Before I call the mover and seconder, I want to announce the proposed pattern of debate during the remaining days on the Loyal Address: Thursday 10 May—home affairs and justice; Monday 14 May—business and the economy; Tuesday 15 May—foreign affairs and international development; Wednesday 16 May —cost of living; Thursday 17 May—jobs and growth.
I beg to move,
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, as follows:
Most Gracious Sovereign,
We, Your Majesty’s most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, in Parliament assembled, beg leave to offer our humble thanks to Your Majesty for the Gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament.
In this year of the Queen’s diamond jubilee, I am deeply honoured to move the Loyal Address. For six decades, Her Majesty has provided us with a peerless example of duty, dignity and service to the nation. And it was the subject of “peerlessness” that was immediately on my mind when I was called into the Chief Whip’s office last week. I really thought that he wanted to have a full and frank discussion with me on the reform of the other place. I ran to No. 9 Downing street, in the pouring rain, clutching my folder of briefing notes, while continuously repeating, “More effective, but not elected. More effective, but not elected.” I can announce to this House that having a small glass of water, without the biscuits, with the Chief Whip has allowed us to reach agreement; as our manifesto demanded, a consensus on this thorny issue has been reached.
It was only later that I remembered something important: the accepted convention is that this Address is usually delivered by an hon. Member of this House just as their illustrious career is starting to approach its expiry date—perhaps my right. hon. Friend the Prime Minister was gently hinting that I had a great future behind me. Equally, the Loyal Address is usually seconded by a young, ambitious, thrusting Back Bencher who is hungry for promotion, and it is in that spirit that I warmly congratulate the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce), who has that happy role today.
Although I have rarely seen the Chamber this full, this will probably not be my most watched speech. Not many Back-Bench MPs can boast more than 130,000 downloads on YouTube, for a few lines uttered during an Opposition day debate. To any colleagues in the House seeking a wider audience for their speeches, my advice is: spend less time thinking about what you are going to say and more time thinking about what you are going to wear. I recommend a loud tie—preferably one with a soundtrack.
The last person to move this motion was my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley), and I seem to recall that he informed this House that he was able to trace his lineage back to the village of Lilley, which has existed in his constituency since Anglo-Saxon times. With a name like mine, I was never going to convince the voters of Stratford-on-Avon that my ancestors fought the Normans at the battle of Hastings. In fact, Stratford-on-Avon is a constituency in the heart of England, in the county of Warwickshire, that is 90% white. If I may say so, Mr Speaker, this is not a kaleidoscope county. But it is testament to the values of that constituency, and of this country, that it chose me as its representative, and it is on its behalf that I deliver this address.
During the election, I canvassed every one of Stratford-on-Avon’s 79 villages and hamlets, as well as its four principal towns. It became clear to me that people were not interested in my ethnicity, or in where I had gone to school. What they wanted to know was: was I on their side, and was I up to the job? For us politicians, and for this Government, those are the questions that really matter. Our different backgrounds were certainly a point of curiosity, but what made the difference was our shared values, and in that the people of Stratford represent the very best of modern Britain.
Mr Speaker, my family arrived on these shores with only £50 in their pockets—immigrants from a land in the grip of a cruel and murderous regime. This great country offered us the priceless gifts of freedom and opportunity, and the ultimate proof of that opportunity is that I can stand before you today as a Member of this, the oldest and greatest of all Parliaments.
Today, the task before us all is to spread that opportunity further. To do so, we must strengthen enterprise and deliver a more affordable state. It will not be easy. As my hon. Friend, and co-author, the Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock) well knows, over the past decade or more our banks have been managed not by the masters of the universe, but by the masters of nothing. I am therefore pleased that the Gracious Speech has announced measures to implement the Vickers recommendations on banking reform. We should not make the mistake of thinking that this is merely a technical issue, of no interest to the public. It matters to people, because they want a fairer and stronger financial system, not one of cosy cartels and taxpayer bail-outs.
What is happening right now in the eurozone will matter, too. In Greece, hardliners and extremists are threatening to take over the political mainstream, but it is comforting that there are early signs of a reverse trend here in the UK. In Britain, extremists and hardliners are rejoining the mainstream. Only yesterday my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary issued a clarion call for the repatriation of powers from Brussels. After such a far-sighted and decisive intervention, by such a senior member of the Government, no one can say that this coalition is not working. But there is a serious point here. People at home watching the political mayhem in Europe would be utterly dismayed if we failed to maintain a strong and focused Government to deal with this crisis.
There is a real opportunity beyond the crisis, and I therefore welcome the Government’s commitment to build strategic partnerships with the emerging powers. Over the next 10 years the global economy is forecast to grow by $9 trillion—and $6 trillion of that growth will come from one country: China. In fact, China is growing so quickly that it creates an economy the size of Greece every three months. On current trends, we might have to revise that upwards.
In my own constituency, I see even small businesses grabbing hold of the opportunities that those huge numbers represent. Reforms that unleash the creative power of our small and medium-sized businesses are the best growth strategy that this country could possibly have.
In business, we soon learn that the world owes us nothing; historic ties, patient diplomacy, shared values and even shared language will not get us that contract unless we can also beat our rivals on quality, service and price. That is a lesson that we ignore at our peril. Yet there is one area in which the world does owe Britain—one field in which we remain both a net creditor and a leading exporter. It is more stable than finance and more enduring than oil. I am describing our extraordinary cultural industries. Indeed, as the Member for Stratford-on-Avon, I cannot proceed any further without a mention of William Shakespeare, my most famous former constituent.
Members of the House will doubtless be familiar with Shakespeare’s warning in Act I of “Hamlet”:
“Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Nor any unproportion’d thought his act”—
valuable advice indeed for those of us who use Twitter, Mr Speaker.
The House will be aware of not only Shakespeare the playwright and poet, but Shakespeare the industry—another area in which our fame resounds across the world. When the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao, visited Britain for two days last summer, one day was reserved for high-level strategic talks in Whitehall, but the other—at his own request—was spent with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford. The thought of one of the world’s most powerful men wearing special white gloves, so that he could handle a Shakespeare first edition with reverence, is a striking reminder of just how far our cultural reach extends. And the traffic is not just one-way; for the many Chinese visitors to Stratford, a park bench where Premier Wen took a short rest has become a major tourist attraction.
In summing up, I should say that it is Shakespeare the man who resonates with me the most. As well as creating great art, Shakespeare built a great business. Uniquely among Elizabethan playwrights, he owned a share in the theatre company for which he wrote. Like all good business owners, he invested in his company. In 1608, he helped to finance a second theatre in Blackfriars, just across the river from the more famous Globe. Lacking family connections, but possessed of a great grammar school education, his achievement is all the more remarkable.
As well as being the greatest writer in our language—in any language, I would say—there is no better embodiment of British values than this self-taught, self-made, and indeed self-created, man. He was a man who worked his utmost to put on earth and in our hearts a source of wealth that endures to this day. In fact, more than that, I would go as far as to say that the great bard was in his soul and actions a natural Tory. I commend the motion to the House.
I am very privileged to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi); the House will be glad that he left his loud tie and accompanying soundtrack behind. But he did manage to make a powerful and entertaining speech. I remind him, however, that he and I would be considerably disadvantaged in our task today had we not been elected to this House. Law-makers should be held accountable to law-obeyers.
It is an honour to be asked to second the Loyal Address and a great surprise to be doing so. I realise I am the old guard following the young blood, but I hope that the kinder Members of the House might see a little wisdom tempering youthful exuberance. A great deal has changed in the 29 years since I entered the House, but some things do not change. I made my maiden speech in a Queen’s Speech debate on the health service. The Health Minister who replied was the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), who has proved himself a survivor in Government, even if he is now more rounded and more mellow—even if we are talking only about his shoes and his figure.
I represent part of the north-east of Scotland, which is characterised by a dry, understated sense of humour. For the past 30 years, we have been entertained by a talented trio known as Scotland the What? and they invented a number of kooky characters, one of whom was the Member of Parliament for Aucherturra wi’ Clatt, which is a name that resonates across Gordon, if nowhere else; indeed, I think that you are looking at that hon. Member. Less salubrious was Councillor Swick, which means “swindle” in the local dialect. In one sketch, he plays a justice of the peace, and he instructs the procurator fiscal to bring in the first criminal. When he is told that the accused is innocent until proved guilty, he demands of the procurator fiscal, “Whose side are you on?” At the end of his presiding over the court, he concluded, “In my court, justice has not only to be done but has to be seen to be believed.”
The constituency of Gordon has changed a great deal. For a start, it has experienced four boundary changes. Nevertheless, the voters of Gordon have done me the honour of electing me seven times. Currently, one third of the population lives in the northern part of the city of Aberdeen, which includes the airport— the fastest-growing airport in the UK. That airport is crucial to our dynamic economy. We have two renowned universities and food and agricultural research centres of world repute, while Rowett research institute has produced no fewer than three Nobel laureates, and of course there is the global energy industry. Like most people in Gordon, I did not support the oil tax changes in last year’s Budget, but I appreciate the engagement with the industry by all relevant Ministers and Departments, which led to further tax measures in this year’s Budget that have gone a long way towards restoring confidence.
The other two thirds of the population of Gordon live in central Aberdeenshire—a productive farming and food producing region notable for prime beef promoted by ANM Group, Scotch Premier Meat, and innovative mail order pioneer Donald Russell. We also have quality ice cream makers Mackie, who also produce a range of crisps, and Rizza’s of Huntly, which is also the home of Dean’s, makers of melt-in-the-mouth shortbread and biscuits. [Interruption.] They did not pay me to say that, I promise. Many of those food producers, and our mixed livestock and arable farmers, will welcome the Bill to establish a groceries code adjudicator.
People often ask me where Gordon is. The trouble is that the constituency derives its name not from a place but from the Gordon family. Lady Aberdeen, June Gordon, who died in 2009 at the age of 95, was well beloved as a great patron of the arts at Haddo house. At an event shortly after my re-election in 1997, she told me that she was delighted that I had been re-elected given my small majority in 1983. “I was so concerned that you might not get back”, she said, “that I nearly voted for you.” The Gordon family have also produced one Prime Minister, the fourth Earl of Aberdeen, who led a Liberal-Conservative Government and included Palmerston and Gladstone in his Cabinet.
Of course, we are also famous for fine malt whisky. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] That is going down well at the back. One commentator described me as the Member for Gordon, the home of malt gin; and in fact it is the same Gordon family who were responsible for that most English of drinks—gin. We have some fine distilleries, including Glendronach, Ardmore and Glen Garioch, which won an award for the best Highland single malt this March—so go out and get it!
Scotland’s First Minister has stated that he will not wear a kilt in Scotland until independence has been achieved. Of all the economic, historical, legal, cultural and social arguments for rejecting independence, surely the most overwhelming must be to protect the people of Scotland from the sight of Alex Salmond in a kilt.
No Member on the Government Benches needs telling that this is a difficult time to be in government. We inherited an unsustainable level of public debt and a recession across developed economies. The coalition agreement took as its mantra “freedom, fairness and responsibility” and we must work harder on that.
In the two years since the first Queen’s Speech of this Parliament, a great deal of heavy lifting has been carried out. When there is no money left, it is impossible not to make painful decisions to turn around a huge debt and lay the foundations of a more sustainable future. However, I believe that we have strived hard to be fair. Raising the tax threshold to £9,205 a year by the end of this Session and increasing pensions and most benefits with inflation at a time of no growth is, I believe, an extraordinary achievement.
On the core agenda, the coalition has still much to do. This is not a time to be distracted by unproductive arguments between left and right or to deepen our divisions with the rest of Europe, whose problems profoundly affect us. There is more than enough that unites us.
Our reform agenda, far from being some right-wing conspiracy to destroy our welfare system and public services, is aimed at ensuring that we can maintain in the long term the viable, fair and inclusive welfare system on which our civilised society depends. For that to happen, we need to secure growth in the private sector. I therefore welcome the Government’s commitment to banking and financial services reform. Apart from restoring confidence in retail banking and preventing casino banking from bringing down our financial system again, we must find more ways to stimulate investment and bank lending to get the economy moving. I also welcome the commitment to electricity market reform and to getting the green investment bank and the green deal fully invested.
I have long argued that Governments tend to produce too much legislation, often to placate the “something must be done” school or cultivate the tabloids, and we know where that has led us. I therefore strongly welcome the repeal of statute law that will get rid of more than 200 unnecessary laws. However, I do not accept the argument that the economic crisis means we should set aside our commitment to political reform in the shape of the recall of MPs or the democratisation of our second Chamber, which has been deferred for nearly 100 years.
Twenty years ago, the Loyal Address was seconded by the current Secretary of State for International Development. I suppose that encouragingly demonstrates that seconding it can lead to greatness, but as the current Chair of the Select Committee on International Development, an honour I very much cherish, I am disappointed at the omission of legislation to enact the UK’s commitment to 0.7% of gross domestic product being provided for overseas development assistance. However, I recognise that legislation is not required for us to meet that commitment next year, and I very much welcome the fact that it was reinforced in the Queen’s Speech.
As chair of the all-party group on deafness, may I pay tribute to Jack Ashley following his passing? He was a great support and encouragement to me, and he was always courteous, charming and humorous. He will be missed by many, but especially by the deaf community.
It is 50 years ago this year that I joined the Liberal party and almost 29 years since I entered the House, so for all but the last two years I have been in opposition. The Leader of the Opposition is about to make his first reply to the debate on the Loyal Address. I know from experience that it is often easier to oppose, but the left in Europe is about to be tested on whether it has coherent and credible alternative policies. We need deficit reduction and growth. We are living through perhaps the most challenging times in living memory, but I came into politics to make a positive difference, to promote reform and to achieve a fairer, more liberal society. That remains my objective, and I commend the Loyal Address to the House.
I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to those who have died in Afghanistan since we last met: Guardsman Michael Roland of 1st Battalion the Grenadier Guards, and Corporal Andrew Roberts and Private Ratu Silibaravi of 23 Pioneer Regiment, the Royal Logistics Corps. They all showed the utmost bravery, and our thoughts are with their family and friends. Let me also say from this House that we support our mission in Afghanistan and will also support the Prime Minister in the important efforts that he is making to secure a political settlement there for when our troops have left.
As is customary, I would also like to pay tribute to those Members who have died since the last Queen’s Speech. First, Alan Keen was hugely popular with Members of all parties. A football scout turned MP, he had faith in the power of sport and politics to change lives. He is missed sorely by his wife, Ann, and his family and friends.
I also pay tribute to David Cairns, who was able to enter the House only because the law was changed to allow a former Catholic priest to sit in Parliament. He was funny, warm and principled, and his death one year ago today was a tragedy particularly for his partner, Dermot, and his many, many friends.
In her diamond jubilee year, I would also like to pay tribute to Her Majesty the Queen. We are reminded yet again today of her tireless service to the people of this country, and we are all looking forward to the national celebrations later this year.
My understanding is that, by tradition, the Loyal Address is proposed by a rising star of the governing party, who is thrusting his way forward on to the rungs of the ministerial ladder. Hon. Members of all parties can therefore agree that there could be no better choice than the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi). He spoke eloquently, movingly and with confidence, and I congratulate him on his remarks.
I believe that the hon. Gentleman is the first Member of the House to have been born in Iraqi Kurdistan. He spoke about the people of Stratford-on-Avon and said that his background was not the issue. However, he said in an interview that I read:
“What Britain gave my family was freedom and opportunity…to my family they weren’t just words, they changed our whole life.”
He brings to the House a perspective that enriches us all.
The hon. Gentleman also has the distinction of being the founder of the polling company YouGov. Let me say that I have spent much of the past 18 months thinking that he has a lot to answer for. No doubt, after recent weeks, the Prime Minister feels the same.
I am used to seeing the hon. Gentleman as an enthusiastic Back Bencher—if I can put it like that—braying at me with particular vigour from a sedentary position during Prime Minister’s questions, so I am very happy to give him the endorsement he no doubt craves and recommend unequivocally that the Prime Minister give him ministerial preferment whenever the reshuffle comes. It would be his gain and mine.
I also congratulate the seconder of the Loyal Address, the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce). He brought his years of distinguished service and wisdom to the job. He brings great skill and experience to the House, including, as he said, as an assiduous and enthusiastic Chairman of the International Development Committee. In doing research on his background, I got extremely excited when someone in my office turned up a biography from the internet, which stated:
“Malcolm Bruce also worked early in his career with Ozzy Osbourne and recently performed a Jimi Hendrix Birthday tribute.”
Sadly for me and for him, it turned out to be a different Malcolm Bruce.
However, the right hon. Gentleman continues to serve the Liberal Democrats in important ways, not least as their president in Scotland—I am sure he is very proud of that just now. No doubt he will play a crucial role in the inquest into that local election result in Edinburgh, where the Liberal Democrat candidate was beaten by a penguin. [Laughter.] Tory Members should not laugh too much because there are more pandas than Tory MPs in Scotland. I gently say to the right hon. Gentleman that he will have to do better than the explanation offered locally in Edinburgh that
“it wasn’t a target ward”.
The right hon. Gentleman has had a long and distinguished parliamentary career, which, under normal circumstances, would end up with service in the House of Lords, if it was not for his leader’s determination to abolish it. However, I pay tribute to him for his excellent speech.
On the Gracious Speech, first, let me say that we will work with the Government on the green investment bank, the defamation Bill and flexible parental leave, all of which sound remarkably like Labour ideas—because they are Labour ideas.
This is the speech that was supposed to be the Government’s answer to the clear message from the electorate last week, but on today’s evidence, they still do not get it. For a young person looking for work, this speech offers nothing; for a family whose living standards are being squeezed, this speech offers nothing; for the millions of people who think the Government are not on their side, this speech offers nothing. “No change, no hope” is the real message of this Queen’s Speech.
The Prime Minister and the Chancellor appear to believe that people are turning against them because they have not understood the Government’s economic policy, but the truth is that people have turned against them because they have understood it only too well. What did the Government promise two years ago? The Chancellor could not have been clearer in his emergency Budget, when he said there would be
“a steady and sustained economic recovery, with low inflation and falling unemployment…a new model of economic growth”.—[Official Report, 22 June 2010; Vol. 512, c. 168.]
What has he delivered? He has delivered the worst unemployment in 16 years, 1 million young people out of work and the first double-dip recession for 37 years. They promised recovery, but they delivered recession—a recession made in Downing street. They have failed.
As if a failing plan was not bad enough, the Government added insult to injury in the Budget, by making millions pay more so that millionaires could pay less. There is no change on that in the Queen’s Speech either. I say to the Prime Minister that he should listen to people such as Linda Pailing, the deputy chair of Harlow Conservative party, who said of her constituents:
“They don’t like the fact that he didn’t keep the 50p tax…people feel here that he is not working for them, he is working for his friends”.
She said these elections are
“to do with what Cameron and his cronies are doing”.
It comes to something when even lifelong Tories do not believe that this Prime Minister is on their side. Last Thursday, the British people delivered a damning verdict on the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and their economic strategy. The Prime Minister says he gets it, but if he really does, the first thing—[Interruption.] Government Members say, “What about London?”, which is interesting. What did the Mayor of London say? He said he had “survived” the wind,
“the rain, the BBC, the Budget and the endorsement of David Cameron”—[Laughter.]
I think they walked into that one.
We had a whole amendment on that. I wish the hon. Gentleman, having listened to his constituents, had joined us in the Division Lobby to vote against the 50p tax change.
The Prime Minister says he gets it. If he really did get it, the first thing he would have done in this Queen’s Speech would have been to drop his tax cut for millionaires, but he has not done so. They are carrying on with a Finance Bill to put the 45p tax rate into law. Why are they doing that? Because they really believe that their problems are not those of policy, but those of public relations.
What did the part-time Chancellor say at the weekend? He said:
“I know the way the Budget was presented meant this message wasn’t heard.”
The Deputy Prime Minister said:
“An impression has formed that this was a budget for the rich”.
It is insights like that which got him where he is today.
The Government just do not get it. The problem is not the presentation of a tax cut for millionaires; it is the reality: £40,000 for every millionaire in Britain. It is not the presentation of cuts in tax credits; it is the reality. On the granny tax, the churches tax, the charities tax and the whole Budget omnishambles, it is not the presentation; it is the reality.
