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 28 May—home affairs and justice; Monday 1 June—Britain in the world; Tuesday 2 June—health and social care; Wednesday 3 June—devolution and growth across Britain; and Thursday 4 June—the economy.
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 to leave to offer our humble thanks to Your Majesty for the Gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament.
It is a great honour for me, and for my constituents, to propose the Humble Address, not least as this is the first majority Conservative Government elected since 1992—and one should not lose sight of the historical context of this achievement. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is the first Prime Minister who served a full term to win his second general election with more seats and a higher share of the vote since Lord Palmerston in 1857.
It is a pleasure to be called first in a debate by you, Mr Speaker, though I suspect this will be the last time.
I must confess that I am finding this a nerve-racking experience, because I am not used to addressing such a packed Chamber. In fact, I feel a bit like a very young British diplomat serving in our mission in Beijing in the mid-1960s who at a diplomatic reception found to his horror that he was standing next to Chairman Mao. He was terrified that whatever he said would be inadequate and he desperately racked his brains to try to find something intelligent to say. Finally, he found what he thought was intelligent and asked Mao, “What do you think would have happened if Khrushchev rather than President Kennedy had been killed in Dallas.” There was total silence and he felt that he had committed the diplomatic faux pas that he was trying to avoid. What he did not know, as all too often I do not know, but certainly my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister knows, is that wise men always think before they speak. After what seemed like an eternity, Mao turned to the young man and very quietly said, “I don’t think that Mr Onassis would have married Mrs Khrushchev.”
Talking of diplomats, I would like to pay tribute to our former colleague William Hague. He was a great parliamentarian and an outstanding Foreign Secretary who will be sorely missed. I am personally indebted to him for arranging for me to meet Hillary Clinton at the Foreign Office four years ago. Towards the end of the meeting, William grabbed my arm, pulled up my jacket sleeve and thrust my wrist in front of our distinguished American guest. At first, I was worried that William was wanting to demonstrate his judo skills, but it soon became clear that he was attempting to show Hillary my watch, which features a picture of her on the face of it. Hillary looked at it and literally screamed with laughter—I knew it was laughter, but her secret service protection officers were not so sure; they immediately stepped forward, and one of them was heard to mutter, “What the hell’s he done to her?” Fortunately, calm was restored before what could easily have been an untimely by-election in Chelmsford.
Despite the security scare, I thought the meeting had gone pretty well. I was therefore taken aback when William called me a few months ago with some unsettling news. Hillary had got wind of my desire to help her 2016 presidential campaign, and it was not good news he had to convey to me. She told William she had heard about my record: “He worked for McGovern’s campaign in ’72, and he lost; he worked for Ted Kennedy’s campaign in 1980, and he lost; he worked for Kathleen Kennedy Townsend’s campaign in 2002, and she lost; and he worked for my campaign in 2008, and I lost. For goodness’ sake”, Hillary pleaded with him, “please find Simon something—anything—else to do, away from the United States in 2016.”
Proposing the Humble Address is a great honour for me. In many ways, this is a kaleidoscope Queen’s Speech—people can twist it as much as they want, but all the patterns are blue, without a hint of yellow, red or purple. I was brought down to earth, however, when I reread the excellent seconding speech by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) in 1992, when he defined the role of the proposer and seconder. He said a seconder had the opportunity to shine and further advance their career, so I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) has a glittering future ahead of her, but as he explained, the proposer is
“some genial old codger on the way out”.—[Official Report, 6 May 1992; Vol. 207, c. 56.]
I now know my role in life. Never again, when the word “reshuffle” permeates Westminster, will I sit anxiously by my telephone, because I now know that old codgers only have a past to look forward to.
In recent years there have been dastardly rumours that you, Mr Speaker, and I do not get on, or even—heaven forbid—that we do not like each other. Just before Dissolution, I read an article by your biographer, who bizarrely suggested that I might be ugly, but, as you know, it is said that politics is show business for ugly people, so, Mr Speaker, I would say that we are all in this together.
It is time, Mr Speaker, that we buried the hatchet—preferably not in my back—so I would like to offer an olive branch by clearing up a rumour about your car. As you will know, in recent years my relationship with cars has not been an altogether happy one, but it has been said that a few years ago my car reversed into yours in Speaker’s Court. You apparently saw the incident through the window of your apartment and hurried out shouting at me, “I’m not happy”, to which I am reputed to have replied, “Then which one are you?” If it is helpful to you, Mr Speaker, I want categorically to confirm that this incident never happened.
It is also said that anyone wanting to keep a secret should mention it in the Chamber of the House of Commons. As I trust all right hon. and hon. Members here today, I would like to make a confession—[Interruption.] When I first came to this House, two MPs a week had to queue overnight in armchairs in a room upstairs for ten-minute rule Bill slots because of the high demand for them. Believe it or not—this is true—the night I chose was with Ann Widdecombe. If Jack Kennedy was the man who accompanied Jackie Kennedy to Paris in 1961, I am the man who spent the night with Ann Widdecombe in 1991!
I am very proud of my constituency, which is set in the heart of Essex. It is the home of “Essex man” and “Essex girls”, who like to work hard and play even harder. It might have caught on only over the last few years, but I have been saying it since 1987—“The only way is Essex!” My constituents fully embrace the work ethic: they are aspirational for themselves and their families, believing that the harder they work, the more they should benefit, without losing sight of helping those who are genuinely in trouble or need assistance.
My constituents understood the scale of the economic mess that we inherited and they accepted the measures my right hon. Friend the Chancellor took to establish the firm foundations of our long-term economic plan. That has meant for my constituents: unemployment down; inflation down; the deficit down; income taxes down—and growth up. They welcomed the income tax cuts through the significant raising of personal allowances each year of the last Parliament. For these reasons, they will warmly welcome the tax lock Bill, which will ensure no tax rise on income, VAT or national insurance contributions throughout the lifetime of this Parliament. They will also welcome the childcare Bill, which will double free childcare for three and four-year-olds to 30 hours a week, as this will help a tremendous number of young mothers in my constituency who would like to get back into work but find it difficult because of the cost of childcare.
My constituents are forthright in their views, and what will impress them about this Queen’s Speech is that we have kept the faith by honouring our election commitments. During the election, the media and the pundits said we would not be able to deliver. This Gracious Speech disproves that fallacy, and I commend it to the House.
It is an honour to be invited to second this Humble Address, which was proposed so eloquently by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns). He has the pleasure of representing an area that differs considerably from my own, although I am sure many of his constituents have had fantastic holidays in the beautiful Duchy of Cornwall.
This honour really belongs to the people who live in South East Cornwall, and I am proud that they have chosen me to represent them in this place for a further term. South East Cornwall is where I have always called home: it is where I was born, where I was schooled, where I have worked and where I am proud to call home. Anyone who has visited my beautiful constituency, who has walked the rugged coastline or explored the wonderful countryside and met the warm, genuine folk of Cornwall will understand why it is where my heart lies.
I think I am right in saying that I am the first Cornish maid to second the Loyal Address, although back in 1971 the proposer was the Member of Parliament for St Ives. I am pleased to welcome the new Conservative representative, my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas), although he did keep us waiting: his constituency was the last to declare.
During the election campaign, the Prime Minister visited Cornwall on a number of occasions. On one occasion, a group of enthusiastic party supporters were summoned to a large cowshed to meet him: that is the way we do things in Cornwall. In his rallying speech, he mentioned how glad he was to be in the county of Poldark. Like Poldark, the Prime Minister rode into Cornwall—not on a horse, but on a bus—where he was introduced to all those who were waiting by my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann), who himself has been likened to Aidan Turner, the actor who played Ross Poldark.
On the morning of 8 May, as votes were counted in that same cowshed, it became evident that true-blue representation throughout Cornwall was on course to double when my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) was elected. The Prime Minister can now tell his wife that, like Ross Poldark, he has his own six-pack—six blue constituencies in Poldark’s county—and that three new Conservative Members are joining me and my hon. Friends the Members for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) and for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice).
The result of the general election was a surprise to many people. Cornwall is surrounded by blue water, and the blue tide rose, sweeping across the duchy, but it did not stop at the Tamar. It crossed into Plymouth, where a new Member, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer), joined my hon. Friends the Members for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) and for South West Devon (Mr Streeter). The tide swept across Devon, and halted only when it reached the constituency of the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), where his defences could not quite be penetrated. I know from experience in my own constituency that water does have a way, so he should be warned.
I look forward to working with colleagues from Devon, and with other west country Members, but I want to set a clear ground rule for my right hon. and hon. Friends. Given that I am Cornish born and bred, it will comes as no surprise to hear me mention clotted cream. I say to my colleagues, “Please note: the jam must come first on the scone, before the cream.” If they agree, I am sure that we shall get along fine. I pay tribute to the Prime Minister for putting his jam and cream on a scone in the proper way. It has been said that the only reason those in Devon prepare their cream teas incorrectly is their wish to hide their use of clotted cream with the jam.
A number of dairy farmers in my constituency and elsewhere have diversified, producing not only cream but cheese. The Gracious Speech supports aspiration and small businesses like those producers, and I am sure that they will welcome it.
Many of my constituents told me that they had been waiting for an EU referendum Bill for a very long time, and were fed up with hearing that it would be provided directly by Opposition Members. I am delighted that the Bill is at last going to happen, and I welcome the fact that the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) has changed her mind and decided to support it. I shall not dwell on the fact that she has changed her mind; women do.
I cannot end without passing on special thanks to the Prime Minister from the residents of my home villages, Kingsand and Cawsand. Last Saturday, I attended the reopening of the newly repaired clock tower, and the Prime Minister’s help in making this historic building survive was acknowledged. The building was reopened by 102-year-old Doll Jago, who is the oldest resident in the village. It was extremely special for me because Doll’s late son, Tony, first introduced my late husband Neil to commercial fishing.
It gives me great pleasure, on behalf of Cornwall, to commend the Gracious Speech to the House.
I am sure the whole House will want to pay tribute to our armed forces. Since the last Queen’s Speech, UK military operations in Afghanistan have come to an end; 453 British servicemen and women lost their lives in that campaign and many more were injured. They served with valour and they deserve our gratitude, and we honour them here today. Our thoughts and deepest sympathies are with their families, to whom we pledge our enduring support.
I congratulate the mover and seconder of the Queen’s Speech. Traditionally, as has been said, the seconder is a rising star with a bright future ahead of them and the mover is someone of great distinction with an illustrious career behind them, so it is a pleasure to congratulate the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns) as the mover of this Queen’s Speech. He came into the House in 1987, shortly after I did, and I remember it well, because he cut a real dash then. [Laughter.] Many of us—well, me actually—thought he looked like a young Robert Redford; I know these days it is a bit more Jeremy Clarkson, but, believe me, back in the day he was real head-turner.
As everyone could hear from the right hon. Gentleman’s speech, he is outspoken and engaging, and irrepressible. He was public health Minister, but he did not let that stop him smoking—it was the red box in one hand and the fag in the other—and the fact that he is a Tory has, as we have heard, never stopped him being a passionate supporter of the US Democrats and Hillary Clinton’s No. 1 fan. His good humour did not desert him even when he was rail Minister dealing with the vexed issue of HS2. Nothing will stop him speaking his mind, except possibly you, Mr Speaker, and at a time when we politicians are thought of as all the same—too cautious, too guarded—no one could ever say that about him. He made a good speech today, and I congratulate him on it.
I also congratulate the seconder of the motion, the hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray). She was elected in 2010, the first woman to represent her constituency and only the sixth woman ever elected in Cornwall. We are here to bring the issues of concern of our constituents to the heart of Parliament, and she is a fine example of that when she speaks about her beloved county of Cornwall—or as we know it, the county of Poldark. She does not just speak up for them; she gets things done for them. It is hard to believe that someone who was elected for the first time only in 2010 has already got two Bills put into law—the Marine Navigation (No. 2) Act 2013 and the Deep Sea Mining Act 2014. She comes from those Cornish fishing communities and shares not only their joys, but their sorrows. When only one year after she was elected her husband was killed in a fishing accident, we all admired the tremendous courage she showed in the face of such a tragic loss. Her speech showed her as she is—brave, determined and human—and at a time when people are sceptical about politicians, she is a credit to this House.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr Cameron): he returns to the House as Prime Minister. [Interruption.] Although he and I have many differences, people have pointed out that in some ways we are quite alike. One of the things that we have in common is that we are both, by our own admission, interim leaders. [Interruption.] So, from one interim leader to another, can I give him some advice? I am sure he will understand what I mean when I say: beware the blond on the zip-wire.
Speaking of interim leaders, I turn to the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson). Let me give him some friendly advice about the thorny issue of seating arrangements in this House. The lion might be roaring in Scotland, but don’t mess with the beast of Bolsover!
We have come through a general election. We applied for the job but the right hon. Member for Witney got it. Even though we did not get the job we wanted, we have an important job to do for this country: holding the Government to account. Where he acts in the interests of the country, we will support the Government. When he does not, we will not hesitate to be a determined, forensic and vocal Opposition, and that is what every one of our 232 Labour MPs will do. The Chief Whip, the right hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) is looking somewhat smug, sitting there on the Government Front Bench, but I remind him that the Prime Minister has only a slender majority, so he will not have it all his own way.
Britain faces a fragile future for our economy, our constitution and our public services. Although we are seeing economic growth returning, its benefits are not being shared and the economy remains fragile. Compared with other countries, Britain’s productivity lags behind. Tax revenues have fallen short of where the Government said in 2010 that they would now be, meaning that it is taking longer to reduce the deficit. Britain cannot succeed with low-skilled, low-wage, insecure employment and a race to the bottom. The path to economic prosperity and recovery must involve a high-skilled, long-term approach.
Our productivity is being held back by a lack of investment in training, infrastructure and industry. We will support investment in the skills that people need for the future. We will support measures that genuinely help to get people into work. We will support measures that help small businesses, the vital drivers of the economy. We will support investment in our infrastructure, particularly in affordable green transport systems. All of that will help productivity, but what we will not support are more arbitrary measures to undermine people’s rights at work. The Government have already made it so expensive that it is virtually impossible to go to an employment tribunal. That is not about better productivity; it is divisive, it is posturing and it is unfair.
The Government are bringing forward legislation on tax. We want a fair tax system. We do not want to see taxes going up for those on lower or middle incomes, but the Government must not repeat what they did in the last Parliament, which saw those on the very highest incomes prioritised for a tax cut. This legislation must not block off the possibility of the Government being able to raise taxes on the very highest earners, if that is necessary to protect public services. We believe that it is a matter of basic principle that those with the broadest shoulders must bear the biggest burden.
Our political and constitutional system is fragile, too. Big changes are under way, and no one should be in any doubt that there needs to be further reform. The Prime Minister must keep the promises on further devolution to Scotland, to Wales and to Northern Ireland, and there will need to be change in England and in this House, but to get change that is fair and lasting, it must be done in a way that builds the broadest possible consensus. The Prime Minister must seek agreement and he must break his habit of divisiveness. Of course the Scottish National party wants to break up the Union—it wants people to have to choose between being Scottish and being British—but it would be utterly irresponsible for the Prime Minister to continue what he did so shamefully in the general election, which was to set the English against the Scots. [Interruption.] We saw him do that. No party, especially one that claims to be “one nation” should set the interests of a family in Gloucester against the interests of a family in Glasgow or Glamorgan. Let us be in no doubt: the worst possible outcome for Scotland would be the SNP demanding full fiscal autonomy, which they know does not add up, and a Tory Prime Minister giving it to them.
Let us continue with the much-needed process of constitutional evolution, but whether on the Prime Minister’s proposals for English votes for English laws or on constituency boundary changes, he must proceed in a way that is absolutely in the interests of the country, and not just in the interests of his party. If there are to be any changes on party funding, they must be made on a fair, cross-party basis, not just rigged in favour of the Tory party. When it comes to devolution to the English regions, with local councils facing unprecedented cuts, especially in the north and some of the most deprived areas of the country, local government cannot be empowered by being impoverished.
On Europe, we will support the Government’s Bill for a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. [Interruption.] We believe that it will be better for Britain if we stay in the European Union. It is important for the future of this country, which is why 16 and 17-year-olds should have the right to vote in the referendum—it is their future, too. Our continued membership is important for our economic prosperity, but that prosperity has to be more widely shared across this country, and a crucial part of that includes stopping unscrupulous employers exploiting migrant workers and undercutting wages. Our membership is also important for our place in the world. Europe does need to change, and we want reforms, so we wish the Prime Minister well with his new best friend, President Juncker.
Turning to human rights, there is normally a degree of unravelling of the Government’s legislative programme after any Queen’s Speech, but this is the first time I have known it to start unravelling before Her Majesty has even spoken. Leaving aside a woman changing her mind, this looks like a classic “Gove special”. On the Human Rights Act, the Government are clearly still working on the back of that envelope. We have heard the grandiose rhetoric; we are yet to see the proposals. Let me make this clear: if they seek to undermine basic human rights, take us out of the European convention or undermine our ability to stand up for human rights abroad, we will oppose them all the way. In the meantime, we will be keeping an eye out for another group that might need their own rights—the poor foxes.
We have a fragile economy, a fragile constitution and, sadly, fragile public services too—top of that list is the national health service. The Government should be straining every sinew to protect and improve our health service, but where is the effective action so that people can get to see their GP, so that patients in accident and emergency are seen promptly and so that people, especially those needing cancer treatment, do not get stuck on waiting lists? The Prime Minister has got form on this: he has made promises before on the NHS and he has broken them. Whatever is in this Queen’s Speech, we know that you cannot trust the Tories on the national health service. [Interruption.] We will see.
Turning to education, we will hold the Prime Minister to account for his latest promises on childcare. The rhetoric might be promising, but the reality is that children’s centres have closed and the cost of childcare has soared. The average family are now paying £1,500 more per year for nursery fees than they would have been in 2010. Parents do not need more empty promises; they need childcare they can afford.
On welfare, we back measures to get people into work to achieve full employment and thereby get the social security bill down. That is why we put in our manifesto a commitment to a compulsory jobs guarantee for young people and the long-term unemployed. We support a cap on household benefit entitlement. The Government are now planning to reduce it and we are sympathetic to that, but that makes it even more important that the jobs are there for people to move into, that childcare is there, particularly for lone parents, and that there are adequate funds for discretionary housing payments. All that is necessary to ensure that this measure does not put children into poverty, increase homelessness or end up costing more than it saves.
On housing, we want more people to be able to own their own home and more affordable housing that people can afford to rent, but the Prime Minister has a poor record on this, too. The percentage of people who own their own homes is at its lowest for 30 years and now the age at which people can afford their first home has risen to 33. In the last Parliament, when the Government increased the discount for people buying their own council homes, they promised that for every council home bought another would be built. They did not keep that promise. For every 10 council homes bought, only one replacement council home has begun to be built. Now the Government plan to extend the right to buy to housing association tenants and are making more promises, but they have not said how it will be paid for. It will clearly lead to fewer affordable homes and there is an emerging view that, because it is uncosted and unfunded, it is unworkable.
