTV as an Aunt Sally? Remember all those warm words—“It doesn’t have to be like this,” “It can be different,” and “We can change it”? That was rhetoric with the shelf-life of a TV debate from someone whose ambition is now exposed as being to acquire power and hang on to it by any means possible, no matter how illiberal or anti-democratic. Let me tell him that it will not wash. The people in Selly Oak want CCTV. Of course, they want it to be used responsibly, but they want it, and they will not accept any sham diversions.
I have experience of Lib Dem-Tory coalitions in Birmingham, and I know how poor they are at dealing with crime, antisocial behaviour and victims, and how poor they are at using tools that are regularly available elsewhere. I warn this Government not to make the same mistakes, not to rob us of the very tools that make people feel safe and that assist us in the fight against crime, and, for goodness’ sake, not to do that to help to save face for an already tarnished Deputy Prime Minister.
Parliament has returned to a sea of fresh faces, but unlike you, Mr Deputy Speaker, I recognise hardly any of them. They include my brother-in-law, my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke), and my former association chairman, my hon. Friend the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg). The party political landscape is transformed and there is a feeling of refreshed optimism, but if we do not apply a new way of thinking to fixing our nation’s problems, the very same old politics will, I fear, return.
I shall unashamedly concentrate my observations on economic matters, in my capacity as the Member for the City of London, and on constitutional reform, which I broadly welcome as a long-time and robust supporter of House of Lords elections. I fear that the spirit of the past couple of years has been uncompromisingly ugly for those of us who instinctively support capitalism, free markets and global trade. There is widespread, almost open, hostility to banks, bankers, big business, the wealthy, private education, private health and at times even to the profit motive. That stands in stark contrast to the last time that the Conservatives came into government 31 years ago, when the case for empowering people, the smaller state and individual responsibility had already been made.
The election is already behind us, but I fear that we have a coalition Government in place that lack any explicit mandate to take the very tough economic decisions that are required as a matter of great urgency to get our public finances back on track. The key problem that faces the Government is a lack of public support for the urgent reductions in public expenditure that are now absolutely necessary. In large part, that is a result of the reluctance of the entire political class, during the recent election campaign, to level with the British public about the economic crisis that lies ahead. We are yet to strike at the core of the former Government’s rhetoric, and their narrative remains too dominant for my liking. Labour will now be able to sit on the sidelines and blame the new Government for everything that it postponed addressing. For example, we acquiesce in levelling higher taxes on the wealthy without making clear the very practical reasons why, in an age of unprecedented global mobility, the brightest and best of our young people will simply leave these shores if their plans to create wealth and promote enterprise are stifled. If the coalition is to be a success—and, more importantly, if our country is to lift itself out of this economic mire—we need first to make the case for a smaller, more efficient state through public spending cuts, and, secondly, to be strong enough to make the case for an internationally attractive and competitive tax system.
I understand the public’s appetite for retribution when it comes to the financial services sector, much of which is housed in my constituency, and the feeling that the banking fraternity should take the lion’s share of new taxes. But we must somehow separate sensible measures to curb excess and to share fairly the national burden from very punitive measures that are designed only to twist the knife and that have great potential to drive away the wealth and employment creators of the future.
There has been much talk about revitalising Britain’s manufacturing and export-led growth, but this prompts the obvious question, in the current economic climate, of who exactly will be doing the importing. The UK must be eternally grateful that we have stayed out of the eurozone, but the tumultuous events on the continent, which are only starting to play themselves out, will have a massive effect on us, regardless. After all, that struggling eurozone accounts for 60% of our export market. That is very bad news for the UK. Not only will our European trading partners be importing less, but the likely rapid depreciation in the value of the euro will also detrimentally affect our exporters. One of the most worrying aspects of the UK’s economic performance, particularly in the past two years, has been our failure to take greater advantage of the significant 20 to 25% devaluation in our currency to expand our export markets. That will augur very badly for us if sterling appreciates against the euro in the months ahead.