I will give way later.
Yes, the Government have a communication problem, as the Prime Minister said this morning: the problem is that the electorate have spoken, and they are not listening. But to solve his communication problem, the Prime Minister has a new way of explaining his policy. To the policeman or woman being fired, to the young people looking for work, to the small business going under, what was his message yesterday? He said:
“You call it austerity, I call it efficiency.”
Here it is from the Prime Minister, Cameron Direct, to hundreds of thousands of people being made redundant: “The bad news is you’ve lost your job. The good news is you’re a key part of our efficiency drive.” In two years, he has gone from David Cameron to David Brent. That is the reality.
This is very interesting. I will tell the hon. Gentleman why we wanted it done a different way—[Hon. Members: “Ah!”] I will tell him. It is because the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government said, in a letter to his colleagues, that the way in which the benefit cap was done would cost more money, put more people into temporary accommodation and fail to solve the problem. The Government did not listen to advice because they wanted to grab a political headline—typical of this Prime Minister.
If the Government did not have the courage to reverse their Budget, they should have put an economy that works for working people at the centre of this Queen’s Speech, but they have not. Utility bills, water bills and the cost of getting to work are worrying families up and down the country—
Opposition Members should calm down: I will give way later.
What have the Government got to say about those issues? Absolutely nothing. The energy Bill has nothing to help people struggling to make ends meet. No legislation this year on water or on train fares—nothing to relieve the squeeze on ordinary families.
I, too, am concerned about utility bills—we are all concerned about utility bills—but let me remind the right hon. Gentleman that when he was Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change he proposed the renewable heating initiative that would have put £193 on people’s bills. Why was that not in his alternative Queen’s Speech?
I will tell the hon. Gentleman what we did in government: we introduced the winter fuel allowance and took action on prepayment meters—far more than this Government have ever done.
Let us talk about those at the top of society, executive pay and multi-million pound bonuses—[Interruption.] It is very interesting that Conservative Members are groaning about that, because a few months ago, the Prime Minister said that he was outraged about crony capitalism. He told us that he was grossly offended by it and that it was not what he believed in. Such was his strength of feeling that in the entire Queen’s Speech, the issue did not merit a single mention.
I have a suggestion for the Prime Minister. He should accept the recommendation of the High Pay Commission to put an ordinary worker on the remuneration committee of every company in Britain. I say, “If you can’t look one of your employees in the eye to justify that you’re worth it, then you shouldn’t be getting the salary.” Come to think of it, why not start with the Government? I have the ideal candidate to be the employee on the board judging the Cabinet. She stands ready to serve—the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries). Let us remind ourselves why she is so well qualified. She said:
“They are two arrogant posh boys who show no remorse, no contrition, and no passion to understand the lives of others.”
She is only saying what so many people are thinking: it is high time the shareholder spring came to the Conservative party.
On the economy, on living standards, and on executive pay—
I am glad that the hon. Lady intervened, because this is what she said about the election results:
“As Conservatives, we have to learn lessons…In the spirit of non-spin, my benchmark for Labour was 700 seats”.
I think we slightly outperformed her expectations.
I have been generous in giving way.
On all the major issues, the Government have shown that they are out of touch. If we need any further proof, let us consider what they have done on crime—taking police off the streets with 20% cuts and stripping back powers on antisocial behaviour.
Let me turn to one of the biggest omissions in the Queen’s Speech. There is no bigger challenge facing families up and down the country than care for elderly relatives, and there was no clearer promise from the Government than that they would legislate on it. [Interruption.] I know Government Members do not want to talk about what is happening in the Government, but in their foreword to the health White Paper, the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister said that there would be
“legislation in the second session of this parliament to establish a sustainable legal and financial framework for adult social care”.
Instead, we have nothing. [Interruption.] The Prime Minister says there is a draft Bill, but he said he would legislate in this Session, and he has failed to do so. They have totally failed to do so. There was a clear promise. [Interruption.] The Prime Minister should calm down. They promised a Bill on social care, but they chose not to include one.
There is room in the Queen’s Speech for House of Lords reform, however. I am a supporter of House of Lords reform and a referendum, but I thought that a Queen’s Speech was supposed to define a Government’s priorities. So there is a mystery that the Prime Minister needs to explain in his reply. Over the weekend, the Chancellor said that House of Lords reform
“is certainly not my priority, it is not the priority of the Government.”
So it is not the Conservative party’s priority. But the mystery deepens, because the Deputy Prime Minister said yesterday that there were many, many other things he cared far more about. So apparently it is not his priority either. [Interruption.] Government Members ask if it is our priority. No, it is not. I am bound to ask, though: if it is not a priority, how on earth did it end up in the Queen’s Speech? I thought the Queen’s Speech was supposed to define the priorities for the Government’s legislative programme. Why is it in there? How did it get into the speech?
What about the things that did not make it into the Queen’s Speech? How about the manifesto promise—the Prime Minister’s detoxification promise—to enshrine in law spending 0.7% of national income on aid. [Interruption.] They are not putting it in law. [Interruption.] The Prime Minister keeps saying he is doing it, when all he is doing is publishing draft Bills. And what has happened to something that used to be a big priority for the Prime Minister? He said in 2010 that lobbying was
“the next big scandal waiting to happen.”
He was right. It did happen—to him: Adam Werritty, whose lobbying caused the downfall of the Defence Secretary; Peter Cruddas, Tory party treasurer, offering Downing street dinners to donors; and Fred Michel and the 163 pages of e-mails. Three lobbying scandals, but no Bill.
Last week, the Prime Minister applied to have prior access to the evidence of Leveson as a core participant. I have to say that he is one of the few people left who did not already think he was a core participant in the whole News Corporation scandal: he hired the editor, he sent the texts, he even rode the horse, and his Culture Secretary backed the bid. It does not get much more core than that. This is not just a Westminster story because it shows whose side the Prime Minister is on. What did he say to Rebekah Brooks after she was forced to resign following revelations that Milly Dowler’s phone had been hacked? We learn from the newspapers that he said:
“Sorry I couldn’t have been as loyal to you as you have been to me.”
That goes to the very heart of the problem with this Government and this Prime Minister: they stand up for the wrong people. Two years ago in the rose garden they promised change. Yesterday in the tractor factory all they could offer was more of the same. The Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister: two leaders out of touch with the country, out of touch even with their own parties, locked together not on principle or policy but in determination to hang on to office for another three years. So halfway through this Government and particularly after last Thursday, is it not time that the Government stopped governing for the few and started listening to the many?
Let me begin, as the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) did, by paying tribute to those servicemen who have tragically lost their lives in Afghanistan: Guardsman Michael Roland of 1st Battalion the Grenadier Guards, and Corporal Andrew Roberts and Private Ratu Silibaravi of 23 Pioneer Regiment, the Royal Logistic Corps. They acted heroically and died serving their country, and we must always honour their memory.
We have just finished the longest Session of Parliament for more than 100 years, and I am proud to say that in that Session we brought down the deficit, capped welfare, scrapped ID cards, introduced free schools, accelerated academies, brought in the pupil premium, binned the jobs tax, raised the personal allowance and froze the council tax. That was just the start of clearing up the mess left by the Labour party and demonstrating that this will be a Government on the side of people who work hard and do the right thing.
Let me say something that I hope will unite hon. Members on both sides of the House. The last Session of Parliament also made an impact not just at home but around the world. We fed more than 2.5 million people facing famine and starvation, we supported over 5.5 million children to go to school in the poorest countries of our world and we immunised a child against diseases every 2.5 seconds of the last parliamentary Session. And, yes, it was in the last Session that Parliament stood up to Colonel Gaddafi, backed the action that stopped him slaughtering his own people and showed once again that when it comes to the cause of democracy, all sides of this Parliament can unite in defence of freedom.
As the Leader of the Opposition said, during the last parliamentary Session we also lost two much-respected and hard-working Members of the House. David Cairns gave up his first vocation as a Catholic priest for his second, which was to serve his constituents and sit on these Benches. He was an exceptionally kind man whose quick wit enlivened our debates, and I know that he is widely missed. Alan Keen served in this House for almost two decades and made many firm friendships on all sides of the House. He was passionate about the way in which sport can change young people’s lives, and his leadership of the all-party parliamentary football group is remembered with much affection. I am sure that he will be looking down at the incredible months of sport that lie ahead over the next few months. Both Members represented the very best of this House.
I also think that the Leader of the Opposition was right to pay tribute in his remarks to Her Majesty the Queen. It is one of the greatest privileges of this job to see Her Majesty every week to discuss what has happened here and across the world. In terms of service and dedication to our nation, she quite simply has no equal.
Let me turn now to the proposer of the Gracious Speech. When the Chief Whip phoned me and told me his suggestion for the role, it came as a bit of a shock. It was a slightly bad line, and I thought that he had said, “I’ve asked Nadine to do it.” Although I am always ready to take it on the chin, there was a slight sense of relief when he explained that he was talking about my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi) rather than my hon. and close Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries).
In the past, there has been a tradition that the proposer should be a shy and retiring type—the type who keeps their head down, gets on with the job and loathes the limelight. I am pleased to say that, on this occasion, that tradition has been well and truly broken. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon told us, he has a remarkable story. In the 1970s, his family fled Iraq and the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, arriving at Heathrow with literally only the bags they carried and the clothes on their backs. But they picked themselves up and made an incredible future in this country. My hon. Friend put himself through university, built a business from scratch and in just one generation has made it here to Parliament. There is such a thing as the British dream, and he embodies it.
My hon. Friend’s name has, at times, caused confusion. As a new Member of Parliament, he was invited to a dinner in honour of a delegation from Iraq, and was seated next to my predecessor but one in Witney, the former Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd. During the main course, Lord Hurd turned to him and asked, “So, Mr Zahawi, what do you do?” My hon. Friend replied, “I’m a Member of Parliament,” to which Lord Hurd inquired, “And which constituency in Iraq do you represent?” Not surprisingly, my hon. Friend replied, “Stratford-on-Avon.” His speech was in the finest traditions of the House—witty, wise, entertaining and erudite. I praise him for what he said.
Let me turn to the seconder of the Gracious Speech. Again, when I was told the name, I was not too sure. The first things I heard were “Scottish MP” and “Gordon”—I see some nervous looks on the Opposition Front Bench, too. I refer to one of the House’s most distinguished Members, the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) who, as a Liberal Democrat, takes very seriously the motto inspired by his namesake Robert the Bruce: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again”—although as he told us in his case he has tried and succeeded in no fewer than seven general elections. He lives in a charming constituency dotted with the finest whisky distilleries. I want to be absolutely clear that when he was shadow Treasury spokesman and frequently advocated extraordinary cuts in whisky duty at each and every Budget, he was speaking wholly in the national interest.
From my researches, I can tell the Whips something else, which I hope they realise: my right hon. Friend does not always respond well when people do him a favour. He asked—and the request was granted—the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Mr Kennedy) to be best man at his wedding in 1998, and a year later he stood against him for leadership of the Liberal Democrat party. As the Leader of the Opposition can testify, things can get worse—you could, of course, be brothers. My right hon. Friend has been forthright in his views: he has been a powerful voice for the disabled and a passionate advocate of foreign aid. I hear absolutely what he says about a Bill for 0.7% of GDP on aid, but what I would say is that what matters most of all is that we reach the target in terms of the money spent.
Both speeches were in the very best traditions of this House, and I pay tribute to the people who gave them.
The Gracious Speech sets out our foreign policy priorities, and the first of these is, of course, Afghanistan. Let me be clear: our troops will no longer be in a combat role beyond the end of 2014. That is our deadline and I will not waver from it.
The Prime Minister generously rolled out the red carpet for Mr Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the candidate of his sister party in Poland who was badly defeated. In February, the Prime Minister endorsed Mr Sarkozy, who was defeated on Sunday. Will the Prime Minister, from this Dispatch Box, endorse Governor Mitt Romney—and thus ensure that the curse of Cameron gets President Obama re-elected?
If the right hon. Gentleman is not careful, I might endorse him. When the Conservatives take Rotherham, modernisation will be complete.
Let me tell the House that by the middle of next year British forces will have shifted their focus from combat to support in all three of the districts of Helmand for which we are responsible: Lashkar Gah, Nad Ali and Nahri Sarraj. So the Afghans will have lead responsibility for security a full year before our troops leave their combat role. When we came to that country, there was no one to hand over to—no proper army, no proper police force. Today we have built up the Afghan national security forces and we are on track and on target for them to take over full security responsibility.
From the outset, our approach has been hard-headed and strategic, overseen in detail by the new National Security Council I established on my first day in office. The role of that council is to ask which areas of the world pose the greatest threat to Britain. Just last week, we were advised that the most immediate international terrorist threat to our country now comes not from Afghanistan, but from Yemen—and that is clearly confirmed by the news from the US yesterday.
I do agree with my hon. Friend about that. Perhaps we will come on to discuss what is difficult and contentious legislation on data communications; I know this will be debated and there will be draft clauses. The point I make to the House is that what we are trying to do here is not to look at the content of people’s telephone calls, but to update the necessary measures for finding out who called whom and when, because it is that information that has solved almost every serious crime and certainly almost every serious terrorist offence.
I say to people, let us of course look at the detail, let us of course consult, but I do not want to be the Prime Minister standing at this Dispatch Box saying “I could have done more to prevent terrorist acts, but we did not have the courage to take difficult steps”. Imagine, for a minute, what would have happened if, when mobile phones came along, the House had simply said “No, we will stick to data communications on fixed-line phones; we will not touch mobile phones”. If we had done that, there would be many, many unsolved cases in comparison with what we have experienced.
I am most grateful to the Prime Minister for giving way, and I am glad that he has kept the focus on Yemen. In the context of what has happened this week, will he confirm that both London and Washington will be supporting the new Government of Yemen? The front line against terrorism is not our country, but Sana’a and Aden, and without that practical support we cannot defeat al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula.
The right hon. Gentleman is entirely right, and we are supporting the new Government in Yemen. We are helping them with their transition, we are helping to build up the Yemeni security forces, and we are supporting the development of more effective state institutions. That is absolutely vital work. We will also remain focused on the challenges in Iran and Syria. These are the critical months during which the world must deal with the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran. While we take nothing off the table, we have specifically said to Israel, both publicly and privately, that the option of further pressure and further sanctions on the regime is the right way forward. We have led the imposition of an EU oil embargo, which many believed would not be possible, and we are ready to negotiate in good faith.
I know that everyone in the House is appalled by the violence that is taking place in Syria and frustrated that we cannot do more to stop it, but I believe that the Annan plan of getting more observers in to stop the killing is the right answer. Today there are just 60 observers in a country more than 70,000 square miles in size. We are working with our allies, including the Turks and the Arab League, to get hundreds more into that country to stop the bloodshed.
The Prime Minister talks of threats to our national security. In that context, can he explain why, given the urgency of the climate crisis that faces us, the Queen’s Speech contains nothing to deal with it except provision for a green investment bank that will still not be able to borrow, and a Bill that is likely to lock us into high-cost, high-carbon gas production? Is it because he does not want to show climate leadership, or because he has been overruled by his Chancellor?
I am a bit disappointed by what the hon. Lady has said, because the green investment bank has £3 billion to spend on green investments. This is the sort of proposal that has been included in Labour manifestos, Conservative manifestos and Liberal Democrat manifestos for years. Now we are delivering it on the ground, and that will make a difference.
We should always, in this country, stand on the side of freedom, and we should remember that it is 30 years since our taskforce landed on the Falkland Islands to defend the islanders’ right to remain British. I am sure that the House will join me in paying tribute to the 255 British servicemen who gave their lives in the defence of freedom. Three decades have not dimmed our memories of their bravery, nor have they dimmed this country’s resolve. Make no mistake: for as long as the people of the Falkland Islands wish to remain British, that is exactly how it will be.
Let me say exactly what this Queen’s Speech is about. It is about a Government making the tough, long-term decisions to restore our country to strength—dealing with the deficit, rebalancing the economy, and building a society that rewards people who work hard and do the right thing.
The Prime Minister will be aware that the Minister for Immigration said last week, in the wake of the election results, that the Government must start to demonstrate more competence. Was the Prime Minister disappointed to discover yesterday that the Deputy Prime Minister does not understand the difference between the debt and the deficit?
What the Deputy Prime Minister said yesterday, and what I said yesterday, is that we inherited a deficit that was bigger than the deficits of Greece, Spain or Portugal. What we have had to do is deal with that deficit, deal with the debt, and get our country moving again. We are recovering from the mess that the hon. Gentleman’s party left.
We are reforming welfare so that it pays to have a job, but we want to do more to reward responsibility. We are lifting 2 million people out of tax, but we want to go further to help Britain’s strivers. We have introduced free schools and created more than 1,000 academies, but we want to do more to spread opportunity. That is what this Queen’s Speech is about.
I listened very carefully. There was almost nothing in terms of a costed, credible alternative. The Opposition have now had two years to work out what their alternative is, and we heard absolutely nothing apart from a string of press releases put together, which we have all read over the last few weeks.
As I have said, we have been dealing with an economy that had the biggest boom and bust in our banks, the biggest deficit in Europe and the longest and deepest recession in anyone’s memory. What we have to do is get our economy to rebalance, and I will explain exactly how the Queen’s Speech is going to help, because it is a Queen’s Speech for the doers, the strivers and those who work hard and play by the rules.
On cutting the Budget deficit, all across Europe the countries being hit are the ones that do not have proper plans in place. In the last Session, we cut the nation’s overdraft—the gap between what we receive in tax and what we spend—by £30 billion. With this Queen’s Speech we continue that work with, for instance, the vital public service pensions Bill. Not only does that offer guaranteed pensions that are still more generous than those in the private sector, but it saves tens of billions of pounds over the coming decades. Through this Queen’s Speech we are also making sure the UK is taken out of the eurozone bail-out fund. We are not in the euro, we are not joining the euro, so we should not be bailing out the euro.
The reason why we are doing these things on the deficit is simple: we want to keep interest rates down for hard-working families up and down the country. Let us be clear: higher interest rates would mean higher mortgages, lower employment and more of people’s money, which they have worked so hard to get, wasted by being spent on interest on our national debt. Two years ago, Britain had exactly the same interest rates as Spain; today, its interest rates were touching 6% and ours were below 2%. That is because we have a credible plan to get the country out of the mess it was left in by the last Government.
I am very appreciative of the Prime Minister’s words today. On the issue of Lords reform, the Government have made long and strenuous efforts, including through a draft Bill, a White Paper and a Joint Committee. Does the Prime Minister share my view that since a consensus has not proved to be available, Lords reform cannot be a priority now, and does he also share my view that any measures presented to this House should be put to the people in a referendum?
First, let me make this point, answering also the Leader of the Opposition: reforming the House of Lords is not the most important priority for the Government—that is dealing with the deficit, getting our economy moving, increasing the level of responsibility in our society and getting on the side of hard-working people. Those are the things that matter the most, but I think it is perfectly possible for Parliament to do more than two things at the same time. At the last election, all political parties put forward in their manifestos proposals for a partly, or mainly, elected House of Lords, but let me say this: this is only going to proceed if the political parties will agree to work together and take a responsible attitude towards this reform. I think it is possible, and it would be a good reform if we could achieve it; it would be better if we had a smaller House of Lords and if it had an elected element. So I ask people to work together across party lines to try to make that happen.
The Prime Minister referred to the deficit in Europe, and he will recall that he declined to sign the fiscal compact entered into by 25 of the 27 EU member states. I presume he will go to the conference on 23 May with his fellow leaders in Europe, who will begin working on a growth compact. Will he be prepared to sign that?
I want to work with everyone in Europe to try to deliver better policies for growth. That is why we have been saying, “Let’s complete the single market in energy; let’s finish the single market in services; let’s complete the single market in digital.” Those are the things we are putting on the table. Britain is not in the euro, so we are not bound by the terms of the fiscal pact; I have made that very clear.