A fundamental priority for every Government is to protect our security, never more so than from the threat of violent extremism. We await David Anderson’s review and will look at the detail of the Government’s wider proposals. If the Government bring forward extra powers, we will want greater accountability for the use of those powers and we will want to see the strengthening, not the watering down, of community-based counter-radicalisation programmes.
The rhetoric at the beginning of this Queen’s Speech is well honed. Indeed, the best lines look uncannily like we wrote them. [Interruption.] Actually, we did not just write them, we engraved them on a tablet of stone, but that is another story and we will perhaps not go there. We fear that the reality of this Queen’s Speech will be very different from the rhetoric. The Queen’s Speech talks of one nation, yet the Prime Minister sets the nations of the country against each other. The Queen’s Speech talks of working people, yet he threatens basic rights at work. At a time when our economy, our constitution and our public services are fragile, we fear that this Tory Government will make things worse. As the dust settles, the real question is whether this Queen’s Speech will improve our country, our communities and people’s lives. That is the test that will be set for this Government and that is the standard to which we, as the Opposition, will hold them to account.
As we meet today, we should start, as the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) did, by thinking of our incredible servicemen and women and all they are doing for our country around the world. Our sailors on HMS Bulwark are saving hundreds of lives in the Mediterranean. Pilots in our jets are serving over the skies of Iraq. In Ukraine, we are training local forces to help counter Russian-backed aggression. Our submarines, at sea for months on end, are maintaining our continuous nuclear deterrent. Our troops are helping aid workers with disaster relief in Nepal and running treatment centres against Ebola in Sierra Leone. As we consider this vast range of tasks that these brave people are undertaking, and many more, so we should recognise the extent of our reach and role in the world, and as the right hon. and learned Lady did, we should remember all those who lost their lives and those who were wounded in the campaign in Afghanistan. Our servicemen and women are the best of British, and so above all today we should thank them for what they do.
This Queen’s Speech is building on strong foundations. In the last Parliament we cut the deficit in half as a proportion of our GDP; we grew our economy by almost 10%; we created 1,000 jobs a day; we cut taxes for more than 27 million people; we helped more than a million people off out-of-work benefits; and we cut the youth claimant count to its lowest level since the 1970s. If the last Parliament was about a repair job, this Parliament must be about renewal. Behind this Queen’s Speech is a clear vision of what our country can be—a country of security and opportunity for everyone, at every stage of life. That is our ambition: to build a country where, whoever and you are and wherever you live, you can have the chance of a good education, a decent job, a home of your own, and the peace of mind that comes from being able to raise a family and enjoy a secure retirement—a country that backs those who work hard and do the right thing.
This is the Queen’s Speech for working people, from a one nation Government that will bring our country together. We have a clear mandate from the British people, a long-term economic plan that is working, a detailed and compelling manifesto, and we will not waste a single moment in getting on with the task.
Let me welcome the right hon. and learned Lady back to her place once again. She said that we had something in common. I was wondering whatever it could be, because of course she is far posher than I am. But it is certainly true that we have faced each other before. She told us last week that she is now the Mother of the House. I am not entirely sure what that role involves, but if she is the Mother and the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) is the Father, I think we may be in need of one aspect of the Queen’s Speech, which is the troubled families programme. Whatever our differences, she has always been a great parliamentarian, and if politics is about never giving up and always fighting for the things that you believe in, then the right hon. and learned Lady is a tribute to the best traditions of this House. From increasing maternity leave and maternity pay to ensuring more prosecutions for domestic violence through her Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act, she has made an outstanding contribution in advancing women’s rights, and as she stands down as deputy leader of the Labour party this year, she should be proud of all that she has achieved.
Let me also welcome the new Scottish National party Members of Parliament. It is good to see that the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) is back with us. For someone who has fought so hard to break away from Westminster, he seems remarkably keen on coming back to the place. I notice that he is now the foreign affairs spokesman for his party—for which I assume he speaks on issues relating to England, Wales and Northern Ireland. There is a serious point, however. The right hon. Gentleman has broken new ground. It is the first time that someone who has served as a First Minister of one of our nations has come back to the House of Commons, and whatever our differences—and there will be many differences—he will bring great experience to this House and to our debates.
The Humble Address welcoming Her Majesty’s Gracious Speech was brilliantly proposed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns). He described himself as a man with his future behind him, but I think after that great rapprochement, perhaps a future in the diplomatic service—or even, who knows, as Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons—awaits him. There are all sorts of possibilities. I am very grateful for the reference to the record I have set and the reference he made to Lord Palmerston. Given that I think I am right in saying that Lord Palmerston died in the arms of his mistress, I do not want to emulate all his achievements in the rest of his life.
As my right hon. Friend said, as well as being a strong Conservative, when it comes to American politics, as he explained, he is a devout Democrat. He named his son after Bobby Kennedy, he regularly goes to America to pray with President Carter, and as he told us, he keeps his daily schedule on track by wearing a Hillary Clinton wristwatch. I have met Mrs Clinton on many occasions, but I have never yet had the courage to ask whether she wears a Simon Burns wristwatch.
Many of us have had experience of exceptionally demanding constituents over the years, but my right hon. Friend may be able to lay claim to the most demanding constituent of all. This is a story he told me in the Tea Room many years ago, so I am sure that it is true. A constituent came to his office, looked at him longingly and said, “Simon, you are my Member of Parliament and I have my needs and wants.” History does not relate how he handled this, but I know that he has increased his majority over the years from 7,700 to more than 18,000. I can observe only that he is a very good and decidedly active constituency Member of Parliament.
My right hon. Friend’s other great addiction is nicotine. As Minister with responsibility for trains, he was criticised for travelling by car, but the real reason for that was not that he was a bad Minister, but that he was gasping for a fag. We may all wonder how we will be remembered in this place after we have gone. In my right hon. Friend’s case, I can confirm that there will be a permanent memorial in the Palace of Westminster. I refer, of course, to the smoking shelter that he established. He goes there on a daily basis, and it is said that when he has gone a plaque will be placed there, dedicated to the former Health Minister.
My right hon. Friend has achieved some remarkable things in this House. His private Member’s Bill on tackling football hooliganism made important changes in giving courts greater powers to stop hooligans travelling to games and gave police vital powers to deal with racist chanting. He served as a Health Minister in Sir John Major’s Administration, as well as being a Health and Transport Minister in mine. Over three decades, he has become loved in most parts of the Chamber, and his speech was in the finest traditions of the House.
The Loyal Address was brilliantly seconded by another Member who can also sometimes be found under the Commons smoking shelter—my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray). We hear a lot about identikit professional politicians who all look and sound the same and do not have any real experience of real life. Well, people certainly cannot say that about my hon. Friend. She came into politics because she believed that fishermen needed a voice when they were away at sea, and she has given them that voice. No one in the House knows better what to do with skate, hake, bass and bream, so I hope that she will give me some tips on how to deal with Salmond and Sturgeon—[Laughter.] Who says puns don’t work in the House of Commons?
My hon. Friend has the distinction of being the only Member in the last 20 years to get two private Members’ Bills through the House in her first term. One of them, the Deep Sea Mining Act 2014, will position Britain to make the most of an industry that has the potential to be worth £40 billion in the next 30 years. Most exceptionally, my hon. Friend has played a pivotal role in championing the safety of fishermen. No one knows more just how important that is, and my hon. Friend’s courage and resolve in the face of the greatest tragedy have been an inspiration to us all. She has the admiration and support of everyone in the Chamber, and her speech was in the finest traditions of the House.
The first priority of the Queen’s Speech is to help working people, and we are clear about what that means—more jobs, more apprenticeships, more tax cuts, more help with childcare and more opportunity to get a home of their own. That is the agenda for this Parliament. The last Parliament created 2 million jobs, and the Queen’s Speech will help to create 2 million more. The last Parliament saw more than 2.2 million new apprenticeships start, and the Queen’s Speech will help to create 3 million more. The last Parliament cut taxes, and the Queen’s Speech sets out plans for cutting them further. For the first time, we will legislate for a tax lock and a minimum wage tax guarantee. That means no increases in income tax, VAT or national insurance, and no income tax at all for those working up to 30 hours a week on the minimum wage. We have made the choice that we will make savings in public spending in order to keep taxes down. That is the right choice and it was backed by the British people in the election.
The last Parliament increased free childcare, and the childcare Bill in the Queen’s Speech will double free childcare for three and four-year-olds to 30 hours a week from 2017, which should save families £5,000 a year on average. The last Parliament helped more than 200,000 people buy or reserve a property, and the housing Bill in the Queen’s Speech will extend the right to buy to housing association tenants, so that more people have the security of owning their own home.
In recent days I have noticed that some of the candidates for the Labour leadership seem to have discovered a new word—“aspiration”. Apparently that has upset John Prescott, who went on television to explain that he does not know what it means. Well, I am happy that we will spend the next five years explaining what it means and how vital it is to everyone in our country. If Labour Members truly believe in aspiration, they will vote with us to cut people’s taxes so that people can spend more of their own money as they choose. If they truly believe in aspiration, they will vote with us to cap welfare and use the savings to fund more apprenticeships.
The right hon. Gentleman is talking about “one nation” and the rest of it. How does he justify what is now being proposed, namely—this has been widely reported—the £12 billion cuts in so-called welfare, which will hit the disabled and the most vulnerable people in our society? It is shameful. The Prime Minister should recognise that if that were to go ahead, it would create a battlefield situation in many parts of our country, and the responsibility would be on him.
What I say to the hon. Gentleman is that in the last Parliament, we found £20 billion of savings in welfare. We should be doing this, because the alternatives are to put up taxes for working people or to make deeper cuts in public spending programmes such as health or education. The right answer is to get the country back to work, find the savings in welfare and make sure that we keep people’s taxes down. That is the choice we made at the election and that is what we will deliver in government.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way and for the election result that he has delivered to those on this side of the House. He will share my pleasure at this month’s employment figures, which show some of the lowest youth unemployment rates locally on record. Will he ensure that this Government keep going further?
One of the most important things we can do is give young people the chance of an apprenticeship and the chance of work. What we have done is expand apprenticeships and uncapped university places, so that there is no cap on aspiration in our country. We now want to go further by saying that every young person should be either earning or learning. Leaving school, signing on, getting unemployment benefit, getting housing benefit and opting for a life out of work—that is no choice at all, and that is why we will legislate accordingly.
If Labour Members believe in aspiration, they will vote with us to allow housing association tenants the right to buy their own home. That will be the test of aspiration for the Opposition: are they going to talk about aspiration, or are they actually going to vote for it?
My hon. Friend is right: we have to recognise that the jobs growth in this country is likely to come from small and medium-sized enterprises, rather than big firms. What we have to do is continue the drive of deregulation and keeping taxes down for those vital businesses. In the end, it is not Governments that create jobs; it is businesses, and that is why we will continue to be a business-friendly Government.
Delivering for working people also means controlling immigration. Members right across the House will have heard that issue raised on doorstep after doorstep during the election campaign, and I am determined that we should deliver. Our new immigration Bill takes action right across the board, including extending our approach of rapid deportation. People who have no right to be here should not be able to launch appeal after appeal after appeal. Under our plans, they will be deported first and can only appeal later.
An issue of immediate concern is the situation in the Mediterranean. The proposal of the EU to initiate quotas is, in my view, not the answer. Does the Prime Minister agree with me that the solution to the problem is to deal directly with the countries of the Maghreb, so that they can deal with the people traffickers and the criminal gangs who are forcing people to their deaths?
The right hon. Gentleman, who led the Select Committee on Home Affairs in such an accomplished way in the last Parliament, is absolutely right about this. My fear is that if we have a repatriation programme that distributes migrants across the European Union, all it will do is act as a new draw for the criminal gangs and for people to get on those unsafe boats and head off into the Mediterranean. What we need to do is focus on the two things that will make the biggest difference: one is trying to get a competent Government in Libya—a Government that have authority and that we can deal with—and the second is to break the link between people getting on a boat and getting settlement rights in Europe. We need to return people to the continent of Africa. There is a clear model that worked well. When the Spanish Government faced this problem, with people arriving in the Canary Islands, they worked with the relevant countries and invested in their security, and they were able to deal with the problem. That is the approach we should take.
We should also be using our significant aid budget. It is to this country’s great credit that we have kept our promises to the poorest in the world and achieved that 0.7% target. Together with European partners, we should be using that budget and trying to stabilise and improve conditions in the countries from which these people are coming. They are not by any means all Libyans. In fact, very, very few of them are Libyans—they are Eritreans, Somalis and Nigerians. We need to stabilise those countries to take away the cause. We also need to go after the criminal gangs because they are the ones who are profiting from this evil trade.
The second set of Bills in this Queen’s Speech is about spreading opportunity more widely by helping people out of poverty. The best way to do this is not by spending money that we do not have, but by helping people to get a job and a good education. Again, we are building on a strong platform: in the last Parliament inequality fell and relative poverty reached its lowest level in over a quarter of a century. By the end of the Parliament over a million more children were being taught in good or outstanding schools. Over a million people came off the main out-of-work benefits and over 2 million got into work, but the challenge for this Parliament is how we go further.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that one of the challenges is to address the fact that two thirds of children in poverty have one parent who is in work?
I agree that we need to help people who are out of work into work, and for those people in work, we want to see their living standards rise. We will do that by seeing the welcome increase in the minimum wage that is taking place this year, and also by taking people on low pay out of tax altogether. That is the choice we made in the last Parliament, and we pledged to continue it in this Parliament by saying that people can earn £12,500 before they start paying income tax. That is one of the best ways in which we can encourage work in our country.
The greatest driver of opportunity is education. Some argued in the election that school reform had gone too far. I disagree. I think it is time to increase the pace of reform in education. Every child we leave in a coasting or failing school is an opportunity wasted and potentially a life wasted, so our schools Bill will crack down on coasting schools and force them to accept new leadership, so that every child has the opportunity to go to a great school.
At the heart of our education reforms will be our commitment to create a further 500 new free schools at least, creating an additional 270,000 extra places. We should be clear about the facts about free schools. Almost half of free schools so far have been set up in the most deprived communities in our country, and most important of all, almost a quarter are rated as outstanding compared with a fifth of other schools. Considering the short time that free schools have been going, for a quarter of them to be outstanding is truly remarkable. It is the fastest growing and most successful schools programme in recent British history, and it is opening up the education system and giving new opportunities to children who in the past would not have had them. Anyone who cares about equality of opportunity should support the free schools programme.
I will give way to hon. Members in a moment. I will get to all of them, but let me say something about free schools. The right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) has had some things to say about free schools, and I thought that in the spirit of encouraging the Opposition leadership debate, I would offer some thoughts. He supports the Everton free school. He supports the Atherton community free school, which is the first-ever free school in Manchester, yet he says, “I don’t think free schools are the answer.” If free schools are good enough for his constituents, why are they not good enough for everyone else?
On food banks, the Prime Minister will be aware that recent research from Oxford University has said that the £12 billion cuts in welfare will double the number of people using food banks to 2 million. Is that a sign of success?
This debate about whether it is right to try and drive down the costs of welfare to keep people’s taxes down and make sure we are a successful country getting people back to work—that is the debate we had at the election. If the Labour party wants to spend all of this Parliament arguing for more welfare, more debt, more taxes and more spending, it will be making an historic mistake. The Labour party needs to decide whose side it is on. This Government and this Queen’s Speech are on the side of working people who want their children to have the best start in life, wherever they live in the country, and that means more academy schools, more free schools, more rigour in the curriculum and more of the brightest graduates going into teaching. That is our programme and we are stepping up the pace.
Will my right hon. Friend also pay tribute to our noble Friend Lord Baker, the former Secretary of State for Education, who has launched a fantastic campaign to promote university technical colleges? They offer a fantastic opportunity to young people who are not necessarily the most academic but who have technical skills, tapping into that resource, which this nation has, and providing skills.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I pay tribute to Lord Baker of Dorking. He was a huge enthusiast for education reform when he was Secretary of State, and he has kept that going all his life. The university technical colleges are a great success—indeed, we launched our election campaign in one in Swindon. They help to complete our education system by providing what was missing: a high-quality technical education for children who would benefit from it.
Giving people opportunity and security means investing in our national health service. That is why this Government will back the NHS’s own plan—the Simon Stevens plan—and deliver the extra £8 billion a year needed by the end of this Parliament. We started the previous Parliament by making a big decision to increase spending on the NHS every year. The Labour party told us at the time that we were irresponsible to do so—from what I have seen, it has learnt very little. At the election we promised to make the investment needed for the Simon Stevens plan, and again the Labour party opposed it. It just goes to show that the best way to protect the NHS is to make sure that the Conservatives are in government.
May I ask the Prime Minister about another area of the public services: funding for the police? Can he confirm that the Metropolitan Police Service faces further significant cuts in its funding, potentially leading to the loss of between 5,000 and 10,000 police officer positions?
What I say to the hon. Gentleman is that the police did a brilliant job in the previous Parliament, taking spending reductions and cutting crime at the same time, and actually increasing the percentage of police officers on the front line. That is a remarkable achievement, and we believe that further savings can be made. Again, if Members do not agree that we need to make some welfare reductions, the police would have to be cut even more deeply. That is the problem that the Labour party will eventually have to confront.
The Prime Minister says that we have to decide whose side we are on. The Opposition are on the side of this country’s 6 million carers—carers who were hit by the bedroom tax and by many of his welfare reforms, and who are now worrying about where those £12 billion of cuts will be made. Can he confirm that there will not be a move to cut eligibility for carer’s allowance, because at least 1 million carers are worrying about that?
What the previous Government did for carers was pass a landmark piece of legislation that gave them rights for the first time, as well as the people they care for, and it made sure that they had breaks from caring, because the Conservative party supports Britain’s carers.
The third set of Bills in the Queen’s Speech addresses the great challenges we face as a nation, and we are starting with our place in Europe. We have seen treaty after treaty pass through this House. The EU has changed a great deal since 1975, and it is time the British people once again had their say. We have a very clear strategy of renegotiation, reform and referendum. The Bill in this Queen’s Speech makes it clear that the referendum must take place at the latest by the end of 2017. It builds on the excellent work done by my hon. Friends the Members for Stockton South (James Wharton) and for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), who introduced similar Bills in the previous Parliament. I am delighted that the Bill now has all-party support, so I look forward to seeing it make its way through both Houses in extra quick time.
We are told that the EU referendum Bill will be introduced after the Prime Minister has negotiated reforms. Will members of his Cabinet be allowed to vote against staying in the EU? Will they be allowed to vote no and stay in his Cabinet?
