House of Commons
Wednesday 8 May 2013
The House met at twenty-five minutes past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Message to attend Her Majesty
Message to attend Her Majesty delivered by the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod.
The Speaker, with the House, went up to attend Her Majesty; on their return, the Speaker suspended the sitting.
The following Member took and subscribed the Oath required by law:
Emma Lewell-Buck, for South Shields.
The House has directed the Speaker to make a statement at the beginning of each Session about the duties and responsibilities of hon. Members. May I begin by reminding hon. Members of the House’s code of conduct? All Members are under a duty to observe it in letter and in spirit. Members are answerable for their conduct in this place, not just to the House but to the public.
Our ancient privileges allow us to conduct our debate without fear of outside interference. Parliamentary privilege underpins proper democratic debate and scrutiny. A Joint Committee has been appointed to consider the Government’s Green Paper on this subject. Freedom of speech in debate and in Committee proceedings is at the very heart of what we do here for our constituents, and it allows us to conduct our business without fear of outside interference, but it is a freedom that we need to exercise responsibly, in the public interest. We must take into account the reasonable interests of others outside this House. It is also important that our constituents feel free to come to us, no matter what the circumstances, and that they suffer no disadvantage as a result.
Each hon. Member is here to represent the views of his or her constituents and to participate in the process of parliamentary democracy. We should ensure that every Member is heard courteously, regardless of the views which he or she is expressing. My Deputies and I seek to ensure that as many Members as possible can participate in our proceedings. That ambition will be greatly aided by brevity in questions, speeches and interventions by all hon. Members.
Every member of the public has a right to expect that his or her Member of Parliament will behave with civility, in the best traditions of fairness, with the highest level of probity and with integrity. We are also under an obligation to try to explain to our constituents how Parliament works. In this mission, we are ably assisted by the staff of the House. House staff, who are vital in supporting the work of this House and who do so with dedication and courtesy, are likewise entitled to be treated with dignity, courtesy and respect.
Finally, I should like also to remind all hon. Members that the security of this building and those who work and visit here depends upon all of us. Please be vigilant and tell the Serjeant at Arms about any concerns you have on the subject.
Before moving to the first business of the new Session, I would like to express my very best wishes to all hon. Members and staff for the 2013-14 Session of Parliament.
A Bill for the more effectual preventing Clandestine Outlawries was read the First time, and ordered to be read a Second time.
I have to acquaint the House that this House has this day attended her Majesty in the House of Peers, and that Her Majesty was pleased to make a Most Gracious Speech from the Throne to both Houses of Parliament, of which I have, for greater accuracy, obtained a copy.
I shall direct that the terms of the Gracious Speech be printed in the Votes and Proceedings. Copies are already available in the Vote Office.
The Gracious Speech was as follows:
My Lords and Members of the House of Commons
My Government’s legislative programme will continue to focus on building a stronger economy so that the United Kingdom can compete and succeed in the world. It will also work to promote a fairer society that rewards people who work hard.
My Government’s first priority is to strengthen Britain’s economic competitiveness. To this end, it will support the growth of the private sector and the creation of more jobs and opportunities.
My Ministers will continue to prioritise measures that reduce the deficit—ensuring interest rates are kept low for homeowners and businesses.
My Government is committed to building an economy where people who work hard are properly rewarded. It will therefore continue to reform the benefits system, helping people move from welfare to work.
Measures will be brought forward to introduce a new Employment Allowance to support jobs and help small businesses.
A Bill will be introduced to reduce the burden of excessive regulation on businesses. A further Bill will make it easier for businesses to protect their intellectual property.
A draft Bill will be published establishing a simple set of consumer rights to promote competitive markets and growth.
My Government will introduce a Bill that closes the Audit Commission.
My Government will continue to invest in infrastructure to deliver jobs and growth for the economy.
Legislation will be introduced to enable the building of the High Speed 2 railway line, providing further opportunities for economic growth in many of Britain’s cities.
My Government will continue with legislation to update energy infrastructure and to improve the water industry.
My Government is committed to a fairer society where aspiration and responsibility are rewarded.
To make sure that every child has the best start in life, regardless of background, further measures will be taken to improve the quality of education for young people.
Plans will be developed to help working parents with child care, increasing its availability and helping with its cost.
My Government will also take forward plans for a new National Curriculum, a world-class exam system and greater flexibility in pay for teachers.
My Government will also take steps to ensure that it becomes typical for those leaving school to start a traineeship or an apprenticeship, or to go to university.
New arrangements will be put in place to help more people own their own home, with Government support provided for mortgages and deposits.
My Government is committed to supporting people who have saved for their retirement.
Legislation will be introduced to reform the way long-term care is paid for, to ensure the elderly do not have to sell their homes to meet their care bills.
My Government will bring forward legislation to create a simpler state pension system that encourages saving and provides more help to those who have spent years caring for children.
Legislation will be introduced to ensure sufferers of a certain asbestos-related cancer receive payments where no liable employer or insurer can be traced.
My Government will bring forward a Bill that further reforms Britain’s immigration system. The Bill will ensure that this country attracts people who will contribute and deters those who will not.
My Government will continue to reduce crime and protect national security.
Legislation will be introduced to reform the way in which offenders are rehabilitated in England and Wales.
Legislation will be brought forward to introduce new powers to tackle antisocial behaviour, cut crime and further reform the police.
In relation to the problem of matching internet protocol addresses, my Government will bring forward proposals to enable the protection of the public and the investigation of crime in cyberspace.
Measures will be brought forward to improve the way this country procures defence equipment, as well as strengthening the Reserve Forces.
My Ministers will continue to work in co-operation with the devolved Administrations.
A Bill will be introduced to give effect to a number of institutional improvements in Northern Ireland.
Draft legislation will be published concerning the electoral arrangements for the National Assembly for Wales.
My Government will continue to make the case for Scotland to remain part of the United Kingdom.
Members of the House of Commons
Estimates for the public services will be laid before you.
My Lords and Members of the House of Commons
My Government will work to prevent conflict and reduce terrorism. It will support countries in transition in the middle east and north Africa, and the opening of a peace process in Afghanistan.
My Government will work to prevent sexual violence in conflict worldwide.
My Government will ensure the security, good governance and development of the Overseas Territories, including by protecting the Falkland Islanders’ and Gibraltarians’ right to determine their political futures.
In assuming the presidency of the G8, my Government will promote economic growth, support free trade, tackle tax evasion, encourage greater transparency and accountability while continuing to make progress in tackling climate change.
Other measures will be laid before you.
My Lords and Members of the House of Commons
I pray that the blessing of Almighty God may rest upon your counsels.
Debate on the Address
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 9 May—home affairs; Friday 10 May—jobs and business; Monday 13 May—health and social care; Tuesday 14 May —cost of living; Wednesday 15 May—economic 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.
Mr Speaker, it is a great honour to propose the Loyal Address, but the invitation from the Chief Whip to do so means I must accept an uncomfortable truth: that, with 21 years of service, I fit all too easily into the traditional role of old buffer.
Way back in 1996, as I approached my first re-election, my son heard his 41-year-old father described in a BBC documentary as a “middle-aged politician”. That phrase resonated in his eight-year-old mind. For years after, his birthday cards came not to “Dad”, but to the three-letter acronym “MAP”. Children certainly keep you grounded. At the time, I thought it was a premature description; now, I have moved beyond it. So, with inevitable regrets, I have decided to leave this place at the next election. [Hon. Members: “Shame!”] As this is a re-announcement, I suspect the news of Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement will attract rather more interest in the outside world.
Having just conducted my first rebellion in 21 years—an abstention—[Interruption.] As a former Whip, that is quite enough. Having done so, being invited by the Chief Whip to propose the Loyal Address was not really something I had anticipated. But it was good for a Windsor grammar school boy to get the invitation from such a distinguished old Etonian.
The opportunity to propose this motion is a great privilege for my constituency. It is only the second time in a century or more that a Member of Parliament for Worcestershire has done so. The last occasion was in 1991, when the late Lord Walker—Peter Walker—did so. He was my predecessor, my mentor and a strong influence on my own approach to politics, to which I will return later. Peter was fiercely proud to represent a Worcestershire constituency, as are all of us who do so now, and in particular, I am sure, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), Lord Walker’s son.
Worcestershire is one of those places that most foreigners cannot pronounce and that most British people probably know only as a sauce. The county is in fact just like Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce: vibrant, somewhat addictive, and with hidden spice. It is one of Britain’s best-kept secrets, with many picturesque villages, but as regular listeners to “The Archers” know, rural waters run deep. Britain’s longest running radio soap is set in Worcestershire—[Interruption.] Well, Borchester, technically, but it is actually set in Worcestershire.
We are not exclusively rural, though—far from it. Mid Worcestershire encompasses most of south-east Worcestershire, from the celebrated Cotswold village of Broadway and the Vale of Evesham to Droitwich and the border with Kidderminster; from farming and growing to logistics and advanced engineering—literally, from asparagus to rocket science.
This is an area steeped in history but also deeply engaged in modern Britain. As you will know, Mr Speaker, in January 1265 Simon de Montfort called the knights of the shires to Westminster for the first representative English Parliament. In August 1265, the future King Edward I cornered the rebellious de Montfort and his army in the bend of the River Avon at Evesham. In victory, Edward exacted a heavy price. De Montfort’s body was dismembered and his head, with his most intimate organs stuffed into his mouth, delivered as a gift to the wife of Lord Mortimer, one of the architects of Edward’s victory. I do hope she liked it. His head severed, his intimate organs in his mouth—this is how Simon de Montfort really earned the title of the first parliamentarian, and Edward earned the title of the first Chief Whip.
Today is my 31st wedding anniversary. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] Tempted as I was to offer Julia a gift inspired by the battle of Evesham, in the end I opted for the more traditional ring.
A local poem lists some of the delightful places you pass on the way to Droitwich from Evesham:
“Upton Snodsbury, Tibberton and Crowle,
Wyre Piddle, North Piddle, Piddle in the Hole.”
Piddle in the Hole, sad to say, is no longer on the map, but there is still a beer of that name. Try as you may, you cannot take the Piddle out of Mid Worcestershire.
In Evesham a reopened art deco cinema, the Regal, has shown the power of art and culture to regenerate and to inspire an area—a point my daughter would never have forgiven me for not making. In Droitwich Spa, a town literally built on salt, heritage has shown its transformative power. In both projects the combination of dedicated volunteers, enlightened councils and the Heritage Lottery Fund has been the key. The reopened Droitwich canals—the Barge and Junction canals—have given a new sense of optimism, new heart, to a fine community. And Worcestershire is the heart of England.
In representing the people of Worcestershire, I have always sought to give voice to that heart, but as one’s time in Parliament comes to an end, inevitably one begins to think about what one has achieved for one’s constituents and for the wider United Kingdom, and what one has stood for in all those years. The parliamentary fates, and we all know who they are, have been kind to me and I have held nearly all the roles I coveted.
The first debate I attended in this Chamber in 1992 was on the election of a new Speaker. One phrase struck me in particular. In the debate, the then right hon. Member for Chesterfield, Tony Benn, described the usual channels, the Whips, as
“the most polluted waterways in the world.”—[Official Report, 6 April 1992; Vol. 207, c. 6.]
Well, as I was able to say to that great parliamentarian at your lunchtime reception, Mr Speaker, I believe he was wrong. My five years of comradeship in the Opposition Whips Office certainly showed me the utility of those waterways.
I have had the pleasure of chairing two Select Committees—the Agriculture Committee and the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee. I learned not to allow Committee reports just to gather dust on the shelf. If it is important and the Government do not listen, keep on trying. That is what we did with the BIS Committee’s work on trade with India, one of the UK’s most important strategic partners, and it led to the creation of a new body, the UK India Business Council, whose task is to increase the ludicrously low level of trade between our two countries. That is what the Committee, to its great credit, has just done again on pubcos.
Select Committees are at their most effective when they do not just condemn. My time as Minister with responsibility for defence equipment, support and technology reminded me that real success in politics depends on the contributions of many. In this case, it is not just the officials, who wrestle with budgets, write contracts and advise on policy priorities, and not just the people developing, manufacturing and supporting the equipment that our armed forces rely on—equipment that represents the very best of British ingenuity and engineering. No, in defence, our security relies above all else on the selfless commitment and professionalism of the men and women of our armed forces. It is they who crew the ships, fly the planes, drive the vehicles, and walk the dangerous roads. In that context we recall the sacrifices made only last week in Afghanistan.
As a Minister, it was always stimulating to work with my right hon. Friends the Members for North Somerset (Dr Fox) and for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr Hammond). The skills, insights and energy they both brought to the Ministry of Defence have been crucial to the Department’s transformation. The process is not yet complete—far from it—so I am delighted to see a defence reform Bill take a prominent place in the Gracious Speech.
One of my heroes is Isambard Kingdom Brunel. It was courageous of the Prime Minister to make such an admirer of Brunel the defence equipment Minister. All Brunel’s projects came in late and way over budget, and he treated his suppliers appallingly too. But he changed the world, and that is what engineers do. As Chair of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, and again at the MOD, I saw the nation’s desperate shortage of engineers. That shortage is one of the greatest avoidable threats to our prosperity and security.
The global race, of which the Prime Minister speaks so compellingly, will be won by nations with strong engineering skills. Not enough young people in the UK understand the range of opportunities in modern engineering or want to be engineers. As a non-executive director of a small advanced manufacturing business, I am more convinced than ever that Britain can and must regain its ambition to be a truly great engineering nation, raising the status of engineering careers and tackling the scandalous under-representation of women in engineering.
Perhaps the main political lesson I have learnt is this: success has many fathers, and only rarely can we say, “I did that”, so I say very gently to the Deputy Prime Minister that the coalition’s achievements, of which there are many, are coalition achievements. For example, we Conservatives too believe passionately in removing the least well-paid from income tax. There are always deep tensions in a coalition, even a wartime coalition, but, as Churchill said to Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke:
“There is only one thing worse than fighting with allies and that is fighting without them.”
We are living through a time of massive political change, of profound challenge to politicians, but I believe that the heart of this great nation, this one nation, this United Kingdom, beats in its centre. We are a radical people: yes, we want to improve things; we think big; we want to conserve the best and to do better. But we are not extremists, so we are not seduced by political extremes such as communism, fascism, or any other faddish “ism” for that matter. We understand the complexities of modern life. That is why I believe that this coalition will be seen historically as a sensible, mainstream response to the deep-seated problems the nation faces.
That is why I am so pleased that the programme for this Session contains commitments to strengthen Britain’s economy and small businesses, to build a society in which people who work hard are properly rewarded, to improve the quality of education for young people, to support those who have saved for their retirement and to reform our immigration system in order to attract people who will contribute and deter those who will not—in a word, to encourage aspiration.
I am sure that one of Worcestershire’s most celebrated politicians, Stanley Baldwin, would have approved. Three times Prime Minister, and a popular one, he built a moderate and inclusive conservatism for his age, part of a long one nation tradition. That one nation tradition inspired Peter Walker, as it has inspired me. It runs though the Conservative party like the lettering in seaside rock, and it is by holding fast to that tradition that my party will be trusted to serve the nation. Our response to other parties, particularly those with beguilingly simplistic agendas, must not be to appease or to trim, but to listen and understand and then to challenge and confront from the strength of that unique one nation perspective.
When Stanley Baldwin was leaving Downing street after his last premiership, it is said that he was stopped by a journalist who asked, “Will you be available to give your successor the benefit of your opinions?” Baldwin replied, “No, when I leave, I leave. I am not going to speak to the captain on the bridge and I have no intention of spitting on the deck.” With that, he walked off. That is sound advice for all of us who choose to move on, Mr Speaker—sound advice.
It is an honour to second the motion on the Humble Address and a particular pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Peter Luff). I guess that that might be the first of several valedictory speeches we will hear from him over the next two years. When he does reach retirement after the next general election, the third age of life, I invite him to visit my constituency, where he will see the greatest concentration of Brunel heritage assets anywhere, including the Clifton suspension bridge, Bristol Temple Meads station and SS Great Britain. He will be most welcome.
I am sure that most of us, whether we saw it in person or watched it on television, will have enjoyed the pageantry of the state opening of Parliament. My first experience of royal London was as a school boy, when I stayed with my grandmother’s sisters in north London in the late 1970s and early 1980s. My Aunty Eve and Aunty Edith lived in Finchley. I was somewhat surprised, when walking down the high street, to see framed photographs of the local Member of Parliament at the time, Mrs Thatcher. It was something of a culture shock for a valleys boy from the mining village of Abercynon in south Wales. I do not know, Mr Speaker, whether there are such framed photographs of you or, indeed, whether there are framed photographs of the current Prime Minister in his constituency, but I remember at the Liberal Democrat spring conference in Sheffield a couple of years ago being somewhat startled to be confronted by enormous billboards paid for by Unite—an organisation which, if I may say so, funds quite a lot of mischief around the country—that were adorned with a curious image of a creature called Cleggzilla who was trampling public services before him. [Interruption.] Mischief, as I said.
Mrs Thatcher—this will not surprise you, Mr Speaker, or anyone else—is certainly not my political hero. My political hero is one of the other contenders for the greatest Prime Minister of the 20th century: Lloyd George. I first saw a statue of Lloyd George by Caernarfon castle and I visited the library and museum about him at Llanystumdwy—another boyhood holiday destination, Butlins in Pwllheli in north Wales, which is perhaps not quite so familiar to most members of the Cabinet. Lloyd George and Asquith laid the foundations of the welfare state, including the old age pension. I am therefore delighted that one of the key announcements in today’s Queen’s Speech is a further radical reform of the state pension that will correct an injustice that has been within the system for many decades for those who stay at home to look after their children. I am also delighted that the single-tier state pension is to be taken through Parliament by my Greater Bristol parliamentary colleague, the pensions Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb).
Lloyd George headed a Liberal-Conservative coalition that broke up 81 years ago. I understand that our current coalition colleagues recently celebrated the anniversary of their 1922 committee, but I am sure that rumours of a new 2015 committee are unfounded. I have heard the Prime Minister say that he has a better relationship with the 1922 committee than some of his predecessors. The Prime Minister and I were born within 48 hours of each other. For the avoidance of doubt, he is the older of the two, but I can see from this vantage point that genetics have been kinder to him than they have to me, particularly in the tonsorial department, both in colour and cover. While our family and school circumstances were quite different, we must have had similar cultural reference points and experiences during the 1970s and ’80s. I believe that he was a fan of The Smiths—though I understand that the feeling is not entirely mutual—while I preferred Duran Duran and ABBA, with my favourite song being “Dancing Queen”, which will not come as much of a surprise to many of my colleagues.
That leads me, almost neatly, into one of the great social reforms of this Parliament, and that is of course gay marriage. The right of same-sex couples to demonstrate their love and commitment to each other before their family and friends will be a lasting social reform of this Parliament. The legislation is brought forward by this coalition Government but supported by Members from all parties around the House. Bristol West has three Quaker meeting houses, a Unitarian chapel and a reform synagogue, so the country’s first same-sex marriage may well be in my own constituency—but, personally, I am still waiting for my own Prince Charming so that I may be able to take advantage of this new legal right.
Whatever the background of my constituents, my Lib Dem colleagues and I want to build for them a stronger economy and a fairer society where everyone is able to get on in life. We already know that by the end of this tax year the amount of pay that people can take home free of income tax will have been raised to £10,000. It was announced today in the Queen’s Speech that there will be a national insurance contributions Bill giving employers a £2,000 national insurance credit, enabling them to take on take on new employees. That means that a business could take on four adults on the national minimum wage and pay no national insurance. Moreover, 450,000 small businesses will have their national insurance bills eliminated completely. We have cut taxes for people in work and we are also cutting national insurance and reforming child care to enable people to enter or stay in employment.
In Bristol, the new enterprise zone around Bristol Temple Meads station will become a hub for media businesses. Bristol already has a worldwide reputation for film making, with Aardman Animations perhaps the most famous, especially for its cartoon characters, Wallace and Gromit. This summer, Bristol will be adorned with 80 statues of its most famous animated dog, and they will be sold at a “Gromit Unleashed” auction in order to raise money for the Bristol children’s hospital. Before that auction takes place, I would like to invite the Leader of the Opposition to come to Bristol to pose next to a statue of Gromit—I am sure the cartoonists would be delighted.
I came into politics to tackle the social inequality—particularly in education and health—that I found in the village where I grew up and in the city where I have lived all my adult life. Bristol has some schools where almost everyone achieves high grades and proceeds to university, but there are also some schools in the city where expectations historically have been the opposite. I am delighted that the Lib Dem policy of the pupil premium, brought into life by this coalition Government, is already giving extra resources for each child on free school meals and will make a huge difference to their life chances.
Health inequalities are also stark in Bristol. The biggest cause of early death is, of course, smoking. If I am allowed on this occasion to express one disappointment with the Queen’s Speech, it is with the lack of new measures to reduce the number of children taking up smoking. The regulation of lobbyists was also absent from the Queen’s Speech. I am sure that some will conclude that tobacco lobbyists will celebrate that as a double victory.
Many of us will be pondering the lessons and meanings of last week’s local election results. Perhaps, as Disraeli said,
“England does not love coalitions.”—[Official Report, 16 December 1852; Vol. 123, c. 1,666.]
I do not think so. All three main parties should be concerned about why people are turning to what might be thought of as marginal parties. Robert Kennedy, when trying to understand the appeal of Governor Wallace of Alabama, said:
“About one-fifth of the people are against everything all of the time.”
We need to think about how to counter this new, curious alliance of Nigels, who both advocate withdrawal from Europe and deny the human contribution to climate change.
On the European Union, Europhiles, such as me and many of my colleagues, and Euro-pragmatists in the Government need to make the case for Britain’s participation in Europe, and we need to do so with some urgency. On the EU, immigration and climate change, I believe that leadership, not followership, is required.
Finally, my most illustrious predecessor as MP for the historic city of Bristol was Edmund Burke. He had much to say on that matter and wrote to his constituents:
“it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents.”
He concluded his address to the electors of Bristol:
“Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”
That is all very well, but I am afraid that in 1780 the electors of Bristol showed Mr Burke the door. In 2013 we have to listen as well as lead. I am not sure what Edmund Burke would have made of 38 Degrees.
I would like to thank all of my constituents in Bristol West for the hundreds of letters and e-mails they send me every month, and I am sure there will be plenty on this Queen’s Speech. It is with them uppermost in my mind and on behalf of my 92,000 electors in Bristol West that I say that it has been a pleasure and a privilege to second this Humble Address to Her Majesty, thanking her for her Gracious Speech today.
I am sure that the whole House will want to join me in paying tribute to those who have died in Afghanistan since we last met: Corporal William Thomas Savage and Fusilier Samuel Flint, both from the Royal Highland Fusiliers, 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Scotland, and Private Robert Murray Hetherington from 51st Highland, 7th Battalion the Royal Regiment of Scotland. They died on patrol serving our country and remind us all of the dangers that our troops face, day in, day out, across Afghanistan. They showed the utmost courage, and our thoughts are with their families and friends.
As the House meets for the first time this Session, I pay tribute to all our troops who are bravely serving our country. They are the best of British. Let me also repeat that the Opposition support the mission in Afghanistan and the timetable for the withdrawal of our troops, who have given such extraordinary service to our country.
As is customary, I pay tribute to those Members of the House who have died since the last Queen’s Speech. Sir Stuart Bell was the son of a miner. He became a lawyer and then represented Middlesbrough for nearly 30 years. He was a kind, decent man who was passionate about Europe, and he served with distinction as a Church Commissioner. For Members who want to read about his years in the House, he wrote an autobiography. With tongue in cheek, it was called “Tony Really Loves Me”. At times, I know exactly what he meant.
We have also lost Malcolm Wicks. Malcolm was one of the deepest thinkers in the House, a brilliant Minister and one of the nicest people one could meet. He faced his illness with the utmost bravery. Right to the end, he was passionate about his constituency, his politics and his country. Both Stuart and Malcolm are sorely missed by us all, as well as by their families and friends.
Let me turn to the proposer and seconder of the Loyal Address. The hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Peter Luff) proposed the Address with great skill and wit, and drew on his 20 years’ experience in the House. As he said, he has decided to stand down from Parliament. He will be remembered, certainly by me and, I think, by others, for showing the utmost courteousness and decency to all Members from across this House of Commons. He is to be congratulated on the campaign that he has just launched to inspire more young people to take up careers in engineering and technology, which, as he said in his speech, has long been an interest of his. The campaign has cross-party support and deserves to have that support.
As the hon. Gentleman demonstrated, he has always been on the moderate, and now somewhat unfashionable, wing of the Conservative party. He worked for Lord Walker and Sir Edward Heath before entering the House. It was that voice of moderation that on Friday sought to find what might be called a third way in the Conservatives’ response to the UK Independence party. He tweeted, and this is certainly original:
“I hold clowns in high regard and respect their role”.
The hon. Gentleman shares his name with another prominent figure in public life. The other Peter Luff was the long-time chairman of the European Movement. So exasperated did the hon. Gentleman become by the attacks on him from angry Eurosceptics that he signed one letter:
“Peter Luff, MP for Mid Worcestershire and NOT the Peter Luff who used to run the European Movement—he’s somebody else about two years older than me!”
Unfortunately, the gist of the reply was: “Dear Peter, we are well aware of the existence of two Peter Luffs. And we don’t like either of you.” Today, there could be no confusion as to his identity. He performed his role uniquely well.
Let me turn now to the seconder, the hon. Member for Bristol West (Stephen Williams). Despite being elected to this House eight years ago, he will be pleased to hear that today, by tradition of the Gracious Speech, he occupies the role of young rising star. That is certainly his pedigree. He was a councillor at 26 and the leader of the Liberal Democrats in Bristol aged 28.
The hon. Gentleman made reference to the fact that he was the first openly gay Liberal Democrat MP. I say to all right hon. and hon. Members that anybody who wants instruction on the reason for the Government’s Bill on same-sex marriage should read the hon. Gentleman’s incredibly moving speech on Second Reading, in which he talked about his teenage years growing up as somebody who was gay in his part of the world. He was surely right when he said:
“Equality is not something that can be delivered partially—equality is absolute.”—[Official Report, 5 February 2013; Vol. 558, c. 176.]
On this side of the House, we second that view.
The hon. Gentleman has also, according to his website, chosen to use the power of Parliament to campaign on other important issues, including the use of consultants by multinational firms to avoid tax. It turns out that he is very well qualified to do this—what was his job before entering this House? He was a tax consultant to multinational firms.
To be fair, the hon. Gentleman has never been afraid to take on his opponents. He was once confronted by angry protesting students outside his office before the top-up fees vote, but he did not hide away. He took up the megaphone, got on a soap box, looked the crowd directly in the face and, in true Liberal Democrat style, told them that he had not yet decided how he was going to vote. Today he spoke very well, and I am sure that he will be pleased to hear that after listening to his speech, I am happy to add my endorsement to his prospects for ministerial office.
While I am paying compliments, I will not let the day pass without paying tribute to the most successful football manager the world has ever seen, a great supporter of the reds, we might call him: Sir Alex Ferguson, phenomenally talented at his job, winner of 13 championships, and who can teach us all about hard work and dedication.
That takes me to the question that must be asked about this Gracious Speech: whether it is equal to the scale of the challenge our country faces and whether it matches the scale of disillusionment about the direction of the country that we all heard during the county council elections. The real lesson of UKIP’s vote and of the two thirds of people who did not vote in those elections is a deep sense that the country is not working for them. They see a country where things are getting worse, not better: 1 million young people without work, low growth, falling wages and squeezed living standards.
The question about this Gracious Speech is, do the Government understand the difficulties that the people of Britain face? I have to say, the signs are not good. At the weekend, the Government sent out the Foreign Secretary. He told us that the elections had sent a clear message to the Government, but his answer was to “shout louder” about their achievements. In other words, it is a version of the old tune: the Government have a communications problem. No, the Government have a reality problem. All the twists and turns with UKIP—insulting it, ignoring it, imitating it—will not work while that remains the case.
This Gracious Speech was the Government’s chance to answer. It should have contained action to get our young people working again, action for real banking reform, action to get growth moving and action genuinely to confront the cost-of-living crisis, but it failed on all those counts.
Several hon. Members
I will make a bit more progress.
The country has big problems, but this Queen’s Speech has no answers. The Government may have legislated for five years in office, but they are out of ideas after just three.
Let us think of the young people we all met during the election campaign and imagine what they feel, looking for a job in Britain 2013, and how their families feel when they cannot find one. Britain cannot afford to waste their talents. The Prime Minister promised change, but things have got worse, not better. There are now four times more young people claiming benefits for more than a year than when the Work programme was introduced. What does this Gracious Speech offer to those young people? Absolutely nothing—no change. Where is the job guarantee for Britain’s young people? It is not there. Where are the rules tying Government contracts to providing apprenticeships? We support High Speed 2, but when the Government are handing out the contracts to get the line built, why do they not require companies to take on apprentices? That would be good for young people, good for business and good for our country.
Will the right hon. Gentleman take this opportunity to apologise to the House and the nation for his personal contribution to the economic mess that the coalition Government inherited?
It is all very well having a Whips’ question, but the Government are borrowing £245 billion more. Three years, no growth, a flatlining economy—that is the record of this Chancellor.
I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. He said we have borrowed more, but will he answer in the House the question he would not answer on Radio 4—how much more will he borrow?
This Government are borrowing more. Of course a temporary cut in VAT has a cost and would lead to a temporary rise in borrowing—[Interruption.] Let me say this: that would get growth moving in this country and would be much more likely to get the deficit down. That is the difference. The International Monetary Fund is in town, and what is it telling the Chancellor? It is saying, “Change course. Your plan is not working.” That is the reality.
I am glad that the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) intervened because I will come to his point later in my speech. He advocates not just a pact with UKIP but a coalition—Deputy Prime Minister Farage in place of the Liberal Democrat leader.
I will make a bit more progress.
Let us consider small businesses in this country. We all hear the same story as we go around the country—that banks make life harder for them, not easier. The Prime Minister promised change but things have got worse, not better. Small businesses do not need to be told that lending to business is falling month on month—they know it. It fell again by £4.8 billion in the three months to February, and no one listening today will be given hope that anything will be different now.
The cross-party Banking Commission called for a clear ultimatum to Britain’s banking system. It said, “Change the culture”—[Interruption.] The Chancellor is intervening from a sedentary position; just be patient. The Commission said, “Change the culture: deliver for business, or we will break high street from casino banking across the board.” It called for a clear answer, but what have we got? Another fudge from the Chancellor. The Government said that the all-party Banking Commission was the answer, but they have not even introduced its recommendations.
What did the Conservative chair of the Banking Commission say on 11 March? He said:
“the Government rejected a number of important recommendations. The commission has examined these again, alongside the Government’s explanations for rejecting them…We have concluded that the Government’s arguments are insubstantial.”
That is the Chancellor all over, and he is wrong on the banks. The Banking Bill also fails to deliver a regional banking system that will deliver for British businesses, not rip them off.
On living standards, we all met many people in this campaign who are struggling to get by. At least the Government now acknowledge that there is a living standards crisis in the country, but there is no real action to tackle that in the speech today. The Prime Minister promised change, but things have got worse, not better. The Government spent the local election campaign, and before, trying to tell people that they are better off. However, people are not better off; they are worse off and they know the reality—wages are down £1,700 since the election. One group, of course, is better off—the people sitting opposite on the Government Front Bench, owing to the millionaires’ tax cut. No wonder the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) says that this Government—not my words, but his—look
“privileged and out of touch”.
He also says:
“Please, please no more old Etonian advisers.”
I think he is right; it is time for some diversity. Let us have someone from Harrow in the Cabinet as well.
When it comes to living standards, the Work and Pensions Secretary said that wealthy pensioners are meant to be handing back their winter fuel payments. I have a suggestion for the Prime Minister: why does he not set an example and hand back the tax cut he has given himself? It would be the big society in action. For everyone else, however, the speech has no answers—no action on train fares, no action on payday loans, and no action on private pension charges. People are worse off under the Tories.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. He talks about living standards, yet this Government have taken 3,000 lower earners from my constituency out of tax altogether, and cut taxes for 40,000 lower earners. Why did he vote against that?
I respect the hon. Gentleman because he is serious about those issues, but I am afraid that his intervention shows the problem. There is no point in telling people that they are better off when his constituents in Harlow know the reality. They are worse off, and they voted Labour at the local elections—he would have lost his seat in a general election, which is bad news for him.
All hon. Members know the housing difficulties that families face. For all the press notices from the Government, homes just are not being built. Again, the Prime Minister promised change, but things have got worse, not better.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
I will not give way for the moment.
Housing completions are at their lowest level since the 1920s. Since this Government came to power, 89,000 construction workers have lost their jobs. There are no answers to Britain’s housing crisis in the Queen’s Speech.
Several hon. Members
I will not give way for the moment.
Clearly, many people raised the issue of immigration during the campaign. The Government’s proposals are limited measures that they have announced before, but the Opposition will look at them. However, I want to mention one very important measure missing from the immigration Bill. The Bill fails to tackle the issues of jobs and pay, which are at the heart of people’s concerns. The problem is the employers who use cheap labour, through both illegal and legal migration, to exploit and undercut workers who are already here. Let us be frank. Right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House will know of many examples brought to them by constituents. There has been only one prosecution since 2010 for failure to pay the minimum wage, but that does not reflect the reality across the country. We will therefore seek to amend the immigration Bill to take action on the problems of employers not paying the minimum wage; recruitment agencies that use only overseas labour; and slum landlords using overcrowded housing for—again—both legal and illegal migrants. There is nothing on that last problem in the Bill.
Several hon. Members
I will give way in a moment.
There are no measures in the immigration Bill on those problems, but why not? There are no measures because they would conflict with the Government’s economic approach. They believe in a race to the bottom when it comes to wages and conditions. The truth is that the Bill will not solve the growth crisis or concerns about immigration.
The right hon. Gentleman mentions immigration. Does he accept that the net migration of 2.2 million people under the Labour Government plus the large numbers of migrants who were disguised by the end of embarkation controls represent a population movement unprecedented in the modern era?
Yes, I would accept that, as I have said on many occasions.
Let me move on. The reality is that none of the measures in the Gracious Speech will solve the—[Interruption.]
Several hon. Members
I will give way, but let me carry on for a minute.
None of the measures in the Gracious Speech will solve the growth crisis that the country faces. Even the Chancellor must recognise that having forecast 6% growth over the past two and a half years, 1% growth is not good enough. Let us look at what is happening to our young people and our businesses, and the squeeze on living standards. His failure on growth is the explanation for what is happening to people in this country. I say this to him: instead of fighting to stop the IMF telling him to change course, he should follow its advice and do so.