I will give way in a moment, but I want to make one point about the Leader of the Opposition’s response. They have had two years to work out what their answer is. What is their answer to too much borrowing, too much spending and too much debt? Their answer is more borrowing, more spending and more debt. Because the right hon. Gentleman did not mention his alternative Queen’s Speech, let me go straight to its centrepiece. The centrepiece of the alternative Queen’s Speech is, I believe, a bonus tax to pay for a jobs fund. Never mind that the last Chancellor in the Labour Government said that a bonus tax would not work; let us look at the detail. The deputy leader of the Labour party was asked in a big set-piece interview how much money that would raise, and this was her response:
“I haven’t got quite the, er, er, I know that we have worked out that figure. I’ll have to get back to you on that.”
She went on to say:
“I haven’t got that actual figure to hand but I can absolutely assure you that Ed Balls has”.
Ah—[Interruption.] The plot thickens. The shadow Chancellor was interviewed this weekend—I know, I need to get out more—and he said that he was sorry, but
“I have not costed the whole programme”.
So there we have it. We have a deputy leader who does not have a clue and a shadow Chancellor who does not have the figures, and I can tell the House why: they have spent their bonus tax 10 times over. They have used it to reverse the VAT increase, to reverse the child benefit change, to reverse the tax credits change, to boost the regional growth fund, to boost capital spending and even to turn empty shops into community centres. They have no idea whatsoever about how to deal with this deficit. They give in to every single interest group—it is the bank tax that likes to say yes from the Front Benchers who cannot say no.
May I take the Prime Minister back to what he said about reform of the House of Lords? As someone who spent four years working very co-operatively with his colleagues and the Liberal Democrats to find a solution, I say to him that it is palpable that each party is divided on the issue and work between the Front Benchers will not resolve it. It is right in principle that the British people should decide, and that would also avoid a train wreck in the business of this House. Will the Prime Minister look carefully and positively at the idea of having a pre-legislative referendum on reform of the Lords?
I very much respect the work—often painstaking, careful and difficult—that the right hon. Gentleman did in a range of different roles to try to move House of Lords reform on. He is absolutely right that all parties are divided on this matter—we should be frank about that—so we will only achieve reform if people work together. I do not believe that a pre-legislative referendum is a good move. On the whole, that is a weapon that has been used by slightly unsavoury regimes over the years. On the question of a referendum more generally, I will merely say that every political party went into the election with a pledge to reform the House of Lords so I do not personally see a referendum as having much to recommend it. The House of Commons can discuss this matter and the House of Commons must decide. If we are going to achieve reform, we will have to work together across the parties to try to deliver what I think will be progress for our constitution—a reformed and smaller House of Lords.
The Prime Minister might be aware that I was one of those who, since last July, served on the Joint Committee that considered the future of the House of Lords. We were not given any indication of the Government’s thinking on funding or costing. Can he tell us today what costing has taken place on the proposal in the Queen’s Speech and will he share that with the House?
Will the Prime Minister take it from me, after a lot of canvassing last week, that many people in this country are astounded that in the Queen’s Speech there is nothing about youth unemployment or providing jobs, no higher education Bill and nothing to address the large number of unemployed graduates we now have in this country?
The youth contract, which is going to do enormous amounts on youth unemployment, started last month. We achieved 450,000 apprenticeships last year. The Work programme is well under way now, helping half a million people, and it is the biggest back-to-work programme in this country since the 1930s.
Let me explain that there are a number of important measures in this Queen’s Speech to promote growth and jobs. As well as the Work programme and the youth contract, we have the national loan guarantee scheme, with £20 billion to get cheaper loans flowing to small businesses. The most important work of the Government is implementing all those schemes and programmes, but we must do more to rebalance our economy. It is clear what went wrong. The public sector grew too large, our economy became unbalanced between north and south and we ended up too dependent on financial services. So we know what we need to do as a country. We must revive the private sector, spread growth and jobs across the country and make sure that financial services truly serve the economy—not the other way around.
To expand the private sector we need to cut the burdens on business and make it easier for employers to take people on. That is in our enterprise Bill. To make the most of growth in the energy sector, including gas, nuclear and renewables, we need to reform the energy market, and that is what the energy Bill will do. To make the most of green investment, we need to legislate properly for the green investment bank, with £3 billion of money in its coffers. That will be done through the measures announced in the Queen’s Speech as well.
Another key issue is the need to clean up the financial system, and I have to say to the shadow Chancellor, who sat and did nothing while the financial sector melted down, that he ought to focus on this part of the Queen’s Speech. As the Governor of the Bank of England said last week, there are three vital steps to take, and we will be taking all of them: proper regulation at last by the Bank of England, the banks being made to hold enough capital to keep them safe, and a regime that means that if they do fail they can fail without the taxpayer picking up the bill. Those are all things that the shadow Chancellor never did when he was the City Minister.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about supporting small and medium-sized businesses, but the loan guarantee scheme is a very small drop in the ocean, because the banks simply will not lend to small businesses in my constituency. If they will not lend at the current percentages, they will not lend at lower percentages. That is the problem. When will he wake up to the fact that Operation Merlin did not wave a magic wand and did not work?
I make two points to the hon. Lady. First, she may not believe that the national loan guarantee scheme is big enough, but it is £20 billion of lending. That is far bigger than anything contemplated by the previous Government. Secondly, the Merlin agreement did secure additional lending to big and small businesses; lending went up. As ever, the shadow Chancellor is wrong.
As well as introducing vital measures such as banking reform and the Financial Services Bill, the Government’s mission is to help families who work hard and do the right thing. We have cut fuel duty and frozen council tax and we are lifting 2 million people out of tax. In the coming months people will see more. There will be a benefit cap so that people cannot get more on benefits than the average family earns; there will be higher tax thresholds so that hard-working families keep more of their money; and our pensions Bill, announced in the Queen’s Speech, is set to deliver a £140 basic state pension that will massively reduce means-testing and reward those who work hard and save hard all their lives.
Was the Prime Minister as disappointed as I was that the Leader of the Opposition again refused to support the benefits cap, which is already at a level above the average wage of people in Great Yarmouth who work hard? Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government will continue to make sure that it will always pay to work?
I have to say that this was about the only interesting point in the Leader of the Opposition’s speech. When he is asked very clearly whether he supports a benefit cap and whether he thinks it is right that people can get more than £26,000 a year on benefits, his answer is that it is just fine—carry on claiming. That is Labour’s message to the hard-working people of this country.
As the Leader of the Opposition covered so little of the detail, for the benefit of the House I want to run through some of the Bills in the Queen’s Speech and the steps we are taking. One thing we are doing is helping the most vulnerable of all in our society—children who do not have a family, who are stuck in the care system and who, in too many cases, have been left there for too long. That is why we are legislating on adoption, as set out in this Gracious Speech. We are going to publish detailed information on how councils perform, setting clear time limits for cases to get through the courts and making it illegal to turn down an adoptive family on the basis of race. We say it is time to end the patronising, politically correct prejudice that says that black parents cannot bring up white children and that white parents cannot bring up black children. It is time to make the system colour blind.
The hon. Gentleman’s party had 13 years to produce a register of lobbyists. We have now published our proposals for a register of lobbyists and we will legislate for a register of lobbyists. [Interruption.] I hate to add to hon. Members’ misery, but we have a Queen’s Speech for the 2012-13 Session that is packed with great Bills and we will have one for the 2013-14 Session that is packed with great Bills. We will also have one for the 2014-15 Session that is packed with great Bills, and when we have beaten the rabble in opposition at the next election, we will have another one all over again.
Another group of vulnerable people are the 800,000 who struggle without care and the millions of over-burdened carers. They will be disappointed if not angry that there is no Bill in this Session, as promised, to legislate for a new financial framework, so they will have to struggle on. What does the Prime Minister say to those vulnerable people?
It is vital that we take action on social care. That is why there are proposals for a draft Bill in the Queen’s Speech. It is something that has been getting worse for decade. The previous Government had 13 years to deal with the issue and they did absolutely nothing. Within two years, we are producing proposals and a draft Bill, and taking action.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is essential that we have all-party support for this critically important issue? It is essential to have a draft Bill so that we do the hard work in this Parliament to make sure that we can legislate for carers in our country.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Genuinely to crack the issue, which has dogged Governments for decades, we will need cross-party working to deliver the social care changes we need.
Let me turn to some of the crime measures, as they are extremely important. The police do a fantastic job, and we should pay tribute to their work, but we need to accept that there are some crimes that our existing police forces cannot deal with on their own: the cyber-attacks that threaten our national security, the organised gangs supplying drugs to children on the streets and the massive industry of human trafficking. Today, we have seen the horrific case in Rochdale of children being groomed for sex—modern-day slavery in our own country. That is why we need a national crime agency—a British FBI, if you like—and with this Queen’s Speech we will deliver it.
I want to see tough community sentences that are a real punishment, and we shall be legislating for them as well. Without such measures, we will never convince the police, the courts or the public that these sentences are proper alternatives to prison.
The Prime Minister has mentioned a couple of doubles today. He quite rightly referred to the mover and the seconder of the speech; there was also the double-dip recession.
In 1970, Lynn Anderson sang about promises in a rose garden:
“Smile for a while and let’s be jolly
Love shouldn’t be so melancholy
Come along and share the good times while we can.”
Given that the Prime Minister and his Deputy made promises of transparency in the rose garden, does he now regret not releasing the risk register for the NHS?
On behalf of my constituents Gary and Natasha Groves, whose daughter Lillian was killed outside her home by a driver who was under the influence of drugs, I thank the Prime Minister for meeting them at No. 10, listening to what they had to say and including in the Queen’s Speech measures to tackle the menace of drug driving. Will he join me in paying tribute to Gary and Natasha for responding to a personal tragedy by trying to make it less likely that other people endure the terrible loss they suffered?
My hon. Friend is entirely right to raise the case again. I pay tribute to his work. We will be legislating properly for drug-related driving. It is right that it is put on to the statute book in the same way as drink driving, and it would not be happening were it not for the very strong campaign he has fought.
The context for the Queen’s Speech is a world that is becoming ever more competitive. The countries that succeed will be those that know they have to deal with debts and deficit, and that in a competitive world they have to have competitive tax rates and the best climate for business investment. They have to back entrepreneurs. They need light regulation and lean government. They need to reform every part of government, from schools to the planning system, so that they get on the side of wealth creation, job creation and a growing economy. That is what we are doing.
This is a Government who confront the long-term challenges we face, and that is what our country needs—a Government who roll up their sleeves to deal with the deficit, not an Opposition who think they can borrow their way out of debt. We are a coalition Government determined to unleash the private sector, spread growth around our country and sort out our financial services, not a Labour one who bloated the public sector and sat back while an unregulated banking sector brought our country to its knees. This is a Government who are backing hard-working people, not an Opposition who say they are on their side but refuse to make work pay, refuse to cap welfare and want to heap debts on to our children. This is a Government taking the tough decisions to help families who work hard and do the right thing. We are acting for the long term and governing in the national interest. This is a Queen’s Speech to rebuild Britain, and I commend it to the House.
All hon. Members will have spent the past few weeks and months knocking on doors and will recognise that this Queen’s Speech is hugely important for many families across our country. Also, many in this House who are baby boomers—that does not include our current political leaders—and have benefited from free education, affordable housing and pretty good pensions will recognise that for those of younger generations, many of whom are currently unemployed, this is a critical Queen’s Speech. It is against that backdrop that I wish to make my comments.
I will start by welcoming the aspects of the Queen’s Speech that deal with family policy. It is absolutely right that we do something to support the many families in this country struggling with children with disabilities. Frankly, it is poor that successive Governments have not done enough, so I am pleased to welcome changes in that area of policy. Love is a key ingredient for any parent raising a child, and the hearts of all Members of the House must go out to young people who find themselves in circumstances in which they do not have parents. For that reason, it must be wrong that children from black and ethnic minority backgrounds languish in local authority queues waiting for adoptive parents. As the parent of two children from a mixed-race background, I know that such children fare particularly badly on those adoption lists. I welcome the changes that will make it easier for parents of any background to adopt young people in need of a loving home.
I join the right hon. Gentleman in welcoming wholeheartedly the measures to try to improve adoption in this country for children from all backgrounds. Does he agree that it is also important not to forget that there are children who are brought into the care systems who might have other permanency solutions to their upbringing that might involve long-term fostering or residential care and that we must also do more for those children to ensure that they do not miss out on the best possible childhood we can give them?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about foster care and the need to support the many people across this country who give up their homes and time and offer love to the many children who pass through their homes.
May I also say, as chair of the all-party group on fatherhood, that it is important that in this House, on a cross-party basis, we make a renewed commitment to the importance of fatherhood? I also welcome the changes to care proceedings. If it is right and in the interests of a child, we must make it easier for fathers to have contact with their children. It is now well understood that the outcomes for young people without fathers are not good enough. In parts of this country and in parts of constituencies such as mine there is the phenomenon of the “baby-father”, whereby it is acceptable to have children but not be a father to them, and I welcome any moves in legislation to deal with that issue.
I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman’s courageous stance on many of those issues over the years. Does he echo my view that we should also pay tribute to the love, care and courage of grandparents and extended kin, and that we should remove the impediments that they have to caring for their flesh and blood, owing to various difficult circumstances involving their own children, including drug and alcohol abuse?
The hon. Gentleman has taken up those issues in his constituency, and I too underline my support for grandparents, particularly given the complexities within families of drug and alcohol addiction.
But in the end the critical issues for most people, in relation to this Queen’s Speech and over the coming years, will be the reality that we are in a double-dip recession, will be what we are doing to get to grips with growth in this country, to provide jobs and to support small businesses, and will be how we are supporting young people. I am afraid that there has just not been enough in this Queen’s Speech to address those issues.
I do not have to tell the Prime Minister what happened in my constituency, as we have spoken on many occasions, but I say to him that currently in Tottenham 6,500 people are unemployed and 28,000 are on out-of-work benefits. The figures have actually got worse since the riots, and, although I have heard him at the Dispatch Box speaking about the Work programme, the youth contract and apprenticeships, I find that in all three policies there are weaknesses and flaws.
The Work programme is straining at the edges, particularly with the third sector attempting without funds to provide placements, and in Tottenham 90% of those who are unemployed are not eligible for it. How can it be the biggest programme since the 1930s, when most people who are unemployed in Britain are not eligible to participate in it? While the right hon. Gentleman lauds the youth contract, I warn him of a previous era, when we saw the failed youth training scheme and, as a consequence, many young people who graduated with certificates but no jobs. People in my constituency have a long memory, and what they want are genuine jobs.
As a former skills Minister, I am pleased to see the growth in apprenticeships, but the right hon. Gentleman will know that the scheme, to reach the figure of 450,000, includes many that people would not recognise as an apprenticeship. An apprenticeship should surely be a programme that lasts for at least one year. Currently, apprenticeships last for a maximum of 16 weeks, and many young people do not want something that is, in fact, a very short opportunity in customer services dressed up as a genuine apprenticeship, so I ask the Prime Minister to look at what is behind such apprenticeships if we are genuinely to retain the trust of young people.
I and other Opposition Members will of course scrutinise the enterprise Bill in its entirety, but, when I think of those shopkeepers on Tottenham high road who saw their businesses destroyed, I recall, as will the Prime Minister, that they faced hardships even before the riots. There were hardships with business rates and with footfall on the high road, and they were concerned about issues such as regulation—2,900 of them in the Tottenham constituency, paying their VAT and employing 30,000 people.
The number of self-employed people in my constituency has fallen from 14% to 7% in the past year. It is going in the wrong direction. I warn him that his absolute dedication to slashing public services is having a major effect in adding to the dole queues in constituencies such as mine.
We are not seeing more businesses flourishing or coming in and taking up the slack from the public sector; we are seeing something much worse. Look underneath the figures. The whole House should have serious concerns about anyone—young people, particularly—who faces unemployment. However, when the unemployment rate is three times higher among young black men, we should be gravely concerned.
We should also be particularly concerned that many women—older women, often black—are now joining their sons on the unemployment queues, having been employed in the health service, local government or other areas. I say to the Prime Minister that some communities depend on those mothers being employed and I am worried about the emergence of a picture worse than some of the scenes that hon. Members will recognise from the United States of America.
That is why we needed a Queen’s Speech that would seriously address those issues—stimulate the economy in the way required; wrestle with the issue of growth; and move our economy from over-dependence on financial services and retail. When I heard the Business Secretary arguing the case for the Sunday trading Bill, it was again apparent that the Government would rely once more on retail, consumerism, shopping and spending to get us out of this mess. We will need far more than that in this economy if we are to respond to the problems in constituencies such as mine.
What about the gaps in the Queen’s Speech? Given the importance of higher education to the UK economy and all we have invested to support young people making their way to university, why have the Government decided that a higher education Bill is not appropriate? The issue has been kicked into the long grass. Vice-chancellors and young people face uncertainty because we have not seen any Bill in that area of policy at all. Why are we going to spend hours, in this House and the other place, debating House of Lords reform when every Member knows that no one raised that issue with any political party on the doorstep during the campaign of the past few weeks? Is House of Lords reform really where our priorities should be?
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the whole matter of House of Lords reform could be dealt with quickly in this House if, as the Prime Minister said a short while ago, the Government brought forward a Bill that simply brought the House of Lords into the 21st century without trying to create another House of Commons at the other end of the corridor?
I get where the hon. Lady is coming from, but I want to bring the Government into the 21st century. For that to happen, we need some real answers for the millennial generation who face decades of unemployment in this country. We have to say something about what we can expect for our graduates; we must not just talk the talk in terms of families, but recognise that the cost of living is going up, and we expect a Queen’s Speech that will address those issues.
Against that backdrop, this Queen’s Speech fails. I suspect that there are areas that the Opposition will be able to accept, but there are many holes in this Queen’s Speech. As the Prime Minister reflects and gets into the detail, I hope that the House can expect a bigger, more ambitious and more visionary legislative framework in the next Queen’s Speech.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy). While I may differ with his analysis, there is never any doubt that he holds his views passionately. He certainly supports his constituency and community passionately, and has done so in the past several years in which I have watched him in this House.
Let me say to the Prime Minister that it is also a pleasure to talk about the real Queen’s Speech as against the one that I and others proposed last week. This Queen’s Speech has enormous merits to it, particularly in the context of growth. I am particularly supportive, as he will be unsurprised to hear, of his proposals on bank reforms, competition law, and joint enterprise law reform, including labour law reform. He will be happy to hear me mention those, but I am afraid that it goes downhill from here on in. [Hon. Members: “That was less than a minute!”] Well, I will make up the whole minute by saying that the Government can be proud of most of their record in the past couple of years on the issues of liberty and justice, which the Prime Minister knows I hold very dear. Their actions on identity cards, on cutting down on the amount of detention without charge, and on the misuse of counter-terrorism stop-and-search powers are all matters of pride for them.
Beyond that, however, I have three concerns: one about a constitutional issue, one about state power, and one about justice. Let me start with the constitutional issue on which the right hon. Member for Tottenham finished—the House of Lords. One of my concerns about our whole approach to the House of Lords is that we are arguing about its composition without worrying enough about its purpose, which we have not done enough to consider. There is a great deal of talk about the House of Lords as a revising and reforming Chamber, but it has a much greater function than that. Historically, the House of Lords has been a serious check on excessive Executive power. It was a check on the Government of Margaret Thatcher when she had a very large majority, on the Government of Tony Blair, and on the Government of the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), and no doubt it will be a check on this Government as time goes on.
It is very important in Britain that we have this check, because we are different in one respect from most other democracies. Without any separation of Executive and legislature, the power of the Executive in this House means that this House is less good than it could be at defending the rights of individuals when the Executive impinge too much on them. We saw that very often with the previous Government. There were a great number of occasions when I am sure that many Labour Members did not want to support some of their Government’s more illiberal actions. That is why the House of Lords is incredibly important.
My right hon. Friend is making a case from a Conservative point of view against reforming the make-up of the House of Lords. If the House of Lords has the distinguished record of preventing excessive use of Executive power that he is suggesting, why does he think that Margaret Thatcher’s first Lord Chancellor, Lord Hailsham, delivered a speech roughly 50 years ago in which he said that we did not have sufficient checks and balances in our constitution, which he characterised as an elective dictatorship?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, because he goes right to the central point. The House of Lords is not perfect, and there are many things that it has wrongly allowed to happen. I am in favour of reform of the House of Lords, but we must be very careful to get it right. If, in our reform, we do away with, or weaken or mitigate to any great extent, the check that it provides, that check will never be returned, because no Government will ever bring back a restraint on their own powers.