First of all, the hon. Gentleman has the order slightly the wrong way round. We are going to introduce this Bill straight away. I want us to legislate straight away to get the Bill in place, so that everyone knows that there will be that referendum. But the Government have a very clear view, which is that we believe that the right answer is reform, renegotiation and referendum. We go into that believing that Britain will be successful. That is the view of all the Government and every Government Minister.
As well as the challenge of Europe, we will continue to work with our international partners on securing a proper replacement for the millennium development goals in September. We will confront the challenge of climate change, not least with the build-up to the vital Paris summit in December, and we will meet the challenge of combating extremism, including through a new Bill in front of this House. We want to take on the poisonous narrative of extremism—not just violent extremism, but all extremism—in a much more aggressive way, standing up for the liberal and tolerant values that make this country great.
I am grateful that there was at least one reference to climate change in the Gracious Speech. However, the speech was devoid of detail on climate change. Can the Prime Minister tell us whether he will reverse his reckless policies that are deepening our dependence on oil and gas and instead put our resources into renewable energies and energy efficiency? Those are what we need if we are serious about climate change, jobs and energy security.
The hon. Lady, whom I welcome back to her place, is being a bit churlish; the last Government grew the economy and cut our carbon emissions and this Government will do the same. We saw a massive increase in investment in renewable energy, including the largest offshore wind market anywhere in the world. The difference between me and the hon. Lady is that I believe in a green environment on the street corner as well as in the stratosphere. I hope that she will have a word with her Green colleagues in Brighton and make sure that they begin to empty the dustbins, because that matters as well when it comes to a green environment.
The Prime Minister said a little while ago that he was pleased that the EU referendum Bill now has all-party support. As he takes that Bill through the Commons, will he remind the Opposition that they cannot dump their policies overnight and hope that people will not notice?
I am all for encouraging as many U-turns as possible from the Labour party; that will mean that our majority of 10 or 12 will be far, far bigger. We should encourage them to join us in the Lobbies—[Interruption.] I can hear the Chief Whip enthusiastically endorsing that. I am not sure that the British people will forget. If we had listened to the Labour party, there would be no renegotiation and there would be no referendum—there would be no choice.
This Queen’s Speech will also modernise and strengthen our United Kingdom. It includes Bills on devolution for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. These Bills will deliver on all the promises made to people in each of those countries in our United Kingdom. We will also ensure fairness for English voters, through English votes for English laws.
I am very grateful to the Prime Minister for giving way. Can he confirm that there will be a piece of legislation—a Bill—for English votes for English laws? Surely he is not even contemplating bringing something so significant constitutionally under the Standing Orders of the House.
What we will do, in terms of English votes and English laws, is exactly what is set out in our manifesto—copies available from all good bookshops. That will involve a vote here in the House of Commons, and I think that is right.
I look forward to taking on the arguments from those who want to break up our country. Frankly, they have received little scrutiny until now. Devolution is not just about getting new powers; it is also about the responsibility of how those powers are used. I would say to the Scottish National party that if it is not happy with decisions made here in Westminster and if it wants more taxes, spending and borrowing, it can now introduce those measures in Scotland. It is time for the SNP to stop talking and start acting.
Let me respond very directly to something important that the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham said, which was that in this Parliament there will also be the opportunity for the SNP to set out what it means by full fiscal autonomy. I am clear about what that means: it means raising 100% of what it spends. That means asking Scottish people to pay almost an extra £10 billion in taxes or making almost an extra £10 billion in additional cuts by the end of this Parliament. That is £5,000 of higher taxes or additional cuts for every single family in Scotland. That is the true price of the SNP. It is ironic that the party in this House that claims to represent Scotland advocates a worse deal for Scotland than the rest of us do. People who want the best for every nation of our United Kingdom should fight for a Union with solidarity at its heart. That is something that I will always do because I am proud to lead the Conservative and Unionist party.
Let me put the hon. Gentleman out of his misery. Be in no doubt: we will be introducing legislation and legislating on this issue because I want these decisions made by British judges in British courts, not in Strasbourg.
This Queen’s Speech provides a clear programme for this Government, delivering for working people: more jobs, more apprenticeships, more tax cuts, more help with childcare, and more opportunity to get a home of your own. The best education for every child, a strong and properly funded NHS, and the chance to raise your family and enjoy a decent and secure retirement: that is what this Queen’s Speech is about, and that is why I am fighting for it in this Parliament. It is a Queen’s Speech for working people from a one nation Government who will bring our country together, and I commend it to the House.
I begin by adding my voice to those of the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) and the Prime Minister in paying tribute to members of the armed forces who have died on operations, not least in Afghanistan. The biggest single loss of life from the UK was my constituents aboard Nimrod XV230 who died in the skies above Afghanistan. Regardless of the right hon. and learned Lady’s views of the conflicts in which our servicemen and women take part, we pay tribute to all of them and our thoughts are with their families, especially those who have lost loved ones.
It is a real pleasure to join in the praise for the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns). Before considering what I should say about him, I decided to review the back copies of the Essex Chronicle—a very well-read newspaper in the north of Scotland. It highlighted his praiseworthy record as being in the top 10 of most responsive MPs in dealing with the queries that are brought to his office. That is a reminder to all of us that our first responsibility is to represent and assist our constituents, and I praise him for the example that he has set.
I also congratulate the hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray), who is a doughty representative of her constituency with a very strong maritime interest. She has shown the way that a Back-Bench MP can effect change in successfully piloting two private Members’ Bills through this House—most notably, I believe, a marine navigation Bill.
The example that both Members have shown neatly complements the next role of parliamentarians, which is to hold the Government to account. It is an honour to reply to the Queen’s Speech on behalf of the third party in the House of Commons—the Scottish National party. [Applause.] It is our intention to be the effective opposition to this Government, who seek to govern Scotland with only one out of 59 seats. I will spare the Prime Minister further panda jokes, but he knows that he has a democratic legitimacy problem in Scotland—and if he does not, he should by now. Having said that, I congratulate the Prime Minister on his election success—in England.
I extend genuine commiserations to colleagues in all corners of the House who wished for better, or different, results. I also pay compliments, as the Speaker did at the beginning, to all those Members who were not re-elected, and to those who are often not mentioned—their staff. I think that many people do not understand that when Members of this House, on both sides, lose, their staff also lose their jobs. We all rely on our staff, who do a remarkable job on behalf of all our constituents. With your indulgence, Mr Speaker, I would like to take this opportunity to wish our very talented chief of staff, Luke Skipper, well as he moves on to pastures new.
In the general election the SNP won half the vote—something not achieved by any party in Scotland for 60 years. The SNP won more votes than all three UK parties combined, and 56 out of 59 seats. It was a remarkable result and an amazing achievement for our leader and First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, for all SNP candidates, almost all of whom are here, our volunteers and our dedicated headquarters staff. We will do our best to stand up for Scotland, but let me be absolutely clear: we did not win the votes of all voters in Scotland, and we are mindful of that. We still remain supporters of electoral reform and proportional representation.
It is no secret that we in the Scottish National party wish Scotland to become an independent country again, but the referendum last year determined that we remain governed by Westminster in many areas. The Queen’s Speech, drafted by the Prime Minister, talks of a one nation approach, without acknowledging that the UK is a multinational state, or that the four nations of the UK elected different parties to lead in England, in Scotland, in Wales and in Northern Ireland. I genuinely hope that Government Members understand what that actually means.
At the start of a new Parliament, it is right to reflect on the challenges and opportunities we all face over this term, and then ask ourselves whether the proposals in the Queen’s Speech match those challenges and opportunities. I am sure that we all acknowledge the scale and challenge of sustaining economic recovery while managing public spending. Balancing the finances is hugely important, and no party should underestimate the importance of not beggaring the next generation. The UK already has unsustainable debt and unsustainable deficits, and all of us are paying a price for an era of debt-fuelled expansion. However, I respectfully suggest that too few alternative views are heard about how we go about fixing the problem. It is not a zero-sum game, or simply cuts versus tax-raising. Already built into the forecasts of the Office for Budget Responsibility are some very big assumptions about what happens to productivity levels. We would like the Government to take a more active role in channelling spending to areas where it can boost growth and competitiveness.
The SNP has had a consistent position in this House—that we will review every single piece of legislation brought forward and, on the basis of an evaluation of whether it directly or indirectly has a significant impact on Scotland, then decide on the measures on which we vote and those on which we do not vote—and that position has not changed.
I will make some progress, and then I will give way to the right hon. Gentleman.
What we need, and have not had thus far, is honesty about the scale of the accelerated austerity cuts that the Government are planning. The 2015 Budget showed that the cuts are set to grow. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies highlighted, the cuts will be
“twice the size of any year’s cuts”
in the last Parliament. The mammoth cumulative cuts to public services in the UK are estimated at about £146 billion. These decisions have a very real and devastating impact, most often on those vulnerable people and families who have the least. The IFS has found that the coalition’s tax and benefit changes have seen the poorest endure the largest proportionate losses. The IFS also estimates that by 2020 relative child poverty across the UK will increase to over 30%, affecting 4.3 million children—I repeat, 4.3 million children—and that would be a scandal. All of this comes at a time of widening wealth disparity, with the top 10% of society owning 44% of the wealth, while the bottom half owns just 9%.
Many of us on the Opposition Benches are wondering what exactly the hon. Gentleman is complaining about, given that he and his colleagues spent the entire election campaign undermining the only party that had a chance of beating the Conservatives. Is it not actually the case that they wanted a Conservative victory, because they know that that is the best chance of getting another referendum and the best chance of the Scottish people voting for independence? What they should do is go and sit on the Conservative Benches with the Government they wanted to get elected.
Order. May I say at the start of the Parliament that the convention that we do not clap in this Chamber is very, very long established and widely respected, and it would be appreciated if Members showed some respect for that convention? They will get their speaking rights from this Chair—of that they can be assured. They will be respected, but I would invite them to show some respect for the traditions of this Chamber of the House of Commons.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
The UK is the only G7 country to experience rising wealth inequality since the turn of the century. Wealth inequality has risen four times faster in the seven years since the crash compared with the seven years before, and the super-rich in the UK are becoming richer faster than ever. Wealth inequality rose under Labour, and it rose faster under the coalition. Inequality is felt acutely in particular regions of the UK, with regional economic performance the most unequal in the whole of the EU. What is happening to remedy this meaningfully rather than symbolically?
Given those challenges, we need honesty from the Government on their plans for austerity cuts. Where will the £12 billion of cuts to welfare and benefits fall?
Who will be affected? Will it be the disabled, like the many impacted by the bedroom tax, or will it be people working on low incomes and in receipt of tax credits? We also need honesty about the Government’s plans to cut above and beyond the fiscal mandate. On the specific legislative proposals in the Queen’s Speech, may I welcome the early unravelling of Conservative plans?
I wanted the hon. Gentleman to give way on the money. He said there were going to be massive cuts, but he will see from the Red Book that the Government plan to spend £60 billion a year more in the last year of this Parliament than at the beginning. By how much more does he want to increase public spending, and which taxes would he put up to pay for it?
The right hon. Gentleman obviously was not following the general election in Scotland, where the Scottish National party unveiled its proposals for increasing public spending modestly, and where the electorate then took a view on whose plans they would put their trust in—and as he can see, 56 of the 59 MPs returned from Scotland are from the SNP.
I return to the specific legislative proposals in the Queen’s Speech and the unravelling of the Prime Minister’s plans, beginning with the Human Rights Act. It is now clear that the Government cannot secure the majority they were seeking and are kicking the issue into the longer grass. I say to right hon. and hon. Members across the House who, like us, want to protect the Human Rights Act that we will work with them to do so. The Act is enshrined in the devolved legislative framework of both Northern Ireland and Scotland, and although the Government have delayed the Bill, the Queen’s Speech makes it clear that they are still committed to it. However, we will not stand for any diminution of human rights—or indeed, in respect of other measures, of workers’ rights.
The Prime Minister is no doubt delighted—and presumably surprised—that he achieved a majority and does not need to continue in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, but he will be less happy when considering that a 12-seat majority is small in historical terms. With 56 Members, the SNP will co-operate with progressive colleagues to secure positive changes or block bad proposals.
I hope that the early Government unravelling will continue on the EU referendum Bill, for which, incidentally, there is not support among all parties in the House.
I would like to make some progress, if the hon. Gentleman will allow.
The SNP supports our continuing membership of the EU. We recognise the importance of the single European market and the ability to influence EU legislation. We look forward to making the case for EU membership and for reform, not just of institutions in Brussels, but of the approach of member states, such as the UK, that regularly deny Ministers from devolved Governments a direct say at the top table. It cannot be right that the most experienced and longest-serving Fisheries Minister in the whole EU cannot speak at EU Fisheries Council meetings and that instead the UK sends an unelected Member of the House of Lords. We will seek to amend the Bill to ensure that the four nations of the UK cannot be taken out of the EU against the will of their electorates. During the Scottish referendum campaign last year, the Prime Minister and his allies in the Labour party made great play of the UK’s being a family of nations based on mutual respect. The Prime Minister is nodding in agreement. If that is true, how could it be that in this family of nations, one country—the largest—can dictate to everybody else that we have to leave the European Union, and plough on regardless? That is not mutual respect.
Still on the subject of referendums, we in Scotland have had experience of fair participation based on residency. It was fair and right that 16 and 17-year-olds could vote, and I am delighted that the Labour party has changed its position on that to support the SNP. It is right for European Union citizens to vote on that basis, too. Incidentally, this was supported by the Conservative party, by the Labour party and by the Liberal Democrats in respect of the referendum in Scotland, so it beggars belief that the UK Government plan to disfranchise these voters, for whom this is a critical issue. We will seek to amend the legislation to try to put this right.
We support the further devolution of powers to the nations and, indeed, to English regions and cities.
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I want to make further progress.
It is in the interests of everyone that better decisions reflecting local priorities should be taken closer to communities—including with respect to the “northern powerhouse”, much vaunted by the Government side, although there might be differing perspectives on what constitutes “the north”.
Big decisions will be taken in this Parliament about transport and infrastructure, including high-speed rail and airport expansion for London. There is going to have to be much more serious consideration of the advantages for the whole of the UK, and not just part of it.
With specific regard to the Scotland Bill, we welcome the commitment to deliver the powers agreed across the parties in the Smith commission. These measures are aimed at boosting economic growth, social fairness and financial responsibility. We will, however, look at the detail of the Bill. It already seems likely that the Government have not fully taken into account the proposals of the Scottish Government, which were endorsed by the electorate in the UK general elections. During his recent meeting with the First Minister, the Prime Minister committed to considering improvements—and we welcome that. If those improvements have not been included, however, we will seek to amend the Bill.
On the NHS, Members understand that decisions about it in England have an impact on the NHS budgets of the devolved nations. We have supported the recommendation to increase NHS spending, and I urge the Prime Minister to carry this out urgently so that people and the NHS can benefit sooner rather than later. The Government can, of course, do this in the July Budget, so that will be an early test for the Prime Minister.
SNP Members welcome the commitment in the Queen’s Speech to support peace and security and to
“work to reduce the threat from nuclear weapons”—
the exact words in the Queen’s Speech. We fear, however, that what the Government actually have in mind is to spend a whopping £100 billion on a new generation of nuclear weapons. These weapons of mass destruction can never, ever be used. Meanwhile, the Government have cut back on conventional forces and have consigned the UK to being in the ridiculous position of having the only armed forces of a maritime state in northern Europe without a single maritime patrol aircraft.
The SNP will present a constructive, but tough opposition. The problem with the Queen’s Speech is that there is no recognition in it of the fact that Scotland completely rejected the Tory agenda. Instead, we are to be led by the Tories’ wrong priorities. At a time when people are suffering from the impact of austerity, the Tories are focused on the wrong issues. On the vow given to the people of Scotland, we will judge the Scotland Bill on its content. The legislation that is introduced must live up to the Smith commission in full. Anything less would be a breach of faith.
I rise to speak for prosperity, not austerity; I speak for England as well as for more powers for Scotland; and I speak for greater democracy as we seek to wrestle power back from the bureaucratic tentacles of Brussels.
Austerity is what was given to this country in 2008-09. Then we had desperate austerity. We had deep recession and the biggest loss of national income than at any time since the second world war. We had families losing jobs, families losing bonuses, families having to take pay cuts. We saw austerity rampant. Since 2010, first the coalition and now the Government, led ably by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, are about restoring prosperity for the many, growth to our economy, the extra jobs we need, the higher pay and the better living standards that come from creating that world of opportunity.
We speak not just for prosperity but, yes, for aspiration. We speak for aspiration just as surely as some Opposition Members spoke for envy at the time of the general election. The electors told them that they did not want envy; they wanted aspiration. They do not mind other people doing well, as long as they too have a chance to do well. They are not jealous of people who go to good schools, but they want to go to a good school themselves, or send their children to one. They are not jealous of people who work hard and earn a lot of money, and want to keep a large amount of that money to spend on themselves, but they want the opportunity to do the same. I urge my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and his colleague the Chancellor of the Exchequer to press on in supporting those very aims. Spreading prosperity ever more widely is what lifts us from austerity and banishes austerity from our land.
If the hon. Gentleman cares to read the economic policy review that I submitted to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, he will see that it clearly warned of a banking crash. It said that Labour’s regulatory system—introduced by the hon. Gentleman’s party after the 1997 general election—was not requiring enough cash and capital to be held by the banks, and that that was causing enormous strains, which would go wrong. I saw it coming; he took it down. The Labour party changed the regulatory system, the regulators made a huge mistake, and the banking system powered the recession, which was also furthered by the mistaken budgetary policies pursued by Labour. I am very pleased to see that those who now wish to represent the Labour party as its leader have said sorry for the economic and regulatory mistakes that are made by the hon. Gentleman’s party
One of the myths that were put around was that the Labour Government maxed out on their credit card. Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that before the banking crisis hit in 2008, debt as a proportion of the country’s GDP was lower than the level that we inherited in 1997?
What matters is the rate of change. The Labour Government were borrowing too much at a time when the economy was overheating and collecting a lot of tax revenue, and we have been trying to right that mistake ever since.
I think it would be helpful if, in this Parliament, we could have a more grown-up discussion about public spending and tax revenues than we were allowed in the last Parliament, because the meaning of austerity has shifted. It now has a narrower definition than the disaster that hit living standards and individual families in 2008. To the so-called progressive parties, austerity now means not increasing public spending as quickly as they think that it should be increased.
Let me remind the House what successive Red Books—Budget books—have told us about what happened between 2010 and 2015, and what they tell us will happen between 2015 and 2020, subject to the Chancellor’s Budget. It is very easy to remember. Between 2010 and 2015, the coalition Government increased total public spending by £1,000 per person per year, if the final year of those five years is compared with the starting point. The recently elected Conservative Government plan to do exactly the same: they wish to increase total public spending per head by £1,000 per person a year by the end of the current Parliament. That is not a huge rate of growth, but it is not an overall decline or a cut.