On constitutional reform, I must confess to being rather less a Conservative and more a radical in this area. In my very first speech in the House, nine years ago, I made very clear my support for a wholly-elected House of Lords, and a few years ago I suggested a set of proposals that would have helped to tie up the anomalies that had been left by devolution and the incomplete reform of the House of Lords. As a result of this interest, I have found very disquieting the recent press reports that the new coalition proposes—in breach of both election manifestos—to ennoble 200 men and women in order to ensure that the composition of the House of Lords is
“reflective of the share of the vote”
in the recent general election.
Just before the election, I noted that there would be public outrage if a business-as-usual approach to House of Lords appointments was adopted by the political class in the months ahead. In particular, it would be totally unacceptable if any retiring Members of this House who have been reprimanded, been obliged to apologise to the House or had to repay substantial sums following the allowances scandal were now raised to the peerage. The same must apply to the former senior parliamentarians from the Commons who led the absolutely calamitous efforts to prevent the publication of MPs’ expenses through the High Court or the inadequate attempts at reform after the entire scandal broke regarding the employment of relatives at the beginning of 2008. That might be the way that things were done in the past, but it cannot be tolerated now.
It would be unwise to underestimate the challenges ahead for our nation and the challenges that we in the coalition have to take on board. The previous Government left not only a dismal economic legacy, but a discredited political system and woefully inadequate attempts at constitutional reform. An extremely tough road lies ahead, and I fear that the early popularity of the coalition will be very fleeting and that the good will towards it will be very temporary in this country. Accepting that, it would be wise for us to apply integrity, common sense and principle to every political decision that we take. That approach is more likely to receive longer-term political support than the pursuit of an agenda set by public opinion and the media. In looking at both the economy and constitutional reform, I believe we need only take the efforts of the past 13 years as our lesson. Short-termist, incomplete and superficially popular measures have a terrible habit of unravelling before our eyes.
I thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to make my maiden speech today. I congratulate all those who have made maiden speeches today, particularly the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), and my hon. Friends the Members for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr McCann), for Glasgow East (Margaret Curran) and for East Lothian (Fiona O'Donnell), who spoke with passion and compassion in equal measure, as I have come to expect from them.
Representing the constituency of West Dunbartonshire would be an enormous honour for anyone but it is particularly special for me, because it is my home. It is where I am from, where I was born and raised. The reason I stood for West Dunbartonshire was to represent the people I grew up with, have lived beside and have known all my life. It is an honour to represent them here.
I pay tribute to my predecessor the right hon. John McFall, not from obligation but from true respect. As a Member of this House, John was first and foremost a champion for West Dunbartonshire. I read his maiden speech, and I could easily have used his opening paragraph, although I hasten to add that I did not. He spoke with pride of the honour of representing his home and I know that throughout his parliamentary career that was foremost in his mind.
John was a Minister in the Northern Ireland Office and was there at the time of the devastating Omagh bombing. He is of course best known for his superb chairmanship of the Treasury Committee. It was a privilege to visit the constituency with John in the weeks before the election. Both he and I were welcomed with open arms everywhere we went. Even after all his 23 years of elected office, he was not wearied by the job. It was clear that he would miss his constituents, and this place, immensely.
John was also a Co-op MP and I am delighted to follow in his footsteps in that respect. I look forward to promoting and supporting Co-op policies in the House, as I believe they often provide a better answer to some problems.
Last week, John was elevated to the other place. I confess that I am slightly unnerved that he will be keeping an eye on me, but his counsel is always welcome. He will be a formidable addition to the other Chamber. Having watched him tackle the bank chiefs, I pity those who thought they were rid of him, but John was respected on both sides of the House and many will be glad to see him back in Westminster.
I pay tribute, too, to Tony Worthington, the former MP for Clydebank and Milngavie. Like John, he was a Minister in the Northern Ireland Office and contributed greatly through his work on the Select Committee on International Development.