The right hon. Gentleman’s alternative Queen’s Speech would cost more than £28 billion. How would he pay for that? Would he borrow more?
I dealt with that question earlier, which the hon. Lady would know if she had been listening. There is no point in me dealing with the Whips’ question.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. Perhaps this will be third time lucky. As usual, he makes a lot of spending commitments. I realise Martha does not understand him, but I do not think I do, either. If he were Prime Minister, would he borrow more or less?
I do not think the hon. Gentleman understands. This Government are borrowing more— £245 billion more.
The problem with this Government is that they always stand up for the wrong people. From the people who brought us the millionaire’s tax cut, we have the latest measure here today.
The right hon. Gentleman is right that the Government have been an absolute disaster for the country, and that living standards are going down, but why are people not flocking to the Labour party, which would win less than 30% on the latest projected share of the vote? Surely people should be going to the Labour party, not to UKIP.
I do not think the SNP should be boasting about the opinion polls at the moment.
Who does the Gracious Speech stand up for? From the people who brought us the millionaires’ tax cut, today we have the latest instalment. This is what they used to say—and the hon. Member for Bristol West made reference to this—about cigarette packaging:
“It’s wrong that children are being attracted to smoke by glitzy designs on packets...children should be protected from the start.”
That was the previous Health Secretary, now Leader of the House. Of course, that was before they hired their new strategist, Mr Lynton Crosby—the one whose company worked for big tobacco. Now what has happened? They have dropped the Bill.
The Prime Minister used to say that lobbying was
“the next big scandal waiting to happen”.
That was before the scandal happened to him—dinners for donors in Downing street. Now what has happened? They have dropped the Bill.
On the communications Bill, the Prime Minister had a chance to tackle powerful media monopolies, the ones that brought him Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks. Now what has happened? What a surprise, they have dropped the Bill. With such a short programme, he can hardly say that there was no room. It is hardly a timetabling issue; it is a problem of whose side he is on.
The reality is that the Prime Minister cannot provide the direction the country needs because he stands up for the wrong people. If his excuse is that he has dropped those Bills because of the people behind him, we will help him. If he wants a Bill on cigarette packaging, we will help him get it through. We could easily do that. I know that he is worried about rebellion by his side, but if he wants a Bill on cigarette packaging, and there is scope to have one, let us do so. It is the right thing to do for public health and for the country. The Prime Minister believes that, but he has a problem on his side: we will vote with him and get it through. If he wants a communications Bill, again we will help him get it through. Even the Deputy Prime Minister might help him get it through, because he wants a communications Bill. If the Prime Minister wants a Bill on lobbying, but Lynton Crosby has said he should not annoy his own side, we will help him.
The reality is that the Prime Minister cannot provide the answers the country needs, because he has lost control of his party. As someone once said, he is in office but not in power. What does his party spend its time talking about? Not youth unemployment, not the NHS, not the living standards crisis. The one subject it is obsessing about, day in, day out, is Europe and UKIP. The hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), who does not seem to be in his place, has characteristically led the charge. He says that it is time to stop insulting UKIP. Instead, he wants an electoral pact with them. The hon. Member for North East Somerset has gone further—he is nodding. He wants a coalition right now with UKIP. They used to call them clowns: now they want to join the circus.
Conservative MPs forget something. The whole point of the Prime Minister’s Europe speech in January was to “head off UKIP”. Tory MPs were crowing that the UKIP fox had been shot. It was job done, mission accomplished. Only it was not. The lesson for the Prime Minister is that you cannot out-Farage Farage. Banging on about Europe will not convince the public, and the people behind him will keep coming back for more—a Europe referendum tomorrow, drop same-sex marriage, the demands go on. They will never be satisfied.
Every day the Prime Minister spends dealing with the problem behind him, he is not dealing with the problems of the country. No wonder this Queen’s Speech contains no answers. Three wasted years, and today is another wasted chance. This was a no-answers Queen’s Speech from a tired and failing Government—out of touch, out of ideas, standing up for the wrong people and unable to bring the change the country needs.
Let me start—as the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) did—by paying tribute to those who have lost their lives in Afghanistan since the House last met. Corporal William Thomas Savage and Fusilier Samuel Flint were both from the Royal Highland Fusiliers, 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Scotland. Private Robert Murray Hetherington was from 51st Highland, 7th Battalion the Royal Regiment of Scotland. These men have made the ultimate sacrifice, their heroism should be an inspiration to all of us and we must honour their memory for ever. Let me also add that what the right hon. Gentleman said—praising our troops and all those who serve our country more broadly—is absolutely right: they should always be at the top of our thoughts.
As a result of the work in the last Session, the Government have now cut the deficit by a third, cut immigration by a third, cut crime by more than 10%, cut taxes for more than 24 million people, capped benefits, capped the increase in rail fares, frozen fuel duty, helped to freeze council tax, cut billions from the bloated cost of government, and, yes, secured a real-terms cut in the European budget as well. In spite of what we just heard from the Opposition, there are over 1.2 million more people now working in the private sector, more than 1 million new apprenticeships and a quarter of a million fewer people on out-of-work benefits than when this Government came to office. In direct contrast to what the right hon. Gentleman said, instead of presiding over a banking bust as he did, we are, for the first time, regulating our banks properly and separating high street banking from investment banking. That is just the start of clearing up the mess we were left. There is only so much we can do in three years to clear up the mess of the past 13 years. The Queen’s Speech sets out the next vital steps forward. This Government have a solid record of being on the side of those who work hard and want to get on.
As the Leader of the Opposition did, let me briefly pay tribute to those from this House who passed away in the last parliamentary Session. The House lost two of its most respected and popular Members. Malcolm Wicks was a real gentleman, a man of enormous integrity and compassion. He served the House with great distinction for 20 years. His expertise on energy earned him great respect on all sides of this House. He was well known for his willingness to work across the political divide, although I gather that even he wondered whether things had gone a bit too far when his grandson was named Cameron. As the Leader of the Opposition said, he showed extraordinary courage in fighting a long illness at a relatively young age. He will be missed by everyone who knew him.
Sir Stuart Bell was another of Parliament’s great characters. He was rightly honoured for his services to this House, and was dedicated to the House of Commons and everything that happens here. He served for a record 13 years as Second Church Estates Commissioner. As the Leader of the Opposition said, his book was called “Tony Really Loves Me”. We do not know whether that was true, but the House really did love him, and he is sorely missed on all sides.
Let me turn to the proposer of the Gracious Speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Peter Luff). He made a great speech and, rightly, spoke with huge power about the importance of engineering. I have looked long and hard to try to find something about my hon. Friend. He is a clean living man with a relatively spotless record, but I have turned up one dirty secret. As he said, he started his career as an adviser to Peter Walker. My hon. Friend was so keen to succeed him in his Worcestershire constituency that he did everything and anything for his political master: he wrote his speeches, collected his shopping, cooked his dinner and organised his social life—he even babysat for his children. I can now reveal his secret: he even changed the nappies of his predecessor’s son, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), who is now sitting next to him. We will not ask for a demonstration, but that does prove that all great political careers start at the bottom. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire showed today that he is a worthy successor.
My hon. Friend spoke movingly about the support of his wife and family during his parliamentary career, and I am sure that all of us would want to echo that sentiment about the incredible love and support we receive from our own families. There is another lesser known fact about my hon. Friend: he simply will not leave a telephone unanswered. On the campaign trail in the 2005 election, he walked past a call box and found that the phone was ringing, and so picked it up. However, when the double glazing salesman on the other end of the line realised that he was talking to a politician, he promptly hung up.
My hon. Friend has a strong record of achievement: improving defence procurement, chairing the Trade and Industry Committee, helping to create the UK India Business Council and campaigning against the early sexualisation of children. When he leaves at the end of this Parliament, he will be missed by many across the Chamber, and his speech was in the best traditions of this House.
Let me turn to the seconder of the Gracious Speech, who, I did not know until today, is virtually my twin. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Stephen Williams) said, he was born in the valleys in the heart of south Wales. He is the first Liberal Democrat to be elected as a Member of Parliament in Bristol in three-quarters of a century, but needless to say, in true Liberal Democrat style, he billed himself as the local candidate. In his time in the House he has already done admirable work in fighting homophobia, and I thought that what the Leader of the Opposition said about that was absolutely right. He has won an award from Cancer Research UK, and he is an assiduous Member of the House. However, he does not always pick the winner. I have done a little research. He was Chris Huhne’s agent during his leadership campaign against the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), but he did then switch to the Deputy Prime Minister during his leadership campaign against Chris Huhne—although I note that he now calls him “Cleggzilla”, which I thought was an interesting career move.
My hon. Friend said that he was looking for a soulmate. I can reveal that he did not find one when he went to the United States on a parliamentary exchange with a member of Congress. He had wanted to shadow someone from the liberal wing of the Democratic party, but ended up with a Tea party Republican from Alabama, which is home, Members will be pleased to know, of the Crimson Tide. So he spent a few days with someone who opposes all regulation of greenhouse gases, opposes all recognition of same-sex marriage, and is backed by the National Rifle Association. I have looked into this deeply. The Congressman in question also wants to establish a human colony on the moon, although history does not relate whether he came to that conclusion before or after meeting my hon. Friend.
I thought that my hon. Friend’s speech today was excellent and courageous, and that both speeches were in the finest traditions of the House.
Let me also take this opportunity to welcome to the House the new hon. Member for South Shields (Emma Lewell-Buck), who is in her place for the first time today. I know that some in the House will be sad that her predecessor has left us. It could be said that he walked out on the organisation that he loved after disagreeing with its choice of a new leader—but today is not the day to talk about Sunderland football club and Paolo Di Canio. It is the day, perhaps, to sing the praises of Sir Alex Ferguson, a remarkable man in British football who has had an extraordinary, successful career. I am sure that all Members, even those on the blue team, will want to pay tribute to this member of the red team. Perhaps he could now provide some consultancy services for Aston Villa.
I began by paying tribute to the British soldiers who had tragically lost their lives in Afghanistan, but let us be clear that this is not a mission without an end. We have promised to draw-down our troops, and I can tell the House that we are on track. The number of UK bases in Helmand is down from a peak of 137 to just 14, and by the end of this month we will have reduced our troop numbers from 9,500 to 7,900. By the end of this year they will be down to just above 5,000, and by the end of next year our troops will no longer be there in a combat role. Almost all of them will have come home.
In Syria, the atrocities continue to mount. In respect of chemical weapons, it is important that we learn the lessons of how information has been presented in the past. I have tasked the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee to give the National Security Council constantly updated assessments of the information that we and our allies have. I can tell the House today that there is a growing body of limited but persuasive information showing that the regime has used, and continues to use, chemical weapons including sarin. The room for doubt about that continues to diminish.
We will continue to take action on every front, working with our allies, backing the opposition, and pushing for a political solution. This morning I spoke to US Secretary of State John Kerry on his return from Russia. There is an urgent need to start a proper negotiation, to force a political transition and to bring this conflict to an end. I will be flying to Sochi on Friday to meet President Putin and discuss the issue further.
Just as there are great challenges in our world today, there are also great opportunities. We must link Britain to the fastest-growing parts of the world—from India to Indonesia, from Brazil to China. We must forge new trade deals that will bring new jobs and greater prosperity. We must use our commitment to open economies, open Governments and open societies to support enterprise and growth right across the world. That is exactly the agenda that Britain will be driving at the G8 in Northern Ireland, and I shall be discussing these issues in the coming days when I travel to meet my counterparts in France, America and Russia.
My right hon. Friend has rightly emphasised the importance of the United Kingdom’s relationship with China, but he will be as aware as all the rest of us that, from time to time, it has been a difficult relationship, particularly given the very difficult problem of Tibet. Is he able to be positive today about what he expects to be the relationship between the United Kingdom and China over the year ahead?
I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for what he says. Let us be absolutely clear: this Government have not changed the long-standing British policy towards China, and China and Tibet, and we do want to have a strong and positive relationship with China, which I believe is to our mutual benefit. The Chinese Government are aware of our policy on Tibet. We recognise Tibet as part of China. We do not support Tibetan independence, and we respect China’s sovereignty, and when I spoke to Premier Li recently, we both looked forward to our countries working very closely together in the months and years ahead.
The point about this Queen’s Speech is that Britain will not seize these opportunities unless we are able to take the tough decisions needed here at home. That is what this Queen’s Speech is all about: rising to the challenge of preparing this country for the future. We are in a global race and the way we will win is by backing families who want to work hard and do the right thing. To do that, we must get the deficit down, not build up ever more debts for our children. We must restore our competitiveness so that British businesses can take on the world. We must reform welfare and pensions so it pays to work and pays to save, and we must reform our immigration system so we attract people who will benefit this country, and we clear up the mess we were left by the Labour party.
I would like to thank the Prime Minister very much for coming to Derbyshire twice during the recent elections and invite him to come back in 2015 to see whether he can repeat the magic. He will be aware that there are now 43 Labour councillors. Does he think Labour did so well in those elections in Derbyshire because of the poor record of Derbyshire county council, or was it thanks to the record of his Government?
The choice for people in Derbyshire at the next election will be whether they want to keep on the path of getting the deficit down, reforming welfare and controlling immigration, or whether they want to put it all at risk with the Labour party. People in Derbyshire understand that.
I was listening out in the Gracious Speech for the words “climate change,” and I almost thought I was listening in vain until I heard that the very last two words of the whole speech were “climate change.” Does the Prime Minister accept that if we are to make serious progress on that issue, it needs to be at the top of the agenda, not at the bottom and, if it were, we could also create hundreds of thousands of jobs in this country?
I thought the hon. Lady was slightly uncharitable: she was looking for the words “climate change” in the Queen’s Speech and the words “climate change” are in the Queen’s Speech—and it is this Government who have set up a green investment bank that has got £3 billion to spend, and it is this Government who have set a carbon floor, so we are taking action to deal with climate change, and are successfully doing so.
The point is that every one of these issues—immigration, welfare, competitiveness, the deficit—is addressed head-on in the Queen’s Speech, and on every one of these issues the Opposition would take us in the wrong direction: on the deficit, they would increase it; on competitiveness, they would put up taxes, not cut them; and on welfare reform, they have opposed every step we have taken to make our system fair and affordable. These are the arguments that will dominate this Queen’s Speech debate, this Session and the general election. On every one of these issues we are on the right side of the argument and they are on the wrong one.
Perhaps the Prime Minister could explain how the proposals in the Queen’s Speech will help my constituent who is wanting to work but found that 57 of 76 shop assistant jobs advertised throughout the whole of the east of Scotland from Fife to Falkirk were for distributing Kleeneze catalogues. How does that help constituents like mine?
First of all, there are 1.25 million extra private sector jobs in our economy, and many of those are in Scotland, but the point in the Queen’s Speech that the hon. Lady should particularly welcome is the move on national insurance contributions, which will take one third of all British businesses out of national insurance altogether. We look forward to the Opposition’s support on that.
Let me take for a moment the central economic argument about borrowing and the deficit. The Leader of the Opposition recently attempted to make his case on “The World at One” and I think it is fair to say that the world was at one in concluding that he made a complete mess of it. He told us that Labour’s much-heralded VAT cut would last for “about a year.” That is what we were told. He was asked 10 times to admit he would put up borrowing, and he refused. He was asked again today. He cannot give a straight answer to this question. Yet the very next day on ITV’s “Daybreak” he admitted borrowing would go up. In this case his policy lasted about 18 hours.
So we have an Opposition who say that borrowing is too high but they are going to put it up. That is their official policy. You couldn’t make it up, Mr Speaker, unless, of course, you are the shadow Business Secretary. He has been famously comparing himself to Barack Obama. As he would put it, “Can we change our Wikipedia entry? Yes we can.”
If it is all going so well, why are more people on the dole in Ashfield than when the Prime Minister took office? Why are more people out of work in my constituency now?
Across the country, more people—1.25 million more—are in work, and 270,000 fewer are on out-of-work benefits. That is what is happening under this Government, and that is what we will continue to make progress on. There is a very serious point here. If we borrow more, spend more, and fail to get a grip on the deficit, we will say goodbye to the low interest rates that this Government have earned. Let us be clear about what that would mean: mortgage rates going up; business failures going up; repossessions going up. That is the price that every family in Britain would pay for Labour’s irresponsibility. Those are the consequences of having a Leader of the Opposition who is too weak to stand up to his shadow Chancellor. He has a long history of such weakness: too weak to stand up to his party on welfare; too weak to stand up to the unions on strikes; too weak ever to stand up to Gordon Brown when in government; too weak to apologise for the mess Gordon Brown made in government. He is the living embodiment of a new dictum: the weak are a long time in politics.
The Prime Minister knows, and I know, that this parliamentary Session is all about the rise of UKIP. He called them loonies and closet racists. Does he have to be more loony to see them off?
The simple truth, at the next election, is if you want an in/out referendum on Europe, the only way to get it will be by supporting the Conservative party. That is clear. There are two major parties in the House that oppose a referendum, and there is one that will stand for a referendum. We will put that to the people at the next election.
The Queen’s Speech does not duck the tough challenges. We need to get the deficit down, so we will complete a spending review by the end of June. We will legislate to abolish needless bureaucracy such as the Audit Commission. We will pass laws to raise revenue by stopping tax abuse. We need to restore our competitiveness, so the Queen’s Speech includes a deregulation Bill to cut business costs, and a national insurance Bill to cut taxes for small businesses. We will press ahead with our high-speed rail Bill so that we get the infrastructure we need. Our intellectual property Bill will give us an up-to-date system of patents, including a key part of the European patent court right here in London.
The Prime Minister has given an extensive shopping list of the things he will introduce this Session, but he has not spoken about plain packaging for tobacco and the introduction of minimum alcohol pricing. In the light of the health issues in relation to alcohol abuse and for those dying from cancer, will he even now give us a commitment to introduce both plain packaging for tobacco and a minimum price for alcohol?
On the issue of plain packaging for cigarettes, the consultation is still under way, and we are looking at the issue carefully. On minimum pricing for alcohol, it is important that we take action to deal with deeply discounted alcohol, with cans of lager sometimes selling for as little as 25p in supermarkets. We will be bringing forward a package of measures, and it is important that we get this right.
The Prime Minister spoke about how all of us in the House cherish and love our children and families, so where is the protection for children when it comes to plain packaging for cigarettes? For the record, the consultation is closed.
The hon. Lady’s party had 13 years in office to take such measures and did precisely nothing.
At the heart of the Queen’s Speech is a commitment to get behind the aspiration of people who work hard, save hard and do the right thing. The pensions Bill, which, by the way, is the biggest reform of the state pension for 50 years, did not merit a single mention from the Leader of the Opposition. The Bill marks a major shift towards encouraging saving in our country. Under the current system, many people are discouraged from saving during their working life. Why? It is because the more they save, the less pension credit they will get. A single-tier pension, at about £144 a week, changes that. It will take hundreds of thousands of people in our country out of the means test, and it will give people the certainty of knowing that the savings they make when they work will benefit them when they retire.
Another problem that can discourage saving is the fact that in so many cases people’s homes are taken away to pay their care bills. The family that has saved is asked to pay for care; the family that has not saved gets all this for free. I do not believe that is fair. This Queen’s Speech makes an historic move to put a cap on individual contributions to pay for social care. Combined with changes in the insurance market, that should mean that no one has to sell their home to pay for care—a major breakthrough in this vital market.
I served on the Joint Committee on the draft Care and Support Bill and although it has some good points, it needs a lot of improvement. However, the Prime Minister’s Government are taking £2.6 billion out of adult social care, and setting a cap at £72,000 will not help the majority of my constituents in Salford. He has now abandoned public health.
First of all, as the hon. Lady says that the draft Care and Support Bill has some good points, perhaps she could have a word with the leader of her party as he did not even mention it in his entire speech. We are tackling an issue that Labour promised to do something about for 13 years—but it never did anything. Under this Government, people will not have to sell their home to pay for care.
Backing aspiration means sorting out our immigration system. Under the previous Government, it was out of control. Net migration was more than 200,000 a year; that means that more than 2 million extra people came here across a decade. The tiered system that the previous Government established has now been revealed as a complete sham. Tier 1 of the system, they told us, welcomed the best of the best; it now transpires that as many as a third of those people found only low-skilled roles, working in takeaways or as security guards. In the student tier, that Government allowed people who did not speak a word of English to come here and attend colleges that turned out to be entirely bogus. There was even a tier in their system specifically created for those with no skills at all.
We are fixing this mess. We have completely shut down the route that allowed low-skilled people to come here with their dependants, without even a job offer waiting for them; we have capped the number of economic migrants from outside the European economic area; we have stopped almost 600 colleges bringing in thousands of bogus foreign students; and we have revoked the licences of more than 300 of those colleges in the process. There is much more to do, but there has been good progress in clearing up the mess that the previous Government made.
Given that Labour has now apologised for its immigration policies in government, does the Prime Minister agree that if Labour Members are serious about curbing immigration they should pledge to support our policies when they are debated on the Floor of this House?
I hope the test will come when we vote on those measures. In the past, of course, we have heard that the Opposition will support welfare measures, then they do not; we have heard that they will support deficit reduction measures, then they do not. Every time the Opposition are tested, they fail.
The immigration Bill is a centrepiece of the Queen’s Speech. Let me be clear: this is not just—
I will give way to both right hon. Gentlemen in a minute. Let me just make one point. The Bill goes across government, because for the first time we will look to ensure that everyone’s immigration status is checked before they get access to a private rented home; for the first time, we will make sure that anyone not eligible for free health care foots the bill, either themselves or through their Government; and for the first time, foreign nationals who commit serious crimes will be deported, wherever possible, and will then have to appeal from their home country. That will be the effect of the Bill.
Perhaps it would be easier for Labour to vote for the Bill if there was a verifiable way of ensuring that it could be implemented. Will the Prime Minister take a suggestion from an old hand that might square the circle between the Home Secretary and the Business Secretary on the immigration proposals and the deregulation Bill? We could go back to the idea of a verifiable identity register, and a little card, such as the one I am holding, to ensure that doctors, landlords and employers can easily and sensibly know whether someone is entitled to be in the country and draw down services.
At last we have had a concrete policy from the Labour party, but I am afraid to say that it is one with which I completely disagree. I have great respect for the right hon. Gentleman, but is it not extraordinary that the previous Government spent so much time and effort on a compulsory identity card that no one wanted while overseeing a massive uncontrolled rise in immigration? What we have done is to cut migration by a third and we have not introduced ID cards. That is a far better approach.
I welcome the abolition of the UK Border Agency. The Prime Minister mentioned foreign national ex-offenders. He will know that the latest figures reveal that 4,000 are living in the community, and 65% have been there for two years. Will he examine whether it is possible to begin deportation proceedings at the time of sentence, rather than waiting halfway through the sentence when it will be too late?
The right hon. Gentleman is entirely right, and that is something that we discussed at the National Security Council as recently as last week. The situation with foreign national offenders is still completely unacceptable. There are very large numbers still here, from countries such as Nigeria and Jamaica that we have very good relations with, and we are going to ensure that we deal with the problem a lot faster. We have also looked at the idea that the right hon. Gentleman has come up with. Put simply, our immigration Bill will back aspiration and end the legacy of the previous Government that meant that people could come here and expect something for nothing.
Our determination to end the previous Government’s something-for-nothing culture is also the reason why we continue to pursue our welfare reforms. Every one of them is about making sure that work pays, but that is not the only thing that our welfare reforms have in common. The truth is that whatever welfare reform we have suggested, the Leader of the Opposition and the Labour party have opposed each and every single one. We said families should not be able to receive up to £100,000 in housing benefit. He said they should, and voted accordingly. We said no—[Interruption.] The hon. Lady says “rubbish”, but the Opposition voted against the limits on housing benefit. We said that no out-of-work household should be able to claim more than the average working family earns. The Leader of the Opposition said that they should be able to do that, and they voted against the welfare cap. We said benefits should not go up by more than 1% while workers’ wages are being cut. He said they should—and he wants our children shackled with more debt in order to pay for it.
According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, after the tax and benefit changes introduced in 2010, by 2020 one in four children will face child poverty, missing the Child Poverty Act goal of one in 10. Why does the Queen’s Speech not contain anything to address that major problem in our country?
The IFS also shows that it was this Government who increased child tax credits to help the poorest families, but above all, the IFS shows that we have had to take difficult steps to clear up the complete mess that we were left by the Labour party. Labour has opposed each and every welfare change. The party of labour has become the party of welfare and the whole country can see it. On this side of the House, we are standing up for hard-working people. This is a Queen’s Speech that will back aspiration and those who want to get on. This is a Queen’s Speech that will make our country competitive once again. This is a Queen’s Speech that will cut our deficit, grow our economy, deliver a better future for our children and help us to win the global race, and I commend it to the House.
As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition said, we should judge the Gracious Speech by the extent to which it is fit for the job that this country and the people of this country so desperately need it to do. We must therefore begin by addressing the important fact, which is very uncomfortable for us as politicians serving in this House, that there has not been a time in the 40 years that I remember of active politics when the level of public engagement with the relevance of politics has been so low. We saw that to a very great extent in the local election campaign.
I am enormously proud of my party’s achievements in the local election campaign, but I know that all of us, including myself, who campaigned in different parts of the country regularly, met people who were angry—people who felt that politicians were deaf to their concerns and that politics offered them no solutions. When we judge this Queen’s Speech by whether it is fit to meet the challenges of modern Britain today, that is a very important test.
Perhaps what has created the anger and unease— I think this underpinned so much of what the Prime Minister said in his response today—is the fact that our political narrative has been characterised by a view of the worst of our national human nature rather than the best. Let us turn that around. What follows if we believe that we live in a country where the majority of the million young people who are out of work desperately want the chance to work, to realise their potential and to fulfil their ambition? Mothers, fathers, young and older men and women come to all our surgeries with a sense of growing desperation that they are running out of solutions to the circumstances in which they now feel themselves to be.
So these are the challenges, and many of the remedies are very simple. When we were in government, we demonstrated that people did not have to languish on jobseeker’s allowance for weeks into months. If we apply what we know—that for every week people are out of work, it gets harder for them to get back into work—and if we provide people with support and retraining, and maintain their confidence that they will get a job, the chances are that they will get off benefits more quickly. But if we hollow out the services that are designed to achieve that change and galvanise that human ambition, people are on their own.
On that subject, will the right hon. Lady at least acknowledge that in only two years this Government have created 1.25 million jobs in the private sector and have helped to create 250,000 new small businesses and 500,000 apprentices in the past year alone, and that the strategy proposed from the Opposition Front Bench would jeopardise this by borrowing more in a debt crisis?
On behalf of the whole House, I wish the hon. Gentleman a very happy birthday, and I thank him for his intervention. By scrutinising the figures on mothers who no longer feel it is worth staying in work, he will see that very many of those jobs, welcome as they are, are not full-time jobs that enable an adequate income to come into the family home.
I will not give way again as many other hon. Members want to speak.
There is much in the Queen’s Speech about welfare and the future of the welfare state. It is not a welfare policy to pop up on television every other Sunday with another bit of tinkering with the welfare state. We have a welfare state which is founded on three principles— the contributory principle, the universal principle and the discretionary principle. Richard Titmuss famously observed—and this is the warning to those who seek to dismantle a universal welfare state that has at different times of our lives relevance for all of us—that services only for the poor are poor services. I challenge Government Members to think of a single service which is used only by the poor that they would be prepared to use at a time of difficulty or trouble.
Remembering the simplicity with which many of the terrible human conditions in which people now find themselves can be resolved, two principles should be upheld: do not hollow out those services that are the practical, direct contact with those individuals, and steer away from a principle for our public services or our welfare state which reduces its scope, making it one that is only for the poor. Stigma follows.
Does the right hon. Lady agree that a fundamental principle of the welfare system should also be that work pays more than welfare? That is the system underpinning universal credit. Does she welcome that?
Yes. I sat around the Cabinet table when we discussed precisely putting in place the policies that would ensure that people earned more in work than they would on benefit. That is another change. That is why, incidentally, we introduced the national minimum wage and why our alternative Queen’s Speech lays such emphasis on enforcement of the national minimum wage. That is why there is now an important opportunity to reduce, progressively and systematically, the very large cost of in-work tax credit by linking incentives for employers seeking public contracts to pay a living wage to people right across the country, which is something the best employers are already adopting.
Let me touch briefly on what I think will be one of the most publicly important, and in many respects welcome, announcements in the Queen’s Speech, and that is in relation to social care—but I think we should go further. In Committee we will press hard on the paradox that £800 million is being taken away from local authorities’ ability to fund social care at a time when the responsibilities and burden on families are increasing. It is very hard to find those families who would not prefer their elderly relatives to be loved and looked after in their own homes. Therefore, that should not just be the rhetorical aim of the policy; it should be the organisational and administrative means by which that hope is realised. Again, that is not difficult, but we must start with the individual and their needs and build the structure and organisation of the service around them, rather than, as so many elderly people find is their lot, making their needs conform to predetermined rules that have little to do with their circumstances.
Therefore, it is through the welfare state, and by increasing the responsibility of employers in relation to the living wage and by recognising that good care for people at home means building relationships and relevant support around the individual, that the source of help might begin to match the circumstances of individual families and their needs. That is the only way in which confidence can be rebuilt. I am intensely proud of the efforts of so many Labour councils, in particular, across the country that are pioneering approaches to that. A Queen’s Speech designed for the whole country would learn a lot from some of those beacons of light at an individual and local level. I commend those proposals to the House.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s speech and the contents of the Gracious Speech.
I urge my right hon. Friend to telephone the President of the United States and say that it is high time Guantanamo Bay was closed down, which we read the President is minded to do. It is a moral blot on the west that people are still there without facing trial or being released for their liberty. If there are people for whom there is not enough evidence for a proper trial but about whom there are still legitimate worries, could they not be let out under surveillance? Surely it is high time we no longer tolerated that prison.
I strongly support what the Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister said about our armed forces. They have shown enormous strength, great professional service and huge bravery, especially in Afghanistan. I hope that the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary will move to get our troops away from risk and danger in Afghanistan as soon as possible. Some might have to stay there for longer, to provide training and support, but surely the Afghans are by now sufficiently trained to do the patrolling and take on the more dangerous tasks. They have the local languages and contacts. I want our troops out of risk and out of danger. So many have died. They have created the conditions in which the Afghans can now have a more secure future, so please now trust the Afghans and take our troops away from those risks.
I hope that the Prime Minister will be extremely careful about being dragged into any intervention in Syria. None of us likes what the regime is doing—the terror, the bombing and the huge loss of life is unacceptable —but we also know that the forces of opposition range from the friendly and those in favour of democracy and liberty to very different types of people whom we would not normally choose to be our allies. While I welcome the Prime Minister’s wish to use what diplomatic weight the United Kingdom has to try to find a solution, I hope that he will resist any hot-headed moves to commit our troops to Syria, whether directly on the ground or indirectly, and be very careful about the idea that killing some more Syrians might be a helpful contribution to an extremely dangerous situation.
I welcome the fact that the Gracious Speech has relatively few Bills in it. That is very good news. We legislate too much in this House, and we often legislate in haste and repent at our leisure. I think everybody would agree that this Government are trying to reform a very large number of things already. A lot of very complex legislation has been put through affecting many of our public services. Surely now is the time for Ministers to supervise those reforms and ensure that they are well thought through, properly administered and embedded, while the rest of us must subject them, and every penny of public spending that Ministers propose, to increasingly extensive scrutiny.
This Government face a mighty task. They inherited an extremely broken and damaged economy. All Ministers now need to lend their weight and their talent to dealing with that one central issue and not get too distracted by other things of interest abroad, and we in this House need to make sure that every penny they propose to spend is well spent, because the origins of our debt and borrowing crisis lie in an enormous surge in public spending. Unfortunately, some of that spending was not well judged and did not lead to the better schools and hospitals that all parties and people of good will want but, instead, added to the complexity, the unnecessary cost and sometimes the waste throughout the public services.
In order to promote this economic recovery, I hope that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will inject a new sense of urgency through his new energy Minister in the Department of Energy and Climate Change. One of the most oppressive things about our current economic situation is the very high energy prices that have been imposed on individuals, families and businesses, and we now need to regard cheaper energy as fundamental to getting better economic growth. Our American friends and competitors have energy prices 50% below our own for running industry, which these days is often more energy-intensive than labour-intensive. That is too big a gap, and it is a matter of great urgency. I hope the Government will look very carefully at ways to get energy prices down and to go for cheaper energy in the United Kingdom.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the pursuit of misconceived green energy policies has contributed to the problem that he is identifying—namely, that we are now one of the most expensive places to generate energy in Europe and as a result our industries are suffering as regards competitiveness?
I think that the Government need to re-examine the whole carbon tax regime, which is not imposed by our Asian or American competitors, and the balance of power generation for electricity, because we seem to choose to generate a rather high proportion by extremely expensive means. I would impose this simple test: is it going to work and is it going to be cheaper?
The Government would be wise to understand that we may not be too far away from an unfortunate conjunction of events on a cold winter’s day when there is no wind blowing and we are very short of energy. I am worried that a number of our important old power stations are being pensioned off or forcibly converted before we have put the alternatives in place. As the Prime Minister has rightly said, that should have been done by the previous Government, who spent 13 years arguing over whether to have new nuclear or new gas and did not put in place the replacement and back-up power that we clearly need with a strategy that relies heavily on wind and other intermittent renewables and where an EU set of rules requires us to close down prematurely a series of older power stations that we might still need.
Indeed, I would hope that one of the new energy Minister’s urgent decisions will be to ask for permission or derogation to keep open some of the older power stations for another two or three years while the Government put in place the necessary permits, licences and investment framework for the replacement power stations—which will, I think, have to be gas powered—in order to ensure back-up and security of supply. One of the important tasks of government in the overall task of keeping the country secure is to keep the lights on, and we need to do more to make sure that that is happening.
I hope that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will encourage the Chancellor to go further and faster in sorting out the banks. Some of us are extremely impatient about the way in which the Royal Bank of Scotland, the recipient of so much public subsidy and shareholding, is still not able to help finance a proper recovery. It is extremely difficult to have a strong economic recovery in this country at a time when our major bank is still undertaking such a massive slimming programme and trying to reduce its loans and exposure to risk because it got itself into difficulties under the previous regulators and remains in difficulties under the new regulators. There are regulatory fixes; I do not wish to go into the technical details, but I hope that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will move quickly and more purposefully to split up RBS and create working banks to finance the faster recovery that all parties in this House clearly want.