Because we inherited such an enormous deficit and could not continue to borrow on such a scale, we were—as a result of VAT increases and the general increase in revenue from some economic growth—charging people £2,000 a head more per year at the end of the last Parliament than the Labour Government did in their last year. This Parliament requires exactly the same increase, without any rate rises but coming from faster growth in the economy. The Red Book’s aim is that we should charge everyone £2,000 extra a year by the end of the Parliament than at the beginning. I think that that is a measured and sensible proposal to rescue us from enormous borrowing and a big debt hole, and I think it can work. I especially welcome the fact that, this time, it will require no tax rises.
The right hon. Gentleman may know that the number of people earning over £20,000 is now 800,000 lower than it was in 2010, and those higher-paying jobs have been chopped up into little part-time, low-wage, zero-hours jobs. That is why the tax revenues are not coming in and that is why debt as a share of GDP has gone from 55% to 80%. Admit it: you have failed.
That is a bit rich from the party that crashed the car and did all the damage to living standards in 2008. Would I like it to be going faster? You bet I would like it to be going faster, and so I am sure would the Prime Minister, but it has to go at a pace that can be achievable without taking risks and making it worse in the way that Labour did.
My party is not the party of low pay. We want people to be better paid. It is just that we have an economic policy that may deliver better pay; the Labour Government’s policy clearly did not, because they drove people out of work. They abolished the bonuses and they drove wages down by their dreadful recession, and that recession was caused by a combination of their mistaken economic policy and, above all, their mistaken misregulation of the banks. They should have stuck with the regulation of the banks we had before ’97. We never did anything like that with the banking system. We never had a run on a major bank under the Conservatives. We never had a big recession created by a banking crash. Labour needs to understand the history and understand that in future we have to follow different policies to try to avoid that.
I also wish to speak for England. I am very pleased that the Gracious Speech says that there will be early progress in making sure that those MPs elected for England can make more of the decisions that relate only to England. I hear that the SNP are already saying that that should be in legislation. I think it is entirely right that in the first instance it should be done by amending the Standing Orders of this House of Commons. It can be done simply and quickly, and it is judge-proof and it is proof against challenges from outside this place. If we want a sovereign Parliament, sometimes this Parliament has to act in a sovereign way, and surely we can be sovereign over our own votes and procedures.
The right hon. Gentleman is, I think, a champion of Parliament and parliamentary procedures, so surely he agrees that we have to debate this issue. There has to be a Bill; there has to be legislation. It is not good enough just to change the Standing Orders of the House for something so constitutionally important.
Of course there will be a debate, and the SNP can use all the parliamentary procedures, which some of its Members know well, to make sure that the issue is properly scrutinised and debated, but we do not need a great piece of legislation. We just need an agreement on who votes on what. It is not that complicated, it is extremely popular outside this House, and it was clearly offered to the British people by the Conservative party. It was one of several policies in our manifesto which were about twice as popular as the Conservative party itself, and we were the most popular party when people did not really like any of the parties in the election very much. They backed us, but they backed some of our policies rather more.
I rise to support my right hon. Friend’s extremely relevant comments. The legislation has of course already been passed, in the form of the devolution Act in 1998. That is what devolved the functions. That is why it is necessary and fair to make sure that, through our Standing Orders, the English people know that they get exclusive rights over their own legislation.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. To those who say we have not thought through this issue I would point out that we wrote many papers on it in opposition and that we thought it through over a 15-year period—it was in the 2001 Conservative manifesto—so the proposals should come as no surprise to anyone who is interested in the subject or who has been following the debates.
The third point I strongly support in the Gracious Speech is that at last we will get a referendum on our relationship with the European Union. Any honest Government picking up the task today should say to the British people that we need a new relationship because now the euro is driving so many of the changes in the EU. Those in the euro need much closer and stronger centralised government; they need to stand behind each other rather more. They are going to need common benefit systems and common cash transfer systems, and they are going to need to send support from the richer to the poorer areas, just as we do within our Union of the United Kingdom—if one part falls on hard times, the other parts pay more tax and send it the money. There is a mutual insurance or solidarity system which should appeal to all those of a socialist mind; it even appeals to me, because I think when some are down on their luck within such a union, they should be supported by others in the union. The United Kingdom has very clearly, and quite rightly, never elected a party that wanted to join the euro. The public have no appetite to join it; they have no wish to start raising more taxes in Britain in order to send financial assistance to Greece, Portugal or Spain, although those countries desperately need it.
Of course we need to define a new relationship with the emerging, closely centralised political union of which our colleagues in the EU now speak all too often, and I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is taking on this difficult and tricky task. There will be a range of views within and among the parties on this issue, so a referendum would be a good way of making the final decision. I urge my right hon. Friend to bear in mind that what the British people, and many in this Parliament, want is to restore the British people’s right to make up their mind and their MPs’ right to ensure that the British people’s views are reflected in what happens here. At the moment, it is all about borders, immigration and welfare systems, and at the general election the British people expressed a strong wish for change on those matters. We need Ministers who can deliver those changes, but some of them are neither legal nor possible under our current EU arrangements.
In the future, the British people might want to see changes in other areas. They might want cheaper energy, for example, but they would discover that their politicians were not entirely able to deliver it because energy is hedged by many European rules, laws and requirements. Britain therefore needs some way of dealing with a situation in which, because of European rules, elected Ministers are unable to act on a matter of consummate importance to the British people. We might be able to do certain things, because we can get a special deal through not being in the euro—that relates to how much centralised government the countries in the eurozone, which we must keep out of, are going to take to themselves. Adopting that more widely might help with their other problems, because at the moment we are seeing a series of collisions between the will of the people following the elections in countries such as Greece and perhaps Spain, and what the European establishment is dishing out by way of policy.
If Opposition Members dislike austerity, they should study what has happened in Greece. It has seen very large public expenditure cuts, of a kind that I would not have supported, at a time when its economy was imploding and its banking system was broken, and its GDP has fallen by 25% since 2008. Let us imagine how we would feel if that had been inflicted on us by policies from Brussels. Thank heavens that those of us who made the case against the euro persuaded others to keep us out, because there but for the grace of God would have gone Britain into a euro-scheme that can deliver untold damage and austerity. Who would want 50% youth unemployment? That is what they have in several parts of southern Europe now, thanks to the devastating austerity machine that is the euro. I urge my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to take advantage of our non-membership of the euro to negotiate a democratic settlement for us, so that if we need something for our prosperity, this House will be able to deliver it.
It is a great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Wokingham (John Redwood). He has had a long and distinguished career, and he has a reputation as a deep thinker, but I really disagree with practically everything he says.
I should like to begin my remarks by thanking my constituents in Islington South and Finsbury for returning me to this place with such a convincing majority. I took my seat 10 years ago with a majority of 484. In this election, more people voted Labour in my constituency than had been the case for 50 years, and I now have a majority that is larger than the total number of people who voted for me in 2005. I am grateful to my constituents, although of course it could have been a better night. We were all very disappointed indeed that we did not come back as part of the Government, but I pledge now that I will not let my constituents down and that I will do everything I can to ensure that their lives are made better, not worse, over the next five years.
Many bread-and-butter issues are causing great concern, and it might well be the case that the Tories did not really expect to win the election—certainly not with a majority. They certainly expected to be able to knock a few rough edges off that manifesto by going into coalition discussions. How are they going to pay for the £7 billion-worth of tax cuts? Where are the £12 billion of unidentified welfare cuts going to come from? We hear various leaks: disability benefits, carers allowance and statutory maternity pay are all facing the chop, but that still does not amount to £12 billion, so where are the cuts going to come from?
The Conservatives say that a benefit cap of £23,000 will reward hard work, but we know from the past two years that such a cap does nothing of the kind. In my constituency, it pushes people out of Islington; children from established families in Islington have to leave their primary school and move out—not because £23,000 is not enough for the family to live on, but because it is not enough for their landlords to live on. The rents are so high and these people are expected to pay ridiculous amounts. Neither the Conservative manifesto nor the Queen’s Speech contains any answer to the housing crisis in inner London, across the south of England and, indeed, across the country. It is no answer to the housing crisis to say, “We will allow people who have secure tenancies in good affordable housing to buy those properties at a huge discount and local authorities can then pay the housing associations compensation by selling more affordable housing.” The only answer to our housing crisis is to build more homes.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on her re-election as my parliamentary neighbour. She has made points about building more council housing and stopping the sale of housing association and council housing. Does she agree that it is also important to devolve powers to London, so that we can have full regulation of the private rented sector? We would, be able to make the exorbitant, extravagant and appalling rents charged in the private rented sector a thing of the past and end the social cleansing of central London, which is happening because of the strategy she describes.
My hon. Friend speaks from his constituents’ experiences, which are similar to those of my constituents, and of many people who have lived in central London for generations and want to continue to do so but find that the current private market is completely unaffordable. Other capital cities across the world have some form of regulation of rents, but ours does not. Merely allowing capitalism, red in tooth and claw, without any form of regulation will not be enough to solve the central London housing crisis. I agree with him on that point.
I suspect there will be extensive debate on those issues throughout this Parliament—I will return to them again and again—but today I most wish to ask how we answer a question asked of me last week. At a dinner, I was sitting next to an artillery officer who has the same first name and age as my eldest son. When he said he had not met an MP before, I asked him what his one question to an MP would be. This lad, who is prepared to put his life on the line for us, said, “What are we fighting for?” I said that I did not know. A few years ago I would have said, “You are fighting for Britain, which has reached a time in its maturity when it is coming to terms with its colonial past. It has a place on the Security Council, is close to America and is part of the European Union. We have close relationships with the Commonwealth and friends across the world. We feel that our role is to promote human rights and international law. We have definitely made mistakes but we are a force for good internationally and we have a strong national identity.” I would have said that then, but I do not think we can say it now, and I really do not know where we are going.
The growth of petty nationalism is profoundly worrying to us all, and I do not want to see the break-up of Britain. I am Anglo-Irish, British and a Londoner, and I am part of Europe. I am a European and an internationalist. That very identity is being challenged at the moment and we are slipping down a slope, but nobody seemingly has the true will to stop this.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I will in a moment, because I wish to challenge something else first. I am deeply concerned that the Conservative party has won the election by playing on this petty nationalism, putting the Scots against the English, fighting off the Welsh and so on. The Conservatives have played on this petty nationalism by saying things such as, “We don’t want to be answerable to Europe.” That is very worrying, and they are playing with fire.
Of course I do, but I still feel British and as part of being British I want our country to remain united with Scotland. I want us to be British and I do not want to see the fracturing of our nation. The irresponsible way in which the Government have played those cards in the past few weeks and months has put at risk our very Union. I do not want to be pompous about this, but I am profoundly worried.
It has not been enough for the Government simply to do that. They have also been playing to their Back Benches, playing the Eurosceptic card and playing for good headlines in the Daily Mail, but they are also playing with the future of our country. The Conservative party seems to me to have moved far away from the Conservative party of Churchill that tried after the second world war to have a future for us in Europe, bound together by common ideals and principles. Those ideals, expressed in the treaty, have been looked after by the European Court of Human Rights over the past few decades. British Conservative lawyers wrote the European convention on human rights, which we have imported into this country.
Over the past few decades the Foreign Office has promoted human rights around the world; I am proud of that and want it to continue. The idea that we will pass a British Bill of privileges—under which certain people will be given rights and others will not, under which certain people will be more important than others, under which we will not have rights simply because we are human and under which we will not all be equal—and that we will not have legislation that fights for the weak against the strong is disgraceful. It is disgraceful that we are travelling down this road. How can we hold our head up high internationally if we are going to pull the rug from under a system of international treaties through which we have promoted human rights? Our legislation, written by us, is essentially part of a form of legal imperialism sent around the world to set a series of minimum standards of which I am very proud.
The hon. Lady might like to note that Churchill, in his Zurich and Fulton, Missouri speeches, made it very clear that the European Union would not have the UK as a member but that we would join a union of the English-speaking peoples. That was also the conclusion of his “History of the English-Speaking Peoples”. He did not write a history of the European peoples.
I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that 67 years ago, Churchill said:
“The Movement for Europe…must be a positive force, deriving its strength from our sense of common spiritual values. It is a dynamic expression of democratic faith based upon moral conceptions and inspired by a sense of mission. In the centre of our movement stands the idea of a Charter of Human Rights, guarded by freedom and sustained by law.”
The hon. Lady is talking about my party in terms that I certainly do not recognise and she has accused us of being a divisive party as far as the Union is concerned. I thought that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made it perfectly clear that we are a Conservative and Unionist party and that we intend to retain the Union and to do what we can to do so.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says and if he is satisfied with some of the rhetoric from those on the Front Benches, let him be satisfied. It is important to look beyond the rhetoric and see with our very own eyes the real damage being done by what is happening to this country. This is a matter of huge concern and I ask the hon. Gentleman not to be complacent about where we might go if we start to pull apart our Human Rights Act and our place in Europe.
Let me explain to the hon. Gentleman. In Strasbourg, European judges make judgments all the time that essentially quote at length what happens in our Supreme Court. Our Supreme Court applies our Human Rights Act and does so across the board. If the hon. Gentleman were unfortunate enough to be arrested in Europe, he would have the right to a lawyer, which he would not have had if it had not been for the British system, which understands that people have a right to access a lawyer in order for there to be a fair trial. That was an interpretation of human rights that we exported to Strasbourg, and has now been exported right across Europe. It is a two-way street. Of the tens of thousands of cases that went before the Court at Strasbourg, does the hon. Gentleman know how many judgments there were against Britain last year? There were three.
The hon. Lady tempts me and I crave your indulgence, Mr Speaker. The point is that we are trying to deal with an Act that has proved to be inadequate in dealing with the terrorists that we are trying to get rid of, and we want to bring those decisions back to this country. That is a very laudable objective. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has not set it out in any detail because he wants to give it further thought, but it is widely supported in this country.
Will the hon. Gentleman give me a moment in which to answer, because I only have two minutes left? The fact is that within our constitution—our unwritten constitution, which we play with at our jeopardy, if we do not think through what we are doing—we have different pillars. We have the Executive, the legislature and the judiciary, and of course there will always be tension between them. If we all agreed all the time, what would be the point? In what way would we be a democracy? There will be times when we disagree and, in the end, human rights is about protecting minorities. It is about protecting the weak against the strong. Yes, there will be times when people whom we wish to have no truck with at all will rely on basic rights and we must give them to them. That is the British way, and it is one that we are proud of and should remain proud of, and we should never allow it to be undermined.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), the Prime Minister hinted, and then the right hon. Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) blurted out, that there might be afoot an attempt to change the Standing Orders of this House to restrict the voting rights of some Members of this House. Surely such a change would fundamentally breach the principle that all Members of this House are equal before the Chair, and would such a change, if conceived itself as an Order, have to be considered by you or the Procedure Committee, or undergo some thorough investigation? Otherwise, as you will understand with your experience, Mr Speaker, any majority Government could change Standing Orders to restrict the voting rights of any Member without so much as a by-your-leave.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving me a few minutes’ advance notice of his intention to raise this point of order. He has raised an extremely important point, on which I shall take appropriate advice, and which, as he would expect, I will give the most serious thought. I hope he will understand that it would not be appropriate for me to say anything beyond that this afternoon. Perfectly legitimately, he has raised it, and that is my response today.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. If we go back to the Bradlaugh case, it is well established that this House is entitled to limit the voting rights of individual Members. The House refused to let Bradlaugh take the Oath, and it was upheld by the courts that that could not be interfered with outside this Chamber, and that is in our Bill of Rights.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, on whom we can always depend for his historical exegesis, but I think that does rather underline why it would be imprudent of me to say anything beyond what I have said today. I note what has been said by other Members, and I think it sensible and wise to leave it there for today.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry). Although I may not agree with some of the sentiments expressed in her speech, I am sure she would agree with me that it is delightful to return to Parliament with so many women elected to this place, irrespective of their parties or which part of the United Kingdom they come from.
It is very sobering to remember that every Member who is elected to this House has equal voting rights over one matter, and that is the power of life and death over our citizens in this country in the shape of our armed forces. So I should like to echo the tributes that have been paid, from the Front Benches and by others, to our armed forces and the way in which they keep this country safe, and carry out their duties without fear or favour.
May I also congratulate you, Mr Speaker, on your re-election? In Buckinghamshire, we had a clean slate of Conservative MPs—I count you as one of them, although I do not question your impartiality in the Chair. It is good to see you returned to your rightful place. It may be that, from time to time, your unique skills will be called on to create order out of chaos and disrespect in this place, as we have already seen so early in the Session.
I also offer my congratulations to the proposer and seconder of the Gracious Speech. The good looks of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns), as identified by the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), have always escaped me, but no doubt he will now expect a starring role in “The Only Way is Essex”, rather than just talking about it in the House. I was particularly touched by the way in which my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) seconded the Gracious Speech. She truly is a great champion, and her husband Neil would have been very proud of her today as she took centre stage in the House.
It is a great pleasure to welcome the Gracious Speech. It is doubly welcome to me because, as part of the class of 1992, I was never quite sure—especially after 1997—that I would live to see another Conservative majority Government. It is all credit to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and our formidable Conservative team up and down the country that we now have the opportunity to continue to steer the country and the economy in the right direction. However, the joys of implementing the manifesto with a majority Government will not be lost on Conservative Members, as we have a tight majority, to say the least. Already, the manifesto has caused controversy, and we have seen opponents trying to make mileage out of the absence of a British Bill of rights and responsibilities. But I am pleased that we are taking a deep breath before jumping in with such legislation. Having sat for the last two years on the Council of Europe, I want to ensure that we remain within the ambit of the European Court of Human Rights, but finesse those elements that have extended the power of the Court and hampered British justice in some cases. A period of consultation and reflection is right, and is the responsible route. I hope that it will lead to better legislation, drafted with precision.
I thank the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) for giving way as it gives me the opportunity to make the point that Mr Speaker wisely advised me not to make on a point of order earlier. Is not there now a perfect opportunity to look at this matter in some detail within the Select Committee structure, rather than rushing to judgment on whether we should abolish, amend or reform the Human Rights Act? Would not that prove that Parliament has a serious role to play on that issue and many others on the democratic agenda before us?
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman, who has done an awful lot of work in this area. I notice that his Committee was time-limited and has now been rolled in to the Public Administration Committee, which now again covers the constitution. I had the pleasure of serving on the latter Committee in the last Parliament. If I have the pleasure of serving on it again, I can assure him that we will scrutinise this area very carefully, and I believe that that would show the House at its best. We do not want to throw out the baby with the bathwater in this instance.
After the election, I sensed great relief at the result among many of the people I talked to, and—as we would expect from a Conservative Government—the Queen’s speech proposes many important measures to ensure greater accountability and people’s security and safety. We are also offering people the opportunity to improve their lives. Job creation, job security and tax certainty lie at the heart of much of our legislative programme, but the Queen’s Speech also pays attention to the whole picture, relaxing and relieving the burdens on the lowest paid and the smallest businesses, widening home ownership and securing retirement prospects. There is no area that the Queen’s Speech does not touch.