Although I did not have the good fortune to meet Ian Campbell, who so ably represented Dumbarton before John McFall, I met his wife Mary during the selection process. Living as she does in the quiet rural village of Gartocharn, she was somewhat surprised to see me at her door one night during the selection campaign, as I chased down every last party member for their vote. She was not, however, as surprised as I was when she told me that the postman had not driven up to her house for some months because of the bad weather. At that point, I worried that I might have put my determination to be selected as the Labour candidate above any consideration for the condition of my dad’s car, which my partner Gregor had driven up the steep muddy track to Mrs Campbell’s house, narrowly avoiding the sheep. I hope the car is not still rattling—if so, I am afraid the game is up. Apologies, Dad.
The constituency of West Dunbartonshire has the best of both worlds. We sit between Glasgow, in my opinion the best city in the world, and Loch Lomond, undisputedly one of the most beautiful places in the world. If Members have never visited the area, I urge them to put it on their wish list now.
I am in the unique position of having a personal connection with virtually every part of my constituency. Having been born in the Vale of Leven, I grew up in Dumbarton and while I am technically a Son of the Rock I am also half Bankie, as my dad is from Clydebank and I have family in with the bricks there. My mum and dad lived in Bowling when they were first married and growing up I often visited friends in Old Kilpatrick, Milton and Duntocher, so there is genuinely no part of my constituency that is unfamiliar to me. I look forward to standing up for all those areas as I promised during my campaign.
There is so much to be proud of in West Dunbartonshire. We have an incredible history and potentially a very bright future. I could speak for a long time about the history of Dumbarton as the ancient capital of Strathclyde and about our rock and castle, which dates back to the Vikings. I could tell the House about the famous Denny’s shipyard, the leading innovator of the time in shipbuilding, which put the finishing touches to the Cutty Sark.
I could also talk about the proud industrial past of Clydebank, heralded today by the Titan crane on the site of the former John Brown’s shipyard, famous for its liners and battleships, where the QE II was built. If I had time, I would love to expand on formidable red Clydesiders, such as Davie Kirkwood, another of my predecessors. My older constituents still remember singing about him at election time and his spirit lives on today in the vital work of the Clydebank asbestos group. I could talk about the individuality of all the communities that make up the Vale of Leven and the fantastic community-led regeneration in Renton, but I hope the House will permit me to move on to more pressing issues for my constituents.
Some people focus too much on the boundaries that divide West Dunbartonshire, while I see a brilliant area, with fantastic people, potential and ambition. But we are a people who suffered much under the last Tory Government and I fear we have much to lose under the present one. This Government should pay close attention to what is happening in West Dunbartonshire, because they could learn from the mistakes that are being made there right now.
My constituency is, I am sorry to say, ahead of the curve in facing swingeing cuts, for we are at the mercy of a Scottish National council that wishes to raise £2 million from local people. The council has ramped up home care charges for almost every service it provides. It is cutting our education services from all sides. Those cuts and charges are the No. 1 issue raised with me both by local people who use the services and council employees who are struggling to deliver them. Although it may not be parliamentary convention to address such an issue in a maiden speech, I would be letting down my constituents if I did not raise that situation in my first opportunity to speak in this place.
One of my first acts as the MP for West Dunbartonshire will be to establish a jobs taskforce, but while I am planning how to help get people into work, the Government are taking people out of work. My constituents valued Labour’s future jobs fund. Nowhere was it needed more than in West Dunbartonshire, because despite Labour’s success in tackling the desperately high levels of unemployment left as the Conservative legacy, West Dunbartonshire consistently has one of the highest levels of unemployment in Scotland. I do not accept that it is for ever our fate to be at the wrong end of those statistics, which is why I welcomed Labour’s future jobs fund, but that help will now be taken from my constituents, and I urge the Government to reconsider their decision.
I raise the issue not just for its own merit but to illustrate to the Government that many in the Chamber will disagree with their policies. That is normal and healthy in a democracy, but it would not be healthy or democratic to bind the House to an arbitrary and artificial dissolution threshold of 55%.
I am conscious that I may not have made as traditional a maiden speech as is expected, but I am firmly aware of the expectations my constituents have of me and I intend to uphold my promise to them that I will always put them first.