I think it was the Deputy Prime Minister who characterised his preferred state of the House of Lords as being one that more reflected the political composition of the House of Commons. That is precisely what I would not want it to do. A House of Lords that exactly reflected the political composition of the House of Commons would not be very much of a check on the Executive, and that would be a really serious problem. We must be very careful about what we do.
I do not believe that a referendum, of itself, will solve the problem, because it is a subtle and difficult matter and will be very hard to argue in public. However, it is very important.
I agree with my right hon. Friend that providing a check on the Government is Parliament’s most important role. Does he agree that having an elected House of Lords would undermine the position of the elected Members of the House of Commons and make them less likely to be able to hold the Government to account in this House, where the Prime Minister sits?
I take my hon. Friend’s point, although I believe the greater problem would be legislative gridlock if too much legitimacy were given to the House of Lords. The simple fact is that over the course of the past century, these Houses have managed a pretty effective balance without crippling government. The position that we have arrived at still needs reform, but very careful reform.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that we have to consider two things hand in hand, the composition of the House of Lords and its function. Although I am passionately in favour of an elected second Chamber, one of my criticisms of the draft Bill is that clause 2 will not reinforce the primacy of this Chamber. Some kind of concordat would have to be agreed by both Houses and written into their Standing Orders. Does he accept, though, that the current situation is unsustainable? We already have far too many Members down the other end of the building, and if there is no reform, there will be another 200. There will be more than 1,000 Members, the vast majority of them appointed by party leaders on a party Whip. Surely that is unsustainable.
I agree with the last point, but the hon. Gentleman should not let the best be the enemy of the good.
I will finish my points about the Lords, because I want to talk about two other significant issues of justice and freedom. For me, the test is to look back and see what would have happened in the past decade if we had introduced whatever new reform we will come up with. As the Deputy Prime Minister will be only too conscious, in the past decade the Lords have stopped the curbing of jury trials and a number of other measures, including the extension of detention without charge. That would not have happened if we had had too politically similar a House of Lords. When the House considers the matter in some detail, my test will be whether a reform will achieve the same check on the Government.
I want to move on, but I will give way later if the hon. Gentleman still wishes to intervene.
The second issue that I want to mention is state power and what has become known colloquially as the snooper’s charter. The Queen’s Speech stated that the Government intended
“to bring forward measures to maintain the ability of the law enforcement and intelligence agencies to access vital communications data under strict safeguards to protect the public, subject to scrutiny of draft clauses.”
I take the last part to mean that how it will happen is up for argument. That is a good thing, because I am afraid the proposal is very similar to what the Labour Government came up with. I will give way to the Deputy Prime Minister if he really wants to argue the point, but I do not recommend it, because the Government have already consulted heavily with internet service providers and producers and talked to them about what they want to do. They want to require companies to maintain large databases of contact information. If I have telephoned somebody, there will be information about who the call was to, when it was made and where from. That will lead to extremely large databases, which the state then wants to be able to access relatively freely.
Frankly, I am surprised that the Government have made the proposal, because both coalition parties opposed it in opposition, and as far as I can see, it goes against the thrust of the coalition agreement. It certainly goes against the thrust of a comment that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made when we were in opposition. He said:
“Faced with any problem, any crisis—given any excuse—Labour grasp for more information, pulling more and more people into the clutches of state data capture…And the Government doesn’t want to stop with the basic information…Scare tactics to herd more disempowered citizens into the clutches of officialdom, as people surrender more and more information about their lives, giving the state more and more power over their lives. If we want to stop the state controlling us, we must confront this surveillance state.”
We opposed those measures in opposition, not just because they were illiberal or risked turning our country into a nation of suspects, but because we believed that they were ineffective. Nearly every measure that we opposed when I was my right hon. Friend’s shadow Home Secretary we opposed because we thought that it would not work against terrorism. That is also true of the measure that we are considering.
I took advice from experts. I asked them a simple question: “If you were a terrorist, how would you avoid this scrutiny?” I stopped them when they got to the fifth method. It is pretty straightforward: for terrorists, everything from proxy servers to one-off mobile phones means that such scrutiny is easy to avoid. For criminals, it is also easy and quite cheap to avoid. However, for ordinary citizens, that scrutiny is not easy and cheap to avoid. We will therefore create something, which some Ministers said will cost £2 billion—the London School of Economics suggests that it will cost £12 billion—that will not be effective against terrorism, but constitutes general-purpose surveillance of the entire nation.
The simple truth is that when the House reacted understandably to the horrific events of 9/11 and the preceding terrorist events, such as the USS Cole and the east African embassy bombings, and introduced a couple of measures—the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 and the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001—it took away many previous protections. Before RIPA, the agencies would approach British Telecom or Cable & Wireless and ask for the data, which were sometimes—not always—handed over voluntarily. The companies exercised some responsibility. In about two thirds of cases, the agencies got warrants, and the information had to be handed over. The central, though not the only issue is whether the databases are available to the agencies of the state without a warrant. They are currently available without a warrant. If we want to make such practices acceptable in a civilised, liberal state, we should have warrants first.
As a Liberal Democrat, but also as the MP for Cheltenham, I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he agrees that it should be possible to strike a perfectly good balance between the absolute need to protect civil liberties and traditional British freedoms and apply the principles behind the existing legislation that he mentioned to new and fast-developing technologies to prevent our security services from falling behind.
Of course, but frankly, talk about falling behind is a bit of a red herring. The security services today can collect more data by several orders of magnitude than they could when I first became a Member of Parliament, simply because technology allows that. In 1987, one pretty much had to get a BT engineer to plug in a bug in the local exchange. People do not do that now—they could almost do it from my office through software. I could listen to all hon. Members at once—[Interruption.] Hon. Members’ conversations are too boring to bother with.
Of course, the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) is right and there is a balance to strike. No one has ever been foolish enough to suggest that I favour helping terrorists, making it easier for them or harder for our agencies. However, we must act under judicial control and return to the prior warrant process that applied before RIPA for the systems to work.
No, I am about to finish that part of my speech. The prior warrant process would ensure that we stop the great overuse of the new powers, which has happened dozens of times in the past decade. If we do not, the public reaction will be one of outrage, because the measure will affect not just a few people, but tens of millions of people, and they will not take it quietly.
My last point is on a justice measure, but it is not a measure like the snooper’s charter, which will create a tsunami of reaction as it goes through the House—I am confident of that, because we already have 137,000 signatures on the online petition. Secret courts affect only tens and perhaps hundreds of people, but they bring against those people a serious injustice. I take the view—a very unfashionable one in modern politics, with too many polls and focus groups—that an injustice against one is an injustice against all, and the secret court proposals undoubtedly propose an injustice.
I say that with complete confidence, but for a rather obscure reason. A secret court procedure is proposed, but we already have such procedures. They are called special immigration appeal courts—SIAC—and they have existed since 1997, when the Labour Government introduced them to deal with people they thought they could not deal with in open court. Of course, no hon. Member has ever been in one or seen one in operation. No hon. Member knows how they work, including all Ministers of this Government and the previous one.
One group alone understands how those courts work: special advocates. There are 69 special advocates, of whom 32 have had detailed exposure to the proposed closed material procedure. The procedure involves the Executive—a Minister—saying to a court: “This information can be heard only in very close camera.” It cannot be heard in court as a whole in secret: the judge and the Government advocate of the argument can hear the evidence, but only the special advocate—a lawyer who cannot talk to the defendant or litigant in the case—can challenge it.
We had a system of special advocates in courts in Northern Ireland for a very long time—a number of members of my chambers were special advocates in such circumstances—and I do not recall my right hon. Friend when we were in government ever complaining about those procedures, which we had to use in Northern Ireland given the particular circumstances there.
I am sorry to correct my hon. Friend’s memory, but I did complain. I actually appeared in a Diplock court as a witness, so I know exactly how they work from that point of view.
The simple truth is not my view, but the view of the 32 special advocates who have had such experience. Virtually all of them signed a document that challenged the Government’s Green Paper, in quite robust terms. The special advocates said that closed material procedures
“represent a departure both from the principle of natural justice and from the principle of open justice. They may leave a litigant having little clear idea of the case deployed against him, and ultimately they may prevent some litigants from knowing why they have won or lost. Furthermore, and crucially, because the SA appointed on his behalf is unable to take instructions in relation to that case, they may leave the SA with little realistic opportunity of responding effectively to that case. They also systematically exclude public, press and Parliamentary scrutiny of parts of our justice system…Our experience as SAs involved in statutory and non-statutory closed material procedures leaves us in no doubt that CMPs are inherently unfair; they do not ‘work effectively’, nor do they deliver real procedural fairness. The fact that such procedures may be operated so as to meet the minimum standards required by Article 6 of the ECHR, with such modification as has been required by the courts so as to reduce that inherent unfairness, does not and cannot make them objectively fair.”
That is the view of the only people who understand this system.
The secret courts measure is being held up as a proposal to improve our security. It would undermine and corrode our justice system, and it would not improve our security, because the other point made by special advocates is that the public interest immunity system as it now stands—again this is not properly understood by Ministers—works perfectly well, and much better than what is proposed. Indeed, one special advocate has pointed out that this proposal is less good than that available to the terrorist suspects in Guantanamo Bay. That is how poor this procedure is. In fact, there are many other procedures abroad that would work better than this one. Sadly, this is not a measure that I will support in the coming months.
The Government came in with a grand, important and liberal—both small “l” and big “l”—tradition to uphold. That tradition supported both freedom and justice in this country. These two measures—putting the Lords to one side, as that is a matter for argument—would, if we are not very careful, undermine that tradition and our reputation, and do nothing to improve the protection of Britain against terrorism. Indeed, just the reverse—they would make it worse.
I am pleased to follow the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis). He has eloquently set out the arguments on the balance between the need to protect national security and the need to protect individual freedoms. He mentioned internet surveillance and my party will look closely at the proposals and support whatever measures are necessary to protect national security, but we will also be conscious of the need to protect individual freedoms and privacies. That means not giving the Government any more powers than are absolutely and strictly necessary in the fight against terrorism, but if powers are thought to be absolutely necessary, we would be remiss if we did not proceed to implement them.
At the outset, I join others in paying tribute to Her Majesty the Queen in her diamond jubilee year. We in Northern Ireland look forward to her coming to the Province later this summer, and I have no doubt that she will be welcomed as warmly as she has been on previous visits.
I also wish to join the Prime Minister and other right hon. and hon. Members in paying tribute to the service in the two years of this Parliament of our brave servicemen and women in theatres of conflict abroad and in the work that they do to protect us all here in this country and in the fight against terrorism.
I welcome several measures in the Queen’s Speech. The briefing that went on before the Gracious Speech referred to a greater focus on family-friendly measures. My party welcomes measures to support and strengthen families and family life, such as speedier adoption and help for parents of children with disabilities to cut through red tape. We will support such measures, because strong families are important and supporting them is key. The Government have been slow so far to implement tax allowance changes for married couples, which were in the Conservative manifesto and the coalition agreement. We look forward to their coming forward with proposals in that area in due course.
We also welcome the banking reform Bill, which will split the retail and investment sides of businesses. That is overdue, it is good news for consumers and will help to protect them, and so will receive our support. There are issues with the speed of implementation—we would like the reforms to happen a little quicker—but we will come to that during the debate on the Bill.
Banking reform is important for the United Kingdom as a whole but especially important for Northern Ireland. We have a dysfunctional banking system, because so many banks have been caught up with bad property loans and so on. Does my right hon. Friend agree with me and people in Northern Ireland that the Government need to focus more on how measures to ease banking will affect banks in Northern Ireland and ensure that we get our fair share of credit easing and so on?
As Minister for Finance and Personnel in the Northern Ireland Executive, my hon. Friend deals with such issues on a daily basis, and he and his colleagues, including Arlene Foster, the enterprise Minister, and others are working hard to deal with them. He points, rightly, to the particular issues in Northern Ireland. Two of our banks are based in the Irish Republic. The property collapse in the Irish Republic and its eurozone problems are impacting strongly on the Northern Ireland economy. He is right, therefore, that particular attention needs to be given to how credit easing plays through to Northern Ireland, where we have peculiar circumstances that do not affect other parts of the UK.
One reason we have been pushing strongly—we have received a reasonably warm response—on the need to reduce corporation tax in Northern Ireland is that we share a land frontier with the Irish Republic, which has a much lower rate of corporation tax. I look forward to an announcement on that and other issues in this Session and perhaps to legislation in the next Session.
We welcome the emphasis on cutting business regulation. The Business Secretary’s remarks yesterday about the need to roll back the EU regulatory burden were also most welcome. We also support moves on executive pay. The recent revolts by shareholders in companies such as Aviva and Barclays brought cheer to hard-working families, but more needs to be done to empower shareholders through binding votes on pay at the top level. Such measures matter to people out there in the country, and they want action taken on them. That is where the focus needs to be.
We welcome the fact that driving under the influence of drugs will become a specific offence with appropriate punishment. I have received communication on that issue, as other right hon. and hon. Members will have, and although this measure will be of little comfort to those who have already lost family members in tragic circumstances—we have heard some very brave people speaking in the media about this—it will, I hope, prevent more deaths and injuries on our roads in the future.
Likewise, I welcome the much-needed groceries code adjudicator Bill. It will be warmly welcomed by farmers and other suppliers in my part of the world—not necessarily in my constituency, because at last count only three farmers were living within its boundaries, but in Northern Ireland, which is largely a rural area, it will be warmly welcomed.
Absolutely, but the adjudicator must have teeth. We look forward to hearing the details as they come forward. However, if that and other measures we have talked about are implemented, they will receive broad welcome.
Having said that, I want to come to several areas on which I disagree with the Government. Some relate to issues that were in the Queen’s Speech, but some relate to matters that were not. The verdict on the Gracious Speech must be that, although it contains useful measures that we will support, overall it lacks substance in heavy-weight measures to deal with the big issue confronting us. There is to be a measure on House of Lords reform. Many people call me or come to my constituency office, but few, if any, have ever raised that issue with me. Even in these days of e-mails, Twitter and Facebook, very little of our correspondence relates to the matter.
There are, however, many issues on which I get a large amount of e-mails and other correspondence. People are concerned about our net contribution to the European Union, for example. They are worried about the cost of implementing regulations from Brussels. They are angry about our inability to reject unwanted EU law, and they want Parliament to be able to decide on behalf of the people of the United Kingdom what our laws should be, who we should have in our country and who we should be able to deport. Those are the issues that people raise with Members of Parliament all the time. They might not be the issues that Members want to face up to, but unless we face up to the concerns that people raise on a daily basis, we shall become ever more disconnected from the people we are supposed to represent.
A couple of weeks ago, some small business owners from my constituency came down to see me. They talked about the difficulties relating to bank lending and to the high rate of VAT. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that they will take little comfort from what has been said in today’s Queen’s Speech?
I agree with the hon. Lady. I shall come to the issue of VAT shortly, as people have raised that with me. VAT and fuel costs are of real concern to them. The hon. Lady also mentioned banking. It is clear that a real problem for economic growth in this country is that many viable businesses that have a future and an order book and that can trade are having to deal with banks that are moving the goalposts on lending conditions and what they require businesses to pay. They often do that at short notice, having agreed on a programme of repayments and interest rates only a few months previously. Suddenly, the goalposts are moved and the businesses are bereft of any means of continuing. They are forced into liquidation and into laying people off. Much more needs to be done about the lack of bank lending to businesses, because that is strangling a great deal of the potential growth in our economy.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the fact that banks have become so far removed from the communities that they serve is causing some of these challenges? There is agreement across the House on the need for reform of the banking system. Would he welcome more mutualisation in the banking sector, and does he share my regret that that does not appear in the Gracious Speech?
The hon. Lady puts forward an important issue for our consideration. Many of the banks are largely owned by the public at the moment. One leading business man in Northern Ireland told me recently that he regretted that we had not gone the whole way and taken complete control of the banks, to ensure that all the necessary lending could take place. Members of the public, taxpayers, ordinary hard-working families, individuals and businesses are pumping billions of pounds into the banking system, yet the banks are not doing what needs to be done to ease credit and lend in the way that they should.
I was talking about House of Lords reform, and other Members have rightly raised issues that are of real concern to the people and the communities that they represent. Before we get on to the reform of the House of Lords, I would like to see this House deal with an issue relating to the House of Commons. The Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said on record during the last Session that they believe that it is wrong that Members who do not take their seats in the House of Commons are still able to receive full expenses, allowances and representational moneys, which puts them in a much more advantageous position than those of us who do take our seats. Sinn Fein, for instance, gets the equivalent of parliamentary Short money—what is called representative money—and is free to spend it, not on parliamentary activities, of course, because it does not engage in any parliamentary activities, but on party political activities. Whereas we as right hon. and hon. Members would rightly be called to account by the authorities for any spending—even a penny’s worth—for party political purposes, a group of Members who do not take their seats are quite free to spend that money to the disadvantage of their political opponents. Let us be frank: it does not particularly affect our votes, but it affects those of others in the House who are not here today and no doubt can speak for themselves in due course. The fact is that Members who do not take their seats are given an enormous advantage.
We know that back in 2001, Betty Boothroyd, the former great Speaker of the House, resisted all this for a long time. Ultimately, the decision was taken to proceed with the concessions because the then Labour Government said—it was bitterly opposed by Conservative Members—that it was important to bring people into the peace process and the political process. Whatever the arguments at that time, the fact of the matter is that there is no longer any need for this special category of expenditure on the basis of encouraging people to be part of the peace process. It is clear that people are involved in the Executive and in the Assembly at Stormont. I welcome that, and think it enormously to the credit of parties in this House and in Northern Ireland that progress has been made, but it would not make the slightest difference to the political process—nobody believes that it would—if these special arrangements were withdrawn in line with what was promised before the election and in the last parliamentary Session.
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s support. What I am proposing does not require legislation, so I did not necessarily expect it to be reflected in the Queen’s Speech today, but I look forward to steps being taken in this Session to tackle this long overdue issue.
I want to come to another issue on which we have not received many demands for legislation, but about which we have heard many complaints and expressions of concern. The issue has not been raised in the debate so far, but it received an enormous amount of coverage in the run-up to the Gracious Speech: so-called gay marriage. I have to say that I am pleased that no Bill on so-called gay marriage has been proposed for this Session, but I understand that it is the Government’s clear intention to introduce a Bill at some point. I hope that they will reconsider that in light of the fact that well over 500,000 people have signed the Coalition for Marriage’s petition against changing the definition of marriage. That is more people than have signed any petition on the Government’s own website. I hope that there will be a solemn and sincere reconsideration of any suggestion to bring forward such a measure.
Once again, this issue highlights the question of whether we are prepared to connect with the views of the vast majority of the people we purport to represent in this House or we remain disconnected from the concerns of ordinary people in the community. We have already legislated for civil partnerships, and this issue of gay marriage does not have the support of people out in the country. Rather than fixating on issues like that, if the Prime Minister were to come to my constituency—no doubt other hon. Members will hear the same thing in their constituencies—he would hear about the issues that matter, such as the high and rising price of petrol and diesel, and the high and rising price of energy. In Northern Ireland, where we suffer higher petrol and diesel costs than any other part of not just the United Kingdom but the European Union—hard as that is to believe—this is a very important matter indeed, but I am sorry to say that the Gracious Speech contained no reference to any measure that would tackle the high and rising price of fuel.
I know that people will say that the Government have taken action to deal with the problem, and I accept that measures have been taken that have made the price of fuel lower than it would otherwise have been. However, people are inundating me and other DUP Members with complaints about the proposed 3p rise in fuel duty next August, which will undoubtedly make things very difficult for families and businesses. It will, for instance, have knock-on effects on the price of food. People simply cannot understand why we are seeing these taxes go up while taxes on millionaires are coming down.