The Gracious Speech also recognises our place on the world stage, and specifically our responsibilities to Ukraine and Iraq. The challenges that we face from extremism and increasing population movement will continue to occupy Government and the House for the whole of the next five years, not just this Session. I appreciate that some of our new neighbours will always be looking for opportunities to find the differences between us, but I hope that they will also look for opportunities to find common purpose, as we face a common enemy and protect the interests of the whole of this country.
I was a fresh starter, in both senses of the word, back in the 1990s, when the Maastricht treaty was debated in this House and the EU had only 12 members. The European Union referendum Bill will give new Members the opportunity early in their careers to reflect on our relationship with the now 27 other countries of the EU. In truth, every country would like to see some reforms, and like many of my constituents I look forward to seeing what the Prime Minister can achieve before putting the question to a public UK-wide vote. I hope the Government will resist the attempts to dilute the opinion of the UK electorate by introducing a four-country hurdle, as suggested by the SNP. It is the UK as a whole that is the member state, not the individual nations. I hope also that the Prime Minister will resist the temptation substantially to change the franchise in any way for the referendum.
I think every Government starts with an education Bill, and the present Government are no different. We have excellent schools in Chesham and Amersham, as we do in the rest of Buckinghamshire, and I share the Government’s determination to drive up standards and declare war on mediocrity and failure; but our schools in Buckinghamshire are not funded as well as those in other parts of the country and we do not receive the same level of grant from the Government. The national average per pupil is now £4,611 and we receive only £4,297, so I hope the Government will revisit what amounts to unfair funding. In our case, the unfairness is exacerbated by the fact that of the three elements that make up the funding in Buckinghamshire—the schools block, the early years block and the high needs block—we received no increase in early years or high needs funding, although there are increasing demands.
During the election, it became even more obvious to me that we are not engaging our young people in politics, no matter where they live. I want a new civic studies course or element to be introduced in the national curriculum, so that students can learn about the structures and relevance of our administrative systems and governance. As some parties are keen to change the franchise to include 16-year-olds, I would have expected universal support across the House for some real education in this area. It would also help me to explain to some of my constituents why they cannot vote for Nicola Sturgeon or Leanne Wood.
My right hon. Friend is making a very cogent speech. May I say how much I agree with her that we need more constitutional studies in our schools? Many of the youngsters I came across during the election said they were not going to vote, and when I asked why, they replied, “Because we don’t know enough about this political system—how it works in this country.” We need our youngsters to be better informed.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s support. I know how much you have done, Mr Speaker, to improve the education of young people across the country, and I hope that this would be a natural sequitur to the work we do here in Parliament.
In Buckinghamshire, we have seen close-up the ongoing fallout from the terrible activities of one Jimmy Savile in child sexual grooming in cases such as the successful prosecution of the former head of Caldicott school. I hope the Government will now look again at securing mandatory reporting in regulated activities, so that we can increase the safeguarding surrounding our young people and schoolchildren.
I have had my brush with devolution, and devolution features quite strongly in this Queen’s Speech. I, like many others with shire constituencies, will study the city devolution Bill very carefully. It is all very well to hand more power to the city regions and I am supportive of the principle of putting decisions closer to people, provided that the consequences for other parts of the country are carefully considered. For example, I have a democratic deficit in Chesham and Amersham as a consequence of the governance of London, because Transport for London and London Underground own my stations, and to try to get step-free access at Amersham station involves an almighty battle, because the money is usually wanted elsewhere in London and not in my area, which does not have a vote in the London Assembly. In addition, we need to ensure that in implementing the new policy, the shire counties and other areas of the country not directly within or in the area of a city region do not have their funding squeezed or get forced into alliances that take decisions further away from their electorate.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that her constituents get a superb service from Transport for London, without which they would be much the poorer? It is thanks to the continued investment by this Government in London transport that we have been able to deliver record improvements in the underground generally.
My hon. Friend has an impeccable record of providing services, but if he could provide me with my step-free access, I would be even happier.
I was pleased to see that the valuable work of the Silk commission is being taken forward in this Session, but I hope that the long overdue boundary changes and reduction in the number of MPs will also be taken forward. The Labour Government reduced the number of Scottish MPs when the Parliament received primary law-making powers, and that should have happened also for Wales when the National Assembly received its law-making changes. We are keen to rebalance the economy between north and south and east and west, but we also need to rebalance the representation in this House. An English MP’s work remit is arguably considerably different from that of the MPs for Scotland and Wales, who have Assembly Members and Members of the Scottish Parliament to carry out a proportion of the work that we do as English MPs. I very much hope that the changes to Standing Orders will deal with the perennial problem of the West Lothian question, which has still not been answered.
I could not speak in the debate without mentioning my pet project, of which I am a great fan—HS2—as high-speed rail is mentioned in the Queen’s Speech. In the previous Parliament the final compensation scheme was announced, but after five years the current scheme is still falling short of the fair and generous settlement that the Prime Minister promised. Constituents are having their lives and finances dissected and investigated in the sort of detail that could be said to be normally associated with bankruptcy or criminal proceedings. Even decisions on whether the Government should purchase their properties sometimes seem to be subject to lifestyle judgments being made by officials. In addition, the residents commissioner who was appointed last January has yet to agree to a meeting with me and has not published her quarterly report that was promised.
However, hope springs eternal. I was delighted that in our manifesto the Government will be maintaining the national protections for areas of outstanding natural beauty, national parks and sites of special scientific interest. As only 45% of the Chilterns AONB is currently fully tunnelled, leaving 11.4 km of the widest area of the AONB destroyed by shallow cuttings and so-called green tunnels, I feel sure that the fully bored tunnel which will protect the entire AONB must now be firmly on the Government’s agenda. In my view, this is the only way of mitigating damage to our rare habitat and fulfilling this vital commitment in the Conservative manifesto.
Forgive me—I have only a short time.
If there is to be more legislation on high-speed rail, I hope this Government will learn from their mistakes, many of which have been made in our constituencies in Buckinghamshire.
I, like many real Conservatives, am delighted with this Gracious Speech, so I am proud to give it a warm welcome. It is just the entrée for what is coming. We will have the Budget, and I know that many of our votes in this House will be close and hard fought, so our attention will always be demanded in this House. Lord Prescott may not have understood the meaning of aspiration, but perhaps I can help him. I feel that this is a Queen’s Speech of high hopes—high hopes for individuals, families, businesses and this United Kingdom. It gives me great pleasure to give it a warm welcome.
I add my warmest congratulations to the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns) and the hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) on their excellent speeches as proposer and seconder of the Queen’s Speech. Their speeches were by turn witty, warm hearted and, certainly in the case of the right hon. Gentleman, quite surprising in places.
I add my tribute and that of my party to the tributes paid by all those who have spoken about the courage and professionalism of the men and women who serve in our armed services. We as a country owe them an eternal debt of gratitude.
Given that I used to encounter a disobliging wall of noise when I spoke from the Government Benches, and as this is the last occasion on which I will speak as leader of the Liberal Democrats from the Opposition Benches, it is an unaccustomed surprise to be able to hear myself think in the Chamber for once.
The Liberal Democrats worked hard to ensure that the coalition Government’s agenda had a clear thread of liberalism running through it, from the priority we gave to mental health to the green agenda, the introduction of the pupil premium and the protection of our civil liberties. It is therefore dispiriting for us, if pretty unsurprising, to see how quickly the new Conservative Government, instead of building on those achievements, are turning their back on that liberal stance. The human rights we hold dear, our right to privacy in an online age and our future as an open-minded, outward-looking country are all hanging in the balance once again because of the measures announced today.
It is also clear that the coalition Government’s commitment to fairness is weakened. There was little in today’s Speech to help the poorest and most vulnerable; not enough to support social care properly, and no plan to build the garden cities or the 300,000 new homes a year that our young people need for their future. We will see in a few short weeks, when the Chancellor unveils his emergency Budget, whether he intends to follow through with the £12 billion of hitherto unspecified welfare cuts that he has promised, which will hit the poorest and weakest in our society. I argue that it is that Budget, rather that this Queen’s Speech, that will be the moment when we can judge whether the Conservative belief in “one nation” is for real.
My party’s parliamentary presence may be much reduced in size, but our mission is clearer than ever. As we did in the coalition Government, we will fight any attempt to weaken the fundamental rights of our citizens, whether those enshrined in the European convention on human rights and the Human Rights Act, or those threatened by what sounds, from what I have heard today, to be a turbo-charged snoopers’ charter.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about fundamental rights, but does he not agree with the proposals put forward in the Queen’s Speech for tackling radicalisation and extremism, for example with hate speech—this was a problem for the previous Government—when individuals do not cross the line, as happened with Anjem Choudary? Their vile views have to be addressed, and the Bill will go a long way in doing that.
Where free speech is exploited to incite hatred and violence, of course the law must be applied and people must be prosecuted, and prosecuted hard. The problem with starting on this slippery slope always arises when we start defining what kind of speech we do and do not like, or what we do and do not find offensive. The very definition—the heart—of a free, liberal society is that we should be free to offend each other, and that is what is at stake in this new debate.
I will make some progress, because I have only 12 minutes.
We will stand up for the poorest and most vulnerable, and we will always defend a Britain that is at its best when it is open-hearted, open-minded and outward-looking. Of course, it would be churlish of me not to welcome those measures that build on the work that the coalition Government did. The expansion of childcare was of course a good thing, although the Government will have to do a lot more to help parents facing crippling childcare costs after their parental leave ends but before the Government’s help for three-year-olds starts. Of course I welcome the Government’s continued commitment to raising the personal allowance, which was started by the Liberal Democrats in the previous Government, although I am not sure what kind of a comment it is on this Government’s confidence in themselves that they seem now to want to pass a law on tax policy when they could introduce it of their own accord.
Let me turn to the issue that will devour the Government’s energy and time in the coming months: Europe. With so much at stake, the United Kingdom needs a Prime Minister who is absolutely clear about what he wants and why he wants it. Instead, this must be the first time in living memory that a country’s citizens are being asked to support the outcome of a renegotiation on a matter of such fundamental importance to its place in the world without the Government of the day setting out exactly what they want to achieve. Because we do not know what the Government consider to be a successful renegotiation, we do not even know for sure which side the Prime Minister will be on when the referendum is finally held. That is a precarious position—to put it mildly—from which to persuade millions of people who are indifferent or sceptical about the European Union. Just imagine the circumstances in which the referendum is likely to be held: years of denigration of everything the EU does, followed by months of mind-numbing, interminable wrangling over the renegotiation, with a divided Cabinet and a Prime Minister who still appears ambivalent about our role in Europe.
In recent days, I have sensed a slight swagger in the Government’s confidence that they will secure a good deal in the European Union and then go on to win the referendum. But having witnessed two referendums spin off in entirely unpredicted directions in recent years, I would strongly counsel against any complacency. My advice to the Government, if they wish to hear it, is simply this: they should pursue their renegotiation with the European Union but spell out exactly what they hope to achieve so that people understand the choice in front of them. They should be careful not to string out the renegotiation for so long that there is not enough time to make the wider case to the British public. Above all, they should remember that the referendum will be won through conviction, not ambivalence. Ambivalence will not succeed in this negotiation and it will absolutely not win a referendum.
One thing that we already know is that whatever deal the Prime Minister agrees and brings back from Europe, it will not satisfy significant parts of his own party. That is why he must not overstate what he can deliver. When that moment of truth comes and the Prime Minister presents his deal to this House and the country, I hope that he will advocate it with real conviction and make a clear and unambiguous argument in favour of our membership of the European Union, warts and all. In the end, there is no surrogate for a full-throated and sustained advocacy of Britain’s continued membership of a European club that, although undoubtedly imperfect, allows us to tackle crime, address climate change and provide jobs and economic security in a globalised world in a way we never can or will be able to on our own.
The European question is not the only pressing constitutional issue that the Government face. It is clear that the Government have been elected, above all else, because English voters did not believe that a combination of Labour and the SNP would be good for our country or our economy. It was a divisive campaign—a victory of fear over hope. The greatest risk now is that the rise of nationalism and the politics of grievance may cause the fractures in our United Kingdom to grow until we splinter entirely. The warning lights of a full-blown constitutional crisis are flashing. Yet it is telling that this Queen’s Speech contains a plan to weaken our human rights, but not to strengthen our constitution.
The Conservatives are understandably cock-a-hoop at their victory, yet they achieved a parliamentary majority with just 37% of the vote. The SNP has very nearly turned Scotland into a one-party state on 50% of the vote—a position of disproportionate power that it will no doubt use to further the case for the break-up of our Union. Four million people cast a vote for UKIP and more than a million voted for the Greens, yet those parties return to Parliament with just one MP each. My party has just eight MPs, when under a proportional system we would have 51.
I learned the hard way about the difficulties of reforming our creaking political system, but surely no one needs any more evidence that our British constitution is well past its sell-by date. The general election may have delivered the Conservatives a majority in Parliament, but it has left them in charge at a time of great political fragility. The Prime Minister is rightly proud that five years ago, after an uncertain election result in 2010, he was able to swallow his pride, act boldly and put the national interest first. He has an opportunity to do that again now. If the Government want to keep our country united and to act truly in the interests of one nation, now is the time for him to act in a big and bold way to reform our constitution and institutions and to address the rising tide of nationalism. Yet all we have heard today is a self-absorbed plan to replace one Bill of Rights with another weaker one, some fiddling with parliamentary Standing Orders and a welcome but insufficient commitment to devolution to the north. This sort of piecemeal tinkering does not go nearly far enough.
In my view, the time has come for a major, cross-party constitutional convention to find a new federal settlement in which power is devolved to our nations, our regions, our cities and our people. This Parliament could be the one that creates a new settlement for our country. This Parliament could be the one that saves our Union and renews our democracy. That should be the legacy enshrined in this Queen’s Speech.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr Clegg). I much enjoyed serving with him in Cabinet and on the National Security Council. I feel that history is likely to treat his time as our Deputy Prime Minister rather more kindly than the electorate did on what he must regard, but we do not, as a very dark night for his party and for him—but that is the awesome power of democracy.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns) and my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) on brilliantly proposing and seconding the Loyal Address. Some 23 years ago, I had the privilege of seconding the Address, and I know what a terrifying ordeal it is. They both did it with great grace, good sense and humour.
I am obviously delighted to have been returned by the citizens of the royal town of Sutton Coldfield with an increased vote—and, indeed, an increased percentage of the vote. They are, after all, the jury that I trust and respect, and I am delighted with their verdict. Throughout the election on the doorstep—thank goodness the doorstep was right and the polls were wrong—I heard about many important issues, some of which are in the Queen’s Speech and some of which are not, that I intend to champion during the course of this Parliament. I will mention just two. The first is mental health, which was referred to briefly by Her Majesty. The second is individual and collective liberty, which this House has sometimes neglected in the past and to which, during this Parliament, we will undoubtedly return.
I am pleased that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned civil liberties. Does he agree that the snoopers’ charter is a disproportionate response that puts at risk our civil liberties; a cripplingly expensive response, at £1.8 billion; and a rushed response, because David Anderson handed in his review of RIPA—the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000—only on 6 May, and therefore the Prime Minister cannot possibly have taken it into account?
We shall return to these issues during the course of this Parliament.
I want to say at the outset that this is an excellent Queen’s Speech. It is a Queen’s Speech, and as secretary of the One Nation Group, on and off, since 1992, I am obviously delighted to see its content.
Thanks to the referendum pledge that the Prime Minister has championed, the Government are in a very good place on an extremely difficult and contentious issue. I got all this grey hair in whipping the party during the Maastricht debates between 1992 and 1994, much of that time spent with my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin), who is not in his place. There is a clear road map: renegotiation followed by a referendum when everyone will be able to decide. It will not be politicians in what used to be called smoke-filled rooms making those decisions; it will be up to everyone to decide. The United Kingdom can clearly survive inside or outside the European Union—not because of the whims of politicians but because we are a great trading nation—but I am absolutely certain that the always edgy relationship that we have had with the EU since we joined in the early 1970s can now be rectified by this renegotiation, and I very much hope that it will be. My advice to those on the Government Front Bench is not to fetter Ministers with regard to the referendum but to let this momentous decision be guided by individual conviction and allow all Ministers, including Cabinet Ministers, to vote as they see fit.
I want to express strong support for the Government’s proposals to tackle the deficit. The hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) said that the deficit and the debt in Britain were unsustainable, and in the long term he is absolutely right. Our generation of politicians has been too willing to throw money at problems and has forgotten that it is not Government money—the Government do not have any money—but the money of our constituents and those hard-working people who pay all their taxes. It is the money of the people, whose servants we are as politicians, that we are spending.
If we do not repay this enormous debt and attack all the deficit very thoroughly now, it will be the next generation—our children and grandchildren—who will have to pay it off. It will be an intergenerational transfer of debt and deficit, and a blight on young people, who face many challenges which my generation certainly did not face. For example, those leaving university now pay fees—correctly in my view, although my generation received a grant. They have no idea when they will be able to retire or whether they will receive a pension, whereas my generation expected to retire at the age of 65, quite often on a pension linked to earnings. There are many difficulties to be faced in tackling the deficit, but the Government are right to do that now and to do so urgently to stop it becoming an endemic intergenerational transfer of debt.
But the hard truth is that it is incredibly difficult, as I learned as a Social Security Minister in 1995, to tackle and to cut welfare spending. People argue that cutting £1 billion off the huge welfare budget—less than 1%—is easy, but it is not: £1 billion is £100 from 10 million people, or more than 15,000 people per constituency. The lesson is: do not remove cash, but cut future increased expenditure. That is the sensible, one nation way to do it, and it will make it much easier for the Government to take these extremely difficult and complex decisions.
I want to say that the Government are absolutely right to proceed with caution on human rights legislation, as outlined today. I must say that I never thought a British Government, let alone a Conservative one, would ever consider withdrawing from the European convention on human rights, for which our party was responsible.
My right hon. Friend forgets that it was he who was a Government deputy Chief Whip and that I, albeit briefly, was the Government Chief Whip!
Human rights are not British; nor are they just for nice middle-class people. They are universal. In the past, Britain has been a beacon of light on human rights in some very dark places indeed. However, the Government have rightly decided to delay and to think this legislation through. I cannot think of anyone better than my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor to negotiate the Government’s passage on it, and I look forward to his doing so during the coming months.
I suggest that as well as the good offices of the Lord Chancellor, there should be proper parliamentary scrutiny. Given that we have five years of a Parliament and that reform may well take place, does it not make sense to do this carefully, listening to all parties and all views, rather than to take the advice of the Lord Chancellor solely? We should consult Parliament.
It is not the Lord Chancellor’s advice that I am looking for, but his skills in engaging everyone, including Parliament, in the extremely important debate that we must have before the Government come forward with legislation.