I congratulate the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Gemma Doyle) and Members on both sides of the House on the excellent maiden speeches we have heard today.
I thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for recognising me for this maiden speech. It is, after all, five years since my predecessor, Bob Marshall-Andrews, took to the airwaves to concede defeat. Many Members may have heard him admit defeat on that occasion, but not all may have heard him make later what has variously been described as an Al Gore-style retraction or a Lazarus-like recovery.
Bob Marshall-Andrews represented the constituents of Medway for 13 years, highly ably holding the Government to account throughout that period. During that time he faced a pincer attack from my campaign and from his Front Bench. On one occasion, the Labour Whips were so keen to assist my campaign that they leaked the fact that they had given him permission to undertake legal work in Hong Kong for several weeks while Parliament was sitting. Such things are always opaque, but I understand that it was in retaliation for Mr Marshall-Andrews having auctioned a series of Whips’ letters to recalcitrant MPs, to raise money for the Campaign group.
Bob Marshall-Andrews had a number of great successes. He defended the right to trial by jury—I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) took up that cause this evening—and he helped to prevent the extension of detention without trial. He played a major part locally in bringing the campuses of four universities to our constituency.
The counstituency of Rochester and Strood is the successor to the Medway constituency. It contains two of the five Medway towns. Rochester, with its castle and cathedral, was and should again be a city. Strood, its proud neighbour over the River Medway, grew in the patriotic fervour of the Boer war, along with Chatham dockyard, and that is recorded in street names such as Gordon, Kitchener and Cecil.
The constituency contains the historic dockyard of Chatham, which built and served our Navy from before the time of Pepys, to Nelson’s HMS Victory, to the Falklands conflict. We are proud of that heritage, but we are also proud that, 25 years on, we have recovered from the closure of that dockyard.
The constituency is two thirds urban, but also a third rural. We have the Hoo peninsula, between the Rivers Medway and Thames, which stretches from Grain to Cliffe, and where we saw off the threat of an airport twice the size of Heathrow. The constituency also contains the north downs villages of Cuxton and Halling.
On the substance of the debate tonight, I should declare an interest: I am a member of the Kent police authority. However, on occasion, turkeys do vote for Christmas, and I should like to welcome the coalition’s proposals to abolish police authorities and replace us with directly elected individuals. It must be right that those who exercise the coercive power of the state should be held to account by those whom they serve. That is a progressive cause. It is the cause of centuries of the parish constable against the remote magistracy. It is the cause of London Labour councils and the South Yorkshire police authority through the 1980s. It is the cause of the Levellers and, indeed, the Diggers, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton referred earlier. However, it is a cause today that is represented not by the Opposition, but by the Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr Cameron), who represents not just Burford, but democratic ideals of the Levellers who lost their lives there.
I have heard the odd senior police officer oppose those plans, yet there is no suggestion of any intrusion on the chief constable’s prerogative. The powers that will be transferred are currently those of police authorities. Surely, the objection is not merely that directly elected individuals will exercise those powers more effectively than police authorities have done to date.
We will also codify operational independence. I would caution that that does not mean that the police should be allowed to get along with things solely as they wish. The Metropolitan police have a tradition of independence because we have had a concern to guard against them becoming the arm of central Government. However, our tripartite system is a compromise between counties, where chief constables would occasionally receive instructions, and boroughs, where oversight was much greater. Indeed, the watch committee of the borough of Preston met twice a day—once in the morning, to give the chief constable his instructions, and once in the early evening, to check that he had carried them out.