That would also help with private infrastructure. Those on the Government and, I think, Labour Front Benches are keen to promote more large infrastructure projects, and it would be very good if they could be financed privately. We are many years beyond the initiation of that idea under Labour, and then under the coalition, but we are yet to see the commitment of large financing to the power, transport and wider broadband and other communications projects needed for economic development and to trigger more economic growth through the construction industry. I hope that more attention will be directed to tackling those issues.
I am very pleased that at the core of the Gracious Speech, as the Prime Minister said, is his wish to do more to control our borders sensibly. I am a free-enterprise free trader—I am all in favour of talent coming in and of diversity in our country. However, I think that most of us believe that far too many people came in far too quickly, creating difficulties for housing, health and other service provision. When new people arrive in our country, we want them, as well as the people already settled here, to enjoy a reasonable lifestyle and for that to be achieved at a pace with which the existing community is happy.
I think the big mood of anger that we saw in Thursday’s elections stems from the feeling that many people have that some of those who arrive in our country get free and easy access to public services and benefits before they become British citizens and valued members of our community. People ask, “Is this fair at a time of cuts, pressure and difficulty? Can we really afford to have hundreds of thousands of new people coming in who are immediately eligible for high-quality public services and welfare provision?” When we see the details of what the Prime Minister is suggesting, I hope that a fair and sensible system will be introduced.
In meeting the European Union obligations on the freedom and movement of workers, it would be a very good idea to say that while of course people can come in to take a job, that would not make them eligible to receive a welfare or top-up benefit of any kind, and that it would not give them automatic entitlement to a lot of fringe benefits for their wider family. It should be the free movement of workers, not the free movement of benefit-seekers. I believe that the contributory principle is enforced in other parts of the EU, so why do we not have a rule that says that people can get access to welfare benefits and services only if they have paid national insurance for five years, or—to cover those who are already settled here but who, through no fault of their own, have not been fortunate enough to have a decent work record—if they have been in full-time education in Britain for five years? We need to look at whether we can use that contributory principle to provide some discipline.
Something that is of great interest to the trade union movement and the Labour party, as well as to the rest of us, is the impact that high volumes of migration have had on wages. Because Britain has been such a welcoming home to so many people, it has seen a large number of migrants from the rest of Europe. That has undoubtedly acted as a damper on wage levels at the lower end of the market. Often, people of great talent and skill come in and do jobs well beneath their skill level for very low wages because they are better than the wages where they come from. Some of that is a good thing, but too much of it creates enormous difficulties because it means that people who have been here for many years or were born here cannot get a job, the overall level of wages is rather low and living standards are not as high as we would like. That causes anger and tension in local communities.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it would help if the minimum wage in this country was enforced vigorously?
I do not think that the minimum wage is high enough for a family. Our ambitions should be rather higher. It is a Labour cop-out to say that all the problems can be solved by enforcing the minimum wage. We all know that, on the whole, people do not live on the minimum wage, but get benefit top-ups. If people have family commitments, they of course need benefit top-ups.
I am talking about the justice of a system in which there are people in Britain who cannot get a job at all and lots of other people coming in from outside who are taking jobs on very low wages and expecting welfare top-ups, making it difficult to get the welfare bill down. That does not make any sense. There is a double bill for Britain: we have to pay the full welfare costs of the British person who cannot get the job and the top-up costs for the person who comes in from outside. Labour should take that point seriously and worry about it.
British people expect the Government, in trying to keep the country secure, to have the power to get rid of terrorist suspects and other unpleasant individuals who have, perhaps foolishly, been let in. I want the Government to appear strong and to be able to act strongly when necessary. There is huge public will for this House to gain powers that enable us to extradite people who are guilty of crimes or who are suspected of crimes and need to go elsewhere to be tried properly.
My final point is about Europe. I know that the Prime Minister is not keen to have a long debate on Europe. The trouble is that Europe is no longer a single subject; it is about the life that we lead. If we want to be sure that we can control eligibility to our welfare system, we have to sort out European welfare issues. If we want to extradite people from Britain, we need to sort out the European Court of Human Rights and will soon have to sort out the European Court of Justice as well, because there is an important European constraint on the power of Governments to act in that area. If we want to have cheap energy, we may well need to change European energy policy as well as our own. We can make immediate progress through derogations and permissions, but it would be far better to change the overall energy policy, because the whole of Europe is being damaged by its dear energy strategy, which allows America, Asia and others to take the jobs and markets that we need. We need to control our borders, keep the lights on and extradite people who deserve to be tried somewhere else. To do that, we need to sort out the European issue, as well as all the individual issues in their own right. I wish the Prime Minister every success in that.
I do not want to belong to a powerless Parliament. I do not want to belong to an impotent Parliament. I want to belong to a Parliament that can give redress to angry people outside if we think that they are right. I want to belong to a Parliament that controls our borders. I want to belong to a Parliament that settles our energy crisis. I want to belong to a Parliament that can legislate to finalise who has welfare entitlement and who does not. We are not in that happy position today. That is why I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement that we need a new relationship with the European Union. Bring it on as soon as possible and put it to this House of Commons, because without it this House of Commons is, indeed, impotent.
I am glad to be given the opportunity to speak in this debate.
There have been a few comments, particularly from Opposition Members, suggesting it is a rather thin Queen’s Speech, containing not many Bills, but one of its meatier measures is the pensions Bill, which will set up a single-tier state pension. I hope you do not mind, Mr Speaker, if I spend all my time talking about that Bill, partly because my Select Committee, the Work and Pensions Committee, was asked to carry out the pre-legislative scrutiny. It is the one Bill in the Queen’s Speech that is greatly relevant to my Committee’s work, and I understand it will be published tomorrow, so today is my last chance to record some of the Committee’s observations. I understand that the Government’s response to our report will be published as a Command Paper at the end of the week. I suspect that both the Bill and the Command Paper have already gone to the printer, so what I say this afternoon will probably not change the Government’s intention, but it is worth rehearsing some of the arguments that my Committee found important enough for the Government to take into account during the deliberations on the Bill in both Houses.
Why is the Bill so important? Anybody who is under state pension age as of April 2016 will be affected by it. The only people who will not be affected by the introduction of the single-tier state pension are those who will have already reached their pensionable age. The fact that 2016 is the year in question is a bit of a bone of contention, because when my Committee undertook its scrutiny and asked for evidence from a range of people, including the industry, individuals and anybody who wanted to have a say, we thought that the starting date would be April 2017. When we took oral evidence, including from the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb), at the end of our inquiry, we still thought that the implementation date would be April 2017. It came as a bit of a shock, and was a wee bit to our annoyance, that the Chancellor announced in the Budget that the implementation date was to come forward a year to April 2016.
We interrogated the Minister thoroughly about whether even April 2017 was an achievable time scale or would slip, because we thought it was a pretty tight time scale in which to implement the changes. It therefore came as a bit of a shock to discover that the Government hoped to do it a year sooner. We had not been in a position to ask the industry and employers, in particular, whether they would be ready to implement the changes in 2016.
Notwithstanding the fact that we generally welcome the introduction of a single-tier state pension, it is inevitable and obvious that the Government have continued to roll out auto-enrolment, for which they should be commended. Given that more and more people will have their own second-tier occupational pension, some kind of reform of the first-tier basic state pension has become almost imperative. However, it will not be easy to get from the extremely complicated and convoluted pensions landscape of today, which has a second tier through the state earnings-related pension scheme or the state second pension as well as occupational pensions, to something straightforward and simple. That is what the Government are attempting to do in the pensions Bill.
As the Government have brought forward the implementation date by a year, the Committee thinks it is even more important—we thought it was important anyway—that a proper impact assessment of the changes is done sooner rather than later. We hope that when the Government publish their response to our report at the end of this week, there will be a promise to that effect.
Different sectors will be affected differently, and some groups will inevitably lose out. In any major change there are bound to be winners and losers, but it is not yet clear who they will be under these changes. I hope that a further impact assessment will be performed because we need to know how the changes will impact on individuals, the pensions industry, and particularly employers.
May I record my appreciation of the work done by the Work and Pensions Committee in scrutinising our Bill on a compressed timetable? We will publish a new impact assessment on Friday alongside the Bill, and a response to the Committee. I assure the hon. Lady that the Bill will be amended in the light of her Committee’s recommendations.
I am delighted to hear that and perhaps we will come back to the Bill if it is not amended enough.
We welcome the single-tier pension because it will generally mean more state pension for those who have the least. Groups that have lost out in the past with regard to the state pension will benefit—they will generally be women, carers, people with broken work records, and those such as the self-employed who have been unable to build up any kind of second state pension. They will see the immediate benefits of the introduction of this system.
There will, however, be those who lose out, and one main change will affect those who have already made decisions about their retirement. At the moment, someone can qualify for a full state pension after 30 years of national insurance contributions. The Bill increases that to 35 years, but there is already a group of people who have decided to retire although they have not reached pensionable age. They will not necessarily be in a position to build up 35 years of national insurance contributions before they reach the new single-tier pension. The Committee makes recommendations about buying back national insurance years and contributions, but a huge communications job will be necessary to ensure that people are aware that the number of qualifying years has now changed. I will say more about communications in a minute.
It was interesting that the Minister went on the airwaves earlier this week with regard to one group of people who will definitely lose out—women who get only a pension derived from their husband’s contributions. I am not sure why the Minister spoke about that in terms of the wives of expats, but it was possibly because a large number of those who will be affected by this measure live abroad. The measure will, of course, also affect women in this country. That seems to have come as a complete surprise to many and perhaps explains why a lot of people think they will be better off under the new system when in fact they will not because their spouse will not qualify for any of the new derived rights. Basically, what used to be known as the married woman’s allowance is going for everyone.
The Committee has a recommendation for the Government:
“We welcome the Government’s sensible transitional solution to the potential adverse impact on employed women who chose to pay reduced NI contributions under the Reduced Rate Election—”.
That was often called the small stamp or the married woman’s stamp. It was a long-running sore that had never been cured, so good on the Government because it has now been solved. They have come up with a transitional arrangement that will allow women who paid the small stamp to get full credits and qualify for the single-tier extension.
That does not apply, however, to those who will get nothing as a result of the abolition of their derived rights. The Committee report states:
“We believe that it should also be possible to find a solution for another small group of women: those who did not build up their own NI record because they had a legitimate expectation that they would be able to rely on their husband’s contributions to give them entitlement to a Basic State Pension. One option might be that women in this position who are within 15 years of State Pension Age should be able to retain this right. We recommend that the Government assesses and publishes the cost of providing this option for the relatively small number of women affected. We believe that, for those further from retirement, there is sufficient time for them to plan on the basis of the new rules.”
One reason we chose the period of 15 years from retirement was that it had to be more than 10 years. The Bill says seven or 10 years, but the Committee recommends that it should state anything up to 10 years, because people will probably need to have 10 years’ worth of contributions before they get any state pension—they will get nothing for less than 10 years’ worth of contributions. The Committee believes that people within 15 years of retirement with no national insurance contribution, who would have expected to get their pension through their spouse, should be protected, and that there should be transitional arrangements for them. Anyone further away can make up some of the shortfall—not all of it—in the intervening time.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way and for the reasonable way in which she makes her points. Without trying to jump ahead, what does she make of suggestions that the Government will prevent spouses who have never set foot in the UK from receiving a state pension? I suspect most Government Members fully support those proposals, but does she support them?
The Committee did not say that we were against the abolition of derived rights in principle for future pensioners. We accept the Government’s argument that people should have a state pension in their own right, and that they should accrue their own credits to get it. The consequence is that there will be no married woman’s allowance in future. The problem I have addressed is how we get from the current position to that one without being unfair on the group of women who are within 15 years of reaching their pensionable age. As the Bill stands—we hope it might change by tomorrow—that group of women will get nothing from April 2016. The Committee believes that that is a particularly harsh cliff edge. We have no problems with what happens in future. Because women work or because of changes made by the previous Government in how national insurance can be credited for caring—not only for children, but for disabled adults or elderly relatives—women are more likely to have credits towards their own pension, which previous generations did not have. We accept that the world and society have changed and that, as a result, women who have not been in this country and who have not been in a position to build up credits will not get a pension in the long run.
The Government face a problem in getting over to people exactly what the pensions Bill means. They have concentrated on saying that the new arrangements are much simpler and easier to understand, which is understandable. They have said, “The new single-tier pension will be £144, and that’s it. That’s all you need to know.” However, as a result of that simplification of the message, people have got the wrong end of the stick with regard to what it means in their individual cases. That is why it is crucial that the Government think again on a clear communication strategy. That should start as soon as possible, and not wait until the Bill has become an Act of Parliament. In anything to do with pensions, planning is so long term that people have to be sure about what they may expect. If things are going to change, people have to know they are going to change. That is especially true of the group of women born in 1952 and 1953, as they have suffered a double whammy with the increase in the state pension age. Many of them are worried that they will lose out, but they may not. The point is that they do not know, and the Government have not been able to give them enough information or explain what will happen.
This week I got a letter from a lady who was convinced that she will get only £144 a week because she will reach pension age after April 2016. She has paid SERPS all her life and she is convinced that the Government will steal her SERPS from her. She does not know that she will get whichever is higher—SERPS or the single-tier pension. One gentleman thinks that it is really unfair that he has paid SERPS all his life, but will get only £144, whereas his next-door neighbour, who was contracted out and gets an occupational pension—and has been paying less national insurance—will also get £144, but of course that is not true. The person who has been contracted out will lose out, depending how the calculation goes. The calculation is a complicated one and the headline message has continued to be that everyone will get £144 for their state pension, so many people think that the introduction of the new scheme is unfair.
I have to say that initially some people who had already reached pension age were keen to get on to the new system until they realised that they would not necessarily be much better off. They are not quite so keen now to get on to the single-tier pension. It is worth pointing out that the Govt are doing this only because it is cost-neutral. The Treasury does not have huge extra wads of money sitting around somewhere to pay to people who reach pension age after April 2016. The worry of many women born in 1952 and 1953 is that they would have qualified for pension credit anyway.
The Committee was concerned that the single-tier pension was being set only £1 above pension credit levels. We thought that the Bill should include a provision that would always ensure that the single-tier pension would be above the level of pension credit. We were disappointed that the gap between pension credit and the single-tier pension was so narrow. It would help to allay some of the fears if there was a guarantee that the single-tier pension would always be above the basic level.
My hon. Friend has always been a great champion of ordinary working people. Will she join me in urging Ministers in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to investigate why Tesco proposes to reduce the terms and conditions of staff by a third, in transferring them from distribution centres that are closing in Harlow and Weybridge and moving them to new sites in Barking and Dagenham at wages lower by £7,000 to £12,000? Surely Ministers should use their considerable influence to urge Tesco to think again.
I am sure the Minister heard my hon. Friend’s plea with regard to Tesco. There is still a concern that some employers might take the introduction of auto-enrolment as an opportunity to top-slice what they would be paying into a pension fund, as part of auto-enrolment, off the salary they are already paying. There does not seem to be any evidence of that, but perhaps some of what my hon. Friend talked about is the restructuring by some big companies with high employee turnover that are maybe looking to find a way of cutting what they pay. There is no doubt that, with the introduction of auto-enrolment and the pension, the single-tier pension was inevitable. It is the right thing to do, but, as with anything this complex that affects so many people, the Government have to ensure that they get it right. If they get it wrong, there will be an awful lot of angry people out there. I am sure the Minister is listening.
Thank you very much indeed, Mr Speaker, for this early opportunity to make what will be a brief contribution to the debate. The debate coincides with ongoing family difficulties at home, so being able to get back to the highlands this evening rather than later is of very great assistance, and I am grateful for that. On that basis, I apologise to those on both Front Benches that, uncharacteristically, I will not be here for the wind-ups. I hope that they will understand.
As has been pointed out, this is the penultimate Queen’s Speech of this Parliament: there are now two years to go. I think that one political prediction on which we can all agree is that the next two years will go an awful lot more quickly than the last three years did. Whatever proposals are contained in the legislation outlined in the Queen’s Speech, the truth is that much of the politics in the next two years, and therefore at the next general election, will be conditioned not by what is in today’s speech, but by the wider economic scenario. We have welcomed the Queen to the Palace of Westminster today. Perhaps of more significance is that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is welcoming the International Monetary Fund to the United Kingdom for its annual health audit. The implications for the economy will play as big a role in the next 18 months to two years as the proposals in front of us, important though they may be.
I welcome the reference in the Queen’s Speech to the second issue that will influence United Kingdom politics: the referendum in Scotland in 15 months’ time. The outcome will have a profound impact on not just Scottish politics, but UK politics in the run-up to the next Westminster general election. I was reassured to read that the Government
“will continue to make the case for Scotland to remain part of the United Kingdom.”
Hear, hear. I give my unqualified support to the Deputy Prime Minister and the coalition on that. That case needs to be made, and is particularly significant coming from the coalition at Westminster. Even in the few months that have elapsed since January, when we debated the various orders that enabled the transference of powers to Edinburgh to hold the referendum and so on, it has been interesting to see the debate develop. A lot of water has gone under the bridge since then. I will not comment one way or the other, but I will say that we need to hear, both in Scotland and in the UK as a whole, more constructive Conservative voices in the debate.
When I came to the House in 1983, there was still a very viable Scottish Tory presence here, but I saw it erode and erode and eventually fall off the edge of the cliff. I have always felt that that was extremely dislocating and unhealthy, not just for Scottish politics but, by implication, for United Kingdom politics as a whole. Although I am not in the business of trying to resurrect conservatism—my loyalty to the coalition does not extend quite as far as that—I think that, on any rational basis, it is clear that there will be a very skewed constitutional dialogue and debate if the traditional, historic and continuing authentic voice of conservatism is not heard, and does not have a degree of resonance. I think that that should be borne in mind during our discussions about Scotland’s role within the UK, which I hope will remain a vibrant and vital one.
Talk of Scotland remaining part of the UK prompts a further question, which, I believe, goes to much of the heart of the Queen’s Speech: what kind of United Kingdom do those of us who want Scotland to remain part of it wish to see? In that regard, I think that the Liberal Democrat voice—and I shall be directing my few remarks almost exclusively to my colleagues on the Liberal Democrat wing of the coalition—is essential at this particular juncture.
First we have, up in lights, the issue of immigration. There is a sensible, constructive, rational argument to be had about that issue, but it should be preceded by a statement of principle, which, I am delighted to say, my right hon. Friend the leader of my party and Deputy Prime Minister has made many times. There are those of us in the House, and on the spectrum of British politics, who are unapologetic and unashamed in saying that, historically as well as in contemporary terms, the immigrant contribution to our economy and the values of our society has been immensely positive. It is something to be encouraged and celebrated, and it is not something in respect of which a Dutch auction on the back of UKIP and various other kenspeckle figures should be indulged in when it comes to how best to pursue the issue. That is an important aspect of the Liberal Democrat voice that needs to be heard—
As, indeed, does the voice of the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington in regard to this very issue.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, while we clearly want an efficient, fair immigration system which commands support, there is a danger of a downward spiral of anti-immigrant rhetoric which will not help anyone, and is in denial of the huge contribution that immigrants have made to this country over the years?
Indeed. The hon. Lady has echoed my “Dutch auction” point. I think that many of us in all parties, including the Conservative party, have developed a sense of considerable unease—not least during the past few weeks of British politics, and perhaps during the past week in particular—about some of the siren voices that we are beginning to hear in this context. That is not healthy, it is not right, and it is misleading to people in this country, in historical terms as well as in terms of our contemporary position.
A second issue in respect of which I think the Liberal Democrats have a vital and valuable role to play—perhaps somewhat by default, but nevertheless this is where we find ourselves—is, of course, Europe. I am not going to become involved in the ins and outs of the ongoing Conservative party obsession, absolute unbelievable obsession, with Europe. However, I recall the days of the Maastricht treaty debates in the House and the so-called night watchmen of the time, including the present Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, who was one of their leading lights. They kept the place going night after night, week after week, month after month, and almost brought the Government to their knees over the issue of Europe. Here we are, more than 20 years later, and little, if anything, has changed. This is an important opportunity for the Liberal Democrats to exploit.
The right hon. Gentleman has accused us of having an obsession. Does he not agree that it is far better for us to discuss something that people out there are discussing than to ignore the voice of at least one in four people—perhaps as much as half the population—who think that it is high time we pulled out of the European Union?
With all due respect to the hon. Gentleman, I think that is a judgment he must make. I do not want to trawl through a history lesson going back to the days of Maastricht, but the person I blame most on all of this is Tony Blair. He is the one Prime Minister who came into office with the wind behind him, and could have lanced the boil of the European issue for an entire political generation had he seized the opportunity. Sadly, he chose not to do so, which is why not only has it festered, but what began as a rather eccentric minority position is, as the hon. Gentleman says, now commanding 25% of the recent votes cast and, even more alarmingly, I suspect much more than 25% of the current parliamentary Conservative party.
I hoped the right hon. Gentleman would rejoice a little at the divisions within the Conservative party, because let us think about what has happened in the past when it has split along protectionist lines. First, it did that between Disraeli and Peel, which led to Gladstone leaving the Tory party and forming a Liberal Administration. When Joseph Chamberlain tried to do it in the early 20th century, it led to another Liberal Administration and a mass victory in 1906. Then when Baldwin tried it, he lost the general election and Labour formed its first Administration. So this is good news, isn’t it?
I feel the spectre of Roy Jenkins with his hand on my shoulder as we speak. I say to the hon. Gentleman that in perhaps a more superficial, short-term, opportunistic political way, of which he is such an emblematic representative, one might well rejoice in the difficulties and internecine warfare that is reigniting within the ranks of British Conservatism on the European issue, but the truth is that what I was saying about Scotland applies equally to the United Kingdom’s relationship with the rest of Europe: it is extremely damaging for British interests that the British Conservative party is not anchored more in the mainstream. We have been seeing that since its crazy decision to take itself off into a rather loopy set-up within the European Parliament. That may provide some of us with a good opportunity to poke fun at the Conservatives, but it also means that the British voice and presence has been lost on more significant Committees and in more significant positions within the workings of the European Parliament, as my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister knows far better than I do from his direct experience during his days as an MEP. I therefore think a slightly more, perhaps not high-minded, but at least practical analysis of the current difficulties in that regard is pertinent, because I really do think that it is damaging our long-term national interests.
The right hon. Gentleman is a very experienced Member and has been involved in the European issue for many years. He has been a Member of this House going back to the time of Maastricht, as many of us have. Does he now regret that he pushed so hard for us to join the euro, and is he pleased that his party was wrong on that?
I have said before that I was wrong about that, although I would have put the issue of the single currency to a referendum. I criticised Tony Blair because he missed an opportunity early in his premiership, but as for decisions later on, I think that history has proved him more correct than those of us who were urging a different course of action—although the ultimate back-stop would have been the public through a referendum.
I would like to move on from Europe, but not, of course, before the auld alliance has had its opportunity.
I am enjoying the right hon. Gentleman’s speech greatly, but the problem, of course, is that the Gracious Speech is the coalition Government’s programme for government. While he is absolutely right to warn against the awful dog-whistle politics on immigration and Europe, this is a coalition Government set of policies. Is he telling the House today that it is his intention to oppose these particularly nasty measures?
Well, on the immigration matters, let us see the detail first. We have got some initial inklings and there will probably be quite a lot of detailed and, I suspect, sticky debates to be had on some aspects of how this is going to be done. On Europe, the Prime Minister has made it clear in his letter to his parliamentary colleagues in just the last 24 hours that he cannot go in the direction many of them are urging precisely because it is a coalition Government. We can point to our presence having some constructive restraining interest, although I will enter one caveat, which is a challenge for the Liberal Democrat side of the coalition.
The snoopers’ charter is a controversial and high-profile issue, which has been fiercely argued in public, in this House and elsewhere only a matter of months ago—it is not in the Queen’s Speech. That is a significant example of the difference between having an unfettered majority Conservative Government and having a Conservative party in government that is having to take account of another set of views. Although Liberal Democrats are right to argue—my colleagues and I do so regularly—that we can temper this, prevent that, or perhaps improve on how something might otherwise have been done, the bigger challenge for us over the next couple of years, starting with this Queen’s Speech, comes from the fact that simply saying, “Vote for us. If you didn’t, it would be worse” is not the most persuasive of electioneering clarion calls. We have to turn that into a more persuasive pitch—we have two years in which to do so, and I am sure that we can.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
I give way to another occasional renegade.
Does the right hon. Gentleman not think that the appeal of the Liberal party would be greater if it was sometimes more robust on some liberal causes? For example, in the previous Session the Liberal party let through the provision on secret courts, despite it being completely against its traditions of more than a century.
I am not party to the internal machinations of coalition relationships, but the little that my antennae allow me to pick up—the right hon. Gentlemen must know this from his right hon. and hon. Friends—is that more than a few Conservatives, both within government and further afield in the parliamentary party, feel that these damn Liberals are enough of a fly in the ointment as it is, thank you very much, without the likes of him, of all people, encouraging us to become even more obstreperous. I am sure that those on the Government Front Bench have noted his constructive contribution, and I wish him well.
I have a final point to make on coalition politics. The Queen’s Speech, which I welcome—who among us could disagree with it—says that the Government remain committed to
“a fairer society where aspiration and responsibility are rewarded”.
D’accord, no problems there whatever. Earlier in the year, a number of Liberal Democrats could not give our support to the capping of welfare benefits and went a little further than the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Peter Luff) in our rebellion; we not only abstained, but took a few steps further in the direction of the alternative Lobby. Others among us have expressed our opposition to or voted against the so-called “bedroom tax”, certainly as it is constructed now. Governments have to nudge people in certain directions and influence behaviour, but the difficulty is that that is different from being drawn into the potential political quagmire of social engineering. The Lib Dem voice needs to be heard loudly on that, within the echelons of the coalition and among the public: in supporting reward for aspiration and responsibility we are not losing sight of the fact that those aspirations can sometimes be given adequate opportunity only if the Government of the day recognise their responsibility towards the social composition they have inherited; and we cannot necessarily achieve mission impossible with all our desired social reforms, given the country’s difficult demographic backdrop.
Therefore, the principles of social justice, which I hope will continue to underpin not only the Liberal Democrat contribution, but the conduct of the coalition as a whole, need to be heard, loud and clear, on the telling domestic issues, such as immigration, and on the absolutely critical international issues, such as Europe. On those issues and others, I believe that our Conservative colleagues, for reasons best known to themselves, are allowing a gap to open, rhetorically and in reality, in British politics, which, in terms of our responsibility in government, we must develop.
I notice that Labour is achieving up to a glass ceiling but seems to have difficulty getting much beyond that, so our voice needs to be heard all the more on such issues, unambiguously, without any sense of retreat, nipping and tucking, or dodging and weaving. On many of these vital matters, we are going to get too much of that from the Labour leadership over the next period. We should be clear, consistent and unafraid, because what we are saying needs to be heard, in much the same way as what we said about Iraq—even though many in this place thought there was not much of a vehicle for that—needed to be heard out there. Sometimes people will respect you even if they do not necessarily agree with you on the issue of the day. Let us not be afraid, let us give the Queen’s Speech our support, but let us use it as the launch pad for the next two vital years in British politics.
I am pleased to follow the right hon. and hon. Members who have taken part in the debate. Members will be aware that ordinarily, the responsibility for making this speech would fall to my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds). I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members will join me in saying that we look forward to him resuming his place in this House next week after a very short illness.
On behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Democratic Unionist party, I wish to welcome many of the priorities laid out in the Gracious Speech. While I accept that many of those priorities are laudable and worthy of support, I have a feeling that they have been written in every Gracious Speech over the years, but how to achieve and implement them seems to have escaped the imagination of successive Governments. Aspiring to achieve must never be undermined, but we are in challenging times and the nation looks to this Government and this House to provide a legislative programme that will build a strong and vibrant economy, and that rewards hard work while maintaining a caring environment for our disabled, elderly and disadvantaged. I have no doubt, as the debate continues, that we will have many eloquent contributions from across the House, expressing the views of our constituents. We must remember, however, that we are here not to make memorable speeches, but to endeavour to work together to build a fair and equitable society for all. No one can deny that our nation faces serious issues that demand courage and determined leadership, which we have a responsibility to provide.
As I have alluded to, many of the individual priorities outlined in the Gracious Speech are worthy of support, but, as always, the devil is in the detail. Our responsibility is, therefore, to scrutinise carefully the detail, and to ensure that the implementation matches the sentiment. I trust the Government will not have a closed mind on how to solve many of the pressing issues. If Opposition parties have wise counsel to give and amendments to present, I trust that the Government will be courageous and willing enough to listen and to act accordingly.
I suppose that this Gracious Speech was one of the shortest in recent times, but it was delivered by Her Majesty in her usual gracious manner. On behalf of the people of Northern Ireland, I wish to thank Her Majesty for her lifelong devotion to service and pray that she will be long spared to continue to address both Houses of Parliament.
The DUP welcomes the commitment contained within the Gracious Speech to strengthen the rules around immigration to this country. The recent and prolonged controversy surrounding the failure to deport the hatemonger Abu Qatada demonstrates the necessity for such reforms. It cannot be right that individuals who hate our freedom, laws and way of life can not only take up residence in this country but abuse the freedoms that they are afforded to encourage violence and fan the flames of hatred.
Over many years, successive Governments have talked tough on immigration but acted differently. Many people across the United Kingdom believe that their patience has been pushed over the limit, and they demand that their Government take resolute and determined action. For too long, we have been tinkering around the edges, while promising that immigration would be properly controlled. The Government can rely on DUP support if they seek to secure our borders and protect our citizens.
The Government are clearly aware of the problem of businesses using illegal foreign labour. It is wrong that any company should seek to avoid its responsibilities on issues such as national insurance contributions in that way. It is also wrong that people who are here illegally should deny employment opportunities to those who abide by the rules and live by the law. Private landlords should also note the immigration status of tenants, so that our system is not abused by criminals.
We are a tolerant and fair society. Where people are suffering persecution or threat, or being exploited, they can always rely on the United Kingdom as a safe haven and a welcoming place, but we must ensure that those who seek to abuse our generosity are deterred from coming here.
The Government will recognise, as the recent local government election results confirm, that public cynicism and anger about the political process are at an all-time high. People have come to believe that so-called cast-iron guarantees are much less solid when they are put to the test. Nowhere is that more amply demonstrated than in the case of a proposed referendum on the United Kingdom’s continued membership of, and relationship with, the European Union. It is not in the interests of politics as a whole that people should be offered such a referendum—but only if they cast a ballot for a particular party.
The Government will be aware of the increasing tide of public opinion in favour of an in/out referendum on UK membership of the EU. From these Benches, I make an offer to the Government: here, there are eight votes in favour of holding such a referendum in this parliamentary term. I know that there are Members in all parties, including even the overwhelming majority of Members in the coalition, who support such a referendum. The Government have it within their power to allow the great national issue to be settled in the short term. I urge the Government to reflect upon that, and to act without delay to allow such a referendum. It seems that the Prime Minister believes that he is powerless to introduce legislation that would guarantee a referendum on the European Union after the next election, but anything less will not do.
I agree with others who have described the EU as a bureaucratic monstrosity that robs the coffers of our nation and squanders our finances needlessly. Even if the Prime Minister feels shackled by his coalition partners, this House is not. This House needs to take the issue into its own hands, having listened to the voice of the people. Let us seize the moment and tell the coalition partners that this is the will of Parliament and that they will not be permitted to thwart that will. However, we will see exactly what happens and how an expression of the will of this House is received.
While the Government use the Gracious Speech to outline their priorities for the forthcoming parliamentary term, this House is considering an issue that was absent not only from last year’s Gracious Speech but from any major party manifesto. The Prime Minister should reflect on whether parliamentary time should be devoted to pushing through the redefinition of marriage. No party has a mandate for that change, and many Conservative activists who have deserted to UKIP have cited the Government’s pushing that legislation through this Parliament as showing that they are out of touch with the day-to-day concerns of ordinary voters.
As a representative from Northern Ireland, I welcome the fact that the Government propose to aid those who have been affected through exposure to asbestos in the workplace. Many people in Northern Ireland have been affected by that health risk. The unfortunate reality is that many people who worked in heavy industry have acquired serious health problems as a consequence of asbestos exposure. Thousands have already lost their lives, and it is right that Government should help those who are suffering in that regard.
The DUP welcomes the fact that the Gracious Speech was used to deliver the determination that the future of Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands will be a matter to be determined by the people who live in those places. Those people are loyal to our country. We have a moral obligation to respect their right to remain British.
The Government have indicated in the Gracious Speech that they wish to work closely with the devolved Administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The publication of the Northern Ireland Bill, which will allow for a reduction in number of Assembly Members and consequently a reduction in the cost of government, is something that the DUP welcomes. We will watch very carefully the details of the Bill, however, and scrutinise the same.
I welcome the commitment to work with the devolved regions. We urge the Government, as part of their programme of co-operation with the devolved regions, to act decisively on the issue of corporation tax for Northern Ireland. Many believe that such a measure would provide an enormous boost to the Northern Ireland economy, which would enable the expansion of the private sector and the rebalancing of the Ulster economy away from our over-reliance upon the public sector.
The Government have indicated in the Gracious Speech that there will be continued reform of the welfare system. The DUP supports welfare reform where it is designed to ensure fairness and equality. The benefit regime is a devolved matter and, as part of the Government’s ongoing co-operation with the devolved regions, we urge Ministers to continue to work closely with the Northern Ireland Executive to ensure that the most vulnerable in our society are afforded the protection and assistance they deserve. I also welcome the proposal that older people will not be forced to sell their homes to pay for care. That is a very welcome development, provided it is implemented in a fair way.
I cannot conclude my remarks without paying tribute to our brave servicemen and women in theatres of conflict across the world. By their service they protect us all in their fight against terrorism. I call upon the Government to ensure that they have all the weaponry that they need, and that when they return they are not forgotten. Those disabled members of our troops needing care for the rest of their life must have that care guaranteed to them.
Finally, I welcome the fact that the Government used Her Majesty’s speech to reaffirm their commitment to Scotland’s remaining an integral part of the United Kingdom. These are difficult and trying times for every part of the country, and we believe that the challenges we face are better faced together.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea), who has been in and out of this place several times since 1983, so has heard many Queen’s Speeches. I associate myself particularly with his remarks about the Union, and about our troops. I also associate myself with his remarks about a tolerant and fair society, because I believe that in the main this year’s Queen’s Speech is working towards that commendable aim.