I was talking about tackling dark places. I should say that four newly re-elected Members of this House spent last week in Washington seeking the release of the United Kingdom’s last detainee in Guantanamo. It has to be said that a more unlikely group of political bedfellows would be extremely hard to find—me, the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) and the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter). Although it was clear from the beginning of the visit that we agreed on nothing else at all, the one thing we absolutely agreed on was that Shaker Aamer should be released for transfer to the United Kingdom. I am confident that we made some progress on our visit, but it is the most extraordinary injustice. On his visit to the United States earlier this year, the Prime Minister asked that Shaker Aamer be released for transfer to the United Kingdom, and the President promised to prioritise the matter, but since then virtually nothing has happened.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments and for his company on that important visit. Will he use this opportunity to put as much pressure as possible on the Government to speak up for what was the decision of the last House of Commons and what I am confident will be the decision of this House of Commons? We want Shaker Aamer released. He has twice been cleared for release and held illegally—in my view—for 13 years. He deserves his freedom and his family deserve to see him back.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and he is right, too, that this is a thorn in the side of the US-UK relationship. There is a huge online petition, and this has all the appearances of a slap in the face for the United States’ closest ally. I cannot think of any time since the second world war when a UK Prime Minister could have been treated so badly in his request to a President and the reaction to it. The House resolved unanimously on 17 March that Shaker Aamer should be transferred back to the United Kingdom. The message from Britain to the United States is to send Shaker Aamer back to Britain now.
Finally, in the five years since the last opening Queen’s Speech of a new Parliament, the world has become a much less safe and more challenged place, with serious difficulties facing us and our neighbours. One thinks of the threats spelt out by the Prime Minister on Ukraine, the Baltic states and the actions of President Putin, ISIL and the enormous humanitarian disaster that has engulfed Syria and Iraq, where a generation of children will be unlikely to get an education and, in many cases, do not even have a roof over their heads. At this time, however, Europe is facing largely inwards, dealing, quite rightly, with the problems of migrants coming across the sea from north Africa—some of the bravest people in the world—Ukraine, Greece and the euro.
There is precious little leadership from America either. We face this appalling catastrophe in the middle east and this grave threat from ISIL, which might soon have a port on the Mediterranean, but what strategy are the United Nations, America and Europe putting together to tackle this serious threat? There seems to be very little international leadership. Anyone who believes that the solution is to drop weapons worth £30,000 on cars worth less than £500 is living in cloud cuckoo land. It will require long-term, smart policies, political leadership and a political solution, but, in my view, we are nowhere near achieving that.
Tackling the alienation and deep poverty in our world—how right the Government are to stand by their commitment on international development and the 0.7% promise to the poorest people in the world—and making sure that better governance takes hold are the long-term policies that will start to make a difference, but for the moment the House must accept that there is precious little international leadership on tackling this grave problem facing all our constituents and many neighbouring countries.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate and to follow the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell). None of us knows what the next five years has in store for us as Members of Parliament. He had a difficult time—on occasions unfairly—in the last Parliament, and I wish him the very best for this one.
I, too, recall being the seconder of the Humble Address, although I cannot believe it was 14 years ago, when I looked like a young Denzel Washington—of course, today I look far more like Forest Whitaker. Fourteen years have passed, I am a little older, my hair is growing white and, interestingly, I am now described as a senior Member of the House of Commons.
I am very grateful to the people of Tottenham for returning me. I was unusual in this general election in saying to my electorate that I wanted to be the MP for Tottenham, but only for a year, because I hope to follow the hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) as the Mayor of London. He went into the election seeking to be the MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip, while also wanting to continue as Mayor. I wish him the very best over the coming years as he endeavours, I suspect, to secure another job. I was returned with the biggest majority of any MP that has stood for Tottenham, and I am very grateful for that.
Let me speak to all Members about an issue I know my hon. Friends will recognise. On the Sunday after the election, I took my eight-year-old to his Sunday football league, and I was approached by parents living in Edmonton in north London. Many such parents are on the minimum wage. They might be cleaners, dinner ladies, minicab drivers, hospital porters and so forth. They remind me of my family and me in 1992 when we fully expected Neil Kinnock to become Prime Minister. Those people were pleased that I had won my constituency, but they were bewildered at the scale of the defeat for the Labour party, and they were genuinely worried about what was in store for them. When the issue of the £12 billion-worth of cuts to come is raised, I hope that the Government will remain true to their pledge to be one nation, but I expect that it will be down to all of us in the official Opposition to make sure that we hold them to that over the coming months.
Let me deal first with the issue of devolution. As a member of an ethnic minority, I have always feared the prospect of nationalism. I understand the motives of SNP Members, but I believe powerfully in the Union and in the ability of all of us to take our place in that Union as British citizens. It is quite right to move towards the further devolution of powers to Scotland, but it is important to recognise the balance across our nation as a whole.
Let me remind Members of the important contribution of London to our economy, as it is providing a bigger share of our economy than at any time since 1911. The powers of a London Mayor in partnership with the local authorities in the 33 boroughs of London are, frankly, quite pathetic in comparison with the situation in other major cities across our planet. As we devolve greater powers to other cities and mayors and look to devolve further powers to Scotland, it is a matter of great concern that we are not seeing commensurate powers passed on to the Mayor of London or to those who lead the London boroughs. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West (Rob Marris) urges me to declare my interest. Of course I have an interest, but I believe that it is in the interests of London as a whole that the Mayor should have a greater say in the health and education of Londoners. We compete not only with other parts of the country, but with young people in Shanghai and Bangalore, so the Mayor should have more powers to convene and co-ordinate in order to drive up standards in this city.
Above all, we need to see implementation of the Travers review so that further fiscal responsibility can be passed to the Mayor. We need a much deeper relationship with respect, for example, to stamp duty, business tax and the ability to drive the infrastructure investment that London needs. There will be much debate about HS2, but, as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Crossrail 2, I hope to see that gather pace during this Parliament, and I hope to see devolution to London.
I wish the right hon. Gentleman every good fortune in his efforts to replace me. I commend what he is saying about devolution, but may I advise him to couch it less in terms of more powers for the mayoralty than in terms of more powers for Londoners to set their own priorities, and to ensure that they have the necessary funds to invest in Crossrail 2, as well as in the housing that they need?
The hon. Gentleman is right: the powers must sit somewhere. As he knows, however, I also referred to the 33 London boroughs. It is of huge concern that local government was stripped of so much during the last Parliament, and that the ability to deliver local services properly, with power where it should be—closest to the people—does not exist to the extent that most borough leaders would wish. Both the Mayor and those who lead our local authorities need to have that power and ability in the future.
Let me also remind the hon. Gentleman that he was involved in a report by Gerard Lyons which concluded that it would be a huge mistake for this country to exit Europe, and that London alone would lose £210 billion in revenue. The hon. Gentleman is known for his wit, but I hope that he is also known for his detail. The report concluded that it would be a disaster for us to go down that road. There is real concern about the fact that, as we head towards the referendum, big decisions in the City are effectively on hold because of the risk to our national economy. I hope that we reach a decisive conclusion as soon as possible, and that we opt to stay in Europe, because it seems to me that that must be in the interests of all of us.
Before my right hon. Friend moves on to all things mayoral, will he return to the core of the principles involved in devolution? Is it not contradictory that a Government that wish to devolve power should insist, from the centre, on the form of leadership that is to apply in the localities in question? Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should offer devolution options to the cities, regions, counties and other localities of the Union? If they wish to choose the mayoral model, by all means let them go ahead, but they may prefer another leadership model, or perhaps a committee model. Surely the decision should be made by those to whom powers are being devolved, rather than from the centre.
That is a very good point. Some people are using the phrase “hyper-devolution”, which means devolution to communities as they negotiate the power that must rightly lie with them.
Let me now deal with what I consider to be a major issue in the Queen’s Speech. Our country faces a huge structural economic problem in its housing market. We are failing badly the people beyond the House who are young and want to get on to the housing ladder, but who are also the working poor, unable to secure social housing or to buy affordable housing. It is of huge concern that the average age of a buyer in London was 39 this year, and that if we continue on the same trajectory, it will be 52 in a generation. It is also embarrassing and shocking that we built only 40 council houses in London last year. There is much talk about affordable housing, but all hon. Members will understand that rents at 80% of market value are not affordable for most Londoners, who on average earn £32,000 a year. It beggars belief that the Government should propose to extend the right to buy to the 1.3 million people in housing associations. We can look at the matter from a Thatcherite point of view. There is no other area of public policy where someone can get as much as £100,000 from the taxpayer for buying their council home. We are to extend that to people in housing associations. What will that do to supply? How will that contribute to the huge problem of affordable housing? What is our vision for social housing? It appears that there is no vision for social housing and that we are effectively saying we no longer believe in council homes and we no longer believe in social housing in housing associations.
Because it is low-cost, high-security accommodation, people never move out of it, so how is it the answer to the problem that someone in a housing association flat or house monopolises it for life and it never becomes available to other people who properly want social housing?
The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point in relation to the escalator that should be fundamental to the welfare system, but with respect that is not the point I am making. We are reducing the supply of social housing, and many people on a decent wage simply do not have the assets to reduce the demand for social housing. That seems wrong-headed. In the previous Parliament, we heard much about a council house being built for every one that came off the market. That has not happened and it will not happen with housing association properties either.
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept, if the properties are not coming on to the market because tenants have security and stay in them all their lives, that if a mechanism could be found whereby the capital receipts had to be put into new housing, that would increase the supply of housing available for social tenants?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. That is related to the ability of local authorities to borrow in order to build. However, even if they were given powers to borrow in order to build, they would want the security that the house they had built would not come off the market three years later. We have therefore created a terrible vicious circle that will lead to tremendous hardship, I suspect, in the next five years.
There are real concerns about asking the Metropolitan police to find another £700 million-worth of cuts. It took 2,500 officers to restore order to many of the streets of this country during the 2011 riots. That is exactly the number of officers we have lost over this last period. It is true that response times are good, but neighbourhood policing is disappearing and the crime that bedevils deprived areas is rampant. We should think again.
I thank local residents in Southend West for re-electing me as their Member of Parliament. I have always regarded it as a great privilege to be an MP, not a right, and I am absolutely delighted to be returned again.
I congratulate the mover and the seconder of the motion on the Gracious Speech. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns) is a well known wag. On this occasion he did not disappoint the House. The one issue on which I disagreed with him—and will always disagree with him—is the Democratic party in the United States of America and Mrs Clinton. I am afraid that I put the Clintons in exactly the same bracket as the Blairs—but, never mind, my right hon. Friend made a splendid speech.
I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray). She was a contributor to my pamphlet on working-class Conservatives, “The Party of Opportunity”, and she made a magnificent speech today. As we all know, she suffered a terrible tragedy shortly after her election to this place and her family and friends can be very proud of her.
Before getting into the bones of the Gracious Speech, I want to make a few remarks about the general election campaign. I say this in a friendly way to all Members: we only had the general election this month and I do think it is slightly arrogant if we dismiss the verdict of the electorate. I think it is a little early to start rubbishing the decisions the electorate made.
I thought the coverage of the general election campaign was an absolute disgrace for all sorts of reasons. Day in and day out, no big issues were covered by the radio or television media. I do not want to fall out with the SNP and its Members at this stage because I hope they will become my friends—I might even need their support in various matters in months and years to come—but I would say that when canvassing on the doorstep I found that the residents of Southend West were irritated by the fact that every time they went into the lounge and turned on their TV there was the leader of the SNP constantly talking about locking the Prime Minister out of No. 10 Downing Street. I would have thought the only person entitled to lock the Prime Minister out of No. 10 was the Prime Minister’s wife if he had been misbehaving. I do think that the tone was very unfortunate. The only other thing the media covered was their endless obsession with the idea that no party would get overall control. So I think the six weeks of the campaign—I was totally against fixed-term Parliaments, by the way—were very disappointing indeed.
I was elected to this place in June 1983. I am not an old boy yet, but I see from looking at the list that I am No. 5 in length of service on the Conservative Benches and No. 15 in the House. I have not lost my marbles yet, however, and I can remember what it was like to be elected as a new Member of Parliament. I wish to congratulate all colleagues—those who were re-elected and particularly those of all parties elected here for the first time.
I was going to address some remarks to Members on my own side of the Chamber, but for one moment I thought there were no newly elected Members on the Conservative Benches—they all seem to have got bored pretty quickly—then my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (James Cleverly) decided to join us. There are, however, many newly elected Members sitting on the Opposition Benches. This place has changed beyond all recognition from when you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and I joined it in June 1983, but I think that everyone will welcome colleagues and be as helpful as possible to ensure that everyone feels at home here.
The result that gave me the greatest pleasure was that of my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price). She epitomises everything that is good about Essex woman. She was not just in a two-way fight, she was in a three-way marginal and, thinking about my own circumstances in 1992, I know that the pressure she was under was absolutely extraordinary. Those dreadful opinion polls—every day, every week, every month, every year—telling her she was going to come third must have dispirited her greatly, yet she triumphed.
My right hon. Friend has stolen part of my speech. The Gracious Speech says:
“Other measures will be laid before you.”
I absolutely think that we should now ban opinion polls during the three weeks of an election. We must never have a six-week campaign again. We had those ridiculous opinion polls day in and day out, and there has been no humility from the media; they are just carrying on as though they got it right. And let us never forget what the BBC told us about the exit polls. At 10 o’clock, it told us that the Conservatives would be the largest party with, I think, 316 seats.
The problem is that we cannot ban private opinion polls; there would simply be rumour and speculation. It is far better to let the press and the pollsters get on with it, in the hope that they will accept the criticism and that that will help them to get it right more often.
The hon. Gentleman’s father—from heaven—would agree with him; I was also going to make that point in my speech.
Returning to the opinion polls, it is absolutely ridiculous that the exit poll from the BBC said that the Conservatives would be the largest party, with, I think, 289 seats. It even got that wrong, yet all the people who commentated on the general election are carrying on as though nothing has happened. That is absolutely ridiculous, and elected parliamentarians need to do something about that.
I agree with the point that the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) has just made. We have a new Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport in my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale). When he was chairing the Select Committee, he seemed to have an awful lot to say about the British Broadcasting Corporation, and in each Parliament we talk about doing something about it. Now is the time for us to take action.
On the last day of the last Parliament, the European Scrutiny Committee submitted a unanimous all-party report on the manner in which the BBC has treated the European issue over the years. Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be a good idea, in the present circumstances, for everyone to have a good read of it?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. Incidentally, I do not seem to be getting any injury time for the interventions that I have been taking.
There is no secret about why the Conservatives were returned to government. The Gracious Speech stated that the Government
“will legislate in the interests of everyone in our country.”
The British people believe that. The speech went on to state that the Government would
“provide economic stability and security at every stage of life.”
The British people believe that. The speech also says that we should help to
“achieve full employment and provide more people with the security of a job.”
The British people believe that that is what the Conservative party is going to do. We have also stated:
“Legislation will be introduced to support home ownership”,
which is something that the British people very much want, as I recall from my days in Basildon.
I have to say that if any Member did not find that immigration was an issue on the doorstep, I do not know what they were doing. Of course, enormous benefits are brought to this country by immigration, but it is an issue and it needs dealing with. In particular, I look forward to the Government’s proposals on benefit allocation. The British people are also attracted by our proposal to
“secure the future of the National Health Service by implementing the National Health Service’s own five-year plan”,
which we will watch very carefully. They are also impressed by our commitment to
“secure the real value of the basic State Pension”.
Constituents in Southend West are getting increasingly angered by another issue. I am not going to get involved in the Scottish measure, but when we are dealing with England-only issues, there must be a way of ensuring that only English Members of Parliament vote on them.
I am delighted that we are going to renegotiate the UK’s relationship with the European Union—if Opposition parties had not stopped it in the previous Parliament, we would have had the referendum before 2017. I am old enough to have had the opportunity to vote in the ‘70s, and I voted no. Good luck to the Prime Minister if he thinks he can renegotiate things successfully—I will make my judgment at the time. I can tell hon. Members that the comments made to me on the doorstep give me the impression that in the referendum, regardless of how things are renegotiated, young people will vote to stay in the European Union.
I very much support the proposal for a British Bill of Rights, and I was also glad not to see anything in the Gracious Speech on foxhunting. I have always voted against foxhunting, not because of class issues—people may want to dress up in their red uniforms and it all looks marvellous—but because being torn apart by a couple of dogs cannot be a lot of fun for the fox. Human beings would not want that to happen to them, so I am glad there is nothing about foxhunting in the Gracious Speech.
On foreign affairs, I am glad that I was one of the 30 Conservative Members of Parliament who voted against this country getting involved in the conflict in Syria and that we are going to try to get a political settlement there. I am glad that we are going to put pressure on Russia to respect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine, and that we are going to try to defeat terrorism in the middle east. I would have liked the Gracious Speech to have contained some sort of commitment that public inquiries will actually report. It is crazy that we still have not got the Chilcot report—the sooner that is published, the better, because I want to see whether or not I was misled over the Iraq war.
I say again that I am grateful to my constituents for re-electing me. I congratulate all the new Ministers, but I put them on this warning: I want them to read carefully the letters they send to me and not just sign off what the civil servant has plonked in front of them. I want Southend to have city status. Following our magnificent victory in the football contest at the weekend and our promotion to league one, we are entitled to become a city.
I want fair funding for grammar schools. I very much want something to be done about cliff slippage in Southend. I want the senior management of Southend’s hospital and the South Essex Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust—SEPT—sorted out. I very much intend to ensure that the voice of Southend is heard loudly and firmly in this Parliament. My final thought, which I wrote down as I was listening earlier, is that I hope we will all show humility in victory and in defeat.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) and to hear him speak so passionately on behalf of his constituents. Many comparisons have been made with 1992 when a Tory majority Government were elected despite the odds and the predictions. Of course, the hon. Gentleman was the 1992 election personified—on that night, his election was the indication that the Conservatives would be returned.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns) and the hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) on proposing and seconding the Gracious Speech so appropriately and well.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, and I join others in congratulating and welcoming him on his return to the House. I remember him here before he went back to Scotland to serve as First Minister. I will leave it to others to judge the record of the 1992 Government. In this Queen’s Speech debate, we will look to the future.
The hon. Gentleman has spoken many words of wisdom over the years with which I agree. He is certainly proof that if we work at and fight for an issue that we believe in, we will get there in the end, especially if the cause is right. As he knows, I have been a long-term advocate of giving the people of the United Kingdom their say, in a referendum, on whether we should be in or out of the European Union. I was delighted to see that in the Gracious Speech.
Before I go into further detail on the speech, may I, on behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, join others in commending our armed forces on the work they continue to do across so many theatres, and in so many other ways, to protect and defend the people of this country? Some 20% of United Kingdom reservists are Northern Ireland people, even though we make up only 3% of the population. That is testament to how committed the people of Northern Ireland are to the armed forces, which we feel strongly about.