There is no doubt that the increase in VAT, which has already been mentioned today, has added enormously to the burden on families. In November 2008, the present Chancellor said that he would remind the then Government about the Labour party’s plans to increase VAT from 18.5%
“every single day between now and the next general election.”—[Official Report, 26 November 2008; Vol. 483, c. 741.]
He said that it was a shame, and all the rest of it. The tune has changed dramatically since the Opposition became the Government, but what was said then about the burden that the increase would inflict on individuals, businesses and families was absolutely true, and it is still true today. The VAT increases have added considerably to the cost of living, but I do not believe that VAT has been used to help stimulate the economy.
Businesses are facing extreme pressures as a result of bank lending policies and credit tightening. The Greek and French elections have taken place in recent days, and the results have shown a desire to move away from nothing but austerity to an emphasis on growth. Of course we need to deal with the deficit, but I for one am glad that emphasis is now being placed on the need to secure growth in the economy. We cannot deal with the deficit only by cutting expenditure or raising taxes; we must have economic growth as well. The priority of this parliamentary Session must be growth, growth, growth, and we will support the Government in respect of measures that deliver that essential, but so far elusive, piece of the economic jigsaw.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds), and it is a privilege to be the first Liberal Democrat to speak in this Session of Parliament. [Interruption.] Apart, that is, from my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce), to whom I am about to pay tribute. Let me start, however, by paying tribute to the soldiers whom we remembered at the beginning of the Session—and all who serve in places of danger in Afghanistan and elsewhere—and to our colleagues who died during the last Session.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi) for his speech, and for his reminder of how diverse a country we are and how we benefit from that. I also thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon, whom I ignored only accidentally and briefly, for his speech. He has served in this place continuously for nearly 29 years, and has been the most loyal and steadfast friend and colleague for all that time. He has been a wonderful representative of Aberdeen, of Aberdeenshire, of his constituency and of his country. He has served this Parliament with great distinction, not least today. We are very grateful for his public service, and I think we would all like to put that on the record. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] He is a very valued colleague.
On the second Wednesday in May two years ago, the coalition agreement was signed—within five days of the last election result being declared and within 24 hours of the new Prime Minister taking over at the request of the Queen, the deal was done. Two years later, I say on behalf of all my colleagues that I am perfectly clear that that was the right decision at the time. It was the right decision at the time for us to enter the coalition, in the national interest; and it was the right decision to continue for the past two years in the coalition, in the national interest; and it will continue to be the right decision to remain in the coalition, in the national interest, for the remaining three years of this Parliament. When we joined together, we did so knowing it would be a five-year programme, and knowing we were committed to seeing it through, and it absolutely is in the national interest that we do so.
It was obvious from the beginning that returning Britain to economic stability would not be achieved in one year or in two years, and that instead a full five-year Parliament would be needed. That was the truth then and that is the truth now. We were therefore right to legislate to make the constitutional reform necessary to have a fixed-term Parliament, in order to give the certainty that the county needed. If anyone does not believe that political certainty is a good thing, they should look at what is happening on the other side of this continent at this very moment. In five days, we were able to bring certainty to our country, despite an indecisive election result.
May I remind the House what the election achieved? The Conservatives won 306 seats, and got the support of just over a third of those who voted.
No, this was two years ago. Labour won 258 seats and just under 30% of public support. We won 57 seats with 23% of public support. Labour and the Liberal Democrats combined did not make a majority. Indeed, Labour and the Liberal Democrats along with the next largest party, the Democratic Unionists, would not have made a majority—we would still have been short—whereas the Conservatives plus the Liberal Democrats made a majority, and the country needed a majority Government. We therefore did our duty, by agreeing to work with people who were normally our opponents, in the national interest, to deliver a common programme. We have done that twice in Scotland, working with Labour in the national interest, and once in Wales, again working with Labour in the national interest. I believe it was right to do so on all those occasions, and that it was right to do so on this occasion, too.
The answer is yes, and if the hon. Lady will bear with me, I will deal later with Lords reform, as it is in the Queen’s Speech and the programme for the coming year.
We need to remember where we were two years ago: there was turmoil in Greece and in the eurozone, and our constituents were paying out of their money—not our money—£120 million a day just in servicing the interest repayments on our debt. That is not a way to use taxpayers’ money for the good. There was a financial crisis caused by a banking system that was entirely focused on short-term gain for the people at the top—as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills said regularly in the previous Parliament—rather than on creating long-term value for the many small businesses that provide work for most people across the country. The public finances were out of control, we had the largest public deficit in the developed world and the living standards of those on low and middle incomes were being eroded, which had been gradually reducing the spending power of the British consumer over the previous decade. The cost of living was spiralling; for younger people, certainly in constituencies such as mine, a home had become an unaffordable dream. The economic system often encouraged people to take as much as possible for themselves rather than incentivising them to create long-term value and spread wealth and work as widely as possible, and the economy was reliant on energy from scarce resources, the price of which was rising year after year.
Two years later, we are still not where we need to be. We have unacceptably high unemployment, especially youth unemployment, which started long before this Government came to office and was on a significant upward trend in the last years of the Labour Administration. We are in an economic recession and banks are still not lending enough to viable small businesses, as we all know from our constituency casework, whereas the pay of those at the top is rising more than can possibly be justified by their performance. We heard the figures just this week: an 11% increase in salaries at the top last year, whereas the increase for the working population as a whole was 1%.
It is therefore absolutely right that the Government continue to focus on doing all we can to promote economic growth and recovery, it is right that we continue with the programme we set out and it is right that we have a programme that, as the last Budget did, seeks to put more money into the pockets of those low and middle income working people and to make work pay. The programme should regulate the banks, encourage the growth of renewable energy and put the public finances back on a sustainable footing so that the spending priorities of the Government, about which we care—health care, education and support for the less well-off—can be adequately financed. No Government have ever invested in better schools or hospitals by bankrupting themselves.
It has been difficult and we on the Liberal Democrat Benches know that. There was no parliamentary majority for getting rid of tuition fees and we were not able to deliver that—it just became undeliverable. The Health and Social Care Bill, the Welfare Reform Bill and the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill needed significant changes and we changed them and made them hugely better—all of them. The evidence is there in the legislation that is now on the statute book.
The Budget was grossly misrepresented. Its most significant element was that many millions of people were taken out of paying tax. Many more will be lifted out of tax next year and the year after, so that nobody will have to pay anything in tax on their first £10,000 of income. It was also forgotten that last month pensioners had the largest increase ever in the state pension since it was introduced by the post-war Government. Then there was the youth contract, the huge growth in the number of apprenticeships, and the support for further education.
There has already been huge success, but we must ensure that we focus on the priorities. The Gracious Speech started by setting them out very clearly: economic growth, justice and constitutional reform. We are proud on the Liberal Democrat Benches that the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, my right hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Vince Cable), will see through the creation of the green investment bank in Edinburgh, for which some of us, as members of an environmental party, have argued for many years and will now see delivered. We are proud that the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, our right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr Davey), will introduce an energy Bill to give us low-carbon energy generation and to develop renewables, which have a fantastic future—not just onshore, but offshore, tidal, wind and wave, and not just around Scotland but in the whole of the United Kingdom. We are determined to deliver cheaper electricity and greater security of supply.
My hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Andrew George) and others have campaigned for ages for a grocery code adjudicator Bill, and we are delivering that. It will ensure that farmers, local suppliers and local growers get good value for their products and are not trampled on by the power of the monopoly supermarket in their area. The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my good and hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb)—a Liberal Democrat Minister for Pensions—and his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, with whom he works so well, are determined to deliver the new single tier pension to ensure that by the end of this Parliament people will have, rather than the sum of just under £100 a week they get as the state pension at the moment, about £140 a week. That is particularly valuable to women, the low paid and those who have been self-employed. After 30 years of work, people will have a citizen’s pension, for which we have always fought.
The Minister of State, Department for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather)and others are determined, as the Deputy Prime Minister has been, that we should have flexible parental care leave, flexible parental leave and the right to flexible working. Why? They are not just good for the parent and the child, but they allow the parent to stay in work rather than giving it up and to be able to mix work, home, children and a career. That is really important for women’s equality in this country. Why do we not have many women in this place or on boards? It is partly because we do not have those flexible arrangements.
Absolutely, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for her commitment to families and women in her profession. She is right—we absolutely need to do that.
We outline in the Gracious Speech the support for those with special educational needs, adding to early-years places for the rising fives so that there is a commitment that 40% of rising fives will be able to have support before they go to school. So, there is much for hard-working, ordinary families and their children in the programme. It is not a programme without legislative plans at all—quite the reverse.
A defamation Bill will deal with the fact that our libel laws still restrict the liberty of speech in this country. I pay tribute in particular to my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert), who has worked very hard to make sure that this Bill is in the legislative programme. There is a strong proposal for a National Crime Agency to deal with terrorists and people who do not have the interests of this country at heart. We also have proposals for community sentences for restorative justice. My right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) has been absolutely clear about the value of such sentences not just in reforming people but in value-for-money terms.
We have been careful about the difficult issue that the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) raised about data and how to deal with it. It is perfectly reasonable, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) said, to respond to the security services’ request that we make all species of communication areas of consideration for regulation of data control—not so that people can know what one is saying but so that we do not have no-go areas for the security services. We on the Liberal Democrat Benches will not sign up to legislation that will add to the intrusion into citizens’ lives that we saw so often from the Labour party when it was in government. Under Labour, we had a Big Brother state with identity cards and proposals for 90-day detention. Neither we nor the Conservatives are going down that road, and that is why there is a draft proposal, which we will look at carefully. Only if it is acceptable will it get through.
Let me say a word about the comments of the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) on gay marriage. May I say, as a member of the Church, that I think it is entirely reasonable that in a modern society in which we have accepted that both gay and straight couples should be able to have permanent, recognised relationships, the state should allow that to happen in an equal way? It happens in many other places in the world and it does not mean that any denomination of the Church or any other faith group has to accept that, endorse it or carry out such ceremonies in its buildings—it is simply about saying that the state recognises it when two people want to live their lives as adults together. This is not in the Gracious Speech and was never going to be, because the consultation has not ended. However, we should recognise that there is a civil liberties issue at stake for many of our constituents. We should not forget that. I bet there are people in every constituency in the United Kingdom who want us to make sure that this issue remains on the agenda.
Many people will have written to the right hon. Gentleman, as they have written to me, about this issue. Does he agree that when it is explained to people that there is a clear difference between a civil marriage and a religious marriage in terms of what is proposed, most of them are reassured? It is our duty to point that out.
The hon. Gentleman is exactly right; that is exactly the experience I have had. I have Evangelical Christian friends who are concerned about this issue, but when one explains that it does not suddenly make something sacramental if that is not what the Church or what the individual believes, they are reassured. It is a similar issue—I say this respectfully—as that of tax advantages for people who are married and those who are not married. In our book, if a couple have lived together for 25 years but have not married, they should enjoy the same position in the tax system as those who have chosen to marry. We have to respect people’s different life choices as adults.
Those issues are all important, but the most important legislative proposal for my constituents in a constituency that faces the City of London from across the river is none of those—it is banking reform. It is about making sure that we divide the banks into retail banks that will deal with people’s day-to-day business and separate them from the speculative, international playing with money that has brought us to the state we are in. In my view, the most important aspect of that Bill, for which my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary’s Department is also responsible, is that which allows shareholders to control the scandal of executive pay. This week, we have at last seen the beginning of a change in attitudes at the top; shareholder power has at last begun to be exerted. We absolutely need to give shareholders the power not only to advise and express their view but to say, “I’m sorry—if you don’t perform, you are not getting the money.” What has happened previously has resulted from an “if you scratch my back I’ll scratch yours” attitude in the boardrooms, with people offering each other packages and salaries that are beyond the comprehension of most of our constituents. It was obscene and it is unacceptable, but it was allowed, encouraged and developed under a Labour Government, and that should be to their eternal shame.
Absolutely. If we can have a real rise of shareholder power over the next few years—individuals and pension funds—it will be a really good thing.
There are two more things I want to say. The first is about constitutional reform, in part to answer the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier). We are right not to forget constitutional reform. The Liberal Democrat party is a party of reform. We have agreed fixed-term Parliaments—a good thing. We have agreed that there should be no transfer of powers to the European Union without a referendum, which is an absolutely reasonable thing. We have agreed that whatever the number of constituencies, they should at least have the same size electorate—a good thing. We have agreed to look at devolution to England, which I have argued for a long time, because there is unequal devolution. Since I have been in this place we have had fantastically successful devolution in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and I welcome it. England needs a bit of the same.
We have agreed that Back Benchers should be more powerful in determining the agenda in this place—a good thing. We have agreed that there will be a change in the laws of succession to the Crown—absolutely a good thing. I hope it will soon be part of the legislative programme. We have more work to do, to make sure we scrutinise legislation better in this place. We do not do it well enough in either place; often we do not have enough time here and we leave it to the other end of the building. That is not a plea for more legislation. In every Parliament I have sat in, we have asked for less legislation and I am glad that we are not trying to jam in all sorts of things that the public do not want. We want fewer regulations and less legislation, but we want to do it better.
Does my right hon. Friend think that the Opposition have suddenly started mischief-making over Lords reform, by asking for a referendum? Is it because they hope that in so doing they will cause Liberal Democrat Members to go slow on the equalisation of constituency boundaries? As Labour Members do not want equalisation of constituency boundaries, they hope that by frustrating Lords reform they can frustrate that idea. Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that he and his colleagues are committed to ensuring that a vote in Southwark is worth the same as a vote in Banbury, or in Wales or Scotland?
I am keen that we have a system whereby votes in all parts of the country are fair. Of course I would like a proportional system, but I accept that I shall not have that in this Parliament. Friends on the Plaid and other Benches know of my Welsh background. The Welsh have the most advantageous position at the moment, because many constituencies have far fewer electors. We need a fair system.
I do not know what the motives of Labour Members are, but if they try to play silly games and prevent the other place from changing from an entirely nominated or hereditary Chamber to a democratic one, it will be to their eternal discredit. This is the best opportunity they have ever had—especially as they did not do it—to change our Parliament. Why? There are only 15 countries in the world that still have a predominantly appointed second Chamber; I am sure Labour Members would think that Belize and Burkina Faso are good examples. In only one other country is heredity a determinant for membership of the legislature—Lesotho. It is a lovely country, but I am not sure that it is the best model for democratic, 21st-century politics.
There are more Members down the other end of the corridor who are over 90 than under 40. There are 818 Members there already—92 hereditary—and the balance between men and women is 638 to 180. The Chamber is not representative by gender, ethnicity or age. It is not representative in any way. Why not? Because it exists by patronage and heredity. We just have to move on. It has been on the agenda for 100 years and we have to finish the business.
I say to hon. Friends on the Conservative Benches who are not entirely persuaded about Lords reform that I understand that it is a lovely place, that they look lovely, some of them are lovely, and that it is part of our great, historic constitution and offers a job for life— I am not going there, but they might want to—so I understand why it touches a soft spot, but come on, guys: we have to move on. If the Tory party is to be the modern party that it wants to be and that the Prime Minister says it needs to be, it, too, must deliver. We can talk about the detail, the percentages and the length of the term of office, but we must end up with a second Chamber that is predominantly democratically elected.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned that the regional variations are significant. On the point his hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) made about the reduction in the number of constituencies, is the right hon. Gentleman telling the House this afternoon that what we are all seeing on social network websites is wrong and that there will be no frustration as a result of that reduction?
First, I am surrounded by colleagues who say that those who believe social network websites are in trouble. Secondly, most things on them are wrong. Thirdly, they are sometimes libellous. Seriously, I understand the general point the hon. Gentleman is making. I am not a member of the Government and so cannot speak for them, but I can speak for my colleagues here. What we want is a package of constitutional reform that has a fair constituency system. There is an argument about how many constituencies there should be—I was never in favour of the number going down quite as far as it has done, but there was an argument for making it smaller—and there is a strong argument for having equal numbers, but there is an equally strong argument for Lords reform. I hope that Labour will support us in delivering both, and we will be watching.
No, because other colleagues wish to speak and I am bringing my comments to a close.
The new President of France said after he was elected on Sunday that his two priorities were a fairer country and support for the next generation, the young people of France. I think that those are good things for us to champion for our country from these Benches. We need a redistribution of wealth and of work, an end to the obscenity of top pay and a closing of the gap between rich and poor. We need to make sure that work always pays, to create more apprenticeships and a more skilled work force, to give more opportunities for employment and self-employment and to build the largest opportunity for infrastructure investment that we can manage, in all countries and regions of the UK, and the largest affordable programme for housing that we can deliver, particularly social rented housing, which is desperately needed in my constituency and elsewhere. I guess that there is not a single colleague who does not have constituents coming to their surgery every week pleading with them to find somewhere where they and their partner, or they and their parents, or they and their children can live. Young people need a decent careers and youth service, decent work experience, decent mentoring, good apprenticeships and good further and higher education.
To the Prime Minister and the Chancellor, I say, “You were right, of course, to take as many poor people out of tax as you have, but please do not again reduce tax rates for the well-off.” Whatever the balance of equity, it came across very badly, it did not look as if we are all in this together and the evidence does not show that any further reduction will do any greater good for the economy. We have had one Budget which does this and we know the outcome, but no more please. Let us take the poorer out of tax, not the people at the top.
To colleagues here who sometimes have disagreements with the Government—we all do—I say that we have to remain strong, united, determined, liberal and radical. We have to be committed to the things we came here for: the spreading of wealth and power and a cleaner, greener, safer and, above all, fairer Britain.
To the people outside who wonder what we are doing in this difficult coalition, I say that we are clear that we cannot achieve everything we want because in a coalition, by definition, that is not possible, but it is better to be in government influencing a huge amount than in opposition influencing nothing. We are determined to use our influence not unfairly, disproportionately or unreasonably, but this is a partnership of two parties. That is the deal and that is what we will stick to.
We won 16% of the vote in the local elections the other day; we won 23% in the general election. It is not an impossible task over three years to build confidence, but it depends on whether we can get the economy going, help growth, make sure that we are seen to be economically competent and deliver a fairer Britain.
I think that we can do it, and Asquith gave us something 100 years ago this year as an encouragement on our way. In his speech in Nottingham to our party conference, at a time when he was leading one of the greatest Governments in British history, he said this—
I was not there, no—not even in my previous life!
“If we have—and I believe you will see that we have—concentration of purpose, unity of spirit, and unshaken firmness of resolve, then, long and stormy though the voyage may have been before it comes to an end, the ship will find her way with a full cargo into the desired haven.”
Liberal Democrats are determined to deliver us safely on the other side and, much more importantly, to deliver our constituents to a better Britain, with better prospects, higher employment, lower unemployment and a much more secure economy for the five years following 2015 than the one we inherited when we took over in 2010.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes), who I know takes a great interest in Hartlepool—largely because he spent most of the 2004 by-election there trying to stop me becoming a Member.
In his opening and closing remarks, the right hon. Gentleman mentioned elections both general and local, and I have to tell him that after Thursday’s local elections, on Hartlepool borough council the Liberal Democrats now have no representation whatever, which shows the scale of the challenge that he and his party face in terms of getting into bed with the Conservatives.
I am confused by this continuing slur of “getting into bed with the Conservatives”, because in Scotland we now have coalitions of every possible hue, including Labour and Tory coalitions. Does the hon. Gentleman attack those coalitions with the same vigour that he attacks this one here?
I use the phrase “getting into bed with the Tories” not because it is of my own making, but after speaking to my constituents and people elsewhere who were thinking about voting Liberal Democrat, who might have fallen out of love with Labour following the 2005 general election and who wanted to consider something else in 2010, but who now feel let down and betrayed. That is the scale of the challenge that the hon. Gentleman’s party faces with regard to reinvigorating the trust of the people.
Almost the first words that Her Majesty said in her speech today were:
“My Ministers’ first priority will be to reduce the deficit and restore economic stability.”
Those words were almost identical to the ones that the Queen uttered in the first Session of this Parliament, two years ago, when she stated:
“The first priority is to reduce the deficit and restore economic growth.”