I congratulate the proposer and seconder of the motion on the Loyal Address, not least because my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Peter Luff) and I entered the House on the same day back in 1992. He has, sadly, announced his retirement, but he has also announced that he suddenly became a rebel by doing something for the first time in 21 years—abstaining. I feel I should declare an interest, because I too became a rebel on the same day as my hon. Friend, by abstaining on the very same amendment, in the interests of my constituents.
May I also mention in dispatches the hon. Member for Bristol West (Stephen Williams), who spoke excellently? Knowing the valleys he came from, I think he must be very proud to be a Member of the House and to be able to speak so freely about his life.
I welcome some of the provisions in the Gracious Speech. I was delighted to see the Government reaffirm their solidarity with residents of the Falkland Islands and Gibraltar in that they should be able to determine their future. I was also pleased to see how seriously the Government are taking their forthcoming chairmanship of the G8, which will be important not just for UK politics, but for world politics. There are many measures in the Queen’s Speech that we can all support. The antisocial behaviour, crime and policing Bill will ensure that victims get a quicker and co-ordinated outcome. I particularly welcome the provisions that will strengthen protection of victims of forced marriage. That is really important. In addition to the rehabilitation of offenders, we should see a criminal justice system that is fit for purpose.
The care Bill will modernise the law in this area and help people to plan their later life with more certainty by capping care costs and recognising the important role that carers play in all our communities. Not yet mentioned by earlier speakers, measures to promote resilience to natural hazards such as drought and floods, and competition in the water business so that business customers can choose from whom they buy their water and sewerage services, are particularly welcome. I hope the Government have found a solution to the problems with the Welsh Assembly Government over Welsh Water, and I look forward to seeing the shape of the proposals for that Bill and also the Welsh Assembly election proposals. I hope that that Bill will rule out double jobbing, which I have always disapproved of, and will allow candidates for the Assembly to stand on both the list system and first past the post.
The immigration provisions will further strengthen the reductions in immigration that this Government have been achieving. Landlords’ checks and migrants contributing to NHS costs are sensible and long overdue measures. If the Home Secretary can also deliver a system that allows us to deport foreign national offenders more efficiently, she will have all our support right across the House.
However, that is where my approval stops. The deep concern that has been expressed by my constituents and, I understand, by your constituents, Mr Speaker, about HS2 has finally resulted in not one but two Bills that were announced today in the Gracious Speech. People will ask why there are two Bills. For the past four years, both the Labour Government and the coalition Government have spent hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money on a project that has never been discussed or voted on in this House, so instead of relying on a real vetting process through the hybrid Bill that will naturally take a great deal of time and in all likelihood will not now be passed before the next general election, the Government are going to rush through a quick little paving Bill so that they can claim parliamentary approval while covering their financial difficulties, not least because the expenditure has escalated without any legislative authority or proper scrutiny.
Much of this project’s development has been conducted behind closed doors. The Government must be far more open before slipping through such a preparation Bill. We all know that there is a Major Projects Authority report on HS2, but most of us have not seen that report. I understand it is a red/amber report, a classification which indicates that this is a high-risk project. As far as I am aware, the Government have resisted all attempts and freedom of information requests to have the report published. They must now do so, before the first HS2 Bill is introduced.
I may have got this wrong, but it is my understanding that the Government are introducing two Bills—a paving Bill and a traditional hybrid Bill. Is that my right hon. Friend’s understanding? We will all have to look very closely at the small print of the paving Bill because within it, I think, will be the statutory authority to provide compensation for our constituents who may be affected. So without the paving Bill, our constituents, who may be affected by HS2 for a number of years, will not be able to receive compensation.
The devil will be in the detail. The truth of the matter is that until recently there was no talk of a paving Bill, yet the project has been on the stocks for four years. It is a little late to discover that we need a paving Bill. Also, some commentators have already been referring to it as a blank cheque, which is not something anybody on the Conservative Benches wants to see.
I, like you, Mr Speaker, and like colleagues and neighbours both inside and outside the Government, and particularly in Buckinghamshire, have serious misgivings about HS2. The project was produced like a rabbit from a hat by the previous Labour Government. It has already blighted the lives of my constituents and will cause irreparable environmental damage to the Chilterns. It does not represent good value for money and will not bring the exaggerated benefits claimed by its promoters. Increasingly, informed commentators and experts have started to cast doubts on the claim that it will heal the so-called north-south divide, and those doubts are growing.
For me, HS2 fails on many fronts. It fails on the business case, which is fundamentally flawed, with a cost-benefit ratio that is eroding so rapidly that it is getting to a level at which it would not be regarded as worth while by any normal criteria. The calculations are based on false assumptions, with the forecasting assuming that all time spent on trains is unproductive. It also fails to take into account modern communications and working practices.
HS2 fails to observe environmental protections. The current plans and route design for phase 1, and the business case, are so conditional on speed that they sweep everything else aside. The route does not even try to stick to existing transport corridors but drives a steel arrow into the heart of the Chiltern hills, which were deemed so precious before now as to have been designated an area of outstanding natural beauty.
My right hon. Friend will know that phase 1 ends in my constituency and phase 2 begins there. The irony is that although the route to Leeds attempts to use existing transport corridors, because the Government have at least accepted that, the route up to Manchester cannot do so because it ends in Lichfield and we inherited the phase 1 design. The original proposal that the Conservatives supported in opposition would have used existing transport corridors.
My hon. Friend makes a long but valuable intervention, and I know how badly his constituency will be affected. I do not think that anybody in the House, on either side, would expect either him or me to take a different position. It is indeed true that these provisions have been railroaded through—excuse the pun—without looking at the detail or the alternatives.
Is my right hon. Friend aware of evidence from the continent showing that high-speed rail systems pull economic activity towards capitals, not away from them?
Yes, I am. Perhaps we will be able to explore that when we discuss the preparation Bill in more detail.
HS2 also fails the integrated transport test. As it currently stands, it does not connect effectively to HS1 or Heathrow, or indeed to any airport in the south-east. The idea that it should be fixed before we have the results of the Davies report on airport capacity in the south-east, which will be in 2015, is quite illogical.
HS2 fails the value-for-money test. The cost, with rolling stock, conservatively stands at £40 billion, and there is no guarantee that phase 2 will ever be built. It will be the largest peacetime spend on an infrastructure project, and let us not kid ourselves: it will run over budget. Each and every MP in this place should imagine just what that money could be spent on to improve their constituents’ lives: hospitals, medical research, schools, broadband, improving existing roads and railways—the list is simply endless.
HS2 fails the fair compensation test. Thousands of people, homes and businesses have already fallen victim to the proposals. In the recent High Court judgment the Government’s compensation consultation was deemed so unfair as to be unlawful. That is pretty shaming. If, despite all efforts, HS2 goes ahead, compensation must adequately—indeed, more than adequately—recompense people whose businesses and homes will be bulldozed along with their lives. I hope, at least, that the property bond will be taken up by the Government. The Department has grossly underestimated the blight that this project has caused and will cause, in order, I think, to reduce the final bill for the Treasury. The Government certainly should not be scrimping on the compensation aspects.
As a brief intervention, I remind my right hon. Friend that the Prime Minister said specifically that compensation would be generous for HS2, and we must hold him to that.
I agree entirely that we should hold him to that, and I hope that he will look even more closely at the proposals that are coming from his Department for Transport.
The seriously misconceived proposals for HS2 are a rail enthusiast’s charter that is attractive to officials in the Department and HS2 Ltd, who, let us face it, see it as guaranteeing their jobs at a time when the civil service is being reduced, and to the industries that expect to benefit from substantial Government funding over the next 25 to 30 years. Advisers are not going to identify other projects that will assist economic renewal because it is just too easy to run with this Labour project. Yet it proposes the highest pace in the smallest place, regardless of damage to the environment and without integration into other modes of transport. By the time it is completed, the business world will have changed dramatically, and this Government will have saddled the country’s taxpayers with another enormous debt and a white elephant. Having just inherited the results of a spendthrift Government, surely we must have learned something.
My constituency lies in metroland, as you well know, Mr Speaker, because it neighbours yours. After reading the history of the railways, one can see that many of the early proposals in the 1800s for constructing new railways suffered from an excess of enthusiasm that led to failure when the commercial realities became apparent. This proposal is no different.
While there is much to be welcomed in the programme announced today, I have to say, regretfully, that unless the preparation and hybrid Bills on HS2 are dropped, for the first time on a Queen’s Speech, I cannot support, with regard to these provisions a Conservative or, in this case, a Conservative-led Government.
The mover of the Loyal Address, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire, reminded us that even Brunel’s projects were late and over budget. However, he also said: “If it is important, and the Government are not listening, just keep trying.” You and I, Mr Speaker, our colleagues in Buckinghamshire, my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant), and many other MPs will just keep trying, and I sincerely hope that my right hon. Friends will rethink this project before it is too late.
It is a huge pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan), who spoke eloquently about a major issue in her constituency that also affects yours, Mr Speaker, so I shall be very careful about what I say knowing that Buckinghamshire is in the Chair and has such a powerful advocate. Her speech was not an express train but more a gentle meander through the Buckinghamshire countryside, yet it was made with determination and with huge pride in her local area. In January she wrote in The Guardian about living through a nightmare with these proposals, and I wish her well in her endeavours.
I am rather surprised, however, that Conservative MPs think that abstaining is regarded as a rebellion. That must put my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) and I in a very difficult position. I am thinking of the number of times in the past 26 years I have voted against my party—not that I am going to do so very often in future, I should quickly add.
I would say to the right hon. Gentleman, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”
Having seen the right hon. Lady with her little dog, I know that I would not want to take them on in any respect, so I look forward to further deliberations on these matters.
I also join the right hon. Lady in commending the speeches of the hon. Members for Mid Worcestershire (Peter Luff) and for Bristol West (Stephen Williams). I have known the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire since my time at university with him. Indeed, he was speaker of the debating chamber—president of the union—and the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) and I used to approach him regularly to request opportunities to make speeches. I can well remember the speeches made then by the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire, and they have certainly matured with age. He did very well today in again highlighting not only the importance of his past work as Chairman of a Select Committee, but the way in which, as a parliamentarian for the past 20 years, he has been able to use this Chamber to further the interests of his constituents.
I did not know that the hon. Member for Bristol West was, like me, an Abba fan. He said that his favourite song is “Dancing Queen”, but mine is “Take a Chance on Me”, which were also the words on my first election logo. We all hope that we will not meet our “Waterloo” at the next election. Anyway, enough Abba.
You can’t get enough Abba!
I can see that my hon. Friend and I will be on our way to Stockholm.
I was there yesterday.
We could have our picture taken with the band.
Let us move on to the serious issues of the Gracious Speech. It is right that, as well as commenting on the proposals that were in the speech, we should refer to those that were not. I join the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) in commending the work of our troops abroad, especially in Afghanistan. I was disappointed, however, that the Prime Minister did not make a definitive statement about the position of Afghan interpreters. Many of them have served with our troops loyally and with dedication, but as yet they do not know whether they will be given sanctuary in this country. They will face enormous difficulties if they remain in Afghanistan.
I was also disappointed not to hear more about the summit on Somalia that the Prime Minister chaired yesterday. Bearing in mind that Somalia and Yemen are both countries of interest for the United Kingdom, the support given to Somalia by the Prime Minister and others at yesterday’s summit was similar to that given to Yemen four years ago. Sadly, half the money pledged to the Yemeni Government has still not materialised, even though we all say that we support that country. I hope that when we debate other aspects of the Gracious Speech—perhaps in the foreign affairs debate—we will have a chance to explore those points.
I want to concentrate on three aspects, the first being the immigration proposals. I understand that there is no Bill as yet and that immigration policy will be consulted on for several months. It will be some time, therefore, before we know where the Government stand on a number of the issues they have raised.
I welcome decisions taken in the past few weeks, such as that to abolish the UK Border Agency, which the Home Secretary described as “closed, secretive and defensive”, and the new leadership she has put in place at the immigration and nationality directorate, starting with the permanent secretary, Mark Sedwill, and the new head of immigration and visas, Sarah Rapson, whom I met a couple of weeks ago in Croydon. Now that the UKBA has been abolished and returned to the mother ship of the Home Office, there is a big opportunity at last to get an organisation that is fit for purpose, so that Members who write to it about immigration cases actually receive replies from Ministers or officials, and not the standard letter saying, “This case is part of a backlog,” which, of course, currently stands at 325,000—about the size of the population of Iceland.
It would be great if the administrative changes result in real change to immigration administration before the new Bill is introduced. As the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood) said, there is a tendency to legislate in the hope that it will solve the problem, but if we do not have the right people implementing the policies, that is never the correct thing to do.
I hope that the immigration legislation will deal with illegal migration. In particular, I hope that the allegations database will be put on a statutory footing. After all, the Prime Minister said on 10 October 2011:
“I want everyone in the country to help…by reporting suspected illegal immigrants”.
People took him at his word. The latest figures show that between July and September of last year, 28,243 people made allegations of illegal migration to this country. However, there have been only 561 arrests because of those 28,243 allegations and the Home Office does not have the figures on how many people have been removed. It is all very well asking people to report illegal migrants and having the political will to remove them, but if people are not told what is happening to those whom they have made allegations about, the system will not work. I therefore hope that the Bill will include something about the need to tackle illegal migration.
Let us move on to Romanian and Bulgarian migration. I am glad that the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice, the former Minister for Immigration, is here because he gave a speech on 21 October 2008 in which he said that one of the greatest failures of the last Government was the failure to predict the consequences of enlargement in 2004. That is exactly the problem. The failure to predict is the real issue with Romanian and Bulgarian migration.
Frankly, since we have signed the treaties, it is not possible to do anything about the number of Romanian and Bulgarian people who will come here. What the Government can do is to ensure that we have sufficient research and analysis to know approximately what the number will be. That is possible to predict, even though Ministers have said before the Home Affairs Committee that they do not regard the estimates thus far as being accurate. Migration Watch has estimated that 70,000 people will come every year for the next few years. The Romanian and Bulgarian ambassadors have put the figure at between 10,000 and 25,000. Estimates will continue to be made unless there is proper research and analysis of what will happen. I urge the Government to take action and commission that research. If we know approximately what the numbers will be, the changes that need to be made to domestic policy can be made rather quicker.
My right hon. Friend is giving his usual professional view of this matter and I am glad that he takes such a huge interest in it. Does he agree that it does not matter what the numbers are? Whether it is 500 or 50,000 people who come, the crucial issue is whether they should automatically get access without making any contribution whatsoever to our country. Does he agree that that is what needs to be addressed?
I agree with my hon. Friend. That comment was made to me and the shadow Minister for Immigration when he came to my constituency recently by the settled British Asian community and others who feel that people should make a contribution. However, the figures show that of the 500,000 Poles who came to this country after 2004, only 7,000 claimed benefits. The other almost 500,000 made a huge contribution to our country. However, she is right that nobody should assume that on arrival they can automatically claim for benefits to which they have not contributed. If we stick to those principles and put aside the arms race that seems to be developing on immigration, we will do much better.
I think that the only way to settle this issue is to have a referendum on whether we should stay in or come out of the European Union. I have said that many times before, and I know I am in a minority on the Opposition Benches. I did not favour that when I was Minister for Europe, but it is important that the British people have the say over whether we should stay in or come out. I actually think that it should happen before the general election. I do not see why we should wait until after the negotiations have occurred. Frankly, I am not as optimistic as the Prime Minister that he will get many concessions from the 26 other countries of the European Union, and I think he will be bitterly disappointed. Why pretend to the British electorate? They understand the issues, and it is quite right that we should put our views to them now. That should be part of a wide public education campaign that would allow people to understand the issues involved and not just rely on a few tabloid newspapers.
I am glad that there is a policing Bill in the Queen’s Speech, because we have some unfinished business as far as policing is concerned. I support the Government’s ambitious programme for a new policing landscape, but the problem is that the jigsaw is not complete. Many bits are still missing, and we are running out of time.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the focus of police reform should be not simply on efficiency and effectiveness but on integrity? There have been concerns about police integrity in a number of cases in recent years, and they need to be resolved in the interests of the police as well as the public.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and as a former shadow Home Secretary and someone who still speaks with great authority on home affairs, he will know that that is at the heart of how we can get an efficient and accountable police force. At the moment there are a number of investigations, from Yewtree to Alice and a whole lot of others—I think I last totalled them at 10—which are costing the taxpayer millions. One of the problems with such investigations is that they go on endlessly with no timetable. There needs to be an end for those who make complaints, otherwise the process is never-ending. It is not the job of the Home Affairs Committee to hold the police to account, although we will do our part, otherwise we would constantly be having evidence sessions on the matter and writing letters. As far as the Metropolitan police are concerned, the Mayor and Deputy Mayor of London have a responsibility to act, as police and crime commissioners now act outside the capital.
The right hon. Gentleman is right that integrity is important, which is why it is right that the Government have included in the Gracious Speech more flesh on the bones of the College of Policing. We need to know who will be responsible for integrity and who will keep the register of interests for chief constables. We still do not know that, and there is no register of interests for police and crime commissioners, so the whole agenda, which might be seen as esoteric, is actually central to the nature of policing in this country.
There are other matters to consider. For instance, where will counter-terrorism responsibility sit? Will it be in the National Crime Agency, or will it be kept with the Met? The public demand that we examine such issues and complete the jigsaw.
I have three final points. First, I am very disappointed that there is nothing in the Queen’s Speech about a minimum unit price for alcohol. The Home Secretary said on 23 March 2012:
“We will therefore introduce a minimum unit price for alcohol”.—[Official Report, 23 March 2012; Vol. 542, c. 1071.]
That was quite a definitive statement. Alcohol-related crime now accounts for 50% of crime in this country, and billions are spent on dealing with it. The Government are clearly committed to introducing a minimum unit price—at least, the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister were committed to it when they made their statements earlier this year. The whole consultation came after the event. The Government were consulting on the level of the unit price, not on whether there should be one, because the Home Secretary had made it clear that that was what she wanted.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the press coverage today, which seems to indicate that the Prime Minister and the Government may have been influenced by their advisers to prevent the proposal from going ahead? If so, does he feel that it is an abysmal use of advisers?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and I noted his intervention on the Prime Minister and what the Prime Minister said. In the end, however, although it would be convenient to blame advisers, it is the Prime Minister and Ministers who make the decisions, so the buck must stop with them. I think we need a more detailed explanation of why we are not proceeding with that proposal. Similarly, many of my constituents have made representations against plain packaging for cigarettes, and there are small shopkeepers in my constituency who think such a measure is wrong. We need a proper argument and debate on the issue, and when we come to a conclusion we must legislate.
My worry is that while looking at the new landscape of policing we seem to have forgotten that of the criminal justice system. When I was Justice Minister we set up the community legal service, which seems to have disappeared. Many law centres are closing. Sadly, the one I used to work for in Leicester, now called the community legal advice centre, had to close due to cuts of £700,000. It was used by 10,000 people every year. Right hon. and hon. Members across the House expect constituents to come to their surgeries and complain about different aspects of policy, but I am sure that now even more people are arriving with benefit and housing problems because of cuts to those services. Michael Turner, chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, anticipates that of 1,600 legal aid firms currently in existence, only 400 will remain once the cuts have gone through. There is nothing in the speech about that although there should have been because it is an issue of profound importance.
In conclusion, I am sorry that the Queen’s Speech contained nothing more about the health service. As the House knows, I have type 2 diabetes. Practically every day the newspapers carry information about the fact that diabetes is becoming an epidemic in this country, and I know that a number of Members of this House also suffer from it. We need legislation to deal with soft drinks companies that have not adhered to the principles of the responsibility deal. It is still the case that every can of Coke contains eight teaspoons of sugar, and we should be beginning—and pursuing—a war on salt. Unless we do that, diabetes will get much worse in this country. There is no legislation on that issue, but I take heart from the final words of the Queen’s Speech, which state that “other measures” will be placed before the House. That is the get-out clause for the Government, and I hope those other measures will include some of the issues discussed today that were not able to be included in the Gracious Speech.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz). He joined the House on the same day as me back in 1987, although he has been in the House continuously whereas I had an enforced sabbatical between 1997 and 2001. I do not always agree with everything he says, but who can doubt that he speaks with great wisdom and authority on matters of law and order, and indeed on the other issues for which he was responsible during his successful career as a Minister?
There is, however, one point on which I beg to differ from the right hon. Gentleman. He said that abstention is not rebellion—indeed, he was supported in that suggestion by the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey). As a former Chief Whip, albeit of somewhat short duration, I assure him that abstention is indeed rebellion, and that would certainly be the view of his Whip’s Office as well as of the Government Office.
It is 21 years since I had the pleasure and privilege of last speaking from the Government Back Benches in support of the Queen’s Speech—an occasion on which I had the privilege and great honour to second the motion. It was on that occasion that I unaccountably referred to myself as an oily young man on the make. More importantly, I referred to the noble Lord Kenneth Baker as a genial old codger on the way out. Clearly, I owe him a considerable apology because, in the 21 years since I made that disgraceful comment, he has continued to contribute enormously in the House of Lords and more widely, particularly on education matters. I today offer him a resounding apology for those remarks I made 21 years ago. I should also like to offer my congratulations to the proposer and seconder of the Loyal Address today—they both gave extraordinarily well judged and good performances. As I know, it is a harrowing event.
The Gracious Speech has apparently been well received on both sides of the House. It is an extremely well judged contribution, coming as it does in the mid term of this Parliament. It drives forward a number of key reforms and addresses a number of the electorate’s key concerns. If my right hon. and hon. Friends read the Queen’s Speech in conjunction with the Prime Minister’s speech to the Conservative party conference in Birmingham last October, they will see the central driving themes of the Conservative-led coalition Government, and what it is essential for us to achieve between now and the next election if we are to secure a victory.
There were no local elections in my constituency of Sutton Coldfield this year, but I can assure hon. Members that, without question, the top of the list of my constituents’ concerns remains the state of the economy. They are concerned on two key counts. First, they believe that we should continue to tackle both the deficit and the debt that our country has incurred. Secondly, they are concerned that we should promote growth in our economy in every practical way possible. Every business knows that they succeed not only by cutting costs; they must also concentrate on the top line.
In my view, that is precisely what motivates the Chancellor of the Exchequer. He should not be deflected from that strategy. He is absolutely right and, fortunately, shows no signs of being deflected. If the IMF rides into town this week and gives different advice, I would urge him to ignore it. Many of us remember very well the errors of judgment made by the IMF in the 1980s. Any different judgment from the one the Government have made on the central themes of the economy would be extraordinarily misplaced.
Should the Chancellor need to be comforted, he will be by the story of the 364 economists who wrote to The Times during Lord Howe’s time as Chancellor of the Exchequer. The economists urged Lord Howe to change course. He did not, and, as a result of the wise economic measures he took, the British economy was revived and reinvigorated. As the then Prime Minister, Baroness Thatcher, said, if the 364 economists had all been right, one would have been enough. The Chancellor should stick to his guns on the advice that he has taken and given. He should also note that a generation of politicians in large parts of the developing world who racked up enormous amounts of debt have been found out. Not everyone has woken up to that, but we must ensure that politicians do not make the mistake again of racking up such debt, which will be hung around the necks of future generations unless our generation can pay it off.
Is debt rising or falling?
The Government are successfully tackling the deficit, which, as the hon. Gentleman will know, is an essential precursor to tackling the debt. I revert to my point that if this generation fails to tackle that, future generations must address it. The point is made clearly by Edmund Burke, who said that not being responsible to future generations is a grave error for politicians—that includes today’s politicians. Anyone who doubts that should read the excellent biography of Edmund Burke by my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman), which makes that point extremely well.
We must ensure that we focus on growth as well as on cutting the deficit. In my view, there is nothing more important than pursuing the EU-US free trade agreement. As has been said by hon. Members on both sides of the House, boosting free trade is enormously important. Successfully concluding an EU-US free trade agreement will have a huge effect not only on our trade, and on trade in Europe and elsewhere, but on the lives and living standards of some of the poorest people in the world. No one should be in any doubt that the crisis in the eurozone has a negative effect on Britain as well as on the eurozone countries. If I may use a cricketing metaphor, the Chancellor finds himself at the crease at an unprecedentedly difficult time for our economy. He is making the right judgment calls and deserves the full support of the House.
One other duty of our generation that directly affects my constituents is the duty to preserve the green belt. Once again, Sutton Coldfield languishes under a Labour council, which, once again, is unnecessarily supporting an ill-thought-through suggestion that we build 10,000 houses on Sutton Coldfield’s green belt. It is completely unnecessary—other solutions to the housing problems in our area must be pursued before the green belt is attacked in that way. I hope that I can pursue the matter further in the House in due course if the ludicrous proposal from the Labour council in Birmingham stands.
Having made those points on the economy and the responsibility of our generation to future generations, I should like to address foreign affairs, which have been raised in the debate and which were alluded to in the Gracious Speech. The context is the British hosting of the G8 in Northern Ireland. I hope that, in the course of the programme outlined in the Queen’s Speech, the crisis in the middle east will be addressed more trenchantly. I am speaking particularly of Syria. More than 1 million people are now refugees and countless more have been displaced. When I visited a camp last year on the Syrian-Jordanian border, I met women and children who had been shot at by the Syrian armed forces as they fled across the border to sanctuary in Jordan. The camp is hot and dusty in summer and freezing cold in winter. Despite the outstanding work of UNICEF and the Save the Children fund, which is supported by Britain, those people live in great discomfort and great peril, and wish only to return peacefully to their country.
In recent months, the Foreign Office has issued some 43 ringing press releases. I suggest that the inaction that inevitably imperils such complex and difficult situations must be addressed in three ways. First, we must address the humanitarian effects of that appalling crisis—Britain has shown great leadership in doing so. We must ensure that we continue to help those who, in ever greater numbers, are fleeing from the violence to which they are subjected in Syria.
Secondly, we must do everything we can wherever we can to document abuses of human rights. The advent of mobile telephony and other mechanisms enables us to catch and document those who commit human rights abuses, and to provide testimony and evidence against those who launch such awful, egregious attacks on innocent individuals. We must do everything we can to document such atrocities now so that, whatever length of time it takes, we can hold to account those who are committing them.
The right hon. Gentleman was of course an outstanding Secretary of State for International Development, and his policies in Yemen ensured that we saved lives there. One of the concerns that we have with Yemen, Syria and other cases is that there can be a gap between what countries pledge at donor conferences and what they deliver. What can be done, in terms of the G8 presidency, to ensure that those who promise actually deliver on those promises?
The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point, which is relevant to those who try to fill the pot when a humanitarian crisis occurs and support from Governments and taxpayers is essential. The answer is that we do it best by publishing whether people have stood by their promises. Sunlight is always the best disinfectant, and we need to be transparent and open so that we can show people whether their Governments stand by the commitments they have made.
Thirdly, we need much greater leadership by the United States. Nothing will happen to address this issue without a far greater commitment from the US. There are signs that the new Secretary of State is addressing this point, but the US’s allies need to accept that progress will be made only if we are able to persuade the US to provide the leadership that only it can. That is not just about the US, but the United Nations. The fact that the permanent five do not agree on Syria is not a barrier to the UN continuing to strive in every way and stretching every sinew to try to make progress in this desperate situation, which will pollute a far wider area than just Syria if it continues to develop as it is.
On my right hon. Friend’s point about evidence against potential war criminals, I have been involved in the chasing of war criminals and given evidence in five trials. One of the ways in which we can help is to educate journalists in how they can make their films and reports so that the evidence can be used later by the International Criminal Court. That is a positive move that the Government could make to help the future of justice.
I agree strongly with my hon. Friend. He has direct experience of this issue, and we need to tackle the culture of impunity that grows up in such situations. It is important to use every possible mechanism —he eloquently described one such mechanism—and I hope that he will ensure that Foreign Office Ministers can gather from his experience the extent of what can be done to tackle that culture.
Does he also agree, however, that it is worrying that journalists and photographers are being deliberately targeted because they can bring back the news and the photographs that will make a difference? Does he welcome the setting up of A Day without News, which is being supported by human rights organisations across the world, to support journalists and photographers in the valuable work that they do in exposing these terrible crimes?
The hon. Lady is right to flag up the importance of that work, supported as she says by many of the organisations that stand up for human rights in difficult situations around the world.
I have mentioned US leadership. On Israel and Palestine, which continues to pollute the well of international opinion and good will, such leadership is essential. No time is easier for an American president to exercise that leadership on Israel and Palestine than the start of a second term. I profoundly hope that with the support of its allies we will see the US exercising that influence to try to do something about the deeply unjust situation in the middle east. Like the Syrian situation, although much more longstanding, it continues to pollute good will and international opinion.
The right hon. Member for Leicester East mentioned Somalia, which was also mentioned indirectly in the Queen’s Speech as part of the Government’s approach to securing stability and addressing insecurity. Somalia is important for Britain—we have a huge, successful and diverse Somali population throughout the UK—but it is one of the most ungoverned spaces in the world. Until recently, there were more British passport holders training as terrorists in Somalia than in any other country. Britain was heavily engaged in trying to save lives through humanitarian relief in the dreadful famine that struck the Horn of Africa over a year ago, imperilling the lives of hundreds of thousands of children in particular. Britain gave great leadership on that occasion and was able to bring international resources to bear to tackle that situation.
It was following that crisis that the Prime Minister made the brave decision that last year we would have in London a conference that would bring together all the different Somalian parties, the regional powers and the leading nations in the UN to see whether we could do something about a country that has been in chaos for the last 20 years and where nine separate initiatives have failed to achieve anything to bring about change or improvement. It looks as though considerable progress is now being made in dealing with that intractable problem, and the conference yesterday confirmed that. I mention that because it is right to acknowledge that British efforts and support seem to be leading to fundamental change in that country. That is hugely important to Britain, as well as to those who live in Somalia, whose lives have been so blighted in recent years.
Finally, I want to give strong praise and support to the Government’s G8 initiative to combat violence against women. I know that this is a particular interest and concern of the Foreign Secretary. It is great news that he has said that it will be put at the heart of the G8 agenda. The lives of millions and millions of women and girls are destroyed by insecurity and instability. Putting high on the G8’s agenda the importance of tackling violence against women will lead to the chance to transform the lives of some of the poorest people in the world, who always suffer first and foremost from instability and deep poverty.
I wish the Government well on their programme for the G8 and every success with the Queen’s Speech, which is—as I say—well judged and has the capacity to make a huge difference to the lives of our fellow citizens and our constituents during a very difficult economic time for our country.
It is a great delight to follow the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), not least because it was Noah Ablett, a member of the Rhondda Labour party in the early 20th century, who founded the Plebs’ League. I note that the right hon. Gentleman referred to himself as an oik, although I am not sure of the difference. In any event, it was a great speech, and I commend him.
I have heard some dire speeches in my time, and indeed I have made some dire speeches—[[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I knew I would be able to unite the Chamber eventually. But this Queen’s Speech is anaemic, vacuous, paltry and so utterly lacking in fibre that it takes not only the biscuit but the whole of the McVitie’s biscuit barrel—the custard creams, the garibaldis, the rich teas, the digestives and the bourbons are all gobbled up in this Bill. I have watched more exciting episodes of “Little House on the Prairie”. At one point, I thought that the BBC test card would be more interesting and more riveting than what we were being presented with.
Some of the most expensively educated brains in the country sweated over this. Civil servants scurried hither and thither, lawyers were briefed, special advisers scratched their heads and think-tanks were consulted. Of course, Lynton Crosby held forth. Buckingham palace flunkies looked at an early draft and frowned a little, so Lynton Crosby was consulted again. A goat was slain, its innards dragged out and its skin bleached, and the very best vellum prepared. The Deputy Prime Minister then threw a bit of a hissy fit and Lynton Crosby had to give him the hairdryer treatment.
After all those hours of rowing, so many hours in preparation and so many thousands of pounds, this is all they could come up with—so much sententious guff. Just listen to the stuff that the Government made Her poor old Majesty say:
“It will…work to promote a fairer society that rewards people who work hard.”
Sententious guff! What about those who want to work hard, but do not get an opportunity because of the Government’s economic policies? Let us take another bit:
“My Government is committed to building an economy where people who work hard are properly rewarded.”
What about those who are improperly rewarded in the City of London for taking ludicrous risks with everybody else’s economic opportunities?
“My Government is committed to a fairer society where aspiration and responsibility are rewarded.”
Why do we not just have a piece of legislation that introduces motherhood and apple pie for everybody, or have they decided that motherhood and apple pie do not match what Lynton Crosby wants to see in a Queen’s Speech?
It is the tenor of the pre-briefing of the speech that upsets me. It is an attempt at dog-whistle politics, with its hints, suggestions and little insinuations. Show a bit of leg, Lynton Crosby told them, and so they did—just a tiny little bit of ankle. The trouble with dog-whistle politics is that its cynicism eventually repels those it tries to attract. It is like the boy who cried wolf once too often: eventually the dogs realise that it is just a dog-whistle that does not mean anything, and there is no reward or substance at the end. In fact, it is a wolf-whistle, a sort of smutty insinuation that masquerades as a compliment. It is not even a proposition. It is not a declaration of love, but a leery suggestion of better things to come. The classic example is the centrepiece on immigration that the Government have been proclaiming for the past three days, which is already falling apart as we speak—apparently, it is now only a consultation.
Even more important is that this is a Queen’s Speech of stunning vacuity. I remember Queen’s Speeches designed for parliamentary Sessions lasting half a year, because there had to be a general election within six months. They contained more of interest than this speech. Where are the measures to tackle the geographical inequity of Britain that leaves London and the south-east of England as the sweated powerhouse of the whole of the rest of the economy, with people commuting ever further because houses are becoming ever more unaffordable?
Where are the measures to tackle teenage pregnancy rates, which are still the highest in Europe by a considerable way, by making sex and relationship education statutory and ensuring that every teacher who leads sex and relationship education wants to teach it and is specially qualified to do so? Where are the measures to reconfigure the economy, so that the areas of high unemployment and high economic inactivity do not drag on the rest of the country? Where is the Bill to introduce a register of commercial landlords, so that people cannot be exploited and put in accommodation that we would not expect people in Somalia to live in? Where is the legislation for a register of lobbyists? The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield said just now that transparency is the best form of antiseptic. Where is it? The Prime Minister said that the next great scandal to hit British politics would be lobbying. Why do we not have legislation to deal with it in the Queen’s Speech?
Where is legislation to improve the health of the nation by tackling smoking and the excessive consumption of alcohol? I thank God that Lynton Crosby was not providing advice to the Prime Minister when we were talking about a smoking ban in public places, because that would never have become law.