As so many of the armed forces reservists come from Northern Ireland and serve gallantly across the world, does my right hon. Friend accept that one of this Government’s priorities ought to be to ensure that the terms of the military covenant are fully available to soldiers from Northern Ireland who need such services after they leave the forces?
My hon. Friend raises an important issue, which is one of those that arise out of the Belfast agreement. As he knows, equality provisions under section 75 work against giving our armed forces veterans the same status as those in the rest of the United Kingdom. That issue needs to be addressed, and it was covered in our manifesto and our Northern Ireland plan. No doubt we will have negotiations and discussions with the Government about the issue. I am sure that the Defence Secretary will take it on board and that the Government will want to see progress on it.
Before I get into any more detail on the Gracious Speech, may I also thank all right hon. and hon. Members and members of the staff of the House who have very kindly passed on their best wishes to our party leader, the First Minister of Northern Ireland, Peter Robinson, who has suffered problems with his health this week and has been hospitalised as a result? I know that Peter, Iris and his family are deeply encouraged and comforted by the expressions of good wishes from both sides of the House. I am glad to report that Peter is doing well. He has worked extremely hard, probably to the detriment of his health, to try to make progress in Northern Ireland. His record of deal making, negotiation and fighting and standing up for Northern Ireland is one of which we should all be proud and that should continue. We wish him a speedy recovery and hope that he will soon be back to his position as First Minister in Northern Ireland, where he is much needed.
I congratulate the Government on the victory they have achieved—it would be churlish not to—as well as all those who have been elected to this House. At the election of the Speaker, I made the point that everybody elected to this House—as regards the constituents they represent and the parties that are here—is equal. We must consider very carefully any suggestion that Members should not be treated equally in this House.
Coming as I do from a small party from Northern Ireland, I think that it is important that all parties should be respected, that their voices should be heard and that there should be equality. This is the Parliament of the United Kingdom and a House of Commons to which everybody has been elected on an equal franchise. Having said that, I recognise that there is an issue for many people with English voters and that must be addressed in the context of the devolution of greater powers to countries. I do not say that there is an easy answer; everybody recognises that the issue has been debated for many decades. The questions have been posed, but the answers have not so readily come forth. On this issue, on greater devolution and on the devolution of powers to the cities and regions of the United Kingdom more generally, we need to take time, to take things carefully and to move forward in a consensual way. That is why I have advocated in the past the idea of a constitutional convention. We should not tamper with our constitutional arrangements ad hoc or quickly or for party political advantage, with possible unintended consequences; we must look at these things very carefully indeed, and I think we will want to consider a constitutional convention in due course as these matters come before the House.
We give a warm welcome to those new Members from Northern Ireland who have been elected to this House. I want to give a welcome to the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Tom Elliott). He is not a member of my party; he is a member of the Ulster Unionist party, but he was elected because there was a pact between the DUP and the Ulster Unionists, so that for the first time since 2001, Fermanagh and South Tyrone, the most westerly constituency of the United Kingdom, a constituency where I was brought up and went to school, is once again represented in the House of Commons; and so that the people of that great constituency have again a voice in this Parliament, and will have someone to represent them, instead of a Sinn Féin Member who refused to take their seat in this House of Commons. It is a good day for all the people of Fermanagh and South Tyrone, because they will have a representative who will represent them all—and I know he will. I wish him well, and I hope that he will be long spared to continue to represent that constituency.
I also welcome, of course, the new hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan). Again, he is not a member of our party, and I am very sorry at the loss of our previous Member, William McCrea, but I do wish the hon. Gentleman well and I hope we can work together in the best interests of Northern Ireland.
Most of all, of course, I welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson), a member of our party who has retaken that seat once again for Unionism. We warmly look forward to his continuing to represent that seat for many years to come.
This has been a good election in Northern Ireland for the Unionist cause. We may look at other parts of the United Kingdom and other countries. We did not put up any candidates in Scotland. [Hon. Members: “This time.”] We might do a better job! But I am glad to say that in Northern Ireland, Unionist representation in this House has gone up from 10 to 12 seats out of 18. That is a good advance in terms of Northern Ireland, and we look forward to ensuring that the voice of Unionists in Northern Ireland is heard loudly and clearly in the coming years in Parliament.
One issue that was mentioned in the most Gracious Speech was that of psychoactive drugs—legal highs—on which the people of my constituency, my party and, I believe, many parties in this Chamber wish to see legislation introduced. Unfortunately, the Prime Minister, in his address to the House, did not give us a time scale for that. On behalf of my constituents in Newtonards, especially the family of young Adam Owens, who died six weeks ago as a result of taking legal highs, I say that we need to see this legislation coming through quickly. Do my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) and my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) think that should happen right away?
I agree with what my hon. Friend has said and he knows that that was in our manifesto and that we are pursuing it very strongly in the Northern Ireland Assembly as well.
A few weeks ago, the idea of a majority Government of any hue was regarded as ludicrous and out of the question. Pollsters and the political class have been rightly criticised. Speculation about the role of some of the smaller parties was rife at that time; people were predicting that they would have enormous influence. Now the same pundits who got it so wrong are predicting that some of the smaller parties will have absolutely no power at all. I read newspaper headlines just after the election saying, “That’s it—no role, no influence.”
Just as the pundits were wrong previously, they are wrong now, because in a Parliament where the Government have a majority of only 12, it will be increasingly important that the views of other parties are taken into account. Certainly we will adopt a constructive approach to legislation and measures that come before the House. We set out before the election some of the principles that would guide us in the House. We are Northern Ireland MPs, so we will always stand up for the best interests of Northern Ireland. We have proved that in running the Executive alongside others. We have proved it in the House in terms of delivering for Northern Ireland, and we will continue to do that strongly, and be a robust voice for all the people of Northern Ireland in this Parliament.
We are also Unionists, so we will always stand up for the Union, strengthening the relationship between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, ensuring that the symbols of British identity are strengthened, not weakened, in Northern Ireland. But we are also committed to making the United Kingdom stronger and better, not just in narrow Northern Ireland terms, but across the piece—throughout the United Kingdom. That is why we have emphasised the need to ensure that we have strong defences—the point that was made by my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) about the armed forces covenant was very important—in terms of our commitment to NATO, our commitment to ensuring that 2% of GDP is spent on defence. That is an important way of ensuring that the United Kingdom is able to play its full and proper role on the world stage. We look forward to the outworking of the full strategic defence and security review.
We of course welcome very strongly the commitment to the EU referendum. I remember that one of the first things I did in a previous Parliament was to bring in a private Member’s Bill to seek a referendum on the Lisbon treaty. At that time, the Prime Minister had previously given a cast-iron guarantee that there would be such a referendum, which he did not pursue. I remember the vote on the night when 81 Conservatives rebelled in relation to an EU referendum, and we were castigated—we joined with those Conservative rebels—and were told that it would not happen.
I am glad that now everybody in this House—apart from the SNP, of course—agrees that there needs to be a referendum on our relationship with the European Union. We will certainly support that legislation. We need to deal with the main issues that concern voters: the amount of money that goes to Europe, and the fact that the EU has an adverse effect in terms of immigration and border controls and in terms of the sovereignty of this House—our ability, as peoples of the United Kingdom, to make laws governing ourselves.
In terms of building a stronger United Kingdom, a stronger Union, we note the plans to devolve more powers to the towns and counties, the elected mayors, the English votes for English laws, and the plans to introduce the Scotland Bill, the Wales Bill and the Northern Ireland Bill. We will look at all of those in great detail.
I want to finish by pointing to the crisis that now envelops the Northern Ireland Assembly because of the failure to agree the welfare reform legislation. We have engineered a situation in which we have the best possible welfare reform compared with any other part of the United Kingdom—we have got rid of the bedroom tax—and yet it has been vetoed by Sinn Féin because they will not contemplate any change at all to welfare. As a result, there is a £600 million deficit in the Northern Ireland budget. That will lead to the collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly by 31 July unless the Government step in and enact welfare reform. It is clear that Sinn Féin are not up to doing the job. If they will not act, then this sovereign Parliament must act.
I believe that this is a watershed Parliament for a watershed election. The question that will predominate throughout this Parliament will be the question of who governs us and how. That applies not only to the European issue, to which I will return in a moment, but to the Scottish question and the human rights issue, because each contains seminal questions—constitutional issues of a kind that have not been addressed properly for far, far too long. Now we have a Conservative Government who will address them.
I pay tribute to the Prime Minister for his victory, and I pay tribute to the small C conservatives of this country, from every home and every part of the regions of this land, who not only decided that they wanted the security and the stability with which the Conservative party with a big C was able to provide them, but whose common sense led to the pulverisation of the Liberal Democrats and at the same time the rejection of the potential alliance of the SNP and the Labour party, which, certainly from what I saw on the doorstep, scared people witless.
The bottom line is this: we now face very big challenges. I look at the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond); he will present us with a challenge, I have no doubt, and so will Members around him. He would be under a misapprehension, however, if he thought, as I did, in the light of a potential coalition, that it would be like the days of Parnell, because the House of Commons has changed very substantially since then. We have a solid phalanx of a majority of 12—[Interruption.] Yes, we do, and it will prevail in relation to the matters that the right hon. Gentleman has in mind.
On the Scottish question, we also have the issue of the Standing Orders. As I said earlier in an intervention, the legislation that devolved the functions has already been passed, so it is a matter not for legislation but for the Standing Orders of the House. I believe strongly that we will get that through. I know that we will have points of order and all sorts of shenanigans from the SNP, but this is an internal matter reflecting the legislative change that was made in 1997—
I will certainly give way to the right hon. Gentleman, but he may not remember that in the debate in 1997—when the Labour party held the majority of the seats in Scotland—I actually proposed the idea of solving the West Lothian question by making changes to the Standing Orders.
The question has been dealt with by legislation and the functions have been devolved. I was intrigued by the nuanced approach taken by the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds), but it must be conceded that because the Scottish Parliament has control over health and education it is unfair for Scottish Members of Parliament—it cannot be denied that they won a great victory in Scotland—to interfere in matters that belong properly and exclusively to English Members of Parliament.
I caution the hon. Gentleman, whom I have known for many years, against basing his case on legislation that was passed in 1997 in entirely different circumstances. If major democratic reforms are to be made, that should be done openly and honestly and with the full and knowing consent of the House. No device should be used. These are important matters and, if necessary, they should be achieved through winning a majority in the House, not by using a technical device from 1997.
Well said. I entirely concur with my hon. Friend.
On the repeal of the Human Rights Act, when I was shadow Attorney General, I pushed that policy with the help of colleagues in the shadow Cabinet. It remained as a commitment in our manifesto until the coalition of 2010. It was abandoned because of the Liberal Democrats, and now it is to be revived. I offer a word of caution, however, because it is a very important issue. In many respects, it is part of the “who governs?” issue and I strongly suggest adhering to the proposals in the Queen’s Speech. We need a proper discussion. I am clear in my mind, as is Lord Judge and many other distinguished judges, that there are serious problems with the manner of interpretation in the Strasbourg Court and with the use of right to family life as a principle, and how certain people manage to exploit the system, well funded by the human rights lobby, to carry on when they should have packed up a long time ago.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. Does he agree that we need to reacquaint our friends at the other end of the Palace with the concept of the Salisbury convention? They are seeking to undermine the legitimacy and sovereignty of this House, which has a fresh mandate on issues such as the Human Rights Act.
I agree with my hon. Friend’s point about the Salisbury convention, but we need to respect the fact that some very powerful views are held by some very distinguished people who disagree with us. We do not want to drive change through with a sledgehammer: we need some pre-legislative scrutiny so that the analysis can be properly conducted. I believe that we will win the argument, but it needs to be done openly, transparently and with a proper degree of scrutiny.
As I said in reply to the intervention from the right hon. Member for Gordon, the Maastricht referendum campaign—on which we got hundreds of thousands of signatures—should have resulted in a referendum back then. As the right hon. Member for Belfast North said, there has been no referendum since 1975, and some 40 million people have never had a chance to look at the question and have their say. That is despite the fact that since 1975 we have moved from a common market, which I have always preferred, to a new arrangement with vast accumulations of power concentrated in the European Union. The point is not made clearly enough, in my opinion, that whatever the circumstances may be of the eurozone—and the desire of the French and the Germans to get together—it is not an entity in itself. It is part of the European Union and it affects us directly. Therefore, if we do not make the kind of changes to which the Prime Minister referred in his last European Council statement on 23 March, we could end up nibbling at the treaties in minimalist negotiations and failing to deal with the political, economic and constitutional structures that need to be tackled. This is a question of fundamental change, and I believe strongly that if we do not make those changes the British people will end up in the second tier of a two-tier Europe that is increasingly dominated by Germany. That is not something that the British people should countenance.
I hear it said that we can ask only for that which is not impossible, but we should put that the other way round and say that it is impossible for us to contemplate the idea of a two-tier Europe. That is unacceptable. I call in aid the Prime Minister, who said—in his statement and not in response to a question that he might have misinterpreted—on 23 March:
“In the coming two years, we have the opportunity to reform the EU”—
“and fundamentally change Britain’s relationship with it.”—[Official Report, 23 March 2015; Vol. 594, c. 1122.]
He separated the idea of reform from fundamental change because he knows—as do the Foreign Office, the establishment and the European Union—that this is not just a question of reform of policy or individual laws, such as on immigration, however important they may be. This is a fundamental constitutional issue in which we have been locked by the treaties and under the European Communities Act 1972, raising such questions as the nature of the manner in which are governed.
In addition to that, there is the charter of fundamental rights, which I mentioned. Despite the fact that Tony Blair himself did not want us to be affected by the charter—he wanted to exclude us and Peter Goldsmith was sent over to do a protocol, but it was a botched job—the net result is that we are now subject to the ECJ in relation to the charter of fundamental rights, quite apart from any matter relating to human rights. In that respect, I recommend that hon. Members read the report of the European Scrutiny Committee, which I organised and commissioned. We examined the question for more than a year, and we concluded that the only way we could get out of that situation was by using the notwithstanding formula to bypass the European Communities Act.
The Prime Minister has rightly used the expression “one nation”. Where did that phrase come from? Disraeli. What did Disraeli also say? He said that the Tory party is a national party, or it is nothing. He did not say nationalistic; he said national. That is why this question of fundamental change is so important. I too am a believer in one nation. I pay tribute to the Democratic Unionists for their firm affirmation in this important Queen’s Speech on that very matter. I understand of course that the SNP takes a different view, but one nation has served this country proud, not merely for decades or generations but for centuries, and we must adhere to it at all costs.
The phrase “one nation” came from Disraeli’s book “Sybil, or The Two Nations”, which was about his awareness of the necessity of helping the working people of the 19th century. That was his great mission and he achieved it. Let us go forward with one nation, as one nation, and at the same time make certain that we are not governed by other nations through the majority voting system in such a way as to prevent the people who voted in this general election from having what they want and what they deserve.
I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash). I am sure that his interesting insights will lead to much discussion in the coming Session.
I thank the people of Liverpool, Riverside for returning me to this House with an increased majority and on a much-increased turnout. I value both of those achievements.
Today’s Gracious Speech has focused on jobs and opportunities, and the important task of rebalancing the economy. I want to draw attention to some aspects of that, particularly transport. I am pleased that transport featured in the Gracious Speech, but a little disappointed that it did not take a higher profile. It is essential that we remember that transport is integral to having a successful economy, and to the mobility and movement across the whole of the United Kingdom that is required to achieve that.
Transport must be affordable. People have to be able to afford to get to the jobs if they are to be able to take up job opportunities. It is important that transport is accessible, including by disabled people. That has been ignored too much in the past. There has to be sufficient capacity for both passengers and freight, so that businesses can develop and goods can get to their destinations efficiently and effectively.
The Gracious Speech contained some proposals for devolution, and I note in particular the proposal on devolution to cities. I welcome the proposal in the cities Bill to give local authorities in devolved city areas more control over bus services. Buses are the form of transport used by most people, although they are too often ignored in discussions about transport. I hope that my city of Liverpool will, in due course, benefit from that devolution Bill.
The financial provisions in that Bill must be adequate. Cities receiving important devolved powers must have a proper financial settlement, so that those powers are meaningful and able to bring greater prosperity to people in their area. Certainly in the case of Liverpool, I hope that the strong, incessant and unacceptable cuts in funding for local services will cease. Although devolution is very much to be welcomed, the constant cutting of funding for essential local services such as social care is doing deep damage and is unacceptable. I hope that that will end.
I note too the mention in the Gracious Speech of the important proposal for the northern powerhouse—an interesting concept that draws attention to the north. It is an interesting combination of proposals for transport and business development.
Before the hon. Lady moves away from the subject of transport, may I ask whether she agrees that, especially for regions such as Northern Ireland and for connectivity with the rest of the world, the development of Heathrow airport, or at least the expansion of a hub airport, is very important?
I agree that connectivity with the rest of the world is extremely important. I note that that was omitted from the Gracious Speech—perhaps it is the question that dare not be asked, even in this Chamber. However, when the day comes that the Davies commission reports, that will be decision time, and it will be a decision that cannot be shirked any longer. Essentially, I agree with the hon. Gentleman.
The proposals for the northern powerhouse are very important, but it is essential that the northern powerhouse is indeed about the north. In the last Parliament, Ministers talking about the northern powerhouse constantly spoke about Manchester and Leeds. It is equally important that places such as Liverpool, Sheffield, Newcastle and Hull benefit from the northern powerhouse. When I raised that point, I was told that the reference to Manchester and Leeds was shorthand for the northern powerhouse, which I found rather disconcerting. I hope that that will be corrected in this Parliament. The northern powerhouse is an important concept, but it must be backed up by resources and it must apply to “the north”, not just to some cities of the north.
Although devolution is important, it should not be confined to cities. The whole of the United Kingdom is not concentrated solely on cities. There are towns that are on the fringes of cities; there are county areas. If we want economic prosperity for all and to rebalance the economy, all those areas have to be considered. Let us consider one example of disparity between regions. Rail investment per head in London is £294; I am sure it is greatly needed and the case is constantly being made for more investment, but let us look at the amount of rail investment per head in other regions. The figure for the east of England is £58; for south-west England, £41; for the east midlands, £37; for the west midlands, £50; for the north-west, £89; for Yorkshire and Humberside, £101; and for the south-east, £69. Surely that cannot reflect needs and opportunities. If the Government are seriously interested in rebalancing the economy, they have to look at where investment goes and where investment in transport goes, so that opportunities are opened up in all part of the United Kingdom.
I was pleased to see reference in the Gracious Speech to High Speed 2 and confirmation that proposals for High Speed 2 will continue. I welcome that. The extra capacity that will come with High Speed 2 is essential and is much needed, particularly in relation to the economy. It is needed for freight as well as for passenger services. The high-speed line will not be designed for freight, but it is essential that as the high-speed lines develop, the capacity left on the existing line is used for additional passenger services and also for freight services. That means that this development must be planned as part of an integrated approach to rail.