In the intervening two years, the Government have done little that they set themselves on both counts. They have had to borrow about £150 billion more than they originally forecast back in 2010, and they have failed to deal effectively with the deficit and to restore economic growth, because they have focused exclusively—some might say almost obsessively—on the former, reducing the deficit, instead of giving sufficient priority to the latter, economic growth. It should not be an either/or game. Tax revenues are lower because of weak demand and reduced consumer spending, while expenditure is rising because of the need to pay out more in unemployment benefits. The British economy is now in a more perilous state than when the Government took office two years ago.
The Prime Minister and the Chancellor will trot out the excuse of the difficulties experienced in the eurozone, and there is some truth in that, but they cannot escape the fact that the retreat into recession has been caused almost directly by their actions and policies. We are experiencing this country’s longest downturn since the 1920s. Britain is emerging from the deep global recession of 2008-09 more slowly than from previous recessions and, crucially, more slowly than our main economic competitors, meaning that our rivals in the global marketplace are stealing a march on us. The actions of this Government today are compromising our competitiveness in the global economy of tomorrow.
The US economy grew by 3% in the last quarter of 2011 and by 2.2% in the first quarter of this year. Alongside Greece and Italy, Spain is generally—almost universally—acknowledged to be one of the economic basket cases of the eurozone, but even the Spanish economy grew more in 2011 than Britain’s. Today’s publication of UK retail figures, which show a 3.3% fall year on year—the largest fall in more than a year—demonstrates the general weakness of the economy, the lack of demand and the fragility of consumer confidence.
Will the hon. Gentleman congratulate the Government on maintaining our triple A credit rating status and acknowledge the fact that we have among the lowest long-term interest rates in the world at the moment? That is a major achievement.
We do have those things, but we have no growth. I fear that the rehashing of phrases in the Gracious Speech today—often word-for-word repeats of what was said in 2010—will mean that the Government will continue to insist on economic policies that consign the country to a decade of stagnation, anaemic growth, mass unemployment and rising social division.
High interest rates do not stimulate growth, but, equally, low interest rates indicate that there is no economic stimulus whatever. We need a rounder, more holistic approach to economic policy that focuses not solely on reducing the deficit, but on making sure that we can stimulate the economy to embark on jobs and growth.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the challenges is the issue of businesses not being able to get loans? The Prime Minister spoke with enthusiasm about Project Merlin and the loan guarantee scheme, but that is not delivering to businesses. There is no contradiction between cutting a deficit and getting banks to lend. It is in the Government’s power to do so, but they are not acting.
I absolutely agree. Later, I want to mention that we need more investment and to unlock investor confidence and provide more business investment. That is at terminally low rates at the moment.
Emphasis should have been given to a new finance Bill with measures to boost demand in the economy and put more money in the pockets of millions, rather than prioritising tax cuts for millionaires and tax rises for pensioners. Communities such as mine in Hartlepool and the wider north-east see a Government presiding over unprecedented cuts to income, living standards and public services, huge rises in unemployment and matters being made worse by Government measures such as the rise in VAT, hikes in student fees, cuts to tax credits and increased taxes for pensioners.
At the same time, the Chancellor is insisting that the country can afford to give those earning more than £150,000 a year a tax cut and that, in the current climate, millionaires should be given priority and pay about £40,000 a year less in tax. A new finance Bill could have set about repairing some of the damage from the previous Finance Bill, which has been carried over into this Session; it could have put us on the path to economic recovery, jobs and growth.
It seems rather astonishing that the hon. Gentleman should be suggesting that the Government should be spending more money. Does he run a household budget as I do? When people are trying to feed a family, it is clear that if they borrow lots of money and pay extremely high interest rates—because their intention is to borrow even more money—that will not get them into any position to balance their budget or move on from the parlous state in which they find themselves. Is the hon. Gentleman not aware that we are already paying £200 million a day in interest, just to service the debt that his Government incurred?
What I am suggesting is that if the Government were serious about economic growth and promoting the conditions for competitiveness and enterprise, they would be doing a lot more to stimulate growth and job creation. For example, they could have announced a British investment bank Bill, which would have provided a clear and welcome acknowledgement that active partnership between Government and productive businesses will allow the state to ensure that growth capital is provided to the small and medium-sized businesses that need it, for which the market has failed.
Active partnership between Government and businesses can work. Successful modern economies such as Singapore and Germany do it, and their economies will see long-term, sustainable business success and economic growth as a result. Even the US, supposedly the most free market economy on earth, does it; we saw the likes of fast-growing young companies such as Apple and Intel receive growth funding through the US Government’s small business investment company programme. On the subject of active government in the US, why did not the Gracious Speech include the British equivalent of President Obama’s Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act, which is designed to increase the number of jobs and to kick-start initial public offerings for companies and ensure that they have access to finance for growth? We should be doing the same here.
You will never hear from me, Mr Deputy Speaker, any criticism of trying to get as many start-ups as possible. I would welcome a culture of enterprise and allowing businesses to grow, but firms that are starting up are being penalised by not being given access to finance and capital to allow them to do so.
The Gracious Speech referred to the introduction of
“legislation to reform competition law to promote enterprise and fair markets.”
I hope that the Government will confirm that that Bill will contain measures to curb excessive executive remuneration and encourage increased shareholder activism, as that was not specifically mentioned in the Queen’s Speech. I also hope that they will legislate to implement all—I emphasise all—the sensible and widely accepted recommendations of the High Pay Commission earlier this year on matters such as simplification of executive remuneration, standardisation of reporting to ensure that meaningful comparisons can take place, and, importantly, the inclusion of employee representation on remuneration committees. Recent events at the likes of UBS, Trinity Mirror, Barclays, AstraZeneca and Aviva have shown that there is shareholder appetite for ensuring that poor performance is not rewarded through excessive pay. I hope that the High Pay Commission’s recommendations will be implemented in full.
I hope that the reference in the Queen’s Speech to “repealing unnecessary legislation” will not mean stripping away workers’ rights. Making it easier to fire people does not create jobs, employment or economic growth; instead, such an environment creates a Victorian-mill-owner culture of bad bosses being accepted and enshrined in legislation. It will do nothing to stimulate consumer confidence or growth in demand, which are so very vital. It is also wrong to suggest that the level of employment protection and rises in unemployment are closely correlated, as David Blanchflower points out in his article in The Independent today. He argues that Germany and the Netherlands have much higher levels of employment protection than the UK but experienced a much smaller rise in unemployment during the recession and its aftermath.
I agree that we have got into a position in this country whereby certain big businesses have behaved extremely badly towards their employees, and towards capitalism itself. That has not been about true entrepreneurism but just money for old rope. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the answer to that is to change the way in which we do corporate governance by introducing new powers for shareholders to ensure that they can hold to account the chief executives and boards of such companies?
I would certainly agree with making improvements to this country’s corporate governance model. Germany has a good model, and although it cannot be replicated exactly, it is something that we should consider. I have mentioned the recommendations of the High Pay Commission, which referred to employee involvement in remuneration. I hope that that approach will continue. By having a responsible capitalist agenda, we can make improvements to secure long-term sustainable growth in this country. Perhaps the hon. Lady and I can agree on that.
I speak to businesses in my constituency and elsewhere virtually every day, and they are not telling me that they are hindered in that way. This goes to a wider point about the Queen’s Speech and about the Government’s having the wrong priorities and the wrong values in this respect. I am arguing that we should be concentrating on increasing employment and having a system whereby we can secure long-term sustainable business growth for this country. We should be making it easier for people to hire workers, not fire them.
I hope, too, that the reference in the Queen’s Speech to the limiting of state inspection of businesses will not serve as a cover for further cuts to the Health and Safety Executive’s budget or an undermining of the safety regime in the workplace. On 28 April we commemorated workers memorial day and were reminded that 20,000 people would die prematurely this year from injuries sustained or diseases contracted as a result of unsatisfactory health and safety in the workplace. Fatalities in the construction industry have risen in the past year, and responsible Governments and businesses recognise that a comprehensive safety regime, suitably audited, actually enhances productivity and efficiency and ultimately has a beneficial effect on the bottom line. I therefore hope that workers’ health and safety rights will not be stripped away.
The Queen’s Speech referred to the Government’s commitment to
“improve the lives of children and families”,
with which the whole House would agree. However, today’s report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation forecasts that child poverty will increase in the next decade. It concludes by stating that the Government should take a more targeted approach to employment programmes and aim them at families in my constituency and elsewhere who often have not seen meaningful or sustained work for three generations or so. That could break the cycle of unemployment, poverty, deprivation and the loss of ambition and aspiration. There was nothing in the Queen’s Speech to allow that to take place.
The most serious issue facing Hartlepool both socially and economically is the level of unemployment, which is higher now than it was at the height of the global recession in 2008. Youth unemployment is a particular concern. One in four young men in my constituency are out of work, which will cause immense social and economic problems in the next 20, 30 or 40 years. The Government really need to deal with that, and measures such as the abolition of the future jobs fund, the cancellation of education maintenance allowance and the hike in tuition fees do not help young people in my constituency. I wanted to see in the Gracious Speech something like a future jobs fund or a skills and retraining Bill, to ensure that my constituency and others were best placed to come out of their economic difficulties in a better position than when they went into them. Sadly, the Queen’s Speech was lacking in that regard.
I believe the balance that the Labour Government struck was probably about right. There will always be different emphases, but I reiterate the point that I made in answer to a previous intervention. Businesses say to me, “We want to have the conditions for growth. We want to be able to hire workers. The issue is not about being able to fire workers more easily—that is not what we are about.” The emphasis and priorities that the Government have set out in the Gracious Speech and elsewhere are completely wrong.
It astonishes me that after only two years, the Government seem to have run out of steam. The rehashing of words and phrases in the Queen’s Speech is evidence of that. It is difficult to think of the big reforming Governments of the past century—the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark mentioned Asquith, and we can think about Attlee, Thatcher or Blair—being devoid of policy areas only 24 months after being elected. Governments used to talk about relaunches after two terms of office, not after two years. The Government have no sense of national mission and have not set out the values that are really needed or what they want the British economy to look like in 2020 or 2030. They lack, in the eloquent words of the Business Secretary, a “compelling vision” of where they want to take the economy.
As The Sunday Times stated this weekend:
“People now regard this as a government that fails on the three i’s: it is incoherent, incompetent and has run out of ideas.”
Today’s Queen’s Speech provided the opportunity for a true and meaningful relaunch, which could have ensured that the Government reassessed their values and priorities and tried again. They failed to do that. This country and my constituency, particularly its young people, will suffer the consequences of that missed opportunity for decades to come.
The hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) was on stronger ground when he talked about the importance of policies and opportunities to create growth to address the unemployment that affects his constituency and many others. Although I did not agree with many of his policy prescriptions, I agreed with his definition of the challenge—I think, from his speech earlier, that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister did, too. However, I did not follow the hon. Gentleman into the closing stages of his speech because he is simply wrong to say that the Government do not have a clear view about what they are trying to do.
I welcome the Queen’s Speech precisely because it refocuses the minds of hon. Members and supporters of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties, and more importantly, of those beyond the political world, on the objectives that we set ourselves when the coalition Government were formed. To me, that is the key win in the Queen’s Speech.
Some members of my party have, in the past few weeks, and particularly in the past few days, sought opportunities to strengthen the Conservative flavour, as they see it, in the coalition. I want to offer one or two responses to that, based on the Queen’s Speech, and comment on one or two specific proposals.
As a lifelong Conservative, I have no problem in arguing the case for Conservative ideas. However, I have a problem with those who seek to reinterpret the Conservative case excessively narrowly. There is nothing in the Queen’s Speech that cannot be argued full heartedly as a mainstream Conservative proposal. All the measures can be traced to proper Conservative roots and, indeed, to roots in the Liberal Democrat tradition.
There has been much debate, including in the House this afternoon, about House of Lords reform and whether there is a proper Conservative narrative for it. I argue strongly that there is. I intervened on my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) to remind him that it is nearly 50 years since Lord Hailsham, who happened to be Margaret Thatcher’s first Lord Chancellor, described our system of government as possessing inadequate checks and balances on the powers of the Executive. He described it as an “elective dictatorship”, so when my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House of Lords is quoted in today’s Financial Times as arguing the case for reform of another place on the ground that it will make that Chamber,
“‘stronger, more independent’ and better able ‘to challenge the decisions of the Commons’”,
I allow myself a gentle cheer. I think that Lord Hailsham, from his grave, would cheer the prospect of our seeking a structure that allows Parliament to be a more effective check on the Executive.
We either believe in the case for less and better government, and more checks and balances in government —as a Conservative, I do; that Governments should be subject to checks and balances and accountability is a core Conservative belief—or we do not. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House of Lords clearly does. I am delighted that the Government, from both Conservative and Liberal Democrat traditions, believe in the case for more effective checks and balances and accountability to Parliament. I look forward to the conversion of that big idea into precise legislation as the Session goes on.
I am listening carefully to the right hon. Gentleman, who makes a strong case. I do not know what we will end up with, but does he agree that one way of improving the checks and balances would be through avoiding the strict timetabling of every single measure that comes before the House?
I have much sympathy for that point of view. I have been here for perhaps rather more years than I should, but I remember long debates when parliamentary scrutiny was more effective than it often is now. Before the last general election, there were repeated occasions on which complex legislation passed through on a timetable that suited the Government rather than provided for proper parliamentary scrutiny.
There will be those—I am certainly among them—who will look for ways to strengthen the voice of the House of Commons, as we should. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes), who referred to the strengthening during this Parliament of the Back-Bench voice, which has been a step forward and a good thing. However, those who look for effective checks within the legislature on Executive enthusiasms do well to look at another place as part of the answer to that, in addition to reform of House of Commons procedure.
Therefore, to those in the Conservative party who ask, “Where is the Conservative provenance for House of Lords reform?” I say, “Read the history books.” I will certainly be uncomfortable if we are manoeuvred into a position in which we appear to defend what I regard as a wholly unacceptable Blairite compromise, which we opposed vigorously at the time of the legislative proposals at the beginning of the Labour Government.
Having said all that, it is clearly true that such reform is an important internal process within the Westminster village, but not the key issue that our constituents look to the Government, the Queen’s Speech and the House to address. To again pick up a theme developed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark, we should remind ourselves that the Government are a coalition. Because they are a coalition, they have a large working majority in the House of Commons, which is a good thing in terms of the stability and strategic purpose it provides. However, the majority is more important in another respect: the two parties that make up the coalition have a broader electoral base in the community outside Westminster than has been the case for any recent Government. We have a stable Government with a clear purpose, which was redefined and re-emphasised in the Queen’s Speech and in the speech of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, and not just a Government cobbled together in the immediate aftermath of the last general election.
At the very heart of the purpose of the coalition Government is the intention to create a stable economic base not merely to address the deficit, but to move on from that to create the environment in which growth begins to re-emerge, as the hon. Member for Hartlepool said. The purpose of economic policy is not to make the books balance—as the Prime Minister said over the weekend, it is not an exercise in accountancy—but to create the environment in which interest rates are low, confidence returns, and growth starts the process of creating jobs in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and elsewhere.
I find the argument of the shadow Chancellor wholly unpersuasive. He appears to believe that we lack a Government appetite to borrow. How a British Government deliver stability in the Europe of 2012 by building on their already excessive borrowing rate and building more borrowing into our public finances is simply beyond me. I believe that that is unrealistic, but more seriously, I also believe that the shadow Chancellor knows it is unrealistic. If he does, it is not only unrealistic, but dishonest.
The purpose that brought the Government together, which enlists the support of every Conservative and Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament, is the prime objective of recreating economic stability to create growth, so that we can deliver the wealth required to deliver improving standards of living and improving public services. How do we do that? The hon. Member for Hartlepool argued that what we need is a state bank that would make better investment decisions than the private banking sector. I do not agree with that.
What I do agree with are the two key Bills in the Queen’s Speech, one of which is the Bill on banking reform, to address some of the failings that have been identified, not just by politicians but by the Governor of the Bank of England last week and by many commentators. One of the learning experiences of the events of 2005-09 was that the banking system did not have proper risk assurance to reduce the risks that the taxpayer ended up picking up. The process of banking reform is important and I welcome the fact that the Government are pressing forward with it.
I also welcome the fact that the Government are pressing forward with the reform and accentuation of competition policy, because I strongly believe that, once the Government’s finances are under control, the real answer to the question of how to recreate growth, confidence and prosperity in the economy is through a banking system that works and a competitive, free-enterprise economy. That is at the heart of the Queen’s Speech. It has obvious provenance in the Conservative tradition, and it has equally obvious provenance in the Liberal Democrat tradition, and that is why this stream of ideas comes together to create a strong coalition Government.
The Government are not, I am pleased to say, just about economics. They also have a broad-based programme for the reform of public service delivery—in which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education in particular is carrying forward a programme of reform that will deliver strong improvements in our school system and our wider education system as a result of the ideas that we share across the coalition. We also have a shared commitment to the promotion of environmental policies through the Green investment bank. That such ideas are shared across the coalition is the key point that I want to draw out of the Queen’s Speech.
I wish to focus on one specific policy—social care. This is a more techy point than a political ideas point, but it is an extremely important point from the perspective of the people who rely on our health and social care system. There was, of course, an expectation of legislation on social care reform in this Session. What we now have is a commitment in the Queen’s Speech to a draft Bill reflecting a continuing thinking process within the Government—I am pleased to see that the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Burstow), the Minister with responsibility for social care, is in his place. I shall not seek his comments on what I am about to say, but I am glad that he will hear it.
My hon. Friend leads me neatly to my next point. It seems to me to be an odd argument to suggest that if the Government have not yet clearly made up their mind precisely how they propose to deliver the important issue of social care reform, it then becomes a source of criticism that there is not a Bill with a commitment to legislate. I am old-fashioned enough—as my hon. Friend suggests most of us interested in this issue are—to think that the most important issue is to deliver a clear policy and then to legislate. I do not criticise the insistence that we have a clear policy before we have a Bill and a commitment to legislate.
I welcome the fact that the process of clarification of policy is continuing, provided that it takes us beyond discussion about funding. While Dilnot made some important points about the need for a fairer system of distributing the cost burden among those who pay for social care—some of those ideas will be part of the eventual conclusion on health and social care—the problem is that he was asked to answer the wrong question, and that is becoming increasingly obvious as the public discussion continues. The question put to Dilnot was how to restructure the payment arrangements for the existing structure of social care. But if we step back from the question of funding and look at how care is actually delivered in each locality—between the social care system, the primary health care system and the community health care system—the inescapable conclusion is that the structure is no longer fit for purpose. It was designed primarily to deliver health care to people who had a burden of disease that was the pattern 30, 40 or 50 years ago, whereas today’s health and care system needs to meet the needs of a very different group of patients. It is a difficult thing to measure, but depending on how one chooses to do so, between two thirds and three quarters of the resources employed in the health and care system are devoted to people with long-term, complex needs. Their requirement is for joined-up care that supports them and enables them to lead lives that are as full as possible during the period of their longer life expectancy.
As a former carer for two adults with complex needs, I counted that at one point I was dealing with 13 different agencies to provide their care. The right hon. Gentleman seems to suggest that simplification of the system is as important as proper funding. Funding may be a big challenge, but simplification is vital if we are to deliver the domiciliary aspect of care.
I entirely agree with the hon. Lady’s view. Reform of social care is not the same thing as reforming the funding system. In my view, we cannot deliver a good value, high quality health and care system just by changing funding flows. What is required is something more fundamental, which is changing the way in which care is delivered in each locality, in order—as the hon. Lady rightly says—to reduce the number of competing, and often non-communicating, bureaucracies in the system.
If the time that the Government are taking will be used to answer the question of how to deliver more integrated, joined-up care, and then how to pay for it, it will be time extremely well spent. If it is simply a delay while we try to solve the problems of how to pay for the existing system, we will continue to ask the wrong, unanswerable question.
On social care, I have made a specific point, but on the Queen’s Speech as a whole, I have made a more important point with a broader political reach. The Government have a clear purpose, both in our economic policy and in our broader views about the type of society that we are seeking to create. It is not a coincidence that my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden spoke today about liberty and justice, or that the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark focused on the importance of individual responsibility and rights as opposed to the collective tradition that comes from parties on the political left. I support the Queen’s Speech and this Conservative-led coalition, because it already has achievements of which both Conservatives and Liberal Democrats can be proud. The Queen’s Speech makes clear the continuing commitment on the part of the Government to build on and follow through the achievements of our first two years.