When will there be legislation to ensure that there is finance not just for businesses in London and the south-east, but a regional system of banking across the whole country so that we can re-quantify the whole of the country? Where is the legislation to tackle child poverty? I know that legislation is being introduced that will make child poverty worse, but where is the legislation to tackle it? Where is the legislation to tackle the concentration of the media that means we do not have free press, but owners’ press? Why, for the first time in several years, is there no mention at all of human rights in the international relations section of the speech?
Why is there no measure to suggest that this House, rather than the Government, should determine the business of this House? That would ensure that we sit regularly and do a proper job of holding the Government to account, rather than being adjourned week in, week out, having constant recesses and always stopping on a Tuesday so that the Prime Minister does not have to do Prime Minister’s questions. Where is a measure for how we deal with private Members’ Bills? The present system we have, to use the words of Disraeli—he was talking about a Conservative Government, but they apply here—is an organised hypocrisy. It surely is.
I am glad that the provisions to opt out of the justice and home affairs measures in the European Union are not in the Queen’s Speech. As the Lords Committee on the European Union said only a couple of weeks ago, such provisions would damage the security of this country. I hope and pray that they will not be in the Government’s list of additional measures, and that they will not opt out of the European arrest warrant, Eurojust and Europol, as they help to protect the safety of the people of this country.
Some of the measures in the Queen’s Speech are just downright potty—absolutely bonkers. Why on earth are the Government allowing people to stand on both the constituency and regional list for the Welsh Assembly? It brings democracy into disrepute when somebody can stand and lose, and yet win.
I think my hon. Friend, to whom I will give way in a moment, is about to mention Clwyd West in 2003, when the Labour candidate, Alun Pugh, won. The other candidates were: Brynle Williams, Conservative; Janet Ryder, Plaid Cymru; and Eleanor Burnham, Liberal Democrat. They all lost in the constituency section, but all became Assembly Members because they stood on the list system.
My hon. Friend is entirely right. What sort of message does it give to the voters of Clwyd West when all the candidates were elected? What is the point of voting in such a ludicrous situation?
It is absolutely preposterous, and I hope that we manage to defeat the Government on this. My hon. Friend is slightly wrong in that there was one other candidate: the UK Independence party candidate. Bizarrely, he was the only one of the five candidates who did not manage to get a seat—absolutely shocking.
Before I give way to the hon. Gentleman, I hope he will commit to not voting for such preposterous legislation.
I stood as a candidate in European elections that used the list system, and I dislike the whole process. The hon. Gentleman is complaining about the Welsh system, but was that surely not brought in under the previous Labour Government, or is my memory not right?
The hon. Gentleman is completely and utterly wrong, and I look forward to the letter of apology that he will doubtless send to me later this afternoon. We introduced good legislation, and then even improved it. It is the current Government who are trying to dismantle it.
To be honest, this Queen’s Speech is not fit for a monarch. It is not fit for a princeling or a hireling; it is fit only for a changeling Government—a Government who are pretending to do politics and are not really interested in what voters in my constituency are interested in. We have an empty speech, a vacuum surrounding a lacuna enveloping a void consisting of nothing but dark matter—that is all this Queen’s Speech is. Why? Because we have a coalition. I am not intrinsically opposed to coalitions. If the voters do not deliver a clear outcome, we sometimes have to have a coalition Government. The truth of the matter, however, is that this coalition has run its course, and Ministers know that it has run its course. They know that the Government are running into the buffers. It is not that one party or the other has run out of ideas; I am sure that they are both crammed full of ideas. The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, looks as if he is absolutely packed full of ideas—ideas about Northern Ireland, maybe, but none the less he is clearly packed full of them.
No, I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman, because he is the Minister. I am sure that he is packed full of ideas, but the point is that they are not in the Queen’s Speech.
The truth is that what will happen in the coming year is what has happened throughout the last year. The House will not be sitting regularly. We shall have long recesses and long adjournments. The Government will make sure that there is not much legislation on the books, so that they can course their way through.
One Bill that I really wish had been included in the Queen’s Speech is a new fixed-term Parliaments Bill setting a term of four rather than five years. I think that the Government will rue the day on which they introduced a five-year fixed-term Parliament. People in this country will start to say “We are absolutely sick and tired of legislation that does not make sense, and of the Government’s not addressing the issues that we really care about.” There is a verse in the Book of Revelation that I think sums up the Queen’s Speech perfectly: “Would that you were hot or cold, but you are tepid, lukewarm, and I spit you out of my mouth.”
Until the last line, I was rather enjoying that speech. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). As always, he entertained me.
We last debated a Queen’s Speech rather more than a year ago. On that occasion, the House gained some amusement from my ability to summarise the matters in it with which I agreed in less than 60 seconds, but today I shall take a different approach.
The element of the speech of which I approved most was the one that was not in it. I refer to the fact that the Government have dumped the idea of a snoopers’ charter. We were told that the proposal had been vetoed by the Deputy Prime Minister, which amused me, as there were more Conservatives against it than there are Liberal Democrats in the House of Commons. Nevertheless, we must give credit where it is due.
I am pleased that the proposed legislation has been dumped, because it was offensive and intrusive and would have shamed, I should have thought, either a Liberal or a Conservative Government, let alone a Government consisting of both parties. I am also pleased that the Deputy Prime Minister is on our side on the matter. I only wish that he had been equally robust last year in respect of the secret courts Bill. I hope that the Government do not try to bring back the snoopers’ charter in one of the “other measures” to which the speech refers.
The purpose of a Queen’s Speech is to set out the Government’s strategy for the country, and to specify how the Government will deal with the great threats and maximise the benefits that the country can obtain in the coming year. It normally consists of three parts, dealing with foreign policy, economic policy and domestic, or home, policy. I shall comment briefly on each of those in order to give the House an idea of where I think the Government are going and, perhaps, an idea of where I think they ought to go.
In the context of current politics, the most obvious element of foreign policy—apart from the issue of Syria, which was dealt with by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell)—is the matter of the European Union. Lord Lawson of Blaby’s comments in the last couple of days have added a whole new tenor to the Prime Minister’s proposed strategy relating to what we do in the EU. As everyone knows, what Lord Lawson said, in a nutshell, was that he would vote to withdraw. However, the keystone of his argument, with which I do not agree, was his statement that the negotiations that the Prime Minister could undertake would be inconsequential, and that we would achieve very little in terms of reform of our relationship with the European Union.
I do not think that that is necessarily so, although of course it has been true historically. Very few nations have been able to win their own way, as it were, in the European Union, and very few British Governments have been able to do so. If we look back on our history since we joined the EU, we may conclude that Margaret Thatcher’s recovery of the rebate constituted one dramatic victory for a nation state over the European elite, and that, interestingly, John Major’s exclusion of us from the euro constituted another. Those were both massive issues in their day and in their effect, but they were the exceptions, and, what is more, since those days the balance of power between the European Union and its member states has moved towards the EU rather than the nations.
In principle, therefore, one would assume that Lord Lawson was right, and that it would be impossible to achieve anything of any serious consequence. However, there are some exceptions. It is a pity that the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz)—the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee—is no longer in the Chamber, because he would appreciate some of the points that I am making. The exceptions, essentially, are Denmark, Ireland and, together, Holland and France, all of which have changed the course of a negotiation materially: Denmark in respect of domestic issues, Ireland in respect of domestic and constitutional issues such as abortion rights as well as financial issues, and Holland and France by, famously, stopping the constitutional treaty in its tracks.
The common denominator in the effectiveness of those countries was their holding of prior referendums. They all held referendums before the negotiation was over, which produced a formidable increase in their Governments’ negotiating power. The European Union officials—with some reason, given their ideology—take the view that Governments are temporary, whereas Europe, or the European project, is permanent, but they cannot say that in response to the statement of a people, because peoples are permanent; and they are afraid of referendums.
What is problematic about the Government’s present strategy is that they are using referendums in the same way as Harold Wilson—as a solution to a domestic problem, rather than as a mechanism to solve the European problem. That is why some of us argue in favour of the holding of a mandate referendum—a referendum on the negotiating tactics that we are taking to the European Union—before we do so. That, we believe, would enable us to get probably 70% of the country to support the new model of relationship that we want, and the Prime Minister would then have a chance of achieving some sort of victory.
What will happen otherwise, if Lawson is right, is that there will indeed be an inconsequential outcome, and the Prime Minister will find himself in the position of arguing in favour of staying in the European Union, because Prime Ministers and Foreign Secretaries never admit to error or failure in negotiations. I will give way to any Member who can tell me of an occasion when any of them has done so. The Prime Minister will have to come back and say, “This”—this limp rag of an outcome—“is a terrific success, and I want you to stay in the Union.” Of course, he will be defeated, and the consequences for Britain in terms of subsequent negotiations will not be clever.
I ask the House to think very carefully about that. It seems to me that if we are to go down this route, a referendum is an inevitability, but if we are to go down this route, we ought to give the British people the right to choose between two good outcomes, rather than one good outcome and one bad outcome. The way in which to do that is to hold two referendums, one—soon—on the negotiating strategy that we are seeking to present, and the other, a decision referendum, at the end of the day.
The second strand with which I wish to deal is the economic strategy. I have some sympathy with those who argue that the Government’s current strategy is necessary but not sufficient. Of course we must gain control of the deficit and the debt levels—that is a given—but, beyond that, we must ensure that we have a growth strategy. I do not believe that the answer is to adopt the Keynesian approach that Labour Front Benchers want to pursue, but we nevertheless need a growth strategy. A good many Government Members would argue that to get that we need less regulation and lower taxes, what could be described as a supply-side growth strategy.
In that context, an aspect of the Queen’s Speech of which I disapprove is the Government’s approach to energy costs. Their current approach is leading to an increase in the cost of living for ordinary families, and to the loss of jobs as industries move from here not just to China, Brazil and India but to Germany and France, because the current carbon pricing arrangements mean that we are disadvantaged in relation to our European competitors. Whatever view we hold on green policy, it cannot be an advantage to export jobs and export the emissions that go with them. I am concerned about that.
I want to focus on one element of the economic arm of the Queen’s Speech: the welfare reforms. Broadly speaking, the welfare reforms are the unsung success of this Government. This is the most difficult part of their policy to carry through. It is the most contentious and the hardest part to get right, but it is the step that is leading to employment increasing rather than reducing. It is getting more people to go out and look for a job now than have historically. It is not easy. All of us have in our constituencies people who have got on the wrong side of the assessment process, but it is a necessary process.
What about those people who come to see us in our surgeries who have been told they are fit to work, but who, in the real world and the very difficult economic climate in which we find ourselves, are not going to get work? Just saying they are fit for work, under whatever system, does not mean they are going to go out and get a job. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that an acknowledgement of that is what is lacking?
There is an element of that, and that is what I was alluding to just now. There is no doubt that the system makes some mistakes, but I have the advantage of having been an MP for a long time, and I can remember when we changed the disability rules the other way, and we had a 400% increase in people claiming disability benefits of one sort or another. It was the right direction to go in, but it went vastly too far. The problem is that we now have a situation in which people are basically taken completely off the job market. To be frank, it suited past Governments of both political persuasions to have those people out of the job market, because the figures looked better, but that does not mean we do not now have to put this right.
My argument here—it is the argument I will make throughout what I have to say in the next five or so minutes—is that the difficult decisions we face now have to be faced up to, but we must always, time and again, come back and apply a fairness test. The hon. Gentleman would probably agree with me about that, although maybe not about where that test would fall.
I particularly approve of the proposed changes to pensions. Last week I was worried that the Government effectively were proposing to ignore the benefit that arises from stay-at-home mothers, but, in fact, the reverse is true. The Queen’s Speech states that the Government will
“create a simpler state pension system that encourages saving and provides more help to those who have spent years caring for children.”
If there is one thing in the Government’s economic strategy that I disapprove of it is the presumption that the only useful mother is one that goes out to work. Raising children—particularly raising three or four children—is a difficult task in its own right and a very important social task, and I am surprised that a Conservative Government, of all Governments, do not recognise that more and do more about it. This at least appears to be a move in the right direction, and if it lives up to the advertising in the Queen’s Speech, I will support it enthusiastically.
Indeed, I would go further and say that the Conservative party had a manifesto commitment to have transferable tax allowances for married couples as well, and I see no reason why we should not hold to our manifesto commitment. I understand that is budgeted for in the Treasury anyway, so why do we not do it?
The one element of the Leader of the Opposition’s speech that I sort of half-agreed with was that we have not been fast or robust enough in our approach to banking reform. There has been a lot of talk recently about populist measures—about “Thatcherite giveaways” of the nationally held shares in the banks. That is neither here nor there to me. What matters is the structure of the banks. We should be breaking up our banks. At the level at which economies of scale run out in commercial banking, we could have 30 high street banks in the UK. Some 30 or 40 years ago, that is exactly what we did have, and I have to say levels of service in banking have gone down since then, not up.
We have ignored competition law. We have ignored the virtues of competition and the impact on stability of having banks that are too big. We need measures on that. They are not in today’s Queen’s Speech because the Banking Commission is yet to report. As soon as it does report, we must have urgent action. This is not something we can put off for five years. We should do it now.
I agree with what my right hon. Friend is saying about our banking system. I am finding that many businesses in my constituency are still being denied credit, and especially credit at affordable rates. Is he finding the same thing happening in his constituency? If we had greater competition between more banks, we could get the rates for lending to businesses down.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. A large part of the reason for that is the state of the UK banks’ balance sheets. They are getting money effectively for free, but they have got such bad, or untrustworthy, loans on their balance sheets that they dare not lend money, and the Government are putting constraints on them to limit their lending, too. The outcome is that our small businesses in particular are having a terrible time. Patches are being put over this problem, such as the Chancellor’s mortgage support scheme in the Budget, but we need to sort out the problem at source.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that banking reform is necessary not just because of its economic benefits or the element of fairness, but because this is the ideal time to do it in terms of popular legitimacy? Breaking up the banks could not be done at a better time.
My hon. Friend is entirely right. He is a better historian than I am, and he could probably refer back to the United States of America in about 1900 or just before, when politicians used the same popular view of big business to create a model of capitalism in the United States that for the next century beat the world. We could do the same, and we should do the same, but I am afraid that at the moment I see no enthusiasm for that. I will certainly pursue that in the next year, however.
Finally, on home affairs, immigration has come to the fore, particularly because of the UK Independence party’s activities in the past few weeks. I dealt with the issue for a long time when I was shadow Home Secretary. The difficulty is to come up with a set of measures that is both firm and will deal with the issue without being uncivilised—without being barbarous, or perceived as barbarous, in approach. That applies to both the immigration problems the Government are attempting to solve in the Queen’s Speech: the ability to deport immigrants who come here and become criminals or terrorists—such as Abu Qatada—and mass migration.
On the issue of criminals, I am the last person to give way to anybody on human rights in this House of Commons. I suspect most people would accept that, yet I take the view that the misuse of human rights legislation by the likes of Abu Qatada brings the whole question of rights under the law into disrepute.
It is important to resolve this issue in a way that is both fair and effective. The European Court of Human Rights and the British courts are acting against their own long-term interests by being pig-headed in their approach. Qatada serves as a good example. If Qatada faced torture or death abroad, I would lie down in the street in front of the black Maria taking him away, but the truth is that we are talking here about making judgments about other countries’ justice systems, and we simply cannot do that. If we do that, we will start to challenge the whole question of whether we should send someone back to America. Let us consider the treatment of Christopher Tappin. He was extradited under the extradition rules. That was not justice; it was a parody of justice. Then there is the treatment of some of the people who have been dealt with in Greece, let alone Romania and Bulgaria, which, frankly, do not have working justice systems.
We therefore have to think very hard about where we will draw the line, and I draw the line on the treatment of the individual we are sending, not on the justice system of the country we are sending them to. I do so within reason, of course; if there were a dictatorial fiat, that would be another matter, but we are not talking about that here, because this argument is about what sort of evidence might be used.
We have had lots of talk from the Government, including the Home Secretary, and lots of posturing, but the issue could have been dealt with already. I say that because about two months ago my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) tabled an amendment to primary legislation to say, “We will take into account articles 2 and 3, but not article 8 and the others, when making these decisions.” Why would this work? It would work because the Human Rights Act, of which I am no great fan, can be trumped, not by regulation or ministerial decision but by primary legislation passed by this House. We could have fixed this problem, but the Government talked the measure out—it was the day of the Leveson debate—and did not attempt to create time for it. They should have passed it. I do not know what we will get now, but it will be different. Importantly, the legislation must great clarity, because the courts will interpret any vagueness to the advantage of the person who might be deported. That is inevitable; it is what has happened over the past few years. We can fix this problem, but we need to face up to the need for clarity and for a decision on what we are really saying about the European convention on human rights.
The other element of the immigration debate is mass migration. I agree with the Government that we must limit the ability of people who have made no contribution, perhaps having come here temporarily, to claim welfare benefits and social housing in the UK. I am not at all sure, however, that I agree with the Government’s idea of withholding health care from people coming to this country, and I return to my point about acting firmly without being uncivilised—without being barbarous. I find it difficult to imagine doctors in an accident and emergency department in a London hospital finding someone with a foreign accent on a trolley in front of them and asking, “Where are you from? If you are Hungarian, you can be treated; if you are Bulgarian, you can’t.” I do not see how that is going to work. Most of us get reciprocal health care if we go to European countries on holiday, to retire or to live, so I do not see how we are going to amend our provision. I am not sure, in my heart of hearts, that I want to say to someone who has been run over in the street, “You can’t have health care, because you’re a foreigner.”
I will give way to the hon. Lady first.
I understand what the right hon. Gentleman says about people falling over in the street, but people come from Heathrow airport to the A and E department at my local hospital, St Thomas’s, with something that they knew perfectly well they had before they came. It is not as simple as saying, “We must look after the sick”; clearly there are limits. This is a form of health service tourism.
I shall come back to the hon. Lady’s point, after giving way to the hon. Gentleman.
I always presumed that life-threatening conditions were not to be included in this—otherwise, as the right hon. Gentleman rightly says, we would be entering into a barbarous situation. The other issue is notifiable diseases, because it is in all of our interests for people in this country—of whatever nationality— who have tuberculosis or another notifiable disease to be treated. I hope he agrees on that; we do not want to cut off our nose to spite our face.
Let me deal with those very good points in order. First, health tourism is not new; people may now be coming from Romania, but we have had people coming from the middle eastern states for a long time. I used to live near King’s College hospital, which has a great liver treatment centre, and a significant proportion of its patients at one time were from Arab countries. [Interruption.] They were not paying, that is the point. Of course we have to do something about health tourism, but we also have to be wary of unintended consequences. I mentioned A and E because in London, as the hon. Lady knows, and in some other parts of the country it is acting as a secondary GP service. In a huge, three-hour queue of people coming to A and E to get secondary GP services, I do not know how we distinguish between those born in Britain and those born in Hungary or Romania. There is a great risk of getting this wrong, and the medical profession would not go along with it and be the arbiters. As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, communicable diseases are a problem, irrespective of whether someone is a British citizen or born abroad. They have to be treated differently and separately, but that is not a question of payment or of health tourism; it is a question of getting it right.
This morning, the Health Secretary talked on the radio about the pull factor, characterising medical care as such. That is the case for a health tourist, and we can do something about it, but we could not do something about the half a million Polish immigrants that there were at one point. The pull factor for most of the Romanians and Bulgarians will not be health care, welfare or housing; it will be simple economics, because the average income in Romania and Bulgaria is approximately one third of our minimum wage. Most Romanians and Bulgarian could treble their standard of living simply by coming to the UK and doing almost any job.
We have to face up to that fact, which also faces Germany and all the European countries closer by. One would have thought that if we really did have a working European Union, we would by now have been able to say to each other, “When we devised the rules about the freedom of movement of people, they were not devised for an organisation of states that had a tenfold difference in average incomes.” Let me say that I am a free marketeer, so I think those things are terrific and I am a believer in the free movement of people, but we have to think of a better way of dealing with this matter, because these people will not be the last ones who come along—and they are coming in January next year.
I just want to correct the right hon. Gentleman on one other thing about the reciprocal rights between different countries. About 1 million British people live in Spain and another million live in France, but if they have not reached the retirement age, they are not entitled to the full use of the Spanish or French national health services and many of them end up getting trapped. So the law of unintended consequences might also apply to a lot of British people who are no longer living here.
The hon. Gentleman is almost exactly right, but there are sets of different regimes, with some applying to retired people, some to working people and some to people who are neither working nor retired—I checked these things this morning, just to be sure. There are three different regimes and they alter by country, too—surprisingly so, in the European Union. The whole European economic area, including Switzerland and Norway, has a regime under which people in almost every category get some form of health care.
For two months.
For two months. Health tourists coming to this country to get a single operation or a single course may be wanting only the two months, so this is another area where we have carefully to think through the obverse effect of these actions. I know the pressures on politicians are high following the UKIP flurry in the past week or two, but we have to think carefully.
I am trying to sum up, but I will give way.
I understand that the statistics show that those coming from Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and other eastern European countries bypass Italy and Germany to come to Great Britain because of the better NHS treatment and the better benefits system, so does the right hon. Gentleman feel that that has to be addressed?
I am afraid that that is not true. I do not want to end up giving a lecture on this, but let me say that the previous Government made a simple mistake in allowing access before the transitional periods were up for those from the entire A8 group of accession countries—Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and so on. Therefore a large number of people who could not get into Germany and France at that time came to this country, because they were allowed legitimately to do so; ours was the only big country to do that. As a result, we end up with a Polish community—with Polish shops, Polish newspapers and so on—and so where do Poles go when everything is opened up? They come to where there is an indigenous Polish community, and that is perfectly reasonable. All of this is rational behaviour on the part of people who want to work, make a living and get on in life, and I cannot disapprove of them doing that. So one mistake was made then and that is what it led to. We are not going to be in the same position in respect of Romania and Bulgaria, so it is difficult to predict the numbers. I was the shadow Home Secretary who challenged the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) when, as Home Secretary, he said that 13,000 eastern Europeans would be the total number coming to this country. He eventually got so nervous about this that he started saying, “I am the Home Secretary, but the Home Office is saying this.” He realised that his numbers were wrong and the real number turned out to be millions.
By their very nature, these people, be they from Poland or wherever, tend to be young and healthy, and the health service is probably one of the last things they think about—it is the job they are looking for.
Order. There are 11 speakers to come, and there are no time limits, but to ensure that everybody gets in, may I ask Members to exercise some self-restraint?
That was the last intervention I was going to take, Mr Deputy Speaker.
The simple truth is that we must be wary of doing something we do not intend to do, under political pressure. More generally, in our approach to difficult economic decisions in the next year or two, I hope that this Government, of all Governments, will work hard to balance the fairness against the difficult decisions. We are going to make hard decisions, which will lead to huge opprobrium from Labour Members for all sorts of reasons. That does not bother me, but what does bother me is that we get the balance of fairness right.
It is an honour to follow the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) who, as ever, made a thoughtful and considered contribution. Speaking of thoughtful and considered contributions, let me pay tribute to the proposer and to the seconder of the motion.
The hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Peter Luff) mentioned engineering, and I agree with his point that Britain should regain its ambition to be a truly great engineering nation. I commend his efforts to bring more women into engineering and into the study of STEM—science, technology, engineering and maths—subjects. It is shameful that, in relation to encouraging women into engineering, this country is bottom of the league, so his efforts should have cross-party support. It is disappointing that the word “engineering” was not mentioned in the Queen’s Speech, but I hope that a long-term view will be taken on the importance of engineering to the competitive position of this country.
The hon. Member for Bristol West (Stephen Williams) made a thoughtful, considered and moving contribution. I was shocked and disgusted to hear that he prefers Duran Duran to the Smiths. While he was speaking I thought about the fact that Duran Duran’s first hit was “Planet Earth”, and it would be nice if Ministers sometimes came back to planet Earth and saw the effects of their policies in the real world and in constituencies such as mine.
Her Majesty stated that her Government would bring forward legislation
“to ensure sufferers of a certain asbestos-related cancer receive payments where no liable employer or insurer can be traced.”
The details of the proposed piece of legislation will need to be examined closely, but I warmly welcome the inclusion of the issue in the Queen’s Speech. My constituency of Hartlepool is the 16th worst affected constituency in the country for asbestos-related diseases. Incidence of mesothelioma, a legacy of our heavy industry past—especially in shipbuilding—is particularly high. Victims and their families have been denied compensation and suitable justice for far too long, often because the industry in the area has closed down, or successive firms either no longer exist or are impossible to trace. I have had tragic cases in my constituency of families not having the money to bury their husbands or fathers, because the insurance industry refused to pay out. During the passage of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, the Government did themselves no credit by requiring victims of asbestos-related diseases to surrender a quarter of the damages awarded for their pain, suffering and life-shortening illnesses to pay for legal costs. I hope that the announcement made today will help to make amends.
Many of the people to whom my hon. Friend refers worked for sub-contractors, who have gone bust over the years. The process has been a very cruel one, and all previous Governments have something to stand up and defend, because we have let these people down. Let us hope that the legislation is of a proper nature and that we can end the misery.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. The devil will be in the detail, but I hope that we can make amends. It is only 10 days or so since we commemorated workers memorial day, when we resolved to remember the dead and fight for the living. The proposed legislation is an important part of that, and I hope that compensation, fairness and justice will be provided.
I agree with my hon. Friend that the issue is of great importance, and it is good to see the Government bringing forward such legislation. Not long ago, I received a letter from AXA trumpeting the work that it and the Association of British Insurers have done. Will my hon. Friend join me in impressing on the Government that the approach of the ABI will be incredibly important, and that the Government must not listen just to the insurers when dealing with this very important issue?
I agree with my hon. Friend that, over the past few years, the stance of the insurance industry in general has not helped sufferers of asbestos-related diseases. We have to be sure that the proposed legislation, welcome though it is, provides justice and fairness for asbestos sufferers.
The areas of legislation and priorities that the Government did not include in the Queen’s Speech were deeply revealing. The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden, who is, I think, about to leave the Chamber, mentioned the purpose of a Queen’s Speech, which is to provide not only the legislative programme for the next Session but a strategic direction, outlining the priorities of the Government. As I said, there was no mention of engineering, there was no mention of manufacturing and there was not a word about an industrial strategy. There was no mention of the world-beating sectors that this country has and needs to enhance, such as aerospace, automotives, pharmaceuticals or the creative industries.
Tellingly, there was no mention in the Queen’s Speech of the national health service. Listening to it, I was reminded of the comments made by the then Leader of the Opposition, now the Prime Minister, in his contribution to the debate on the Address on 18 November 2009. He said:
“What about the three letters that should be in any Queen's Speech: NHS? Not a mention. It is clear that the national health service is not this Government's priority.”—[Official Report, 18 November 2009; Vol. 501, c. 15.]
If he was saying that in 2009, why is he not saying it in 2013? In his 2009 remarks, I think he was pre-empting his own lamentable record on the NHS. There was an opportunity in this Queen’s Speech for the Government to right the wrongs of the appalling Health and Social Care Act 2012 and announce its repeal, but they have failed to do that.
Her Majesty also stated in the Gracious Speech that her
“Government's first priority is to strengthen Britain’s economic competitiveness.”
I would welcome measures that would do that, but on the basis of the Government’s record and of the announcements made today, I remain unconvinced. If we are to address Britain’s competitiveness with the rest of the world, the Government will have to tackle the country’s growing lack of productivity relative to our economic rivals, but there was not a single mention in the Queen’s Speech of our declining productivity. In the decade from 1997 to 2007, this country was second only to the US in the list of rich nations in terms of the growth of GDP per hour. Now, we are second bottom, behind only Japan. UK productivity is now 16 percentage points lower than the G7 average—the widest productivity gap between ourselves and other leading nations for 20 years.
Output and economic growth have flatlined for the past two and a half years, while manufacturing output, for all the talk of a Government reportedly determined to rebalance the economy, has declined by a tenth from its 2008 peak and has today fallen by 1.4% from 12 months ago. Productivity across the UK economy has fallen by 2.3% in the past year, and measures of output per hour in manufacturing fell by 5.2% between quarter four in 2011 and quarter four in 2012, the largest fall since records began. We will not address our competitiveness as a nation, and be able to compete with developed, fast-growing and ambitious rising nations in the globalised economy, if we do not address our productivity problem, yet the Queen’s Speech does not even see fit to mention it.
The single biggest social and economic issue facing Hartlepool is unemployment. The notion that some growth in private sector employment is cutting the jobless queue is ludicrous, bears no resemblance to the reality on the ground in my constituency and is deeply insulting for those proud men and women in Hartlepool who are struggling to find a job. Hartlepool wants to work, but Government policies are making it harder, not easier, for decent aspirational people to find a job.
The Gracious Speech talks of
“helping people move from welfare to work.”
The Government are cutting welfare but they are also cutting work. They are moving people in Hartlepool from welfare to poverty and destitution, and moving the prospect of work ever further away from my constituents.
Let me illustrate that with some statistics. The number of jobseeker’s allowance claimants in Hartlepool has increased by 25% since this Government came to power, and it now stands at about 4,700. For long-term unemployment, the situation is even bleaker. The number of people in Hartlepool who have claimed JSA for more than a year is up by 155% since the Government came to office. The number who have claimed JSA for more than two years has increased in the same period by a staggering 560%. One in four young men in my constituency is without a job or a training place, and the House will appreciate that the longer a person is out of work the more difficult it is for them to find any sort of work, let alone well-paid, meaningful employment.
Skills, experience, talent and potential are being lost in Hartlepool and elsewhere, possibly forever, as a result of this Government’s misguided and short-term views on skills and employment. It is economic ignorance at best, and indifference to the economic plight of people in constituencies such as mine at worst, to suggest that the Government agenda is helping communities such as the one in Hartlepool. The worst-hit region anywhere in the country for reductions in public expenditure per head is mine—the north-east—with an average loss of £566 per capita. Hartlepool has lost an average of £724 a head, making it the most badly affected town in a region that in turn is the most badly affected anywhere in the country.
In that context, it is just common sense that enterprise and the private sector will be hit hard. As Mike Cherry of the Federation of Small Businesses told the Financial Times in March:
“Taking more money out of already struggling local economies may well exacerbate the problem”.
I agree. That money is spent in local businesses. Take it away and the private sector in Hartlepool suffers enormously. It suffers disproportionately, with negative consequences for private sector employment and competitiveness, but the measures in the Queen’s Speech seem only to promise more of the same. That means that areas such as Hartlepool and other parts of the north-east will see still-higher unemployment, further contraction in economic activity and falling living standards and opportunities for my constituents.
If the Government were serious about aspiration and tackling welfare dependency, they would have included in the Queen’s Speech a jobs and training Bill, committing the Administration to helping people into work and providing a boost to families’ living standards and quality of life by providing meaningful and decently paid employment, as well as improving the competitiveness and size of our economy by increasing demand in all areas of the country, not just within the M25. If they were serious, they would also have announced a house building and modernisation of housing stock Bill, designed to provide the homes that we need in the 21st century. Yes, more homes would be built, but cold, leaky and inefficient existing homes could also be refurbished, which would provide a much-needed short-term boost and a long-term boost to the construction sector and employment for tens of thousands of people.
That brings me on to infrastructure. The Gracious Speech stated that the Government
“will continue to invest in infrastructure to deliver jobs and growth for the economy.”
However, businesses do not believe that the Government are making a difference. In a report by the CBI and KPMG last September, just 35% of businesses surveyed believed that coalition policies will have a positive impact on infrastructure investment, which was eight percentage points lower than in the previous year’s survey. Today’s announcement of more of the same—of no change when it comes to infrastructure—will not fill business with confidence.
In the past few days, the Public Accounts Committee has rightly criticised the Government’s policy on infrastructure, declaring that the national infrastructure plan is
“simply a long list of projects requiring huge amounts of money, not a real plan with a strategic vision and clear priorities.”
It is the lack of such a clear “strategic vision”—instead, the emphasis is on the short term and policies often change sharply and without consultation with industry—that means that businesses are not provided with the confidence they need to invest for the long term to improve our infrastructure and enhance our productivity and competitiveness for the long term. Short-termism is undermining our competitiveness and innovation, which is the true driver of competitiveness in the modern world. It is also compromising the modernisation of our energy and transport systems.
Again, the Queen’s Speech could have announced firm plans to tackle that issue. It could have announced a British investment bank Bill, which would create the real conditions for patient capital and for lending to new and to small and medium-sized businesses that have the ideas and the innovation to grow our economy. It could also have provided an infrastructure commission Bill, to give a long-term, independent and clear set of priorities for the infrastructure that is needed in this country to allow the economy to function better. It did not do so.
I started my speech by welcoming a measure in the Queen’s Speech and I will end in the same way. One of this country’s competitive advantages, which sets us apart from some of our rivals, is our rule of law, and within that is the long-established and stable framework for intellectual property. Investors and creators come to this country, providing jobs and new, innovative business models, in the knowledge that their ideas—their designs and other creations—will be protected in law. There is a link between design, innovation and competitiveness in manufacturing that is much-needed in the 21st century.
The Government have had a tendency to consider intellectual property as somewhat about red tape or bureaucracy, rather than what it is—legal protection. In the previous Session, we saw the incoherent and ill-thought-through changes to copyright in the Bill that became the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013 on which—thankfully—the Government had to back down. The intellectual property Bill announced today, with its proposals to reform design law, can be cautiously welcomed as a means of protecting design rights. I hope that no amendments will be made to it at a late stage without their being discussed with industry or being thought through properly by Ministers, which happened with copyright during the passage of the 2013 Act. However, the general direction of the intellectual property Bill announced today seems to be sensible.
For all that, for all my talk of welcoming certain measures and for all its rhetoric about improving competitiveness, the Queen’s Speech seems to do very little to encourage enterprise, innovation or entrepreneurialism. Given the fact that our competitors are doing more in that field, not less, the Queen’s Speech is a huge lost opportunity, which in the fierce global economic race we can ill afford to miss.
I am grateful to be able to contribute to the debate on the Queen’s Speech, and I am happy to follow the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright). He is always good and robust in arguing the corner for his well-respected constituency. He always makes a passionate case for the north-east, which deserves to be made. However, some of the things that he has said are unfair critiques of a Government who are trying very hard to ensure that we do not just concentrate development in the south-east, where I am an MP, and that we take out the resurrection of manufacturing to all the regions of England and to all parts of the UK.
It is absolutely right that we should ensure that places such as the north-east, which have been heavily and principally dependent on the public sector, continue to see private sector growth and development as well. There have been very good examples in the motor manufacturing industry, and in the chemicals industry in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Ian Swales).