Before I close, I should like to draw the House’s attention to what I consider the major trend in policing of the past 25 years. It is the movement of power from locally appointed and accountable chief constables to an organisation that is both a private company and a trade union with a closed shop: the Association of Chief Police Officers, which has grown to dominate the field of policing without the sanction of the House. It has its committees and its cabinet, and it issues instructions to us in Kent on how much we should charge for policing the Faversham carnival or the Maidstone water festival. It is right that we should now move and have directly elected police commissioners to rebalance the policing landscape and restore local democracy.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Rochester and Strood (Mark Reckless) on his fine maiden speech. The practical experience that he obviously has of police authorities will stand him in good stead in debates in the House on such matters, even though we may not agree on the contents of what he says. As for his generous tributes to his predecessor, I am sure that the Labour Whips will hope that he is as loyal to the new Government as his predecessor was to the Labour Government.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire (Gemma Doyle) for her fine speech. She also paid a very generous tribute to her predecessor, John McFall. John McFall is certainly a hard act to follow, but I have no doubt that she has the talent and expertise to be a worthy successor to him. She will shine in the House, although the nice things that I had written down about her speech came to a stop when she reached the part about Glasgow being the finest city in the world. Glasgow is a fine place, but that is going a little too far. I am sure that she will do well, and I wish her well in her parliamentary career.
I want to say a few things about the issue of the 55% threshold for Dissolution of the House of Commons, which is being proposed by the Government coalition. I do not think that I am the only Member, and not only on this side of the House, who is disappointed at the way that the Deputy Prime Minister—the first Liberal leader since Lloyd George to speak at the Dispatch Box from the Treasury Bench—performed in the Chamber today. I found his refusal to enter into any real debate and answer questions very disappointing. As the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) said from the other side of the Chamber, the proposal for a minimum threshold is a major constitutional change, and it was not even in either of the Government parties’ manifestos, so it is quite reasonable to ask questions about the proposal, how it would work and what it would mean in practice. It is not good enough to say, “It is just a few details that we will sort out later.”
The Deputy Leader of the House was taken by surprise, or ambushed, in an Adjournment debate last week. He could be forgiven for not having all the answers, but by now I would have hoped that the Government had answers to the questions that they were asked. I hope that we see better from the Deputy Prime Minister in future.
Given that the Deputy Prime Minister would not answer many of the questions that were put to him today, I hope that the Home Secretary, who is always courteous, tries to address in the winding-up speech some of the issues that the Deputy Prime Minister unfortunately failed to address. I congratulate her junior Ministers on their promotion to the Treasury Bench and hope that they will have a word with her about that before the end of the debate.
Those issues are simple and straightforward. First, do the Government accept that if a Government lose a vote of confidence on a simple majority and no alternative majority is formed within a reasonable time, Parliament will then be dissolved and there will be general election? If they say yes and make it clear that that is their position, they will deal with many of the objections held by Members on the Opposition Benches. [Interruption.] The Deputy Leader of the House chunters away from a sedentary position, but the fact is that we have not been given clear answers to these questions. If the Government give clear answers, they will allow the debate to move much further forward.
Secondly, we have to challenge the assertion being made by the Government parties that their proposal for a 55% threshold gives away the Government’s right to call a general election. A 55% threshold does not give away the Government’s right to call an election. As has been pointed out time and again, the Government parties have 57% of the seats—a majority—so nothing has changed. There is no move to a fixed-term Parliament in the measures being proposed, from what we can understand about what they are meant to provide.
If those on the Government side of the House really want to give up the right to be able to call a general election at a time that suits the Government parties, perhaps we should go for a higher threshold for a Government motion to dissolve Parliament. Let us go for the Scottish higher proportion, as some people have suggested. That might be a fair combination: a higher threshold for the Government to be able to move Dissolution, but keeping the right of a simple majority in Parliament to throw the Government out if they no longer have the support of the House. That is the kind of debate—the kind of proposal and the kind of compromise—that we ought to have over time. It is the kind of debate in which we might get a fair degree of consensus across the House.
One lesson of the Scottish example is not simply the numbers—the threshold—required to dissolve the Scottish Parliament, but the approach to politics involved. The Scottish Parliament’s arrangements for dissolution and for no-confidence votes have stood the test of time because they were not suddenly announced at the last minute, after an election. Originally, we were told that there would be a binding vote of the House of Commons on the proposals within days of the Government taking office. That idea at least appears to have been dropped. The Scottish Parliament proposals had such broad support because they were discussed over time, and not