It is a great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Charnwood (Mr Dorrell), who has once more shown that he is a master of his brief. His remarks about care were thoughtful. Over the coming weeks, we can develop some of the thoughts he has expounded, and undoubtedly he will make an important contribution to this debate, if he has not done so already.
I am tempted into the arena of reform of the other place. I will be honest: it is the least of my worries. As we all know, it began in 1911, and for all I know, in the next century we will still be talking about it—well, we will not, but others will be. I recall the valiant efforts of the late Robin Cook, for example, who was effectively stitched up to fail by the Labour Whips. There are very powerful forces at work within and without the usual channels, so let us not get too excited about sudden reform.
I am sure that Members will recognise, however, that the other place needs reform. Clearly, any Chamber with even a partly hereditary principle has got to be wrong and due for reform, but how do we reform it? Each suggestion seems to have consequences we have not thought about. For example, would elected or appointed Members next door have the same validity, legitimacy and so on? If we empower the other Chamber, will we have a political boxing match with them all the time as we often have within this Chamber? I am sure that we will address those questions, but personally I will not hold my breath in expectation of imminent reform—although I might be wrong, as I often am.
That is not to say that I favour the status quo, but I do foresee problems—some visible ones, some undercurrents —that could stymie our debate. We might come up with wonderful solutions, but with the best will in the world, will they happen? [Interruption.] Does the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) wish to intervene? I would be pleased to accept an intervention. [Interruption.] It was just the way he was sitting. I beg his pardon.
The hon. Gentleman has hit an interesting note. The good people of Dwyfor Meirionnydd were hugely underwhelmed at the thought of House of Lords reform, given that there were at least another 210 subjects they wanted to talk about first.
For what they are worth, I shall leave those comments on Lords reform up in the air—pointless, as they may well be.
The Gracious Speech contained several interesting proposals, but as always the devil is in the detail. Nevertheless, I shall speak on the basis of what I know now of the speech. First, though, I would like to congratulate Her Majesty on her reign and on having been an excellent monarch for many years. I fully welcome the Government’s intention to bring in the groceries ombudsman—I think that is what it is called—in the Gracious Speech. Many of us throughout the House have championed such a thing for a long time. I first came to it in about 2004—2005 possibly—and many people in the Chamber and outside have argued similarly.
As we know, a draft Bill was published and scrutinised during the last Session and might well be the basis of the legislation coming before us shortly. Ministers in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, I and everyone in the Chamber are aware of the crisis in the milk industry, for example. We need an ombudsman with real powers and teeth to tackle these problems, as the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) said. We owe it not only to the farming community but to the many other suppliers to ensure that the ombudsman can act to good effect. Unless we do that, I am afraid that the measure might prove a damp squib.
I am always in favour, where possible, of putting the powers in the Bill, because many things happen by way of secondary legislation that slip through on the nod, and suddenly we have unintended consequences and law that is not as workable or useful as we might have thought. I agree, therefore, with the hon. Gentleman.
I have heard it said that there will be a power to name and shame. That is one thing that supermarkets, for example, would be concerned about, but equally there must be a power to impose substantial financial penalties. Small financial penalties will not do the office justice; they must be substantial if they are to mean anything at all.
I referred to the dairy industry. The problems are not unique to Wales—they are across the board—but since 1999 the number of Welsh dairy farmers has halved. This week’s tuppence cut by Dairy Crest has wreaked havoc on many people in north, mid and south Wales. It is said that a cut of between 3p and 4p, for example, means a loss of £65 million to the Welsh dairy sector. I would like the EU dairy package on contracts introduced on a compulsory rather than a voluntary basis, and I hope that DEFRA Ministers will hold a full and frank discussion with devolved Ministers on that basis.
This issue does not only concern dairy farmers, however; suppliers in general are being hammered by the unfair contract terms and pressures being applied. I remember seeing several Ministers about this matter, including Lord Bach, who said, candidly, “I need six or seven names and examples of pressure being applied”, but dairy farmers, concerned about being victimised and losing their contracts, were not prepared to put their heads above the parapet. As one said to me, “Half a loaf is better than no loaf at all.” So, there we are. I understand that there will now be a right to complain anonymously.
I will give the House the example of a farmer in the constituency whom I have the privilege to represent who bottles water—the purest water in Wales, apparently. On occasion, I have even drunk it.
Well, with something else. [Interruption.]
The farmer came to an agreement with one of the large supermarkets. Believe it or not, it came out like this: the supplier was allowed 1.5p profit per litre of water, but the water was sold by the supermarket for more than 80p. He declined to do it. That 1.5p included travelling from mid-Wales across to Shropshire to deliver the water every day. It simply was not worth his while, yet apparently those terms are typical. We need to get to grips with these issues, otherwise all our home producers —of good vegetables, apples and so on—will say, “Well, it’s not worth it. We’re packing up.” That is the last thing we want.
I agree absolutely with the right hon. Gentleman’s remarks about producers and farmers. Of course, my constituents, many of whom farm, would expect me to say that. However, my constituents also require good value for money from supermarkets. Does he agree that it is important that supermarkets can apply pressure to large multinational chains that produce goods and from which consumers need good value? There is a clear difference between the two.
Yes, and one hopes that the ombudsman will be involved in that scenario as well. We shall no doubt consider the Bill shortly, and I hope that that aspect will be covered; otherwise, we will be doing only half the job. I agree with what the hon. Gentleman says.
I shall move on swiftly to the notion of televising court proceedings, which has not yet been mentioned. As a lawyer, I am not in favour of televising advocates, because there could be a danger of their playing to the gallery. I am not saying that many would do so, but some might. I understand, however, that the proposals will follow the Scottish model, which would be very sensible. They would confine the televising to the judge’s summing up and sentencing remarks. That would be helpful, because sentencing remarks give out not only a warning to the public but an indication to practitioners of the penalties that certain offences attract. A period of experimentation would be helpful in this regard.
Much has been said about the recent flurry of activity from active shareholders in companies such as Trinity Mirror and Aviva. I will not rehearse those arguments, but I hope that we will see a strengthening of shareholder democracy. It is abominable that share values can go down while bonuses go up. That makes no sense whatever. We also believe in a maximum wage, with a set differential between those at the top of a company and those at the bottom. That is not a new idea. In fact, it was first floated by the successful financier J. P. Morgan more than 100 years ago. It seems to work well in many spheres, and I would like to see it happening in this context. I would also support workers’ representation in the boardroom, to provide perspective for companies on remuneration and on the business of the company in general. Perhaps we can learn from structures that are already in place in successful countries such as Germany.
I wholeheartedly welcome the notion of the separation of retail and investment banking. The Chancellor will know that that proposal has the support of the whole House; it is long overdue.
Proposals have been put forward for a single-tier pension and, from what I have heard, that seems a good idea. We floated the idea in 2010, with what we called the living pension. This seems to be a similar idea and, whatever it is called, if it is pitched reasonably, it will be a good measure. We all have examples of widows telling us that they have missed three or four years’ work while they brought up their children, and that they are now condemned to receiving a much lower state pension. A single-tier pension would be simpler to administer and better all round. I welcome the notion, at least, although we will need to look into the details that will no doubt appear before long.
On the proposals for procedural changes to adoption, there is certainly a case for ensuring that youngsters who come up for adoption are taken care of with the minimum of fuss and delay. Delay only adds to the heartache. I have no doubt that we all have the best interests of the children at heart, but we must remember that 40% of our courts have now been shut down and tens of thousands of court staff have been laid off. Those staff would have assisted families in their first encounter with the court process. In addition, hundreds of people at the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service—which prepares reports on families involved in placement and, ultimately, adoption—have also gone, and there have been huge cuts in the probation service. There have been cuts in social services as well. How are we going to improve the adoption service against the background of those cuts? I think that there will be problems ahead. I hope that we will be able to achieve those improvements, because there is certainly a case for doing so, but I am afraid that there will be problems.
I can add nothing to what the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) said about the proposals for internet surveillance. He put forward his views on them in the clearest possible way. I actually believe that there is a case for surveillance to enable the security services to carry out their work, but there must be safeguards in place. I am sure that we will be able to discuss that matter further. The proposals for secret courts are doomed to failure from the beginning. What the right hon. Gentleman did not say—unintentionally, no doubt—was that several special advocates have resigned, over the years, because they find the concept so one-sided and unjust that they do not want to be part of it. Should we be perpetuating and extending that system? The answer, quite frankly, is no, and anyone with any concern for the court process would undoubtedly say that that is the proper response.
I am surprised that there was no mention in the speech of the High Speed 2 rail link. We have heard a lot about it over the past few months, but it seems to have gone to ground for the time being. I was rather looking forward to Wales receiving a Barnett formula consequential of around £1.9 billion, which could be spent on improving transport infrastructure across Wales and electrifying the lines that sorely need it.
I agree that we should be campaigning for that £1.9 billion consequential for Wales. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, in addition to the case for electrification, there is a case to be made for a reduction in the Severn bridge toll? Traffic across the bridge was reduced by 7% last year, but we need that connectivity to the south-west if we are to build the economy of south Wales.
The hon. Gentleman is right; that is becoming an issue. The decrease in traffic across the bridge in the past two years has been quite stark, and that is not going to help anyone’s economy. I am sure that there is a case for such a reduction, and we should look carefully at it. Otherwise, there could be a drag on further development in that part of Wales, if not the whole of the country.
I would have welcomed further steps towards devolving powers relating to energy generation projects over 50 MW to the Welsh Government. Some of us who took part in the deliberations on the last Wales legislation did not understand how the figure of 50 MW had been arrived at. The result has been that potential developers, often multinationals, can get their developments—windmills, for example, which not everyone is in favour of—pushed through on the nod by the Department in London over the heads of those in the Welsh Government. That is not right. The other side of that coin is that several thousand people in mid-Wales make their living out of developing sustainable energy materials and projects. I would like to see that expanded, which is why I would like the limit of 50 MW to be removed. We need to develop that industry further. It is already moving forward; mid-Wales is like a mini-silicon valley, with thousands of jobs involved. We need to carry on encouraging that, and we are well placed to do so.
I would also like to see Jobcentre Plus devolved to Wales, provided that the relevant budget was also devolved, and there has been talk of that happening. The closer to home that all these matters can be dealt with, the better. The buzz word in European circles used to be “subsidiarity”. The devolution of the jobcentre system to Wales would be an example of subsidiarity at work. There was no mention of it in the Queen’s Speech, but I understand that there is talk of it happening. I can tell the House that, if the system had been devolved, the Remploy factories in Wales would not now be under threat; that is for sure. I believe that that provides a stark example of what not to do in such circumstances.
I do not see any one particular policy in the Gracious Speech to develop economic growth, as the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) said in a speech that concentrated on that point. I think economic growth should have been in there. That said, there are some good elements in the Gracious Speech, and I look forward to participating in the debates over the coming months to strengthen some aspects and bring them forward. There is, however, precious little to work on when it comes to creating growth. I believe, as the hon. Member for Hartlepool and others believe, that if cuts are necessary, we need a parallel movement to increase economic growth—otherwise we are tilting to just one side. However, as I said, there are some good things in this Queen’s Speech and I look forward to participating in the debates over the coming weeks and months.
I think that Members of all parties would endorse the support of the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd) for the Queen’s Speech proposal to introduce legislation to establish an independent adjudicator to ensure that supermarkets deal fairly and lawfully with suppliers. That is clearly one of many proposals that will have all-party support.
In reflecting on the Queen’s Speech, it is probably sensible to consider where we are and where we have been. In recalling where we are, it is important to remember that the Prime Minister’s party does not have a parliamentary majority. After the general election, it was clearly in the nation’s interest to form a coalition. A coalition, however, requires compromise every day. To govern, the Prime Minister has to agree policy initiatives with a political party very different from his own. In practice, the coalition is working a lot better than many would have imagined. The fact is that the Conservative party did not win enough seats or votes to enable us to deliver all our manifesto pledges. The solution is not to blame the coalition, but to seek to win more votes next time.
Notwithstanding the challenges of the coalition, the Government have, since the general election, embarked on a vast reforming programme unprecedented in modern times to reduce the structural deficit and to put through reforms of the NHS that will enable GPs better to design local NHS services for their patients. The Government have reformed primary and secondary education, introduced a new system of university tuition fees and completely overhauled the welfare system to ensure that as many people as possible can live responsible and worthwhile lives free of state dependency. The Government have capped housing benefit and passed the European Union Act 2011 so that in future any EU treaty that transfers powers to the European Union will be subject to a referendum, and never again will a Government be able to surrender sovereignty to Brussels without the full consent of the British people. On Europe, too, the Prime Minister and the Government have vetoed the fiscal pact. Ministers have swept away pages and pages of planning regulations, but in so doing have still managed to protect the green belt, while providing local councillors and local communities with the opportunity to design and develop their own local plans free of top-down Whitehall directives such as regional spatial strategies.
The Government are introducing elected police commissioners and reforming public sector pensions that would otherwise become unaffordable and unsustainable. Importantly, the Government have taken millions of the low-paid out of income tax and have cut corporation tax. We inherited corporation tax at 28% , but by 2014, it will be reduced to 22%. As a result, the UK will have the lowest main corporation tax rate in the G7 and the fourth lowest in the G20. To help businesses further, the Government have introduced a £20 billion national loan guarantee scheme to get cheaper loans to businesses. These have been bold reforms and they have all been achieved without a Conservative majority.
It is not only that the Prime Minister has had to govern with a party that does not have a parliamentary majority, as the second reality is that the Government have no money—and it is not unreasonable to think that a Government with no majority and no money will have problems. We should never forget that the Labour Government left Britain with a deficit that, at £160 billion, was bigger than Greece’s. The Labour Government gave us the longest and deepest recession on record, so that we were one of the first countries into recession and one of the last countries coming out of recession. We should never forget the telling letter left to his successor by the former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne):
“Chief Secretary, I’m afraid there is no money. Kind regards—and good luck!”
That pithy 13-word message—whether it was tongue in cheek or not—well summed up the 13 years of the Labour Government.
Does my hon. Friend think it important to remind the House and the country that we are only two years into this historic coalition Government, and considering the economic mess that we were left, it is remarkable how many positive things are in this Queen’s Speech?
The hon. Gentleman has just heard me comment on the legacy of his Government, so I find it extraordinary that he has the cheek and audacity to ask such a question. The Labour Government left the country with no money and the biggest debt crisis of our lifetime. Indeed, over many years, this country built up massive debts, which we have to pay off. Of course, it is much more difficult to do that when so much of the rest of Europe is in recession. As I suspect France will soon demonstrate, trying to pile debt upon debt is what got Britain and Europe into such difficulties in the first place. It did not work for Britain over 13 years of a Labour Government and would not work now. The eurozone’s troubles are caused by too much debt, the burden of excessive public spending and the burden of excessive public borrowing. It is not surprising that Government are seeking the approval of Parliament relating to the agreed financial stability mechanism within the euro area.
It is no mean task recovering from the deepest recession in living memory, accompanied as it was by a debt crisis. Our banks had too much debt; our households had too much debt; and the Government had too much debt. As Sir Mervyn King, commenting on the performance of the last Government, observed in “The Today Lecture” that he gave last week while the House was in recess:
“Bailing out the banks came too late though to prevent the financial crisis from spilling over into the world economy. The realisation of the true state of the banking system led to a collapse of confidence around the world...unemployment in Britain rose by over a million....to many this will seem deeply unfair and it is. I can understand why so many people are angry.”
One can speculate only that perhaps more than a million people may have lost their jobs unnecessarily because the previous Government failed to act on warnings from the Bank of England.
Notwithstanding the challenge, Britain has so far hung on to our triple A credit rating. We have kept a lid on borrowing costs and, compared with other countries in the eurozone, many of which are in the process of changing leaders or just starting to tackle their debts, we are thriving.
I thank the hon. Gentleman—or is it right hon. Gentleman? [Interruption.] Well, I am sure he should be right hon., and I shall put down an early-day motion tomorrow to achieve it! Returning to the last election, is the hon. Gentleman aware that at that time both unemployment and the deficit were falling, yet they are both now rising? The Office for Budget Responsibility predicts that the deficit is going to be a lot higher at the end of this Parliament than was predicted two years ago.
I think we need a bumper book of excuses from the Labour party, explaining why it was not responsible for getting us into the difficulties we face. Let us develop a bumper book of excuses and put all these various contributions into it, saying “Nothing to do with us, guv”! That would be impressive. We must not be complacent. The UK has to rebalance its economy. We need a bigger private sector; we need more exports; and we need more investment. In short, we need to do everything possible to boost growth, competitiveness and jobs.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the big debate is the balance between the need for growth and the need for cuts to lower the deficit? Does he accept that, as we entered 2010, two thirds of the deficit was caused by the banks and the remaining third by the then Labour Government—who had invested more than they were earning, but who had done so with good reason to project a positive growth trajectory? With hindsight, does he accept that the balance between growth and cuts is wrong, and that we should act on the mandate in Europe and invest more in growth and less in cuts?
Since the general election the Labour party has engaged in a wonderful exercise in propounding the motif that cuts are being made too far and too fast. In his autobiography, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer responsibly acknowledges the mistakes made by the last Labour Government. Opposition Members, however, have tried to develop a line that will enable them simultaneously to go around the City of London saying “We are being sensible and responsible about the deficit and about the need to reduce public spending” and, when campaigning, to present the impression privately, on the doorstep of every household in the country, that, given their own way, they would not reduce any individual item of public expenditure. That is a circle that the Opposition cannot square, and until they get real in explaining to the country and the markets how they will actually tackle the budget deficit, they will not be taken seriously as an Opposition, let alone as a Government in waiting.
We must never forget that the present Government inherited a budget deficit of 11%—bigger than Greece’s, bigger than Spain’s, and bigger than Portugal’s. We all know that if we do not deal properly with our debts and with the nation’s deficit it will be impossible to keep interest rates low, and that, quite apart from the benefit that low interest rates provide for businesses and those paying mortgages, they offer us the best prospects of getting out of our present difficult economic situation.
The Government and the Chancellor inherited a deeply dysfunctional economy in which, all too often, the taxes generated by the financial and property sectors in the south paid for higher public spending in the north. As Sir Mervyn King so tellingly testified in his speech last week, it was an economy in which the City had been poorly policed, and in which growth was too dependent on debt. Making clear that we intended to have a credible fiscal plan has helped us in Britain to maintain our top international credit rating and has brought interest rates to record lows, making family mortgages and business loans cheaper. Sticking to the deficit plan means that, having inherited a deficit larger than those of Spain or Greece, we have interest rates similar to those in Germany. Indeed, the IMF’s latest forecast for the UK expects it to grow faster than France or Germany. In considering where we are now, we should not forget that the recent Budget cut taxes for 24 million working people.
So much excitement was being engendered by the hon. Gentleman that I felt the need to return to the Chamber. Then I started to listen, which is where I made my mistake. I think the hon. Gentleman said that the present Government had cut interest rates. Can he tell us when they did so? My understanding is that they have been entirely flat since they changed under a Labour rather than a Conservative Government.
The hon. Gentleman was so excited by my speech that he misheard me. I made no reference to the Government’s cutting interest rates. What I said was that the Government’s financial and economic policies had enabled us, and were still enabling us, to keep interest rates low, while also ensuring that our interest rates compared with those of Germany. I have absolutely no doubt that if we followed the economic policies advocated by Opposition Front Benchers, we would soon see interest rates, including mortgage interest rates, soaring as a consequence.
The Government have taken 2 million people out of tax, they have continued to freeze council tax, and—as I have already observed—they have cut corporation tax so that we can compete with the rest of the world. Moreover, notwithstanding the challenges at home, Britain is meeting its commitments overseas. We are behaving as one would expect of a permanent member of the UN Security Council, honouring our obligations in Afghanistan, seeking to reduce the threat of nuclear proliferation—particularly with Iran—and helping to bring greater stability to the horn of Africa. We are supporting democrats in Libya, and, through the Department for International Development, we are helping to tackle poverty around the world.