The hon. Member for Hartlepool made a plea for engineering, and I join him in making that plea, as well as echoing the comments of the proposer of the Loyal Address, the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Peter Luff). I have the Brunel museum in my constituency and I have always argued in this place—in your part of the world, Mr Deputy Speaker, people understand this argument very well—that unless we continue to get people in this country to make things of the highest quality, both for our own infrastructure and to sell abroad, we will not pay our way in the world. Engineering has a hugely important part to play in that process.
The contribution of the hon. Member for Hartlepool also highlighted a short but important Bill, which is the mesothelioma Bill. I have been on Committees and I have participated in debates in this House in which we have argued that people who have suffered from that particularly dangerous form of cancer, which is caused by asbestos in the workplace, should be assisted. I hope that there can be consensus across the House that we should legislate in the right way to deal with those who so far have not received the appropriate compensation. Some of them are not with us anymore, which is a tragedy, but a small group of people deserve our support and respect.
Today is the eve of VE day, and I will join others tomorrow at ceremonies in my constituency at the war memorial just beside the Imperial War museum for the annual commemoration of that important event. So it is right that, across the House today, there have also been tributes at the beginning of people’s speeches to our armed services and our armed forces. Since we met last, more people have died on active service.
I have a constituent whose company, F.A. Albin and Sons, has the contract with the Ministry of Defence to do the important but sad and difficult work of bringing home those who have lost their lives on military service around the world. I was with the head of that firm, Barry Albin-Dyer, when the message came through that three more people had lost their lives last week in Afghanistan. On behalf of my party, I want to join in the tribute that has been paid across the House to those who have continued to risk their lives in the name of our country, thank them for their service and send our commiserations, consolations and condolences to their families, comrades and friends.
There is one other group of people to whom I hope we will send our support and condolences, but also our promise of support. I have a significant Bangladeshi community in my constituency. Since we last met, there has been a terrible event in Bangladesh that has seen hundreds of people killed, thousands injured, many still missing and thousands of families affected. I hope that our country’s strong ties with Bangladesh will mean that we continue to give them all the support they need in Dhaka and beyond. I also hope that we will learn the lessons of what appear to be exploitative practices, not only by the builders in that country, but by companies who make their money out of exploiting workers in that country to sell clothes to us and other countries worldwide. I hope that we shall put the tragedy in Dhaka in the last couple of weeks to good use.
Three years ago today, on the second Wednesday of May, the coalition Government was formed. On behalf of my Liberal Democrat colleagues in Parliament, I am clear that we made the right decision to enter a coalition Government on that day and in those circumstances. We are determined, in this third Session of this fixed-term Parliament, to make the right decisions over the next year, as we have tried to make the right decisions over the first two Sessions.
It is a tribute to my colleagues, and to our coalition partners, that two parties that contest elections against each other regularly and have never regarded themselves as close mates decided, in the national interest, to work together; and with only one exception over the three years, we have both honoured the coalition agreement that we entered into and held to the terms of the agreement. I believe that is good for politics and has been good for the country. Despite all the economic and political difficulties, the coalition has held firm.
I was reminded why it was the right decision last Friday night, when I went across the river to a production in the National Theatre of “Our House”, which, for those who have not yet been—I gather some colleagues are there tonight—is a play about the Governments of the 1970s, and specifically the working of the Labour and Conservative Whips Offices during those times, with the character of my predecessor Bob Mellish, then Labour Chief Whip, playing a starring role. Anybody who has forgotten the history of how difficult it is to run a Government with a small majority or no majority should see the play before it finishes its run.
The alternative, in 2010, was either a coalition with Labour, had they been willing to make one, which would not have had a majority; a coalition with Labour and others, which still probably would not have had a majority; or a minority Conservative Government, which by definition would not have had a majority. Given the dire economic circumstances that Britain faced—the worst since the second world war—I am clear that we needed a Government with a clear majority, in order to see out a full term to seek to implement a set of policies to try to give us growth and rescue us from the dire economic situation we were in.
The 1970s were dire economically and “Our House” reminded me, and everyone else in the audience, of them. They were equally difficult in 2010, and very slowly and gradually, but surely and in the right direction, we are moving ahead. I absolutely understand and share, as a south-east London MP, the views of people such as the hon. Member for Hartlepool that the test of the Government’s success, fundamentally, is the economy and whether we get jobs and growth going in a sustained and committed way. I and my colleagues are committed to delivering that, and to delivering it over five years.
Over the past year, many of the things that matter to people like me, in an old working docks constituency, and my colleagues, have been delivered. Jobs are up. I looked at the Library’s figures as the hon. Member for Hartlepool was speaking. There are 29.7 million people aged 16 or over in employment in the last quarter for which we have figures—about the same as in the previous quarter, and up 488,000 on the previous year. That is nearly half a million. The employment rate for people aged 16 to 64 is now 71.4%—not far off the pre-recession level of 73% in March to May 2008.
Although public sector employment fell by 20,000 in the three months to December last year, to 5.72 million, or 19.2% of total employment, the number of people working in the private sector was 24 million, up 151,000 on the previous quarter—81% of total employment. We knew that there would be a contraction in public sector employment, but from the beginning the Government said we were determined to have net growth in jobs and the economy. There has been such growth; the jobs are predominantly in the private sector. That will lead the way out of the recession, and we must continue to do things such as reducing national insurance on small businesses—a measure in the Queen’s Speech to ensure that business grows and takes more people into work.
If we accept what the right hon. Gentleman says about the growth in jobs, why does he think that overall economic growth has just flatlined?
There are all sorts of reasons. The hon. Gentleman must know that the last quarter has just been on the right side of zero. Growth has been small but positive. We avoided the triple-dip recession that people were saying was likely, given the terrible winter and the dreadful weather we had. The answer is that there has been a combination of failure.
The banks failed the economy at the end of the last Labour Administration. They were not sufficiently dealt with or regulated by that Administration, and they still have not got into a position where they are lending our constituents and small businesses in the right places the money to enable them to invest. Every single colleague around the House tells tales, rightly, of how difficult it is; people come to see us and tell us that they do not get the investment.
We have not been selling enough around the world, which is one of the avenues by which we must earn our way. That is why the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Business Secretary and others have been out and about, going not just to our traditional trading partners but to the large, developing partners—Brazil, Mexico, Turkey, India, China—to develop our trade. That is why we are working very hard to get an EU-USA free trade agreement, to deliver growth.
The answer to the question is that the economy has been faulty as a result of a combination of historic and more recent factors, but the Government are seeking to do as many things as they can. Last year, the green investment bank was another initiative to get growth going in an economy in which the Energy Bill this year is likely to assist in the creation of up to 250,000 new jobs in green energy. That is really valuable and important. The hon. Member for Hartlepool called for a Bill to set up another form of investment bank. The Government have, as he knows, a plan for further investment lending to companies as well as the green investment bank, and that is welcome.
So jobs are up; apprenticeships are hugely up. The state pension is significantly up—higher than at any stage since Lloyd George introduced it. The income tax threshold is significantly up, from £6,500 more or less when we started, to nearly £9,500 this year, and next year to £10,000 before anyone pays any tax. Inflation is still low. Interest rates are very low, and that is hugely important for people with mortgages and businesses borrowing. Crime is at its lowest level for many years. Those are significant achievements, and I think we should be proud of that. It shows that many of the things that the Government have done over three years are working.
Given what the right hon. Gentleman has said about those “significant achievements”, do people in his constituency think they are better off now than three years ago? Does he think that living standards are rising?
No; many people’s living standards are not better than they were three years ago, but we have been dealing with what my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary calls the greatest economic heart attack we have had in his lifetime and mine. My constituents have seen, over several months, unemployment come down—not consistently, but there have been months when it has come down and youth unemployment has come down. They have seen an economy that is picking up. The construction industry in my patch is powering ahead; although I appreciate that it is not the same around the country.
But what my constituents have not yet seen, and what the Government are trying to deal with, is the inequitable opportunity and an inequitable distribution of the available wealth. One thing that the Liberal Democrats need to continue to argue for in the coalition, and which I hope the coalition will buy, is that we need to deal with the inequity in Britain whereby there are still people a mile and half from this building, in the City, and in Canary Wharf a bit further away, who have bonuses that are completely without justification, while there are many people on the minimum wage and struggling to get work. We need a redistribution of wealth—I am not ashamed to call for that—and a redistribution of the profits, and we need the banking industry to understand that it has to pay itself reasonable wages. The European Union has the right idea, in my view—not a view shared by the Chancellor—in seeking to make sure that we limit the bonuses given to people across the financial sector so that they do not, in effect, take far more than they deserve.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about his passion for redistribution. It is one that I share, but can he explain why, in that case, he voted to abolish the 50p rate of tax for those who are paid £1 million and more? At the same time he voted for welfare reform and changes that are taking money from those on the very lowest incomes and from communities such as those that I represent, which are being utterly hammered, with millions of pounds being taken out of our local economy as a result. Does he consider that to be fair redistribution?
I voted for the income tax changes as a package that took many people on low and medium incomes out of tax altogether as a result of the raising of the tax threshold, and only when I was satisfied that people on very high earnings would pay more net. Yes, they had a reduction last month in their top rate of income tax from 50p to 45p in the pound, but with all the other changes that affect them they will make a bigger total contribution to the economy in tax. The hon. Lady knows what I am going to say next. I was here for all the time of the Labour Government, when for every single month apart from the last few weeks the top rate of tax was 40%—not 50%, not 45%, but 40%. The great socialist regime of Tony Blair and the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) did not deliver the great socialist nirvana, and that was the time when people in the banks were earning obscene amounts, the likes of which had never been earned before, and they were not dealt with.
On the welfare cuts, the Liberal Democrats argued strongly in the coalition that benefits should not be cut, but that with some inflation-lined exceptions there should be a limited increase this year of 1%. That is what the Government have tried to do. There are exemptions. Changes to housing benefit should not apply to any pensioner householder in the country. Some rates of increase of benefit for people with disabilities are higher than 1% to try to achieve equity. These are all attempts to deal with a welfare bill that is extremely high. It is not pleasant and I do not pretend that it is easy. We would all like to be able to give much more to people who are struggling, and I am very concerned that the bottom 20% should be the priority of this Government in their remaining two years. From the hon. Lady’s Front-Bench colleagues I have heard no answers as to how we pay our bills, deal with the fact that we are paying 120 million quid a day in interest on our debts, sustain the welfare state and encourage people back into work.
I will take one more intervention.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies is clear that the lowest 20% of income groups are being hammered by the Government’s various changes. How can the right hon. Gentleman justify disabled people being hit, as they have been, by a combination of the bedroom tax, the council tax localisation scheme, work capability assessments followed by their appeal, and having their benefit cut during that lengthy process?
Order. We are now on 17 minutes. I was working on speeches lasting no longer than 16 minutes per Member.
I was conscious that I was giving way too much so I will answer that intervention very quickly and move on. Many people with disabilities have had their benefits protected. For everybody there is now a scheme that will make sure they are reassessed—fairly, we hope. The so-called bedroom tax does not apply to people who need a live-in carer and other categories have now been exempted, not least because of internal discussions in the coalition which delivered that outcome. But I am very conscious that we need to do better for the people in the bottom 20% of income. I have argued that within my own party and in the coalition and will go on arguing it. We need to end up with a much fairer society than the Conservative Government or the Labour Government left us. We are trying to make that fairer society, which for us is a priority.
The priority is to make sure that we have a strong economy and a fairer society and that everybody has the opportunity to get on as they wish. To do that, the priorities are very much the ones that the Government have enunciated. Further priorities are social and affordable housing. For many the cost of getting their own home is prohibitive and homes to rent are unavailable. We need to carry on dealing with tax avoidance and the inequalities of wealth at home, but we should not think that the solution to all our problems is to become little Englanders or little Britishers and not to see our future as being within the continent of which we are a part, where we can trade, work, gain and make progress, and within the world of which we are also part.
It is good that the Queen’s Speech makes it clear not only that we will defend people who have been loyal to us, such as Gibraltarians and Falklanders, but that at the G8 next month we will argue for a fairer world, transparency and accountability, conflict prevention and bigger efforts to bring peace to those parts of the world such as the middle east, which have suffered for too long. Abraham Lincoln said:
“Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any other”.
The coalition is resolved to help Britain succeed and become a strong economy again, and Liberal Democrats will play their part in making sure we do that as well as possible.
It is always a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes). We share many platforms as we have neighbouring constituencies and neighbouring boroughs. I agree with him very much about Bangladesh. We too have a Bangladeshi community in our area working in Waterloo and across the borough to his constituency. We send them our best wishes after the terrible things that have happened in Bangladesh and are pleased that so many people in the local community are giving them support at this difficult time. There are issues on which the right hon. Gentleman and I disagree strongly—rarely local ones, but we differ in our views of the European Union. I am not a little Englander; I just do not believe that we should be little Europeans.
It is great to have this opportunity to speak about almost anything. Practically all the measures listed in the Gracious Speech have been covered in the debate. Those of us who have been Members for a very long time almost take for granted the wonderful ceremonial of the opening of Parliament. I have tried over the years to see it from different angles. As a country we should be so proud that we can produce such a wonderful spectacle, which brings people to this country and is a symbol of democracy. I am so pleased that we are continuing that tradition in all its glory.
A number of Members have mentioned Bills that are not in the Queen’s Speech. It was pointed out earlier that the communications data Bill has been left out. I campaigned strongly on that issue, which I believe was a civil liberties issue, like identity cards, and the proposals would have meant that all e-mails were retained and investigated. It would have been a snoopers’ charter and there is no reason why the presumption should be to intrude on innocent normal people who are going about their everyday business. I am delighted that that has been dropped, and I pay tribute to Liberty, which has done such a wonderful job in ensuring that the Bill has been dropped. I hope we never see it again in the next two Sessions.
In the Gracious Speech Her Majesty said:
“My Government will continue with legislation to update energy infrastructure and to improve the water industry.”
One aspect of the water industry that I had hoped would be in the Gracious Speech is the granting of statutory responsibility for flooding to the fire service. Flooding has been a major issue. I am lucky that that is not a particular problem in my constituency, but we must give the fire service that statutory responsibility, as happens in other parts of the United Kingdom. I had hoped that that might have been included in the Bill, and perhaps we can still get it in.
Clearly the immigration proposals will be controversial and will need detailed scrutiny. Until we see the details, I do not think that we can say a great deal, other than to agree that—this is my personal view—no one should come to this country simply to abuse its rules and regulations, and I mentioned earlier the issue of health tourism. I am concerned about one proposal in particular. I am not sure that the Government should be handing over their responsibility for dealing with immigration control to landlords. I really do not think that landlords letting out homes should have to bear the responsibility for deciding whether someone is an illegal immigrant.
I am delighted that we have got rid of the UK Border Agency. As the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee said, those of us who deal with thousands of immigration cases know that that organisation was just waiting to be abolished. What we put in its place must be robust and more efficient. We cannot continue to have people going around the system—and it really is a system—for years and years. That is simply not how to run any kind of civilized immigration system. I hope that the changes will make a difference.
I look forward to the whole debate on immigration. One thing I think all Members across the Chamber can agree on is that we can now discuss immigration without worrying that people will be accused of being racist, because it is not racist to discuss how we control our borders. Certainly, my constituents, large numbers of whom are second, third or fourth generation Afro-Caribbean, are equally concerned about houses and homes being taken by people who they feel have perhaps not been in the country very long. At least when the Bill comes forward we will be able to debate it in a way that allows us to express our views and to have strong opinions, rather than feeling that if we raise the issue we might be condemned as racists.
I am sorry that the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) is no longer in the Chamber, because I agree with her so much on HS2. As a London MP, I know that people will say that London will benefit enormously, but I believe that it is one of those projects that started off as the idea of some civil servant and became the idea of many engineers and transport experts. Everyone then gathered round and it became an establishment project, and no one wants to say, “Maybe we’ve got it wrong.” I hope that, as she said, during the detailed consideration we will be able to see that the economics of HS2 really do not stand up to scrutiny and that some of the experts who have been offering their knowledge on it are perhaps looking at it from a slightly different view from those who live in the areas that will be affected. In particular, I have grave doubts about the idea that it will boost our economy. I think that the billions that will be spent on that need to be re-examined.
As a member of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, I was pleased to hear about the Northern Ireland Bill. It is good that Northern Ireland will be discussed and debated on the Floor of the House. All too often now people dismiss Northern Ireland and we cannot get a great deal of discussion about it on the Floor. That is for very good reasons, of course, because in many ways things there are now so much better, but in many other ways they are not. The Bill will provide an opportunity to have that discussion.
The Bill that I would have liked to see—the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee would also agree on this—is one that would allow us a vote on the European Union much earlier than the Government envisage. I am not saying that because of what happened with the UK Independence party last week; I have been saying it for some time. I am pleased to have been joined by so many more colleagues, even on the Labour Benches, and particularly those who in the past have been seen as very pro-Europe. They are now beginning to realise that everything that has been said in the past about ever-closer union has to be criticised and objectively put to the people, because things have changed so much in our relationship with Europe that we cannot ignore the fact that people need a say. If we were to have a vote over the next year on whether to give the people a referendum, I cannot see any party in this Chamber saying that it did not trust people enough to give them a referendum on the future of our relationship with the European Union.
I am disappointed that such a Bill was not included in the Gracious Speech, but I am hopeful that, because the last part of it referred to matters that can be laid before the House, after another month or two the Government, even if they cannot get coalition agreement, will have the confidence and courage to put it to the House so that we can have that debate and discussion and let the people see how their Members of Parliament actually feel about giving them a say in one of the most important issues facing this country.
Every Queen’s Speech reflects work in progress, and we continue to make progress in seeking to bring down the cost of living, in welfare and in immigration—net immigration has been cut by a third, the deficit has been cut by a third and £1.25 million new private sector jobs have been created. This Queen’s Speech, in particular, reflects a work in progress because we are starting a parliamentary Session with no fewer than five significant Bills subject to carry-over motions from the previous Session.
In the past few months the Government have sought to act on welfare reform by putting a cap on welfare benefits of £500 a week per family, replacing disability living allowance with the more targeted personal independence payment and introducing universal credit, with the intention of removing any financial disincentive to work. If significant steps have been taken on welfare reform, much more work still needs to be done. I would like to highlight support for a number of measures in the Queen’s Speech.
On immigration, we need to have a responsible debate. It is always a difficult subject to raise. After 30 years in this House, my constituents know where I come from on the issue. During the county council election campaign in north Oxfordshire, I found many people who are concerned about immigration. Many complained that under the previous Government there had been 13 years of open borders. I think that the Government have been absolutely right to implement a number of policy reforms to the immigration system to make it more robust. Those reforms have already seen net immigration cut by a third since the general election.
One can compellingly argue that immigration control is necessary to help preserve the very Britain that immigrants want to move to. We must all recognise that since 2004 nearly half a million non-British people have arrived in Britain—I stress—each year, which means that more people have arrived on these shores as immigrants in a single year since 2004 than in the entire period from the battle of Hastings to the year of my birth, 1950. That was a deliberate policy of the previous Labour Government, not something that happened by accident or was the primary result of obligations to the European Union. The failure to manage immigration properly has threatened the liberal Britain and the very traditions and culture that have made Britain special. Those who are truly tolerant and believe in tolerance are those who believe, as they should do, in controlling immigration.
One thing on which I hope every Member of Parliament would agree is that those who have been found to have no right to be within the jurisdiction should be removed from it as speedily as possible. I was therefore pleased to hear the Home Secretary announce to the House on 26 March that she intended to bring forward an immigration Bill in this Session. She said:
“The final problem I raised is the policy and legal framework within which UKBA has operated. The agency is often caught up in a vicious cycle of complex law and poor enforcement of its own policies, which makes it harder to remove people who are here illegally. That is why I intend to bring forward an immigration Bill in the next Session of Parliament that will address some of these problems.”—[Official Report, 26 March 2013; Vol. 560, c. 1501.]
When meeting people in my constituency surgeries, I never cease to be amazed by the number who were, for example, considered not to have refugee status many years ago and who then appealed to the independent immigration appeal tribunal, only then again to be found by an independent judge not to have refugee status. They were found not to be entitled to be in the country, but absolutely nothing has happened and they are still here, and they will doubtless remain here in the hope that if they stay long enough they will be able to assert some claim to family life under European human rights legislation.
Last July the Government introduced tough new rules seeking to protect the public from foreign criminals and immigration offenders who try to hide behind family life as a reason to stay in the UK. The new rules set proportionate requirements that reflect Parliament’s view of the balance between the public interest in deporting a foreign national offender and their rights under article 8 of the European convention on human rights. It appears, however, that some immigration judges are not paying sufficient heed to the new rules, and it is thus right that new primary legislation is introduced to put beyond doubt the correct overall approach to article 8 in immigration cases.
I think that almost all my constituents find it particularly offensive that foreign nationals who commit serious crimes are not pretty much automatically deported. Indeed, pressure in prisons such as Bullingdon in north Oxfordshire is made worse by the fact that the prison system is having to accommodate foreign nationals who have completed their terms of imprisonment and who it seems difficult, if not impossible, to deport. Shockingly, at the recent rate of removals it would take some 200 years to remove all those who are illegally present in the United Kingdom, and unless we take serious and sustained action their numbers will probably grow at a faster rate. We can all have debates about the size, scale and purposes of legal migration to the country, but I do not believe that a single Member of this House can justify illegal immigration. Estimates vary, but there are credible estimates that the number of illegal immigrants is as high as 1 million.
I am sure that many of my constituents will also welcome the measure announced in the Queen’s Speech intended to limit the benefits of foreign nationals to stop people from overseas abusing the NHS and the welfare system. The basic point is that migrants should not have access to public services to which they are not entitled. I therefore welcome the proposed legislation on deportation and immigration.
I support the draft care and support Bill, which not surprisingly prompted a considerable number of detailed recommendations in the pre-legislative scrutiny published in mid-March. Most attention has been focused on the costs of nursing home care, but that is only part of what needs to be addressed. I have no doubt that in the debates on Second Reading and in Committee we will need to consider how we secure sustainable funding for the care system as a whole. We must ensure that those involved get appropriate information and advice, and appropriate access to advocacy.
As co-chair of the all-party group on carers, I am glad that the Government are giving recognition to carers, particularly given the increasing number who are having to manage work, their own family’s lives, and caring for frail parents. It is good news that they will receive more help, including, I hope, more access to respite care and training in care techniques. We should never forget that some 1.25 million people, most of them women, spend more than 50 hours each week caring for family members who cannot look after themselves, and the number will rise sharply as our population grows older. We need to ensure that carers do not feel isolated. On the contrary, carers should feel valued and appreciated by us all. They should feel able to have their needs assessed by their local authority and to get help, depending on their means. All carers should feel that they can get information about local groups that can support them and offer guidance on how they can help in caring for loved ones. Somewhere, either in the care and support Bill or the Children and Families Bill, Parliament needs to give consideration to the rights of young carers. Nevertheless, it is important that Parliament will at last be seeking to resolve the challenges of nursing home and residential care home costs, which are of concern to so many.
I have a hospice in my constituency, and I hope that the care and support Bill will ensure that patients at the end of life and their families are able to access the care they need to exercise choice. We must in no way underestimate this Bill, which will be a historic step forward. It will dramatically simplify the current legal framework for care and support, replacing provisions in well over a dozen Acts of Parliament with a single modern statute. It will modernise care and support law so that the whole system is built around people’s needs and what they want to achieve with their lives. It will clarify entitlements to care and support to give people a better understanding of what is on offer, help them to plan for the future, and ensure that they know where to go for help when they need it. Importantly, it will simplify the care and support system to provide the freedom and flexibility needed by care professionals and local authorities to innovate and to achieve better results for those who need the support of social care.
I spoke in the Second Reading debate on the Children and Families Bill, which seeks to improve provision for disabled children and children with special educational needs. I very much hope that during this Session that important Bill will complete its passage through Parliament.
It was clear from this Queen’s Speech that economic recovery is very much at the heart of the Government’s programme. The Queen’s Speech announces no fewer than five separate Bills intended to cut red tape and to reduce the national insurance burden on small businesses, together with other measures. This is very much a pro-business and pro-growth agenda that seeks to give practical help and support to job creators and millions of people working throughout the economy to promote growth. One of the biggest inhibitors to growth is the cost of recruiting new employees, particularly for small businesses. It is very good news that the Government intend to reduce national insurance bills each year by entitling every business and charity to a £2,000 employment allowance from April next year. That will be of particular help to smaller businesses in recruiting more people.
During this Parliament I have spoken about HS2 on numerous occasions, and I do not intend to detain the House by repeating everything I have said. If anyone is interested, they can find it all on my website at www.tonybaldry.co.uk/campaigns/HS2. I note, however, that the Government intend to introduce a paving Bill to secure the authority for departmental expenditure on HS2 phase 2. Those of us who are not convinced that HS2 is necessarily best value for money in transport infrastructure investment will need to be very careful about reading the small print of the paving Bill—the high-speed rail preparation Bill—as I strongly suspect that it will include a parliamentary mechanism that enables compensation to be paid to those affected by HS2, and I think that the Government may well have constructed the legislation so that without the paving Bill it will be difficult for constituents to access compensation. I suspect that many will actually welcome the High Speed 2 hybrid Bill, as it will give those affected by the proposed line the opportunity to petition Parliament and to have their arguments heard in detail by the Select Committee.
Every Queen’s Speech has a number of measures that have not been trailed. One such is the defence reform Bill, which is, as I understand it, intended to enable the Ministry of Defence to change the way it procures and supports defence equipment by reforming Defence Equipment and Support and strengthening procurement arrangements. The Bill will also increase the size and role of our reserve forces. The Bill is of interest to me because in Bicester we have one of the largest defence distribution depots in the country. I would say to Ministers that the quicker they decide to concentrate defence storage and distribution on Bicester, the better it will be for the MOD and for taxpayers. We cannot continue to drift. Deciding whether to focus defence storage on Bicester or on Donnington is not rocket science.
Some may say that this is not a particularly heavy draft legislative programme, but, as I said at the outset, it is important to bear in mind the fact that a number of hefty Bills have been carried over from the previous Parliament: the Children and Families Bill, the Energy Bill, the Finance (No. 2) Bill—that is, last year’s Budget legislation—and the Financial Services (Banking Reform) Bill.
The House will know that I voted against Second Reading of the other carry-over Bill, the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill. Like every other Member, I have only one vote, and I have to recognise that on a free vote of the House the Bill secured a majority, but I hope that it may still be possible to secure some further amendments, here or in the other place, in respect of certain conscience clauses so that people can continue to express themselves freely in support of traditional marriage and so that appropriate guidance is given to schools, particularly faith schools, on what they may teach in respect of marriage in a balanced way.
Over the next few days of debate on the Queen’s Speech, I have no doubt that, as has already happened today, some will draw attention to Bills that they consider should have been in the Queen’s Speech. I suspect that there will be a fair amount of comment about our relations with Europe. It is important to put any such comments into context. The Prime Minister has committed to negotiate a new settlement for Britain in the European Union. People questioned whether the Prime Minister would veto an EU treaty; well, the Prime Minister has vetoed an EU treaty. People questioned the Prime Minister’s ability to get the EU budget cut; well, the Prime Minister has succeeded in getting the EU budget cut. Given that previously it had not even been possible to freeze the EU budget, it was a significant achievement for the Prime Minister to secure a cut. People have questioned the Prime Minister’s ability to get powers back from the European Union, but the fact is that he got us out of the EU bail-out mechanism and saved the country millions of pounds. The Prime Minister has said that he is committed to negotiating a new settlement for Britain within the EU, and I have every confidence that that is what he will achieve. It will then be for the British people to judge that settlement in a referendum. There will be a referendum on our membership of the EU—that commitment is absolute.
This is a Government who have in the first few years of this Parliament introduced massive reforms to the NHS, public services and the welfare system. It is right that Ministers and the Government are able to spend time in focusing on ensuring that those reforms are fully and properly implemented. We should continue to support the Chancellor in his determination to continue to tackle the deficit, to sort out the nation’s public finances and to promote enterprise and growth in the economy.
I concur with the spirit of the remarks made by the hon. Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) about carers. The House needs to get to grips with that hugely important subject. A number of aspects of the Queen’s Speech spill over into that complicated debate, and I hope that we can progress in such a way that carers, especially lifelong carers, can feel comfortable that there will be a long-term practical economic solution to their needs. That is a hugely important part of the challenge we face.
The third sentence of the Gracious Speech states:
“My Government’s first priority is to strengthen Britain’s economic competitiveness.”
That is clearly the case and I want to address it by considering three aspects of the Gracious Speech. First, in his eloquent, witty and far-ranging speech the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Peter Luff) referred to one serious issue in particular, namely his passion and commitment to engineering and engineering skills in this country. I welcome the fact that the Gracious Speech refers to apprenticeships. We need to ensure that apprenticeships and advanced apprenticeships are developed in conjunction with the engineering professions so that the industries for which we are creating the next generation of necessary skills have a long-term feedstock of them.
During the previous Session I was privileged to attend an awards ceremony in the House arranged by Cogent, the skills sector council for the chemicals sector. One of the most impressive speeches was by a young woman who was an advanced apprentice working for Novartis. She was articulate and knew her industry inside out. She started as an apprentice and is now undertaking an advanced apprenticeship, and she got a degree through the company. She added proudly that, as a result of that process, she does not have a student debt. That programme, which was worked out in partnership between training agencies, universities and employers, provides an important way forward. If we are serious about apprenticeships, we need to develop such programmes in a meaningful way.
A number of important companies are working in that field. The Science and Technology Committee heard a very good presentation from an advanced apprentice from the National Grid. Most people of her age would have struggled to describe her business in the same way as she did, but she grew up with it and has developed skills at an extremely high level. Both of the cases I have mentioned deal with graduates. Interested colleagues will be able to participate in a Westminster Hall debate next Thursday on a Science and Technology Committee report to which the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire has referred.
This is a hugely important area and commitments have been made to it by those on both Front Benches. The Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister commended the comments of the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire and I want this House to unite and create the momentum needed to create the required skill sets.
The Queen’s Speech also referred to the curriculum. We are missing a serious trick, partly because of this House and partly because of the guidance given to Ofsted. I want to comment on two aspects of the curriculum that are relevant to the development of the skills that we need. First, on science practicals, I was privileged to address a conference alongside Sir Mark Walport, the then head of the Wellcome Trust who is now the Government’s chief scientist. Sir Mark and I sang off exactly the same hymn sheet. We need to get young people to learn about scientific experimentation and the value of how to analyse scientific results, rather than teach them simply how to get the process right in a mechanical way. That is not teaching them how to explore, which is what we need to do.
We also need to break the naive assumption that still exists in some parts of the academic world that there is a brick wall between vocational and academic skills. They are part of a continuum, as shown by my good examples of advanced apprenticeships. We need to look at schools such as the JCB academy in Derbyshire, which has done inspirational work on developing young people aged 14 to 19 in order to prepare them for higher level skills in industry and the university sector. Beyond schooling, we need to think about how to build stronger bridges between universities and industry, and consider the examples of the advanced manufacturing centre in Sheffield, the Warwick manufacturing group and the current work being undertaken at the university of Chester—I am proud to be a part of this—where, having acquired the Shell research centre at Thornton, we have created a partnership. By working with companies in the chemical and chemical engineering sectors, we hope to develop the skills they need in the future. Those are important ways forward. The continuum covers all aspects of the skill sets we need. I presume that the issues of apprenticeships and the curriculum will result in Bills, and I hope that the House will be able to unite around them.
As an aside from my general theme, I join the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea), my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) and others in welcoming the important reference to asbestos in the Gracious Speech. It is a hugely welcome step, but the devil is in the detail. We need to look at how bereaved families fit into the equation. The issue is not as simple as it seems and I hope that the Government will enter into urgent and open consultation on it.
My third theme, having covered apprenticeships and the curriculum, is immigration, which links back to competitiveness. It was also touched on by the hon. Member for Banbury. It is a hugely important area and one understands the Government’s desire to address the public’s concerns. I want to make two points.
First, as the Leader of the Opposition said—joined, curiously, by the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood)—we need to consider some workplace issues. Last week, I listened to some vox pops from Lincolnshire on Radio 4. Sadly, the BBC did not challenge the farmer who said that he was happy to hire labour through a gangmaster. Dealing with such issues and considering the agency workers legislation that I sought to drive forward in the last Parliament will be central to finding a solution. If we do not have properly regulated working practices at the heart of those parts of the economy that need transient labour, we will obviously be a magnet for the populations that have been referred to.
My second point brings me back to education. There is an urgent need for the Government to decouple overseas students from the broader immigration debate. I strongly urge the Government to work with Universities UK to find a better way to deal with this massive industry. Something like £7 billion is at stake in the British economy. We have already seen losses from the Indian subcontinent. Given that about one in eight Chinese hopes to have their child educated abroad and that by 2020 that figure is predicted to be one in three, this is a massive potential market. I would like there to be a dialogue between the Government and Universities UK on creating a regulatory framework. That would put significant responsibilities on universities that some have perhaps not maintained in the recent past. We should separate the process of determining whether somebody is coming here to study from the broader immigration debate. It is important that the figures are separated because this is an enormously important industry, and I use the word “industry” deliberately. We must develop university structures that have tight mechanisms for dealing with applicants for such courses.
That takes me back to my opening point. The Government say that economic competitiveness is their first priority. We need to get the framework of the economy working properly. That will involve the development of skills at all levels. There are challenges with the broader student population and, in particular, with overseas students. My challenge to the Government is to ensure that in the weeks and months ahead, as we develop the legislation proposed in the Gracious Speech, the issues of skills and training are at the heart of the thinking in this House.
I congratulate the proposer and seconder of the Humble Address. One does not often have the opportunity to address the full House, so it is a big occasion. Both of our colleagues acquitted themselves extremely well.
I enjoyed the speech by the Leader of the Opposition. I did not agree with any of its content, but now that there are no Liberals in the Chamber, I can say that he certainly made the best joke of the day when he made his remarks about the Liberal party.
Moving on to the speech by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, I support all the measures in the Gracious Speech. This Government have cut the deficit by a third, created more than 1 million private sector jobs and kept inflation under control, all while taking the 2 million lowest-paid people out of tax altogether and cutting corporation tax to 23%.
The one measure in the Gracious Speech that troubles me, which has been mentioned by the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry), my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) and the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), is the high-speed rail link. Many of us were here when we considered the Bill on the channel tunnel rail link. Many Conservative colleagues were genuinely upset about the effect on their constituencies. Sir Keith Speed in particular had a tricky job to balance the needs of the nation with those of his constituents. However, that was an entirely different project from the current high-speed rail link. For the life of me, I cannot understand why we will spend so much money and upset so many people in order to get to the end of the line 20 minutes sooner than would otherwise be the case. That is absolutely ridiculous and I hope that the Government will think again.
Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), I had no local elections in my area last week because it is a unitary authority. However, we certainly did have elections in Essex, and Essex gave its view on a number of issues that had nothing at all to do with the local elections.
I had no idea when I asked my question at the last Prime Minister’s questions that my own mother would have such an influence on the outcome of those elections. Prompted by her, I asked the Prime Minister whether he would bring the referendum forward to accommodate my mother. There does not appear to be anything on the matter in the Gracious Speech, but it does say:
“Other measures will be laid before you.”
I have a hunch that the referendum will be brought forward.
I said to my constituents that we could not have a referendum sooner than the Prime Minister had proposed because we did not have the votes to legislate on it. However, I am now keen to put it to the test. If I am drawn in the top four or half dozen in the ballot for private Members’ Bills next week, there will be no point in anyone lobbying me, because I will be proud to promote a Bill on a referendum. I hope that like-minded colleagues would do the same. The right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Mr Kennedy) seemed to dismiss anyone who voted a certain way last week, which I thought was rather arrogant. We cannot dismiss thousands of people who voted a particular way.
Given that it is nearly 40 years since the British people were asked their view about what was the common market and is now the European Union—very much a political union that is driving towards integration all the time—is it not high time that we had a referendum? I would support any Bill that my hon. Friend might like to bring in.
I flinched last week when someone described me as a veteran Member of the House. My hon. Friend now reminds me that the referendum was 40 years ago. I voted in that referendum and I voted no. I absolutely agree with what he says. I would welcome the opportunity to put the matter to the test before all the parties. Let us stand up and be counted, and let the people speak. It is quite wrong to marginalise last week’s local elections. We all know that people no longer have the Liberal party to vote for as a protest vote, because for various reasons it joined the coalition. Personally, I always felt that it was much closer to the Labour party than to the Conservative party, but there we are. We should reflect seriously on how people voted last week.
There has been criticism of the content of the Gracious Speech, but what is the point of our legislating and legislating when the legislation that we already have is not enforced? I have been the proud promoter of two Acts. One was the Protection against Cruel Tethering Act 1988. I often ask questions to find out how many people have been convicted under it, and I do not get a satisfactory answer. I also spent 18 months of my life, when I came fourth in the ballot, promoting the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000, which promised to eliminate fuel poverty. However, 13 years of the Labour Government did not do so, and that important legislation does not appear to have been enforced.
It is no good Members saying that the Queen’s Speech was thin and that we should have a lot of legislation. Frankly, I would like less legislation, but when we do legislate I would like it to be enforced. For instance, the House spent a lot of time talking about making it unlawful for people to talk on their mobile phones when they are driving, but from what I can see everyone seems to do it, not just in traffic jams but when they are going around roundabouts. The law is not consistently enforced. The idea that we should have more and more legislation is absolutely ridiculous.
I am delighted that a national insurance contributions Bill will be brought forward, easing the pressure on businesses and charities with a £2,000 employment allowance. I hope that the move will boost employment and growth across our nation. Similarly, I welcome the deregulation Bill. I remember that when Neil Hamilton was a Minister, he made a marvellous speech at the Conservative party conference, with miles and miles of bits of paper, saying that there would be less regulation. Yet again, we are told that there will be less, and all the businesses in our constituencies would certainly welcome that.
We are going to have a draft consumer rights Bill, which is an excellent idea for which I believe there will probably be all-party support. There will be easier access to compensation, which is much overdue. We should all welcome the Bill, although I have not heard too much of that today.
It is widely accepted that if someone has worked hard all their life, they should be rewarded in retirement. That is why I am delighted to see that care costs are going to be capped, ensuring that no one will have to sell their home in old age to pay for residential care. I know that many of my constituents will celebrate the Bill on the matter, which reaffirms the fact that the only party that will protect the rights of the elderly is the Conservative party, not least as many of our members are of somewhat mature age.
The pensions Bill and the care Bill are particularly welcome in my constituency, as we have the most centenarians in the country. They will ensure that more women can get a full state pension in their own right, which will stop the problem faced by mothers who take time out of their career to look after their children. The state pension system certainly should not punish that, and I am glad that our Government will examine the flaw in the system and put it right.
While I am on that subject, a constituent of mine whose wife is dying of cancer is not currently eligible for bereavement payments as he is 38. Loss is just as hard at 38 as at 68, and perhaps the pensions and care Bills will provide a good opportunity for that to be changed.
I was delighted that the hon. Member for Vauxhall said what she did about immigration. Members who talk about immigration should not be branded racists. If any Member of Parliament is not lobbied by constituents on the subject, I cannot imagine what their constituents are talking about. It has nothing to do with colour or race. It is all to do with numbers on our little island.
It is beyond comprehension that foreign nationals who commit serious crimes somehow manage to avoid deportation. It is absolutely ridiculous. They often abuse the Human Rights Act, although I will not delay the House by talking about that. It is quite wrong that such people are being housed, fed and watered by the British taxpayer. I am sure many hon. Members will have heard that remark from their constituents as they have knocked on doors, so I am glad that steps have been outlined to address that ludicrous situation. The border agencies’ resolve and power will be strengthened—we have heard that the UK Border Agency will be abolished—and the Government will ensure that taxpayers’ money is spent in a more suitable manner.
Measures to deal with antisocial behaviour are hardly original—we have them every year—but it is deeply depressing that there were 2.4 million incidents of antisocial behaviour across England and Wales in the past year. That is a staggering figure. Those incidents range from drug dealing to noisy neighbours and from littering to property damage—the sort of crimes that can push individuals into more serious crimes and drag communities into a downward spiral. I hope that the legislation will fix that problem, which our constituents feel strongly about.
I was expecting a measure on dangerous dogs. That was not mentioned in the Gracious Speech, but I understand that it will be covered in the antisocial behaviour Bill. Those of us who were here when Lord Baker of Dorking introduced the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 know that it was in response to a terrible incident in which someone was killed. The media take an interest when a dog savages someone, but the measure on dangerous dogs is important. My hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) did a lot of good work on the proposed legislation on wild animals in circuses, and I hope that we will also find an opportunity to include measures on that.
I was delighted that the Gracious Speech said that we would protect the Falkland Islanders’ and Gibraltarians’ right to determine their political future. I think most Members will welcome that. When a small delegation of Members visits Pope Francis, we may have a private word with him on that matter.
I certainly welcome the Gracious Speech, which builds on the good work that has been done thus far. My only real disappointment is that there was not one measure to enable Southend already to be declared the city of culture for 2017. I hope that that is another measure that will be laid before the House shortly.
I very much enjoyed the speech of the hon. Member for Southend West (Mr Amess), but he will probably appreciate that I do not necessarily agree with many of his comments. On High Speed 2, I actually think that the Government are not ambitious enough. My personal view is that the line should continue straight up to Glasgow, and that we should start constructing it from both ends, as has happened with almost every other major construction of high-speed rail in the world. Then we would all be better together. Of course, there was a helpful “better together” paragraph in the Gracious Speech.
May I counsel the hon. Gentleman and a number of other Members who have spoken about referendums? Government by referendum will always end up with pausing and halting, as we find at the moment in my own country, where we have to wait a horrendous 500 days more before we can make a decision on a proposal that, of course, I will not support. I am sure the hon. Gentleman would take the same position, although unfortunately he will not have a vote. However, the way it halts all other debate when we need to make progress is something I deeply regret, and I counsel against those who are so keen to rush to referendums.
There is a pattern to the proposals in the Queen’s Speech, and the Government’s pre-announcements were as much about what was not included as the actual content. The failure to legislate for the plain packaging of cigarettes is possibly the most stunning example in the Queen’s Speech of a failure to govern in the national interest. This should not be a party-political issue. The evidence of harm is known, we accept that that harm is likely to be greater if someone takes up the habit in their early years, and we recognise the attractiveness of advertising as more likely to influence the young and impressionable. Other western countries have already taken a lead so it is not a step in the dark, and there is compelling evidence to suggest that such a measure will lead to significant savings in public health costs, as well as preventing many people from suffering avoidable illnesses and premature death.
What exactly are the Government afraid of? It is time for their special advisers to stop whispering in their ears about harming relations with large tobacco companies, and for them to recognise their wider duty to this nation’s children and their life chances. I hope they will reconsider their decision and bring forward legislation later in the Session. As many Members have pointed out, there is plenty of space in the timetable to ensure we get the legislation through by next year.
On the various issues concerning business and enterprise, the consolidation of consumer protection legislation mentioned by the hon. Gentleman is welcome and in part foresees the implementation of a recent EU directive. I welcome the fact that it will include updating the law on things such as online shopping. The Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills, of which I am a member, will take a closer look at those proposals in the coming weeks, but I regret that the legislation has not been used as an opportunity to tackle issues that our constituents talk to us about all the time: rising energy prices when global prices are falling and the profits of energy companies are rocketing; transport costs that often increase at three times the rate of inflation; and the growing number of payday loan shops, which are spreading like a bad rash up and down the high streets of our country.
I appreciate that there is an ongoing Office of Fair Trading inquiry into payday lending and a possible Competition Commission referral, but the pace of the Government’s response has been worryingly slow. The Committee’s report on the subject was issued more than a year ago, and the OFT subsequently identified problems with companies representing 90% of current market share in the UK. More and more people with severe debt problems have multiple payday loans, but there is still no sign of badly needed stricter regulation to bring some of the worst aspects of that business under proper control.
The OFT report earlier this year was utterly damning in its review of the industry. It stated that almost a third of loans taken out in 2011-12 had been rolled over at least once, and that those loans accounted for almost half of lenders’ revenues. Nearly 20% of revenue came from 5% of loans that had been rolled over four times or more. The obvious conclusion was that too many people were being granted loans they could not afford to repay, and it appeared that lenders’ revenues were heavily reliant on customers failing to repay their original loan in full and on time.
Our Committee’s recommendation last year to limit the rolling over of such loans was brushed aside on the basis that the Government were
“focused…on ensuring rigorous affordability checks are carried out before each and every roll-over”.
However, the OFT report clearly showed that this industry earned the greater part of its profit from doing precisely the opposite. The OFT found that only six of the 50 firms it visited could provide documentary evidence that they had assessed consumers’ disposable income as part of their affordability checks—and let us not forget that the OFT inquiry started after the industry stated that it would toughen up its codes of practice. As Ministers are well aware, more than one trade group represents that sector, and they do not represent all practitioners. Therefore, a voluntary approach was never going to provide the protection needed by some of the most vulnerable in our communities. This problem is not one of a few rogue traders, but of a malfunctioning sector that is causing real harm to thousands and trapping many in high levels of debt. It is not about more regulation, but about better regulation that actually tackles the problem.
The Government’s recent response of introducing advertising restrictions and allowing the Financial Conduct Authority to impose fines from next year will make a moderate difference but nowhere near enough to end the misery we are now witnessing across the length and breadth of our country. We need urgent legislation to place a strict cap on the number of roll-overs, and as suggested by our Committee, we should re-examine evidence from other parts of the world such as Florida, which successfully placed a cap on the amount that could be borrowed at any one time. Its high repayment levels should be our aim too.
Last year we had the benefit of a statutory-backed consumer’s voice in the shape of Consumer Focus, which put pressure on the Government on this issue. It was vocal in calling for speedy action but is now silenced as a result of the Government’s legislation. Voluntary bodies such as Citizens Advice, Which? and StepChange carry out a great deal of valuable work, but their services have been considerably stretched by the rapid increase in demand over the past few years from those experiencing high levels of debt. The need for a strong consumer champion with the same rights of access to the Government as powerful trade lobby groups has never been greater. I am sure we will return to the effectiveness of enforcement as we look in greater detail at the draft consumers rights Bill over the coming weeks.
During the Budget the Government published their response to the Heseltine report on growth, “No stone unturned”, which was favourable to many of its recommendations. The BIS Committee had the benefit of two evidence sessions with Lord Heseltine earlier this year, and I believe that much in the report could carry cross-party support and consensus. Despite the desperate need to grow our economy, however, there was precious little sense of urgency in the Queen’s Speech.
Most recommendations in the Heseltine review, including the creation of a single pot of finance to be spent locally and a call for further devolution, have—not surprisingly—been postponed until after the 2015 election, and putting the report out to grass shows how out of touch the Government are with the real needs of our country. One area of the report was completely ignored, but I believe it is crucial if we are serious about changing the way we support businesses large and small to deliver growth. In his report, Heseltine points out that there are few formal structures in our society in which we have a genuine dialogue between Government at all levels—national and local—and the business sector. The UK’s current business bodies represent only a small percentage of the total number of businesses—about 650,000 out of a total of 4.8 million—whereas the German Chambers of Commerce represents more than 3.5 million businesses. The UK arrangements have caused fragmentation and weakness in the business sector’s voice in government and in decision making. Businesses have a planned and comprehensive structure not only in Germany, but throughout the continent, in Japan and in north America. Lord Heseltine recommended a radical improvement in how businesses are engaged and supported at local and sectoral levels to ensure a co-ordinated business support structure.
The hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Peter Luff) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) mentioned the lack of skills and the challenge we face in the coming years, particularly in apprenticeships. That reminds us that, if we are serious about improving our skills base, and if we want to bring ourselves up to the standards we witness in countries such as Germany, which offer sustained, high-quality, in-depth training to hundreds of thousands of young people every year, we need a business structure that can properly support such a change.
I note that it was reported earlier this week that several of our country’s largest employers are hoping to form a national framework to help school leavers and the unemployed into the labour market, including by delivering a comprehensive careers advice service. Such a move implies that the business community does not have much confidence that the Government’s approach to careers will provide the right advice or tackle the skills shortfall, which employers are rightly increasingly worried about. The move is welcome, but unfortunately it does not include the jobs and opportunities in the supply chains through the small and medium-sized enterprise sector, which are the heart of our economy. Unless and until we as a country can engage at a similar level with the vast majority of our businesses, we will simply miss out.
Finally, I should like to make some observations about the mortgage indemnity scheme proposal in the Budget. I have asked a number of questions of both the Treasury and the Department for Communities and Local Government, which operate the help-to-purchase schemes, about whether non-UK citizens will benefit from them. After a wait of more than five weeks, the Government have been unable or unwilling to answer my questions on that point.
There are serious difficulties with the mortgage indemnity scheme, which the Treasury Committee branded as a work in progress, adding that it might have a number of unintended consequences. This week, Andrew Brigden, a senior economist at Fathom Consulting, which is run by a former Bank of England economist, stated:
“Had we been asked to design a policy that would guarantee maximum damage to the UK’s long-term growth prospects and its fragile credit rating, this would be it”.
I spent 18 years in the property business before I came into the House, and I believe the policy is an act of complete and utter folly. It will place the taxpayer at considerable risk of fuelling rocketing property prices in the parts of the country that do not require it. At the same time, it fails to address the shortage of houses, which is at the root of the problem in our housing market. It does not change our housing market so that we have greater control in the long term over the private rented market and more stability, and it will not mean that people can buy houses when they can afford to do so. Many people, particularly younger people, no longer have types of employment that offer the security that gives them the confidence to buy.
Instead of the Government’s high-risk, casino-type methodology, I suggest that a better way is for the Government to invest in social landlords and councils to encourage them to build more houses. Such investment could mean that local authorities can borrow money perfectly reasonably and repay it at perfectly healthy ratios. That will allow us properly to tackle the housing crisis, which is at the root of many of the problems we encountered before the bank crash. Unless we are serious about them, they will occur again.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Ann McKechin). I understand her point on skills, but I hope she recognises the work the Government have done to introduce so many apprenticeships in the past two years. I might be the only chartered engineer in the House of Commons. I built radio and television stations when I did a real job—I was tempted to say that, but it is perhaps unfair, because MPs work harder than I ever worked when I set up radio and TV stations—so I recognise the importance of skills and the need for engineers.
I applaud many items in the Queen’s Speech. The immigration Bill will provide a lot of satisfaction to many people who fear that this country is a soft touch, to quote the Foreign Secretary when he was leader of the Conservative party: this country should be a safe haven, and not a soft touch. Over the years, we have become a soft touch. Yes, we should be a safe haven for those who seek asylum, and those who are being persecuted. Yes, we lack the skills that we often need, and therefore need to encourage people to come to this country who can give us skills when we do not have them. However, others who come here are perhaps a net drain on our resources. Particularly at this time, we must think twice about that. I therefore welcome the immigration Bill.
As someone who ran a business, I believe that the national insurance contributions Bill will be a real boon. Around a third of all small businesses will find that they do not pay any national insurance, and I hope that will encourage firms to take on new employees.
I hope that the deregulation Bill will work. How many times have I heard Labour and Conservative Governments say that they will cut red tape? That is the point of the deregulation Bill—to reduce the burden of unnecessary legislation on firms by reducing or removing burdens. All I can say is, “Cheers to that”. I hope we succeed in doing just that.
The care Bill is an immensely important measure that will affect around 6 million carers in this country—old people looking after their spouses or youngsters looking after parents or grandparents, who might be disabled for whatever reason. I hope that the care Bill will make a major impact on those who care for others in the UK.
We will also have the antisocial behaviour, crime and policing Bill, and one of the issues that has concerned me and many other hon. Members is that of people who own dangerous dogs. We have had some terrible cases of late in which young children have been savaged by dogs that have not been properly trained, or have even been trained to be aggressive. The Bill is meant to tackle that problem.
I may not totally agree with some of my coalition colleagues, who have wisely escaped the Chamber at the moment, on the communication data Bill. There is no doubt that the use of BlackBerry messaging and other forms of cyber-communication has assisted terrorism and crime. Provided that the Government—as they intend—put in place safeguards to ensure that innocent people do not have all their e-mail traffic hacked, that has to be good news as it will protect the vulnerable and people who are honourable and honest.
I particularly welcome the mesothelioma Bill. So many people suffer from asbestos poisoning but are unable to claim from companies because it is unclear where they had the exposure to asbestos. The Bill will see that, at long last, justice will be done and the Government are to be applauded for that.
The Queen’s Speech also included the High Speed 2 Bill—in fact, there will be two Bills. I generally support the paving Bill, because it will make funds available to compensate people who are now suffering from blight. But the main Bill will be a hybrid Bill and I suspect it will reach Third Reading only after the next general election. That Bill will determine how and where HS2 will be constructed.
HS2, as formulated, is causing an unnatural disaster in Staffordshire, and terrible problems in other counties—such as yours, Mr Speaker. It almost seems that the route of HS2 has been deliberately designed to be as damaging as possible to rural England. That cannot be right. I am not one of those who oppose HS2 in principle, for the simple reason that the west coast main line—as anybody who uses it will know—is the most congested line in Europe. Anyone who has waited at Euston railway station knows that the slightest problem—whether it be signal failure, a fault on the line or a broken down train—will cause delays of three to five hours. At least at Euston station one is under cover. At Lichfield Trent Valley station we do not have cover, so unless one is under the railway bridge one is exposed to rain and everything else while waiting for a train. The west coast main line is working at 100% capacity. I therefore accept that we need two extra railway lines to connect north and south.
I have to say that the Government did themselves no favours in 2010 when they argued that the reason for HS2 was to shave five minutes off the journey from Birmingham to London. That is not the reason for HS2. They did themselves no favours when they argued that time on a train is dead time and valueless. A very senior person in the Department for Transport—I dare not mention his name—said to me two or three weeks ago, “Michael, I see people on trains working on computers. Myself, I just stare out of the window and look at the cows.” The point is that even that activity is valuable time. No, the reason for HS2 is the north-south capacity problem on the west coast main line. I therefore accept the principle that we need HS2, but boy could it have been done in a worse way than how it is now being done? No, it could not.
We have chosen a route that carves a devastating line through some of Britain’s most beautiful countryside. The biggest irony of all is that in opposition we opposed the Labour route, and the Labour route is the one we have adopted. In opposition we said that we should adopt the route that the consulting engineers Arup proposed, which would use an existing transport corridor as they do in Europe. It would go up either the M1 or the M40 and then follow the line of the M6 and go into central Birmingham that way and northwards. But no, we adopted the Adonis plan. By the most wonderful trick of irony that we sometimes see in politics in this place, I believe that it is now official Labour party policy to use that route we supported in opposition. The Opposition policy, whether Labour or Conservative, is the route that I support. Why? It is not because I am being a nimby, but simply because it will do far less damage to the environment. Thousands of homes are blighted by the route that HS2 is currently taking.
The Prime Minister has said—I mentioned it earlier when I intervened on my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan)—that the Government will be generous in their compensation. They have to be and they should be, and we must hold the Prime Minister to account.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I am very happy to give way to my hon. Friend, my next-door neighbour from Tamworth.
I am obliged to my hon. Friend, who is my next-door neighbour in Lichfield. He is right to say that the Prime Minister has said that the compensation scheme must be generous. Does he agree that it must also be swift? We both have constituents—as do you, Mr Speaker—whose homes and lives are blighted now. As much as the scheme needs to be generous, it needs to be swift to deliver fairness for them.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Their homes are not just blighted now—they have been blighted for three years, even since this God-forsaken route was published. I know elderly people who want to downsize, but cannot sell their homes. They are now, one might say, asset rich, but very cash poor. They cannot afford the homes they live in as they are retired, and they cannot sell them because they are blighted. It is essential that the Government are generous and swift in their compensation. I welcome the paving Bill, because it will, I hope, enable swift compensation. The Government are currently conducting a compensation consultation on phase 2. I do not know whether you responded to the phase 1 consultation, Mr Speaker, but I did. It was very tightly worded to such a degree that in the end I began to ignore the questions being asked, because I thought they were completely wrong. The phase 2 consultation has been formulated much more openly and satisfactorily.
I have been trying to find out from the Department for Transport whether, when it finally reaches a conclusion on the phase 1 and phase 2 compensation consultations, the compensation packages will be the same. I certainly hope that they will be, because it would be grossly unfair if people living south of Lichfield were treated differently. Incidentally, I am in a unique position because phase 1 ends in the Lichfield constituency and phase 2 begins there. A former chairman of the Conservative party, now chairman of the BBC, might have described that as a double whammy.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher) pointed out, this route is blighting homes, it is blighting lives, and it is blighting the environment. The HS2 policy, as it stands, is not a Conservative policy in the pure, theoretical sense of what conservatism is all about. We need to think carefully not about whether we need HS2, but about how we should execute the project. Otherwise, many people will think that in adopting Labour’s route, proposed by Lord Adonis, the Government have betrayed the vote that they cast in 2010.
It is always interesting to listen to the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant). I can only imagine what it would be like if he really disagreed with the Government: the vehemence of his attack would be something to behold. He made some good points about the impact of the HS2 project and the need to speed it up, as did his neighbour the hon. Member for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher). Speeding up the construction would help the economy, and the blight point was also well made. I live very near to the route of HS1, and that will drag on and on. One of the lessons of HS1 that should be applied to HS2 is the need to deal with blight as speedily as possible.
This feels a bit like speaking in an Adjournment debate. Indeed, I have seen more Members present in the Chamber during Adjournment debates. That may be an indication of the thinness of the fare before us, which may be more worthy of an Adjournment debate. Perhaps that says it all.
I want to discuss the way in which the Queen’s Speech will affect my constituents, and mention some of the proposals that it might have contained which would have affected them far more. Before I do so, however, let me say that I heard the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) come out with the usual Government line about politicians racking up debt around the world. He mentioned his business background and referred to the need for not just cost-cutting but top-line investment. However, he conveniently neglected to mention the role of the banks around the world in contributing to the financial crisis, and the fact that they lent money to people who could not repay it.
The business analogy illustrates the importance of investment. Without investment, business cannot succeed. Similarly, it is the Government’s role to invest in economies, because that is what Governments are there for. When things are tough and there is no one else to invest to stimulate the economy, Governments should step in. The Queen’s Speech did refer to the creation of jobs and growth, but there was precious little to back that up and explain how it would happen.
Let me say something about the Government-backed mortgage scheme, which, it is said, is designed to help people to own their own homes. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Ann McKechin) accurately described the current state of the housing market and the problems that exist not just in her constituency, but all over the country. She spoke of the lack of affordable housing, social housing to rent, and low-cost housing to part-rent-part-buy or to buy outright. Developers want to build the most expensive housing they can, because, of course, they want to make as much money as possible. It is no coincidence that over the years about 2 million houses have been sold under the right to buy and we have a shortage of about 2 million affordable homes. We unquestionably have a housing shortage, and according to the Homes and Communities Agency, affordable housing starts collapsed by 68% in the financial year 2011-12. We have seen an increase in homelessness and rough-sleeping, which is particularly affecting families and children.
A proposal that is designed to underwrite mortgages will help the wealthy because it is for new-builds and more expensive housing, but will it help the housing shortage? If it is designed to help the poorest and tackle the shortage of social housing by moving the market further up, is not that use of Government-backed mortgages one of the reasons why we ended up in a financial crisis in the first place? We all remember Northern Rock and 125% mortgages in this country. It is not just me who says this. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North quoted a number of sources, including the Treasury Committee, commenting on the danger of inflating the housing bubble again and the danger of leaving people, at all levels in the housing market, sooner or later unable to pay, with all the consequences of that, which are still going through the financial system now.
Rising prices are another consequence of having a limited supply of housing, which can put housing out of reach for many, or put people into a false, unaffordable state of ownership. On 20 March, The Daily Telegraph said:
“Given the over-dependence of the British economy on the housing market, it is hardly surprising that Mr Osborne has looked in this direction for salvation. But we question whether it is sensible for the state to enter into the mortgage market in this way. It will do nothing to rebalance the economy, and risks stoking another housing bubble. In addition, even though interest rates will probably remain low, it is dangerous to encourage people to buy who might be vulnerable to an increase in lending costs and negative equity.”
As my hon. Friends have said, there is a housing problem and we need to build affordable homes. We must consider the impact building homes would have on the construction sector, the economy and jobs. There is also a lack of investment in the existing stock of empty homes, which the construction industry is keen to see addressed, hence the calls for a cut in VAT on renovation of property to 5%.
The right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Mr Kennedy) mentioned the International Monetary Fund visit, and IMF chief economist Olivier Blanchard said:
“We said that if things look bad at the beginning of 2013—which they do—then there should be a reassessment of fiscal policy. We still believe that. You have a budget coming in March and we think that would be a good time to take stock and make some adjustments.”
The Budget did not do that. We did not see the kind of moves on housing that I have just described, and we have not seen that in today’s announced measures either.
Sadly, the Chancellor chose to ignore the advice and plough on regardless, and no doubt he will stick to that when he meets the IMF this week. I heard calls for him to ignore any advice from the IMF and to carry on regardless, but for my constituents that would mean more austerity. It would mean more pain for hard-working families, for disabled people and for those desperately trying to find work where only zero-hour or part-time, low-paid jobs are on offer.
There was no vision in today’s announcements for the long-term either. There was no suggestion of how the economy might grow so that public borrowing could finally be reduced, and there was no answer to the question of why the Chancellor said the credit rating was the most important factor on which he should be judged. Many Government Members want deeper spending cuts, but just a few weeks ago thousands of people earning more than £150,000 a year, including many millionaires, were given what their friends in government had promised them, which amounted to £100,000 each year to anyone earning £1 million a year.
At the same time, our constituents paid for that through the bedroom tax and in cuts in support for those in work and those looking for work. While the wealthiest in our society have enjoyed the benefits of a handout from the Chancellor, millions of people are wondering how to pay the bills, put food on the table and heat their homes. It is no surprise that 350,000 people are using food banks, according to the latest figures from the Trussell Trust—and that is before the bedroom tax, the council tax localisation scheme and other attacks on the poorest have really started to bite. At least 30% of those in social housing will be affected by the bedroom tax, and offering discretionary payments is simply not good enough. The housing associations and local authorities in my area have already found that that money does not go anywhere near far enough. People are facing real hardship, and the measure has only just been introduced.
Two of my constituents have told me of their circumstances. A man who has been disabled for 12 years was recently declared fit for work in his work capability assessment, despite having a degenerative disease. He is appealing, but while he does so he loses £25 a week; at the same time, the bedroom tax on his spare room is £14.71 a week and he has to pay £34 in council tax that he has not had to find before, because the council tax benefit is not at the same level it was before last month’s reforms. It all adds up to more than £200 a month for a disabled man who is unable to work and his family. We have heard from other Members about the difficulty disabled people have in finding work—they genuinely want to work, but there are not the jobs for them, and when they go to interview people will not take them on.
The other constituent is a lady who has spina bifida. She passed her work capability assessment, but one question a medically trained member of the Atos staff asked was, “How long have you had this condition?” The idea that someone who is medically trained did not understand what spina bifida was, or its consequences, is deeply troubling for everyone. That sums up some of the problems that people face. My constituent also now has to pay council tax for the first time. She used to work, but when she goes for an interview now people take one look at her and say, “No, I’m sorry, we can’t employ you”, because they assume that it will be difficult for someone with spina bifida to do the work that she has applied for, although she is extremely well qualified. She has no choice but to pay the extra money in council tax, if she can find the money from somewhere. I keep meeting people who have been disadvantaged by the benefit changes. At the same time, we see people at the top doing very nicely out of some of the changes the Government have introduced. Nothing in today’s announcements was encouraging for people looking for work and people who are disabled—people who desperately want to work.
We have heard about the attacks on the people in most need, but a number of colleagues have also mentioned the necessity of support for business. Where is the support for manufacturing to help our flatlining economy and our businesses and to create the full-time, well-paid jobs that people need? Why was there not an announcement about a national investment bank and the regional banks to go alongside it—the kind of support that is needed, which we could have done with desperately many years ago?
Some measures have helped the economy in my constituency. When the Government took office in 2010, however, they scrapped Building Schools for the Future, and that had a profound effect up and down the country. With school building programmes not going ahead, the construction industry and the economy as a whole were hugely affected. One school in my constituency, Aintree Davenhill, was in the primary capital programme. The children at that school used to have lessons in disused aircraft hangars made of corrugated iron. As one can imagine, it was boiling hot in summer and freezing cold in winter, and it certainly was not an ideal teaching and learning environment. The previous Government had approved funding, but whereas phase 1—the infants part of the school—had been completed, phase 2 had not been. When the current Government came into office, they stopped the funding for phase 2. Fortunately, Sefton council, which had sufficient capital in reserve for a primary school, stepped in to fund the rest of the project. I was lucky enough to go to the opening two weeks ago of the brand new school, which is a fantastic tribute to everybody who has worked on the project.
Investment in a primary school, however, makes only a very small contribution to the economy. Much more investment was needed, because the construction industry has wound down, hundreds of thousands of construction workers have been laid off, and businesses have closed. It will take time for any announcements now about construction to build the industry back up.
Another project that I am pleased to see in my constituency is the building of the Thornton relief road. It is a £30 million project. It was first proposed in 1934, and I have mentioned it many times in this Chamber since being elected. The building of the road was finally achieved by a combination of Government and local government funding, but it should have been approved three years ago. The previous Government had given the green light to the scheme, but it was also cancelled, and three years of lack of investment and economic stimulus resulted, as with the cancellation of the Building Schools for the Future programme.
We need urgency from the Government, and we did not see that today. The hon. Member for Lichfield mentioned the High Speed 2 project, and he is right that it will make a huge contribution to the economy, but if it is delayed for many years, we will not see the economic benefits now when they are most needed.
I forgot to mention that the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce Group has said that one good thing that can come out of HS2 is the construction of lines and carriages, providing that that work goes to British companies. I will be asking the Department for Transport to ensure that it does.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for mentioning the importance of using British manufacturing companies for projects in this country. I will mention Bombardier, and the cancellation of the project at the Derby works—a project that went to Siemens—as an example of where our policy was wrong. We must get that sort of thing right—
I am glad that that the hon. Gentleman is nodding. German contracts are let to German companies—there are ways of writing contracts that favour them, and this country must get better at that in relation to our companies.
I mentioned the construction sector and two projects in my constituency. This country should ensure that the supply chain supports local subcontractors and local labour, and that should be written into contracts far more often.
I am glad to see the Minister nod in agreement to that point. This is about supporting the local economy, which can happen only if we prioritise using local subcontractors and their staff. There are always ways of doing that.
I have made the point about the importance of investment in the economy. There was not enough in the measures announced in the Queen’s Speech—frankly, there was precious little—to support the economy and to get the growth we need. Ultimately, to get the deficit down, we must have growth. We must have the investment now; it will not wait. We have had three years of delay. We need immediate investment in construction, in housing and in the kind of projects that we have been discussing in the past hour or so. It is also important that we consider the measures that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Chancellor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls), are proposing on VAT and support for small business.
I will make a final plug for small business. I ran a small business for 15 years and many small businesses in my constituency—not only in construction, but throughout the economy—need growth and the support of Government investment to succeed. Small businesses will create the jobs; they will be the key drivers of the economic recovery that we desperately need. It is no good lending going just to the medium-sized and large companies that are already financially successful and have lots of money in reserve. There must be proper support for the smallest of businesses, and I urge the Government to take that point on board as well as the other points that I have made about investing in the economy.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) and my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant). I agree with my hon. Friend’s reservations about High Speed 2, and if just a fraction—even the tiniest fraction—of the investment in HS2 were invested in cycling infrastructure, it could transform the lives of millions of people across the UK. I am a south-west MP and in that region we feel that we could have benefited from a small percentage of that investment in HS2 being invested in electrification of the line down to the south-west, preventing it from being completely cut off every time that it rains heavily.
Which is most days.
Yes, indeed. They say in the south-west that if one can see across the valley, it is about to rain, and if one cannot see across the valley, it is raining already.
Having expressed those reservations about HS2, I welcome almost everything else within the Gracious Speech. My principal point is about the draft care and support Bill. To see that Bill finally being introduced in this Session of Parliament is very welcome. I remember well the shock and horror of many of my former patients when they realised that if they had assets above the threshold of £23,250, they would receive absolutely no support with their care needs. We know that one in 10 families face losing more than £100,000 of their income just to care for a relative, and that very many people end up having to sell their homes to pay for their care needs. So, such a massive increase in the asset threshold and a cap on lifetime costs is very welcome, particularly because those measures will encourage people to come forward at an earlier stage to seek the help that they need. In turn, that will help to reduce unnecessary admissions as well as helping people to remain as independent as possible for as long as possible.