We should be proud that Britain is sticking to its aid promises. We are a friend to the world’s poorest, and giving aid represents the best of British values. Some 40 years after they first promised to give 0.7% of their national income in aid, rich countries are less than halfway there. Among the major economies, only we in the UK are on target to meet our commitments. Some of the more Poujadist elements of the press claim that public support for aid is diminishing. I suspect that that is because some two thirds of the public think that we spend up to 20 times more on foreign aid than we actually do. Once people know that our aid budget is just over a single penny in every pound spent by the Government, they are much more supportive.
Understandably, the Session of Parliament since the general election has been unusually long, but it is still impressive that the Government have passed more than 30 main programme Bills since the election to help to reduce the UK’s budget deficit and reform our public services. Their programme has been guided by the three core values of responsibility, fairness and freedom. The new Session will be shorter, so it will provide scope for fewer Bills. I do not think that there was any doubt on the doorsteps about what our constituents want us to focus on. They want us to continue to get the economy going, continue to improve the NHS, and continue to sort out welfare and education; and, importantly, they want us to demonstrate that we are on the side of those who are working hard and doing the best they can for their families.
One of the best-kept secrets of the last Budget is that the Chancellor raised personal allowances—the amount that people can earn before being taxed—so that 24 million middle-earning taxpayers will keep more of their money, and, from next April, 2 million low-paid people will not pay income tax at all. I can tell those who call for tax cuts that this year we have already made the largest tax cuts for more than a decade. I think everyone would agree that we should be doing all that we can to help families who are trying to do the best for themselves.
Of course we need to focus on jobs and economic growth. I am very glad that the proposals in a report by my constituent Adrian Beecroft for streamlining of the rules that make it hard for businesses to hire and fire employees are to be taken up. Redundancy rules, employment tribunals and rules about unfair dismissal all need to be changed, as Adrian Beecroft’s well-researched and well-argued report clearly demonstrates. We should be doing everything possible to encourage employers to expand and employ more people.
It is good news that the Government will reduce burdens on businesses by repealing unnecessary legislation and legislating to limit the state inspection of businesses. It is also good news that they will reform competition law in order to promote enterprise and fair markets. I think that many businesses will welcome the news that there is to be strengthened regulation of the financial services sector, and that the recommendations of the Independent Commission on Banking are to be implemented.
I also welcome the proposals relating to pensions. I think everyone agrees on the need to modernise the pensions system and reform the state pension, and on the importance of creating a fair and sustainable foundation for private saving. Governments must always seek to be on the side of those who save for retirement. I do not think that anyone seriously believes that it is possible to avoid reforming public service pensions in line with the recommendations of the Independent Public Service Pensions Commission.
As co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on carers, I particularly welcome the news that a draft Bill is to be published to modernise adult care and support in England. The health White Paper of July 2010 promised legislation on adult social care in a second session of the present Parliament. We have all had plenty of time in which to read and digest the Dilnot report, which recommended a system under which people would pay the first chunk of nursing care costs and the state would pay after that. Given our increasingly ageing population, we need clarity, and cross-party talks have been taking place for a long time.
I also welcome the news that it is to be a draft Bill. Given such a major overhaul of social care legislation that needs to stand the test of time, and given the number of Select Committee reports on the issue, it is vital that we have an opportunity to get it right by co-operating with the Government, the Opposition and, indeed, every party in the House to produce legislation that seeks to achieve the right outcomes for everyone concerned.
I agree about the need for cross-party agreement on care for the elderly. We do not want a repeat of what the Conservatives did when they were in opposition, however; they played games over this issue to try to gain short-term political advantage. What we need is a long-term solution.
I think we all want a long-term solution, which is why it is sensible for a draft Bill to be published so that everyone can agree the way forward, and so that when a Bill is presented to the House it has all-party support.
May I say in my capacity as Second Church Estates Commissioner that I welcome the introduction of a Bill to reduce the burdens on charities by enabling them to claim additional payments on small donations? Many Members of Parliament are involved in charities, perhaps as trustees or patrons. Church groups often rely on Sunday collections and small giving by large numbers of people. This move will allow extra support for charities.
Like all Members of Parliament, a fair amount of my constituency casework involves helping families with disabled children and children with special educational needs, so I greatly welcome the proposals in the Queen’s Speech to introduce measures to improve provision for such children, and the arrangements for supporting children in family law cases and reforming court processes for children in care. That is important, painstaking and detailed work that should improve the lives of many children.
I do not think too much should be read into the fact that the Queen’s Speech does not contain a specific proposal for a hybrid Bill on High Speed 2. The matter is now before the High Court, which is having to consider several applications on judicial review involving points of law on both the process and substance of the HS2 project. Notwithstanding any judicial review proceedings, however, I continue to hope that the Government will reflect that the economic case for HS2 simply does not stack up.
It is clear that in this Session of Parliament the Government will continue to strive for smaller government, freer competition and greater international trade, and they will continue to pursue policies that have been proven to work in the past and that will also work in the future.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. On 25 April, I told the House that the Leveson inquiry had published certain information regarding meetings that had been held between Rupert Murdoch and the Prime Minister. I believed at the time that that was the case, but it has subsequently turned out not to be true. I have, of course, apologised to Lord Justice Leveson, but I thought I should take this opportunity to apologise to the House as well. I hope the apology will be accepted. I had no intention of misleading the House; that was purely inadvertent.
I had not intended to talk about Lords reform today, but I have been provoked to do so by the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes). He said that one of the reasons for House of Lords reform was to encourage more gender diversity in the Lords. He is no longer in his place, but I would point out to him that there are more men in the House of Commons today than the number of women ever elected. We must look at parliamentary reform across the board, not just in the House of Lords.
Will the hon. Gentleman allow me to continue for a short while?
One of my principal objections to the current House of Lords reform proposals is that I do not agree with the argument that we are making the House of Lords more accountable by having Members elected for a single term of 15 years without being able to stand for re-election. I cannot see how, in a democratic system, that is accountable. Members of the House of Commons have to face the electorate once every five years, and we have witnessed colleagues losing their seats as the electors have made that decision based either on the individual or their party. That is true accountability, although it has been weakened by proposals to change the boundaries every five years, as some electors will therefore never have the chance to vote again for the MP who has represented them. The Government are doing great damage by reducing the accountability of the Members of both Houses. That is a backward step, but it is being dressed up as reform. We must reflect and improve on these proposals if we are to have real change.
I come at this subject as a democrat. I believe that it is beyond the pale to have even an element of heredity in the House of Lords, and that that is rightly out of kilter with modern attitudes. We must not rush headlong into trying to improve the situation and see any change as an improvement. Instead, we must take measured steps and ensure that Parliament properly represents the people, and that we do not fill the House of Lords with stooges who have been selected by party leaders and who never have to face the electorate.
Although I look forward to our debates on this subject, I have to say that it was not raised even once on the doorsteps in my constituency during the most recent election campaign. Indeed, I am usually out on doorsteps while on roving surgeries a couple of times every month, and the last time I canvassed opinion on this topic everybody said they supported a democratically elected House of Lords save for one person who was of Nigerian origin and believed there was some merit in the hereditary principle. His was a lone voice, however. We need democracy, but not in the way that is being proposed.
The Queen’s Speech was a big disappointment. When I was watching it, I suddenly realised that it was nearly over, but many of the issues I had hoped it would address had not been mentioned. It is flimsy and expresses no compelling vision of what the Government want to achieve for this country. We agree with the opening sentence, but its sentiments were not backed up by proposed legislation. There is also no strategic approach to the economic crisis. We repeatedly hear about the need to tackle the deficit, but there are other issues that need to be tackled alongside dealing appropriately with the Government’s finances.
The Queen’s Speech demonstrates that the Government are out of touch and unfair, and we are also increasingly seeing signs of incompetence. The Prime Minister acknowledged that the economy is a higher priority than House of Lords reform, but the Queen’s Speech does little to tackle the economic problems, and I am particularly concerned for the businesses in my constituency and about unemployment.
The unfairness is seen in the retention of the cut in the 50p tax rate, helping the top 1% of earners in this country, while many of my constituents are keen to work but are unable to find the extra eight hours they will need to continue to receive tax credits. At one end, therefore, families who are doing everything they should—they are working hard and trying to work more, but are unable to find those extra hours—are losing out. What they need is some extra hours from their employer, as it is currently very hard to find another job. At the other end, however, millionaires are saving thousands of pounds in tax. That does not strike me or my constituents as fair.
Fortunately for the Government, I do not have sufficient time to dwell on their increasing incompetence. I might mention, however, the border controls fiasco that has been going on since last autumn. It is continuing now, which is especially serious given that we are in the run-up to the Olympics. I might also mention the youth unemployment figures. The Government’s incompetence in that regard will affect a generation of our young people and their families. There are also the ministerial dalliances with BSkyB, which demonstrate a real lack of appropriateness, to put it politely.
There were some announcements in the Gracious Speech that I welcome. I have long been a supporter of the Green investment bank. My big concern is that it is being introduced too late, even though there will be £3 billion of funding—although not all of it is certain. Will the bank be able to move quickly enough to ensure we secure the green investment required to help businesses grow and create the jobs we so desperately need? The environmental ship might have already sailed to other ports in Germany, China and other countries, whose Governments are far ahead of ours.
I also welcome the flexible parental leave proposals. It is important that people have that choice, but it must be couched in the right way so that women do not feel forced to go back to work and pass over the care of the child, whom they may still be nursing, to their partner. The principle of allowing families freedom over how they manage their own affairs is important, however.
Overall, the Government’s economic policy is hurting and it is not working—not in my constituency. Unemployment is rising. It is the worst we have seen for 16 years and of course, youth unemployment—I am on the record as having spoken about this a number of times before—is a real scourge of our society.
There are a couple of proposals I welcome. I welcome the intention to ensure through the children and families Bill that there is an all-through assessment for children and young adults. Too often, my constituents have experienced breaks in the support for their children, either at the age at which they transfer to a different school or when they transition into adulthood. Personal budgets provide a real opportunity for those young people and their families to have control as long as there are safeguards for the many families with whom I deal who would not be able to manage those budgets themselves. We must not throw out the baby with the bathwater and although I welcome the personal budgets, we must ensure that there is a safety net and support for those who are unable to do the necessary paperwork and to manage the employment side of it. The detail will matter if the good intentions in the Bill are to be met, and I look forward to working with my colleagues on my Front Bench to ensure that those needs are considered.
I hope that the children and families Bill will talk about ensuring that children are protected and supported. That seems to be the general feeling. I am concerned, however, that although the Government are considering protecting and supporting certain groups of children on the one hand, actions by other Ministers on safeguarding—such as the suggestion that faith leaders should be exempt from vetting and, if necessary, exempt from being barred from working with children—are a very worrying step. We must be vigilant about ensuring that we do not throw out the baby with the bathwater. The Government are very keen to talk about rolling back the frontiers of the state and rolling back red tape, but as far as the protection of children is concerned, when we put our children—and vulnerable adults, too—in the presence of a stranger, we need some surety that that stranger has been properly vetted. It is not acceptable to rule out one group simply on the basis that they are faith leaders.
Businesses in Hackney have been struggling for some time. We have had some great successes—Silicon roundabout is in my constituency—but they are largely small start-ups and are finding it hard to grow. We have some very innovative business models in a very innovative part of London, but businesses in Hackney are struggling to get loans and even, in many cases, an overdraft facility from their bank. The Prime Minister spoke earlier about Project Merlin, saying that it had worked and that the loan guarantee fund was generous. It is not so much the level of a loan that is an issue, however, but the fact that banks will not loan in the first place. There is an opportunity that has perhaps not yet been missed in the Gracious Speech—we will see whether it has when we have the detail of the legislation—to consider alternative funding methods for businesses. Innovators out there are prepared to fund innovative businesses in a different way and we must ensure that they are properly supported and regulated so that investors and businesses are protected. There are opportunities for more mutuals in the banking sector, which ought to focus on investment in their own areas, helped by their understanding of their locality. They would, of course, be owned by their members.
That brings me on to one thing that was missing from the Gracious Speech. As a Co-op and Labour MP, I was keen to hear the co-operatives consolidation Bill debated during the next Session, but it is not here. Where has that Bill gone? It would have been supported across the House. The previous Government did a great deal to change the law on co-operatives and to provide new legislation that made it easier to set them up, but as that was done piecemeal through different Acts of Parliament, there was room to bring it all together. Consolidation Bills, by their nature, are complicated and difficult, but it would have provided the platform for the introduction of yet more opportunities for mutuals and co-operatives. There is a feeling across this House, shared by members within every party—although it is not necessarily the view of every party—that there needs to be a different way of doing business in this country. If there is a better way of doing business than mutuals, which are owned by their members, who benefit from and see the direct outcomes of that ownership, I do not know what it is.
There is no commitment in the Queen’s Speech to introduce any mutual models at all, as far as we can see. The water Bill would have offered such an opportunity and the energy Bill might have offered opportunities for some mutual solutions, as would, of course, the banking Bill. We need new measures on demutualisation and we have already missed an opportunity through the selling off to the highest bidder, rather than remutualisation, of Northern Rock. If the House is united on the need for banking reform, why not join that up with the idea of the mutual model and ensure that businesses as well as individuals are supported by mutuals?
Another element missing from the Bill that is a concern to my constituents and to me is the antisocial behaviour legislation that we had hoped might be introduced. The message is very confused. One whole year ago, the Government’s consultation on antisocial behaviour finished. They have done the work, yet 12 months on there is no Bill in the Gracious Speech to deal with those issues. A year ago, the Government all but announced their intention to end antisocial behaviour orders, but there is no Bill to do that and the police and residents are left confused about where they stand.
The Government regularly pass the buck to local police forces when challenged on crime issues, but they are robbing them of the tools to do the job. We know that ASBOs require better enforcement and we accept that they are not perfect in every way, but they could be strengthened to deal better with the problem of repeat victimisation. The Government should be trying to build on what is in place and on what has been shown to work, rather than starting again from scratch. We hear that the Government has a plan for a community trigger, which would only guarantee action if five different households reported the same incident. For me, if one person complains, that incident of antisocial behaviour needs to be tackled. It should be taken seriously and investigated.
We also have an alphabet soup of other proposals. The crime prevention injunction and criminal behaviour orders do not do what they say on the tin. I know from experience with gang injunctions in Hackney that it can take a very long time for agencies on the ground to get used to the new powers, for the Crown Prosecution Service to deal with them properly, for courts to understand them and for them to embed. ASBOs might not have been perfect, but they were in the language of my constituents and of constituents up and down the country. People understood them and so did the system. To throw them out without having proper plans in place to replace them is a big mistake.
My constituency has a number of challenges. We have heard from others about youth unemployment. In my constituency, one in four young people under the age of 24 is out of work. Our overall unemployment rate is 12.7%. Those challenges have a major impact on child poverty. There are still children in my constituency who turn up to school in September after a long summer holiday malnourished, because their parents have chaotic lifestyles and have been unable to get them fed. We all support measures to get people into work, but to have a whole generation of young people who are unable to get work or work experience will, I fear, lead to greater challenges for their children.
I do not have time to go into the figures for the ethnic breakdown of unemployment, but let us just take the example of young black men. About 55% of young black men are out of work, which is a staggering figure and much higher than the general norm. It risks becoming a real divide in this country if it is not tackled. It might not be an issue for every hon. Member in this House—as the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi) said, his is not a kaleidoscope county—but let me tell hon. Members that my constituency is a kaleidoscope constituency, as are many others. It is a great strength of our area, but we must not have one group of people so badly affected by Government policy.
Other issues have not been tackled. Housing benefit levels have been cut, rents have continued to rise by a great deal in my constituency and house prices have risen, too. That means that my constituents face a real challenge on housing and homes and nothing in this Queen’s Speech will tackle that, which is a serious mistake. It demonstrates again how the Government are very much out of touch with what really matters to people. Families want to be in a position to support themselves and my constituents’ requirements are very limited in many respects. They are not as demanding as they should be, I believe, but they want a job, a good school for their child, a health service that will work and to know that they can afford a roof over their heads. The job and the roof over their heads are particular challenges at the moment, so although we have these esoteric debates in the Westminster village about House of Lords reform—an issue not once raised on the doorstep—and as much as I think we need to reform the House of Lords, right now the energy of this place should be focused on how to move this country forward, invest in jobs and growth and ensure that we create job opportunities and homes for constituents in my constituency and up and down the country.
I congratulate the Government on the Gracious Speech and the measures in it. There are two proposals about which I am concerned—House of Lords reform and the televising of court proceedings—which I shall address in a moment. First, however, I have to say how lucky we are to have a monarchy in this country. We tried a presidency under Tony Blair, and what a disaster it was: indeed, we are still suffering the consequences of that presidency, which took us into an illegal war with Iraq, destroying the United Kingdom. How I wish that I and the other 17 Members of the House who wished to impeach him at that time had been successful. Now, he is going around not only our country but the rest of the world still earning money at our expense.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Of course, Tony Blair gave evidence at the inquiry last year and I hope that when the report comes out, the matter will be dealt with. To have him as a special peace envoy in the middle east is absolutely ridiculous.
So, I rejoice in the fact that we have a monarchy. I always think that Conservative Queen’s Speeches are better than Labour Queen’s Speeches and today is no exception. I am delighted that we heard today that the Prime Minister is determined to reduce the deficit and restore economic stability. I enjoyed the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) who was right to remind the House what a disastrous economic legacy Labour left us.
I absolutely agree with the remarks that a number of Members made about policies that we talk about in this House that are not mentioned on the doorstep by our constituents. Last Monday, some Conservative Members got together and had a party to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the election of a Conservative Government on 9 April 1992. At that party, which the Prime Minister attended, we were delighted to launch a pamphlet called “Basildon—Against all Odds”. The Prime Minister generously referred to the victory in Basildon, and I was delighted that he visited my old constituency yesterday and talked broadly about policies because I think we need to reflect on the things that took us back to government in 1992. There in Basildon, 20 years ago, voters locally wanted to support what were then the Conservative party’s policies. What were those policies? Giving every woman, man and child the opportunity to make the most of their God-given talents. I know that 20 years later our country and the world have changed but I say to my Conservative colleagues that we should reflect on the policies that brought us back to government in 1992 and I recommend that they read “Basildon—Against all Odds”, which is a very good pamphlet.
I am very happy to talk about Thursday. I think that during the whole day the BBC’s parliamentary programme broadcast pieces about the 1992 election. It was something worth celebrating.
Speaking of irrelevant issues, last week I got a phone call from someone about the Leveson inquiry and so I got quite excited.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that in 1992 his party was laying the siege for 1997—doubling crime, cutting the health service and having 15% interest rates with soaring debt and unemployment? That is precisely the same template as his Government are adopting now, so for once I find myself agreeing with him.
I do not accept what the hon. Gentleman says but I am sure that you would get a little tired, Mr Deputy Speaker, if I were to rehearse all that has gone on in this place in terms of the Conservative party leadership.
I hope that the House will be interested in the telephone call I got regarding the Leveson inquiry. I thought, “Fantastic—someone has hacked my phone: I’m in the money.” But instead I was told that my phone number had been found in a journalist’s phone book. Well, for goodness’ sake—so what? I am sure that many journalists have our phone numbers. I was very disappointed to learn that my phone had not been hacked. Frankly, I cannot think that some of the politicians whose phones were hacked would have had any conversation worth listening to. I am interested in colleagues’ phone calls only if they happen to concern me. There is an obsession with hacking at the moment. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) just came and apologised about something to do with the Leveson inquiry, but none of our constituents are raising these matters on the doorstep. Honestly, the amount that this inquiry is going to cost us—millions of pounds—is crazy.
Similarly, no one on the doorstep is mentioning House of Lords reform. I go back to the point that what people were concerned about in 1992 was the fact that they did not trust the noble Lord Kinnock and the Labour party to run the country because of their economic policies.
On economic competence, I hope that the hon. Gentleman had a good celebration in 1992, but does he remember that a few months later we had Black Wednesday, when £20 billion was spent on propping up the currency and interest rates rose twice in a day, ending up at 15%? Does he recall that with the same fondness?