Of course, the Bill will introduce support and proper assessments for carers, not only for adult and elderly carers but for child carers, who suffer and are robbed of so much of their youth as a result of their caring responsibilities. I am looking forward to seeing the detail in the Bill, and I very much enjoyed being part of the Joint Committee on the draft Bill that made recommendations to the Government; I hope that many of those recommendations will be included in the Bill when it is placed before Parliament.
I also particularly welcome the fact that there will be compensation for the victims of mesothelioma who cannot trace an employer and for those whose employer has gone out of business, or who do not have any insurance. It is particularly cruel that they receive no access to any compensation, despite mesothelioma being almost entirely attributable to asbestos exposure. But, and this is a big but, how ironic that while providing fairness and support for one type of lung cancer we are failing in this Queen’s Speech to address preventing a far more common type of lung cancer—failing to address how we are going to stop the next generation of smokers coming on stream. We should bear in mind that every year 200,000 children take up smoking. Those children will be at risk of going on to face a lifetime of problems. We know that 100,000 people a year at least are dying as a result of smoking-related problems. The failure to take forward plain packaging is a huge missed opportunity.
I want to clarify one thing: there is nothing plain about so-called plain packaging. I would encourage everyone to google what plain packaging looks like. Plain packaging sets out very clearly what is involved. It sets out the disease and suffering that people will face if they do not address their smoking. My experience as a doctor was not so much that people feared the thought of death, but that they most feared the process of dying. The process of dying from many smoking-related illnesses is hideous. We are not just talking about lung cancer. We are talking about, for many people, the years spent in a kind of living death, tied to an oxygen cylinder, suffering from end-stage chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and many other conditions; or the suffering that comes from needlessly losing a leg from arterial disease. Smoking is a leading cause of blindness. There are many effects of smoking—all entirely preventable. So-called plain packs spell that out graphically, and to anyone who hands around such a pack, it is quite beyond a simple public health message. It is a very graphic message.
I welcome what the hon. Lady says about plain packaging. In the Committee stage of the Children and Families Bill, I and a number of Members tabled an amendment about banning smoking in cars with children present. I wonder whether she would agree that we hope that the Government will bring back their own version of that amendment in good time.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Indeed, this is about protecting children, and that is what we should focus on. It is not about introducing a nanny state. The so-called plain packs would not necessarily change the habits of a committed lifetime smoker, but they are aimed predominantly at deterring the next generation. I feel this is a missed opportunity, and I very much hope that as further evidence emerges from Australia, the Government will reconsider their position and send a very sensible public health message.
Many Members have commented that the Gracious Speech is not just about setting out what legislation will be introduced; it is about sending a message on the direction of travel. My very clear view is that Government’s core business does include public health. Members know that I feel strongly about minimum pricing for alcohol. I am not trying to be the nation’s supernanny here— I enjoy a drink myself. This is about trying to get rid of ultra-cheap alcohol.
In my part of the country, we have shops that sell white cider with a maximum price. They are not allowed to sell it for over 23p a unit. I am afraid that is causing carnage. We have recently seen deaths of rough sleepers in my community, and rough sleeping is very closely associated with dependency. We know that as people start to lose control of their drinking, they start to target cheaper and cheaper alcohol. We know that the heaviest drinkers spend 40% less per unit on their alcohol. Just as with the smoking issue, this is not necessarily about saying that it is always possible to save everyone who has become a dependent drinker. We know that 40% of dependent drinkers will, whatever happens, be unable to control their drinking and will lose their life as a result of their dependency. It is about trying to help those who are starting to lose control of their drinking. It is about helping those who are right at the beginning of the journey, who may have developed a harmful pattern of binge-drinking.
The argument goes beyond the public health message and towards what alcohol dependency is doing to our communities. We know, for example, that there are 705,000 children in this country living with a dependent drinker—not just a hazardous drinker or a harmful drinker, but somebody who is dependent on alcohol. We also know that in 40% of child protection cases, alcohol is a key part of the problem. We know that nearly half of all violent crime is partly attributable to alcohol, as I know from my experience of seeing victims of crime and domestic violence. We know that a huge number of those who are victims of domestic violence report that alcohol directly caused or significantly worsened that violence.
We know that about a third of people feel that their town centres have become no-go areas to them at the weekend, and we know that all of us are paying for that. It costs us a staggering amount—about £21 billion a year just within our health service. I welcome the suggestion from the Secretary of State for Health that members of the Front-Bench team should spend time on work experience, and I suggest that suitable work experience for all members of the Front-Bench team would be a Friday night in casualty. If they really want to see what is causing delays in casualty departments at the weekend, they need look no further. Perhaps they would like to go out with the special constables in my area, who tell me that all their time at the weekend is spent dealing with alcohol-related crime and violence.
The final point that I would like to make about the subject is that it is an important cause of health inequality. To all those who say that minimum pricing penalises the poor, I would say that it is the poor who are suffering the most as a result of ultra-cheap alcohol. There are many reasons why we need to address the problem. If alcohol harmed only the individual who was drinking, that would be purely a matter of personal choice, but the wider harm is caused by the ripples that spread out from the individual who is losing control of their drinking, affecting those closest to them, their wider family and their community. So there are good reasons for saying that this is fundamental and core Government business.
I feel very disappointed that such a well-evidenced measure has been dropped from the agenda. It is not good enough to say, “We have not made a decision.” Continually kicking a ball down the road can, in effect, be the same thing as dropping it altogether. I hope that alcohol-related measures come back as “any other business” within the legislative programme.
I call on the Government particularly to look at the emerging evidence from Canada. Apart from the myth from the alcohol industry that such measures would make alcohol unaffordable, which is not the case, other myths are perpetuated. We need to challenge those. What we have seen clearly from states in Canada that have introduced a floor price is that following a 10% rise in the floor price there is a 32% reduction in deaths directly caused by alcohol. That is important evidence. There has also been a decrease in alcohol-related hospital admissions. Let us look at the evidence and have evidence-based policy, rather than listening to the power of lobbyists. It is vital that we look at the power of the alcohol lobby and the way that that operates at the heart of Government. I would like to see a register of lobbyists. I would like to see transparency about who is calling the shots when it comes to forming policy.
I sometimes get a little flack for using social media—surely not, Members might think—but if we look at the Chamber now, which of course is where Members of Parliament should be, we might consider that Twitter can reach parts that other tools cannot. In particular, if we look at the tools that others use, and at the power of the lobbying industry, we will see that MPs need to use every tool at their disposal to fight for the causes they believe in. Public health is fundamental to why I applied to be in this place in the first place, and it is fundamentally Government business. We should look at the evidence.
The Gracious Speech was hardly an earth-shattering event. It was a short speech that, compared with previous ones, had few proposals for legislation and even fewer ideas about the direction the country should take. Before I refer to some of its contents, I want to make the point that it was more notable for what was not in it than for what was.
To date, the Government have introduced a number of measures seeking to bring about constitutional change, such as the Succession to the Crown Act 2013, the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013, which introduces individual electoral registration, and the House of Lords Reform Bill. The first two Acts reached the statute book with our support. The Electoral Registration and Administration Act, however, was substantially amended, effectively negating the Government’s attempt to reduce the number of MPs and introduce new parliamentary constituencies. The House of Lords Reform Bill, of course—well, we all know what happened to it. There were other measures as well, such as the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 and the legislation allowing the referendum on the alternative vote, and we have seen a commission established on the West Lothian question, which has reported, and a commission established on a Bill of Rights.
It is fair to say that the Government, with varying degrees of success, have at least attempted significant constitutional reform over the past three years, but it is now clear that they have run out of steam. It appears, from the absence of constitutional change in the Queen’s Speech, that they have got cold feet and are playing it safe, to the extent that—believe it or not—only one constitutional Bill was announced, and a draft one at that. I refer to the promised draft Bill on electoral arrangements for the National Assembly for Wales.
Some Members might recall that last year the Wales Office published a Green Paper on future electoral arrangements for the National Assembly. Its main suggestion was that the Assembly might change to an Assembly of 30 constituency Assembly Members and 30 regional list Assembly Members. The Government’s intention was straightforward: having gerrymandered the Westminster boundaries in Wales and reduced the number of Welsh MPs by 25%, they hoped also to gerrymander the composition of the Welsh Assembly. Their objective was clearly to prevent the future election of a Labour Government for the National Assembly. However, as we all know, the ERA Bill was amended so that the Conservatives’ attempt to change the constituency boundaries and the number of MPs was thwarted. With the demise of the Westminster boundary changes, the Welsh Assembly boundary changes also bit the dust.
The promised Wales Bill is therefore likely to be extremely modest. In all probability, it will seek to fix the Assembly’s electoral term at five years, rather than four, as it is currently, and it will allow individuals to stand as candidates for both a constituency and a regional list. The fixing of the term at five years is probably relatively uncontentious, but I think that it is wrong that individuals might be able to stand for both a constituency and a regional list, because that will mean losers can be turned into winners. In other words, someone can be rejected in a constituency election and yet be elected through the back door on a regional list.
At a time when the people of Wales are likely to see unemployment rise again, when people’s standards of living are going down, and when the Welsh people are crying out for a vision of the future, what do we have? We have a Conservative-led Government promising to introduce only one piece of constitutional legislation, and only one piece of Welsh legislation, and it is specifically designed to promote the interests of Conservative party candidates.
If the Gracious Speech was bereft of constitutional proposals, there are other noticeable omissions. For example, there is no reference to legislation on the recall of MPs, despite the promises that we have had from the Government. As the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) said, there is no proposal to create a statutory register of lobbyists, despite an explicit commitment in the coalition agreement and despite the fact that the Prime Minister himself has said that
“the next big scandal waiting to happen”
concerns lobbyists. Why this omission? Is it because the Prime Minister was leaned on by the vested interests who fund the Conservative party?
The hon. Lady has had a number of her tweets, to which she referred, retweeted. I was grateful to the Financial Times this afternoon for quoting one of those tweets, which says:
“Are alcohol & tobacco lobbyists the real ‘barnacles’ that need to be scraped off the Ship of State?”
That is a very good question. I cannot for the life of me understand what valid and legitimate reason there can be for not having a statutory register of lobbyists in this House. It is a great omission that does not reflect well on the Government.
The hon. Lady made a very important and, rightly, emotive statement about the effects of tobacco on people, which is a real concern. As well as strong lobbying on behalf of alcohol interests, there is strong lobbying on behalf of tobacco interests. I deeply regret the fact that the Queen’s Speech made no reference to legislation that would introduce plain cigarette packets. Again, that is very remiss of the Government.
What, then, do we have in the Queen’s Speech? One of the more significant elements is the promise to introduce further legislation on immigration. I feel that Labour Members will probably support a number of the measures that the Government introduce. However, it is likely that the impact of many of those measures will, by definition, be very limited. I am concerned that by placing such an emphasis on immigration, the Government may convey a wrong impression about the difficulties that this country faces, possibly in the context of the fact that from 1 January there will be free movement of labour from Romania and Bulgaria. It is right that people’s understandable concerns are addressed and that safeguards are put in place, but in some quarters of our political life and the media we are coming very close to whipping up unnecessary fears among people in a rather irrational way.
I am also worried that the Government are apparently determined to do nothing to stop the exploitation of migrant workers and the undercutting of wage levels of indigenous British workers. It is very important for the minimum wage to be strictly enforced, and I deeply regret the fact that there are very few prosecutions for its non-enforcement. I also want the gangmasters licensing legislation to be tightened up substantially. If that was done, I think we could correctly say that the exploitation of all workers was being addressed.
The Government have to match their rhetoric on illegal immigration with practical measures to ensure that the UK Border Agency can do its job more effectively. For example, UKBA should be given the ability to deal with bogus student cases and the shortcomings in student visas. I have highlighted that issue in particular because the Government themselves have emphasised its importance.
In conclusion, this year’s Queen’s Speech is strong on broad intentions, but weak on specific proposals. It identifies issues of concern, but fails to propose measures to address them properly. It is laudable for its succinctness, but lamentable for its lack of vision and coherence. I am confident that in two years’ time the Gracious Speech will be of far greater quality and of much more substance.
Ordered, That the debate be now adjourned.— (Mr Syms.)
Debate to be resumed tomorrow.
Burma (Human Rights)
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Syms.)
It is a privilege to have secured the first end-of-day debate of the new Session of Parliament.
I would suggest to those hon. Members present for this important debate that the most memorable occasion during the previous Parliament—it will live long in my memory for many Parliaments to come—was when Aung San Suu Kyi addressed both Houses of Parliament. Her brave and long fight for freedom and democracy represents our strong and vibrant hope for the future of Burma. Today’s state opening has shown that Parliament does pageantry well, but Aung San Suu Kyi spoke of how Parliament is also a beacon for freedom and democracy. It is, therefore, appropriate that this first end-of-day debate will shine a light on the human rights situation in Burma.
Ministers have been diligent in pressing the Burmese Government to improve their human rights record. We must recognise the importance of the United Kingdom’s approach to a country that is far from these shores: the light that we shine has an influence in Burma. The Kachin Peace-talk Creation Group said recently that the UK’s role in Burma’s progress is crucial. We are one of the most influential countries in Burma, so this debate is important.
The Government can act in four areas. First, they must urge the Burmese Government to pursue full rights and recognition for the Rohingya people and other religious and ethnic minorities. That has to include reforming citizenship laws, allowing the United Nations and aid organisations to work freely in the neediest nations, inviting the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, and signing and ratifying the international covenant on civil and political rights.
Last week I visited Burma, including Rakhine state, where 140,000 Rohingya Muslims have been displaced, along with Kaman Muslims, and I also saw Rakhines in camps. I saw first-hand what is happening and I concur with the hon. Gentleman that one of the fundamental issues for humanitarian access, or the lack of it, is the question of citizenship. The way things are practised and the reality of people’s everyday lives is like apartheid. As well as the need to address the catastrophic humanitarian situation, especially ahead of the rainy season, the Government need to apply much greater pressure on the Burmese Government to resolve the question of citizenship as soon as possible.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady and to the other hon. Members present who have raised this issue and spoken about the Rohingya people in particular. Arakan state, which she visited, with its predominantly Rohingya population, has been one of the most persecuted areas. It is striking that Médecins sans Frontières describes the Rohingya as one of the 10 people groups in the world most at risk of extinction. When one considers that there are approximately 1 million Rohingya in Burma, that is a chilling statistic. We must all take heed of that warning.
As the hon. Lady said, aid is an important responsibility of the UK Government. We must pay tribute to their record on aid. We are the major donor country for internally displaced people and are very much at the top of the tree in that regard. However, we must ensure that the aid gets to the right places. I therefore call on the UK Government to work alongside the Burmese Government and non-governmental organisations to continue to provide that aid and to ensure that there is an increase in the emergency aid for the tens of thousands of people who have been displaced in the Arakan and Kachin states.
Thirdly, I urge the Government to encourage the Burmese Government to establish initiatives to promote the important inter-religious and inter-ethnic dialogue and reconciliation. Fourthly, Burma should be included in the Foreign Secretary’s pioneering preventing sexual violence initiative. We all commend that important initiative, but we have not yet heard that Burma will be included.
I sought to have this debate two weeks ago when the European Union lifted sanctions on Burma in recognition of its recent progress. We must recognise the work that has been done by the Burmese Government to overcome the deep divisions in parts of Burmese society, but we must also be honest and recognise the great obstacles that are yet to be overcome. We must look at the benchmarks that were set before the decision was made to suspend economic sanctions.
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for securing the first Adjournment debate of the new Session on this important subject. Some of us in this House are very interested in Burma and have deep concerns about it. He is right that Burma has made progress, but I think we all recognise that it has to make further progress. Does he agree that the Burmese Government should allow the UN special rapporteur to conduct an independent investigation into the abuses in Rakhine state? Burma is setting up its own inquiry, but there needs to be a separate independent inquiry led by the UN.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. He secured an important Adjournment debate on the Rohingya people. It is important that we raise the concerns of Burma in every way we can.
As I said earlier, we should encourage Burma to offer an invitation to the UN special rapporteur. There should be witnesses to what is happening there. Many of us have raised the importance of witnesses and independent investigations in relation to conflicts in other parts of the world, not least in Sri Lanka. However, those points need to be balanced with the need to encourage Burma along the way of democracy and recognising the rule of law. It must increasingly have its own robust, independent investigations. We must work alongside and in partnership with Burma. There should be an invitation for the UN special rapporteur, but we must also encourage Burma to step up. The early steps along the road to democracy must include the bringing to account of the perpetrators of the horrendous acts that I will go into in some detail.
When the decision was taken on economic sanctions, the Foreign Affairs Council of the European Union set out several benchmarks.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will get to the benchmarks shortly, but first I will give way again.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for being generous in giving way, as always. He has brought an important issue to the Floor of the House.
Does the hon. Gentleman feel that there has to be an embargo on the military equipment that the Burmese army is using against ethnic groups, and in particular against Christian groups? Does he agree that that would be one way of trying to address the cruel and violent activities of the Burmese army? My right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) has been involved in some talks with the Burmese Government and with groups out there, and I believe he has some knowledge of ways to address the issue.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. We will hear from the Minister about the sanctions that still apply to military equipment. That embargo continues, whereas economic sanctions have been lifted. We still need to be rigorous about military hardware, particularly given the responsibility shared by the military for acts of omission, not always of commission.
The benchmarks for the lifting of sanctions included
“the unconditional release of remaining political prisoners and the removal of all restrictions placed on those already released”,
an end to conflict in the country,
“substantially improved access for humanitarian assistance”
“addressing the status and improving the welfare of the Rohingyas.”
It is therefore important that the Minister informs us whether, to the best of his knowledge—I recognise that it is not his primary responsibility in the Department—those criteria have been properly met. Does he also know why there was no reference in the EU Council conclusions to the situation in Kachin state? That is an interesting question.
Over the past year, Burmese minorities have suffered extraordinary attacks and human rights violations. Some of the most disturbing came when the Burmese army launched air strikes against Kachin Independence Army troops in Kachin state in December. The strikes lasted nearly a month. More than 100,000 Kachin civilians were internally displaced, and human rights organisations report cases of rape, torture, forced labour and killing of civilians.
The attacks followed an 18-month offensive by the Burma army, which broke a 17-year ceasefire with the KIA. In that offensive, human rights violations increased significantly, and 100,000 people fled their homes and remain displaced. Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which I commend along with other organisations for highlighting the extent of the abuse, discovered horrific incidents of human rights being breached. One man told of how his wife was raped by Burmese soldiers and is assumed dead, but the Supreme Court in Naypyidaw dismissed all charges against the Burmese military, reinforcing the sense of many that the Burmese military have effective impunity. Other stories tell of children shot, a grandmother gang-raped and homes and churches destroyed and looted.
The marginalisation of Muslims takes its fullest and most monstrous form in a majority Rohingya area such as Arakan, but it is not limited to those areas. That is why we need to challenge the Burmese Government, and Burma in general, about how systemic the discrimination and abuse of human rights are. Even in the more progressive cities, Muslims are no strangers to discrimination. The 969 campaign, for example, attempts to ban Muslims from any non-Muslim shops. The fact that that is occurring in the cities is a symptom of the divisions that sadly run deep through Burmese society. The feelings that are manifested in segregated shops in Yangon are manifested in banning the sale of food to Rohingyas in Arakan state. There, many Arakanese block the Rohingya’s food supply. One Rohingya man was reportedly told, “We will stop all food for you, and do you know why? We’ll do it so you’ll leave here quickly and permanently.”
I thank the hon. Gentleman for generously giving way again. The Rakhine commission reported last week and was not even willing to accept the term “Rohingya” as an ethnic group. The Rohingya Muslim population were referred to as “Bengalis” to deny them their Burmese and ethnic citizenship rights, which go back hundreds and hundreds of years—they would say to the seventh century, not to 1826 and the British period. Some may mistakenly think that this is about recent migration. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the British Government ought to produce a response to the Rakhine commission setting out our concerns about what seems like a whitewash, and requiring international attention and independent scrutiny of what is happening?
I am sure the Minister will respond to that point, but in addition, in July the monks’ association in Mrauk U released a statement saying that the Rohingya
“want to destroy the land of Arakan...and plan to exterminate Arakanese people and use their money to buy weapons to kill Arakanese people...from today, no Arakanese should sell any goods to Bengalis, hire Bengalis as workers, provide any food to Bengalis and have any dealings with them, as they are cruel by nature.”
Such incitement infects people’s view of the Rohingya. Many Arakan believe that the Rohingya are determined to destroy Burma and that mosques double as weapons stores, and sadly such beliefs permeate supposedly decent society. Indeed, such terms were mentioned in the recent report by Human Rights Watch, published—ironically—in the week sanctions were lifted. A statement released by the monks of one sangha proclaimed:
“The ‘Arakan Ethnic Cleansing Program’ of bad pagans...taking advantage of our kindness to them, is revealed today.”
It is important to hear from those who are suffering—sadly—at the hands of Buddhist monks who are forcing the Arakanese population to isolate Rohingya communities, teaching them that the Rohingya plan to exterminate them. One man was killed for selling rice to Rohingya, and sadly, public statements and pamphlets urging ethnic cleansing are common. The Arakanese are provoked to attack Muslim communities and mosques, believing that all Rohingya are terrorists. The police rarely step in, often watching the carnage unfold. One Muslim in Arakan told how his neighbour’s house was burned down one early evening, although 15 police were watching outside.
In its compelling report last month, Human Rights Watch found that following the violence and abuses last June, some security forces in Arakan state were destroying mosques and Muslim homes. A Rohingya woman from Sittwe said:
“Many houses were left standing but they were destroyed by the Government, not the Arakanese. There was nothing wrong with our house. It was still there”
after the violence. In Sittwe, the local government is reported to have destroyed five structurally sound mosques, saying they were
“not good to look at.”
It is little wonder that one Rohingya said:
“The police are Arakanese, too. They hate us.”
Following hostilities, the police and army arrested many Rohingya, some as young as eight, and transferred them to unknown locations. One UN official reported
“torture, humiliating torture. They are kept without food, water, clothes...beatings can start immediately, even in the street...people die from beatings.”
Even United Nations and non-governmental organisation staff have been imprisoned on trumped-up charges and denied their basic rights.
Perhaps the most haunting stories are those from the days following the atrocities as mass graves are dug and filled. One man spoke of seeing
“trucks full of dead bodies...The smell was terrible.”
As mentioned previously in the House, one Arakanese attack in October resulted in the deaths of 70 or more Rohingya in one village. Two days later, villagers began digging individual graves for Rohingya killed in the massacre, but police and army officials made them dig mass graves so that the bodies would be buried quicker. A Rohingya man said that they buried 30 children who had been stabbed to death.
Such stories evoke uncomfortable memories of other areas of cleansing and indeed genocide, and that is before we consider the persecution of Christians in Chin state, which has been previously raised in the House, or the recent violence in Shan state, Oakkan, Meikhtila and Rakhine state. The horrors of people squeezing into small boats and trying to flee across the bay of Bengal is another tragedy that could take up a debate of its own.
As I said, this debate was originally scheduled for two weeks ago, yet even since then, severe crimes have been perpetrated. Last Tuesday at 10 am in Oakkan township, a Muslim lady had an accident with a young novice monk and broke his monk’s begging bowl. She apologised and offered compensation, but what did the police do? They charged her with blasphemy. A mob of hundreds of people surrounded the police station, demanding she be handed over to them. At 1 pm, mobs looted 200 Muslim properties, destroyed two mosques and burned down an Islamic school in the township. At 4 pm, three other villages were arson attacked—three mosques and hundreds of Muslim houses were burned down. When the mobs heard that the army was coming, they left and burned down six other Muslim villages for good measure on their way. That was all in one day, last week.
I therefore urge the Government to do everything possible in their power to continue to seek the protection and recognition of Burmese minorities such as the Rohingya. The British Government took the lead in pushing for EU sanctions to be imposed. Now that the sanctions have been lifted, they should take the lead to ensure they have not been lifted in vain, and that there is no further relaxation of pressure until those issues are addressed. We recognise that with freedom comes responsibility. The encouragement of greater economic freedom must be matched by the greater responsibility of taking human rights abuses seriously.
The House must recognise that the solution to the divisions in Burma will be found not only by the actions of the Burmese Government. Nevertheless, they must take a lead on helping to reconcile communities. They cannot encourage respect and reconciliation while failing to recognise the citizenship rights of the Rohingya and other minorities. I therefore welcome the recent condemnation of the attacks on the Rohingya people by President Thein Sein, but now is the time for actions rather than just words.
The Burmese Government can give minorities back their rights by reforming the 1982 citizenship law. Then we can point to real progress in both treatment and attitude. The test of the new democracy in Burma will be how it treats its minorities, as it is in any democracy—that is the test that we seek to apply in this country and in all nations. If the Burmese minorities continue to be classified as less than citizens, Burma will have failed what we can call the Rohingya human rights test, by which we can judge how Burma’s democracy is functioning.
Let me ask the Minister to respond on the four actions that we can expect at the very least. We should urge full rights for all minorities, and continued and focused aid. We must support Government initiatives to promote inter-religious and inter-ethnic dialogue, and Burma must be included in the preventing sexual violence initiative.
I conclude not with my words, but with the recent words of Archbishop Charles Maung Bo, who has warned that
“our fragile freedom…that…is just beginning to emerge could be snatched from our hands and Myanmar could descend into a vicious cycle of hatred, violence and turmoil”.
He has urged people to
“promote inter-religious dialogue, peace and harmony, and work together to rebuild not only the physical structures of our country, but the hearts and minds of our people.”
As you well know, Mr Speaker, Burma is in a new dawn of democratic government, but the light is yet to reach far too many people. I urge the Minister and all in the House not to let the Rohingya and other Burmese minorities be left forgotten in the shadows.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) on introducing the debate. I rise to echo many of the sentiments he has expressed in such an eloquent and heartfelt manner.
It is right to welcome the positive changes that are taking place in Burma, including the increased space for civil society, media and democratic political actors; improvements in freedom of expression; the release of some political prisoners; and the participation of Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy in the parliamentary process. It is also right to recognise and encourage the efforts of reformers. However, as my hon. Friend has so graphically expressed, grave human rights violations continue and, as has been mentioned, none of the EU’s benchmarks has been fully met. Given the EU’s decision to lift sanctions, I urge the Minister to press the EU to spell out new ways in which it will prioritise, protect and promote human rights in Burma, and to send a strong message to the Government of Burma that, although sanctions have been lifted, the EU will not turn a blind eye to the continuing widespread violations of human rights there.
We can be encouraged by the Burmese Government’s intentions, such as those expressed by the Deputy Minister for Education and his emphasis on reform in the education system, including proposals to establish school councils consisting of outstanding students, designed, he said,
“to enable students to be involved in school administration and to build up leadership skills”.
He emphasised human rights and peace education, citizenship responsibilities and ethnic harmony as part of the curriculum. On the subject of ethnic diversity, he said:
“It is very important that there is peace, friendship and harmony. We do not want to live separately, we want to live side by side with the ethnic nationalities.”
He also emphasised English language teaching and encouraged the idea of bringing in native English speakers to improve English language standards. I hope that is something that this country will actively encourage.
I hope too that we will actively encourage reform of the public sector. A conversation I had only the week before last with a leading representative of an NGO highlighted how almost two generations of the civil service, the police and the public sector need proper training and education in how to act professionally in those organisations.
In light of the recent grave disturbances, it is critical that the Government of Burma, all political leaders, religious leaders from all communities, civil society, the international community and NGOs work together to promote religious harmony and peace, national reconciliation, law and order, freedom of religion and belief, and wider human rights for all the people of Burma, and to take clear and immediate action to bring the perpetrators of violence and hatred to justice and to counter hate speech and extremist propaganda of all kinds.
If concrete action is taken, the expression of good intent is converted into such action and political reforms develop from the current fragile change in atmosphere into a more substantive change of system, Burma has a real opportunity to achieve peace, freedom and democracy. I hope that this country will play its part. The international community must invest in urging the Government of Burma to address those grave violations of human rights that we have heard about this evening; in promoting inter-religious dialogue and reconciliation; in establishing a genuine peace process involving political dialogue—
Does my hon. Friend agree that we should not see an amnesty for those who perpetrate sexual violence as a weapon of war and ethnic cleansing?
I agree with my hon. Friend. If justice is to mean anything, it means bringing the perpetrators to rights.
The international community must avoid premature euphoria and remain vigilant in promoting human rights for all the people of Burma. As Aung San Suu Kyi has said, some countries
“are going overboard with optimism, making the Government think that it is getting everything right”.
International policy towards Burma should be recalibrated to ensure that, while the reforms implemented so far are acknowledged, welcomed and encouraged, a strategy is adopted that combines pressure and critical constructive engagement, focusing on ending the grave violations of human rights, responding to the urgent humanitarian needs of the people, and countering religious and racial hatred and violence.
I join my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate and others to ask the Minister what he will propose to the EU in terms of additional pressure for improvements in human rights in Burma. I ask him to urge that the Government of Burma consider the immediate and unconditional release of all remaining political prisoners; action to end the use of torture and other violations of human rights in prisons and other detention facilities; the review and amending of the constitution in consultation with all political parties and ethnic nationalities; immediate and urgent action to tackle religious hatred and violence, to ensure adequate protection for all religious and ethnic communities and bring the perpetrators of religiously motivated violence and those who are complicit in such violence to justice, and to promote inter-religious dialogue, reconciliation and harmony; reform of the curriculum for religious education in schools to ensure that children are taught a basic understanding of all major religions and promote understanding and respect for all religions in Burma—
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Syms.)
I ask the Minister to ensure that the EU urges the Government of Burma to announce a nationwide ceasefire and establish a nationwide peace process with all ethnic armed resistance organisations, involving a genuine political dialogue in search of a political solution to decades of civil war; to end immediately all military offensives in Kachin state and northern Shan state, and establish a genuine peace process with the Kachin Independence Organisation, involving a political dialogue; and to end immediately all violations of the ceasefire in Shan state. The EU should also urge the Government of Burma to allow unhindered and regular access for international and national humanitarian organisations to provide urgently needed humanitarian assistance to internally displaced peoples in Kachin state and Arakan state; to end violations of freedom of religion or belief and ensure protection of freedom of religion or belief, as defined in article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights, in all parts of the country; to invite the UN special rapporteur for freedom of religion or belief to visit Burma at the earliest opportunity—as has already been proposed by the hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth)—with unrestricted access to all parts of the country, particularly to Muslim communities affected by recent violence; to sign and ratify the international covenant on civil and political rights without reservation; and lastly, again joining with my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate, urgently to review and amend or repeal the 1982 citizenship law, in accordance with international norms. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) on securing this timely and important debate on the issues facing Burma. I thank him for his usual courtesy in giving us sight of his speech so that I am able to refer to a number of the issues he raised. I also thank Members for attending the debate, a larger number than is usual for a late-night Adjournment debate, and for their obvious interest. There is no doubt that their interest in Burma, expressed over a lengthy period by their visits and interest in human rights issues—not least by yourself, Mr Speaker—has been supported by a number of their constituents. Allow me to set out the background to some changes before dealing with some of the issues raised by colleagues in their remarks.
The decision a year ago to suspend economic sanctions against Burma was a key step in encouraging the regime to continue down the road of democratic reform. The decision on 22 April by EU Foreign Ministers to lift those sanctions, except the arms embargo, recognises the significant progress that has been made. By-elections a year ago gave Aung San Suu Kyi and her party 42 seats in Burma’s Parliament. Ceasefire agreements have been signed with 10 out of the 11 ethnic armed groups. We have seen many hundreds of political prisoners released. Daily newspapers are now sold on the streets of Rangoon, free from censorship. Those are real benefits to ordinary Burmese people who want to live, work and raise their families free from fear. As Aung San Suu Kyi herself said,
“It is time we let these sanctions go...we can't go on relying on sanctions for ever to aid the democracy movement.”
While it is right that we acknowledge the strides Burma has made towards reform since President Thein Sein took office in 2010, it is also right that we continue to express our concerns and take action. That same balance has been echoed by those who have spoken in the debate. Human rights remain at the heart of UK policy and our discussions with the Burmese Government. By lifting EU sanctions, we have paved the way for deeper engagement on issues of concern. Our engagement has, to date, yielded progress in a number of areas. The United Kingdom is supporting peace negotiations and reconciliation to turn ceasefires with ethnic armed groups into political dialogue. In Kachin state, we are cautiously optimistic about early engagement between the Burmese Government and the Kachin Independence Organisation. We recognise that a ceasefire agreement will require time and effort.
The language of the EU Council conclusions—referred to by a number of Members—which accompanied the lifting of sanctions highlights the need for action to address the conflict in Kachin state. The EU will not be short of determination to exert pressure in that regard, and we will not be short of determination to press our EU partners. We have said to both sides that we stand ready to support the process in any way we can.
On 15 April, the Burmese Minister for the President’s office, Aung Min, led a delegation to London, where they met the Foreign Secretary and other political figures before travelling to Northern Ireland to learn from our experiences there. Once again, people were given an opportunity to learn about reconciliation from the pain and difficulty experienced in Northern Ireland, and also from the political leadership that it has provided in recent years.
Hundreds of political prisoners have been released, and are now being reintegrated into society. On 23 April, the Burmese Government announced the further release of more than 50. We are delighted that prominent members of the “88 Generation” of former political prisoners will visit the UK in June. However, about 200 remain in prison. We will continue to put pressure on the Burmese Government to ensure that their political prisoner review mechanism is comprehensive and transparent, leading to the release of all political prisoners, which was one of the requests listed by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce).
Britain is Burma’s largest bilateral aid donor. We are providing £187 million between 2011 and 2015 to support education, health care and governance. Despite its massive development potential, Burma remains one of the poorest countries in south-east Asia. Lasting prosperity for the Burmese people will also come from responsible business investment, which will create much-needed jobs and opportunities for training and education. That is why, last month, G8 Foreign Ministers, under British chairmanship, endorsed the Burmese Government’s calls for responsible investment in Burma.
Responding to a request from Aung San Suu Kyi, we are supporting the development of Burma’s Parliament and strengthening democratic accountability. Last month, three Burmese Members of Parliament visited the UK to learn about budget scrutiny. That work will grow and continue.
May I ask a question about bilateral aid? Will the Minister tell us—or otherwise arrange for a letter to be placed in the Library, or write to hon. Members—about the financial and technical assistance that we are offering to the various United Nations and humanitarian agencies, particularly those that are working in Rakhine state? Will he also tell us whether we are offering similar support to agencies which are working with refugees and asylum seekers who are in Bangladesh, having fled from Burma?
We are offering such support, but I probably could provide more detail by placing a letter in the Library. I do not want merely to come out with the obvious platitudes and say that we are engaged in that respect, because of course we are.