There must be more connectivity with High Speed 2, and High Speed 2 investment must be seen as part of regeneration, with support for business and enterprise alongside those lines so that the regions served by High Speed 2 benefit, and also to ensure that as many other parts of the country as possible benefit. During the previous Parliament I was pleased to see how the High Speed 2 proposals changed from proposals simply for a new line to proposals for a new line backed by regeneration and as part of improved connectivity with the entire country.
It is important, too, that the development is seen as an opportunity for people to acquire new skills and additional jobs. That must be part of the concept of taking the line further. Development in high speed must not be at the expense of investing in the existing classic line. I am pleased that we made some progress on this in the previous Parliament and it is essential that this is taken forward. It is about capacity, regeneration and opportunities.
I listened carefully to the comments of the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) on compensation. When such a scheme goes forward, there will inevitably be people who lose out. Compensation should be given fairly. I agree with the right hon. Lady’s comments in that respect.
I make these remarks today to draw the attention of the House to the importance of transport in the context of the key objectives of supporting jobs and opening up opportunity, as set out in the Gracious Speech. Transport is rarely a high-profile issue, but it is essential to making our society work, so I hope that as this Parliament proceeds, the measures set out in relation to further transport investment proceed and other important measures are considered too. Transport must be accessible, it must have sufficient investment, and it must be closely linked to business, enterprise, skills and opportunities. It must be approached in that light.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman), and also to follow the introduction to this debate by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns) and my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray).
I approach this debate with some slight misgivings—I realised that the last time I participated in a debate on the Gracious Speech from the Back Benches was my maiden speech in 1997, and worse still, the themes of that maiden speech were devolution for Scotland, the future of the Union of the United Kingdom, and human rights. Despite my best endeavours, I seem to be unable to escape any of them this evening. However, some issues which arise were not present then. The economic crisis that has beset the western world and this country particularly in the past few years was not present when I made that maiden speech in 1997. The state of the world as it existed then was nothing like as fragile and dangerous as the world seems to be today. We face dramatic challenges, to which I shall return briefly at the end of my remarks.
I greatly welcome the continuation of the Government’s economic policy, as laid out in the Gracious Speech. I have no doubt that the reason why my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was returned and the Conservative party was elected to office was the public’s appreciation of the difficult decisions that had been made in putting the economic recovery of this country on a reasonable footing. In saying that, I am mindful of the fact that there will be some pretty dramatic challenges ahead. Having served in government and having watched the difficulties, for example, of reducing the budget of the small Department over which I presided for four years and the Crown Prosecution Service being reduced by one third, I recognise that there will be some complex issues of prioritisation as we take matters forward.
In that context, I welcome the remarks of the Lord Chancellor who, I understand, when he first went to address the staff at the Ministry of Justice, pointed out his awareness of the importance of access to justice and of maintaining an adequate justice system as one of the key priorities of Government. I entirely endorse that.
I welcome the fact that we are to have a referendum on European Union membership. In my view, this is an area where there is a substantial democratic deficit that has beset our politics for far too long. It is fairly well known that nobody has yet succeeded in persuading me of good arguments why we should leave the European Union, but I recognise from my time as Attorney General that there are many aspects of the EU which are seriously dysfunctional. If my right hon. Friend can, in the conduct of his negotiations, succeed in improving the way in which the EU functions not just for ourselves, but for the other member states, he will have performed a signal public service, and I believe he will then be in a position to come to the electorate of this country and ask them to endorse it.
It seems to me that the key will be providing the necessary reassurance that the United Kingdom, which will remain outside the eurozone, has the necessary guarantees that that will not be to its disadvantage. That is the key issue and the one on which we should concentrate, although there are other aspects which will need to be looked at.
I shall make progress, if I may.
On matters concerning the Union of the United Kingdom, I am a Unionist to my fingertips. I could not be otherwise, with my family’s Scottish heritage. It has always seemed to me that the key to the Union of the United Kingdom is that the interests of an elector, be it in Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow or indeed where my family comes from, in Hawick, must be of equal importance to me as that of my own electorate in Beaconsfield, but the forms which the Union can take may be diverse. To that extent, I entirely welcome the fact that further devolution to Scotland and to Wales will take place, and I look forward to participating actively in the debates on that.
I listened carefully to what was said from the Scottish National party Benches about SNP Members’ concerns that constitutional change might take place by changing the Standing Orders of the House. This is a somewhat esoteric constitutional law point, but there are arguments that that is probably the only adequate way in which it can be done. If I can provide some reassurance, it seems to me to be central to any such change—the point was well made—that the interests of Scotland, both directly and indirectly, have to be respected, and it can apply only to those matters which pertain strictly to England, England and Wales or other parts of the United Kingdom. I look forward to having that debate, listening carefully to hon. Members’ participation and trying to make sure that we can put together a structure which is durable and, above all, fair—fair to them, but also fair to my constituents, for whom this is an issue which matters quite a lot as well.
I note the Government’s enthusiasm for continuing with high-speed rail. I am mindful that the House has expressed a determined view on this point. It is not one which commends itself much to my constituents, and the cost-benefit analysis of it has always eluded me. Nevertheless, I shall try to ensure, on their behalf, that the mitigation that they seek is provided, and in particular that there is a rigorous analysis of the costs of tunnelling under the River Colne, as opposed to the viaduct—a difference in value which seems to be narrowing by the day. I hope I may be able to interest the House in that.
Before moving on to my main topic, I want to touch briefly on the communications data Bill. In my view it is absolutely required. During my time as Attorney General I had a great deal to do with the agencies, and I am satisfied that they try to operate to high ethical standards. I am also satisfied that the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 is inadequate to meet the needs of the modern age. However, I am also mindful of the fact that the public require reassurance in relation to civil liberties. I believe that it will be possible to do those two things during the Bill’s passage.
How does my right hon. and learned Friend reconcile that with the fact that our primary ally, the United States, with its National Security Agency, which entirely mirrors GCHQ, is as we speak moving away from the block collection of data and treating that as wholly unconstitutional?
I have to say to my right hon. Friend that I do not believe that GCHQ has been engaging in the block collection and retention of data for the purpose of subjecting it to examination at a level that intrudes upon privacy. If he reads the comments made by Sir Iain Lobban when he gave evidence, he will see that it is clear what they were about. That said, my right hon. Friend makes an important point, and one that we will have to address. If there are other ways in which it can be better addressed, I for one would be only too happy to see those being looked at. However, I am also mindful, from my own experience in government, that some of the comments made in that regard seem rather far-fetched.
Let me turn to one of the key issues in the Gracious Speech: the suggestion that we will replace the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights. At this stage I will simply make two or three points. First, I welcome the fact that the proposal has not been set in stone, fortunately, and that it appears we will be having a consultation. The proposal will be very difficult to implement in practice, and the reputational damage for this country could be disastrous. Let us start with the first and most obvious point, which is the fact that the devolution settlements in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are underpinned by the Human Rights Act—it might be an inconvenient truth for some, but it is still a truth—and, in the case of Northern Ireland, by an international treaty with the Irish republic. I do not see how we can effect a change without first achieving a consensus that involves those parts of the United Kingdom, even if we have the power to do so, because it seems to me that to proceed without it would threaten the Union, which I was sent to this House to uphold.
Secondly, if we are to proceed down this route, the EU dimension needs to be considered. My hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) has waxed eloquently against the charter of fundamental rights. I cannot think of anything more calculated to see the intervention of the European Court of Justice—not the European Court of Human Rights—than if we end up being non-compatible with the convention and EU citizens end up bringing claims against the United Kingdom Government that cannot be adjudicated under the convention in our own courts or in Strasbourg.
Thirdly, the United Kingdom has been at the forefront of the development of human rights on our planet; it is one of the things of which we can be most proud. If we are going to dilute those rights and present the British public with something that is, in fact, the convention shorn of some of the protections it affords citizens, the consequences for the convention will be catastrophic. But other countries that have previously been willing to improve their human rights records, as a result of our leverage, will cease to do so, and one of the most powerful tools for improving human rights on our planet will have been irrevocably damaged. I find it impossible to see how that can be in our national interest.
Having said those things, I also recognise that there are flaws in the way in which the Court in Strasbourg has operated. I have many criticisms of some of its jurisprudence, and there was a period in recent years when it was quite seriously off the rails. However, one point that needs to be borne in mind is that we have recently carried out a major reform of the way the Court operates, thanks to the efforts of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke). Our judiciary has changed its stance and approach to the Court, so there is now a much more robust dialogue. Consequently, the Court has substantially changed many areas of its approach. The ultimate irony is that we might be in danger of fighting yesterday’s battle, or indeed of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. I therefore very much hope that there can be a full consultation so that all these matters can be aired.
Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman, with all his history in this field, tell us what he believes is the best way that Parliament can engage in that consultation? We have been told that we are not going to have a political and constitutional reform Select Committee, which would have looked at this, so would he suggest a special Committee created by the House to look at this at some length so that we avoid some of the pitfalls he has outlined?
The hon. Gentleman’s suggestion sounds like a very good one, and I certainly intend to engage in the debate as and when proposals are brought before the House.
I mentioned at the start of my remarks that we are living in a much more dangerous and difficult world than we were in 1997. Of course, one of the challenges facing the Government is prioritising what really matters. I have made the point that human rights matter because their promotion is so important, particularly in view of Russia’s behaviour in Ukraine and Crimea, so that ought to be a top priority. In the same way, I think that defence will have to be looked at again, and I am pleased that we are going to have a strategic defence review. Ultimately, some hard choices might have to be made, because at the moment I am left with the sensation not that the previous Government did things wrong over defence, but that it might need to be given a greater priority than it has at the moment.
Finally, the one thing that I picked up on the doorstep during the election was the sense that the electorate are fed up with presentational politics—the politics of the gimmick and the soundbite. They want debate, and they want debate here. One of my experiences is that if a Member is prepared to sit through a debate in this place, they will understand a lot more at the end than they did at the beginning. As I am now free of the constraints of office, I commit myself to doing just that. I look forward to debating with other Members of this honourable House, in so far as I can, on what I think are some of the major issues and challenges that face us all.
It is a pleasure to take part in this debate and to respond to the Gracious Speech on behalf of Plaid Cymru. It is also a pleasure to follow the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), whose speech I will refer to later in my contribution, especially his very valid points on the Human Rights Act. I would like to begin by congratulating the Conservative party on its victory—it is probably the only positive thing I am going to say about the Government over the next five years, so I thought I had better get it out of the way now.
It is fair to say that not many political commentators were expecting a Conservative majority Government, and therefore the legislative landscape announced today is significantly different from what had been anticipated. Before commentating on the content of the Gracious Speech, I would like to say that this Government seem to me, despite being a single-party majority Government, to be far weaker than the previous coalition Government. A majority of 12 can disappear very quickly, especially knowing the independent inclinations of many Tories.
The Gracious Speech includes many potential pitfalls for the new Government, not least the Achilles heel of the Conservative party—Europe. I often felt during the previous Parliament that the Liberal Democrats served a very useful function for the Prime Minister, not only in terms of voting fodder, but primarily by allowing him to tame the Eurosceptic, right-wing element on his Back Benches by saying that he was being held back by his junior coalition partner. That buffer has now gone, and the new Administration could well find themselves at the mercy of restless and troublesome Back Benchers very soon.
Turning to the Gracious Speech, I would like to concentrate on a few of the most important aspects as far as Wales is concerned. On becoming parliamentary leader of the Plaid Cymru group, I highlighted three key immediate aims for my party, based on the new Government’s likely legislative programme. The first is to ensure that Wales gets more than crumbs from the Westminster table. Faced with an electoral revolution in Scotland, there is little doubt that Westminster will have to concede significant powers to the Scottish Parliament. The recommendations of the Smith commission are not likely to prove enough, as we will discover when the proposed Scotland Bill progresses. In Northern Ireland, even Unionists are demanding further powers from Westminster. Most recently, the UK Government conceded full corporation tax powers. With that in mind, I remind them of the findings of their own commission on further powers for Wales: it recommended that if corporation tax powers were given to Northern Ireland, they should also be given to Wales.
In England, it is reported that the cities and local government devolution Bill will fully devolve powers over transport, planning, housing and—critically—policing. That means that some cities in England will have more powers than the sovereign national Parliament of Wales. What is more, those powers are being handed out across the UK without any requirement for referendums, while both the Labour and Conservative parties conspire to put as many stumbling blocks as possible in the way of further progress for Wales.
My country will not be left behind. I warn the UK Government that the most powerful message in Welsh politics is about equality with Scotland. There will be a heavy price to pay at the ballot box at next year’s National Assembly elections if the Westminster parties continue to treat Wales like a second-class nation.
Unionists have one chance left to save the Union. The situation is crying out for a statesman with a vision to create a sustainable framework for the future. It is clear to me that the asymmetric nature of constitutional developments within the UK is unstable. Far be it from me to offer advice; as a Welsh nationalist, I am committed to campaigning for the political independence of my country. However, if the UK is to survive it is clear to me that only a genuine partnership of equals, based on confederal principles, will work. As I said in my acceptance speech earlier this month, the old Union is now dead and during this Parliament a new one will have to be forged if the British state is to survive. My colleagues and I will be fighting for the best possible deal for our country.
The Tories have said that they will legislate to stop income tax going up in England. Would the hon. Gentleman support the devolution of income tax to Wales? Does he think that that is a clever Conservative trick that says to Wales, “Instead of getting your fair share, raise your own tax on the back of your own people”?
The hon. Gentleman is conflating two separate issues. There is the issue of fair funding for Wales, and we have a proud record of fighting for a better deal for Wales; we get a bad deal from the Barnett formula as it is currently constructed. Given that the Unionist parties have conceded that the Barnett formula will remain in stone, we believe that Wales will have the same amount of money as Scotland, which is around £1.4 billion extra for our devolved services.
Direct Westminster control has clearly completely failed the Welsh economy; the latest Eurostat figures put the communities that the hon. Gentleman and I represent at the bottom of the European Union pack, while inner London is by far the most prosperous. The only solution is for us to have control of the levers for job creation so that we can intervene in our economy.
Our second major aim as a parliamentary group will be to ensure that the Westminster Government do not steamroller legislation through this place against the wishes of the National Assembly for Wales. Although it has been reported that the Government are rowing back from their intention to scrap the Human Rights Act, it is difficult to see how they might introduce a so-called British Bill of Rights without repealing the Act first. Any attempt to scrap the Human Rights Act will therefore be of significant concern. The issue will be pressing in Scotland and Northern Ireland, where justice responsibilities are, of course, devolved; the Human Rights Act is a vital part of the Good Friday agreement. In Wales, the Human Rights Act is written into the Government of Wales Act.
I have called on the National Assembly to hold an urgent vote on a motion indicating its support for the Human Rights Act. If the Westminster Government were to ignore the sovereign will of the National Assembly for Wales, the matter would more than likely end up in the Supreme Court. That would have significant constitutional implications. I urge the new Secretary of State for Justice to listen to the advice of the former Attorney General, the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), who said that the Human Rights Act underpins devolved powers to Wales and that it is embedded in the constitutional settlement of devolution. The Westminster Government would find it extremely hard to scrap the Act without the express consent of the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish Governments.
Our other major concern is the proposed legislation to enact a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union. I often think that the Prime Minister is tactically very clever but strategically not as astute. His posturing on Europe is a case in point. Tactically, committing to a referendum brilliantly protected his party from the UKIP insurgency and has managed to placate his restless Back Benchers—and, indeed, some of his Front Benchers. Strategically, that posturing was deficient, as it now blatantly endangers the UK’s economic future with an out vote, while also exposing his party’s major Achilles heel.
The Welsh national interest is best served by being a part of the European Union. The EU’s redistributive mechanisms have led to billions of pounds of investment in regional aid and support for the agricultural sector in Wales, in addition to access to the single market—vital for an exporting nation such as mine. Needless to say, the two main policy fields that the Westminster parties have wanted to renegotiate are the two that benefit my country the most: regional policy and agricultural support. We will seek to amend the proposed referendum Bill to ensure that the national interest of Wales is protected. If the UK is a genuine partnership of equals, Wales must not be forced out of the European Union against its will. We will seek to ensure that the constituent parts of the UK have a veto that protects their national interests when it comes to any proposed referendum. Diolch yn fawr iawn.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker; I will try to be disciplined in my taking of interventions. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards). I shall not follow him down the route of devolution for Wales, despite the fact that my name is Davis.
The House will be unsurprised that I find a great deal to approve of in this Queen’s Speech; it is, after all, the first to be delivered by a solely Conservative Government for nearly 20 years. I particularly welcome the European Union referendum Bill. Contrary to what has been said, it is asking the people’s permission to do something—stay in or leave. It is not anything else beyond that and it is long overdue.
I also welcome the education and adoption Bill, which involves two sets of moves in the right direction. I would do more myself, but the moves are, at least, beneficial. I welcome the enterprise Bill, which will build on the economic success of the past few years. It will create jobs so it will probably do more to reduce poverty in this country than any other social measure. I welcome the childcare Bill, which doubles free childcare to 30 hours a week—indeed, I would again go further and reduce some of the restrictions on that childcare provision. That would help underpin the lives of ordinary people in a beneficial way.
I also welcome the right-to-buy Bill. It is controversial, but done properly—that point matters—it will improve ordinary working people’s ability to get on to the property ladder. The failure to do that has been decried on both sides of the House. At the same time, it will release money to allow new social housing, which every Government in the past 20 years have failed to provide on a sufficient scale. Indeed, the last Labour Government failed in 13 years to provide as much social housing as was built in one year under Margaret Thatcher. We all have to face that fact.
I want to talk about three areas of concern, many of which have been mentioned, especially by my right hon. and learned Friend the erstwhile Attorney General. The first is the Scotland Bill. I am sorry that the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) is not here, because he would have some views on this. Despite my being a firm Unionist, I have long been an advocate—since 1998, in fact—of more fiscal autonomy for the Scottish Parliament. When I was the Public Accounts Committee Chairman in 1998-99, I went to see Gordon Brown to tell him that the mechanism that he had chosen, of having Holyrood dependent on an opaque, virtually incomprehensible subvention formula, was a grievance machine: it would create grievances in Scotland and England. As such it was a destabilising measure, not a stabilising one.
We need to grip this issue. We need to enable the Scottish Parliament to pay its own way from funding that it raises and controls, both in policy and Executive terms, and to ensure that subventions provided from the rest of the United Kingdom, in the form of pensions and other welfare costs, are properly costed, as are all the other taxes raised in Scotland that do not go to the Scottish Parliament. We should make our judgments in future on the basis of knowledge, not of assertion and counter-assertion from the two sides of Hadrian’s Wall. That is one issue, and we will come back to it in detail no doubt during the debate on the various measures relating to both Scotland and England.
Like my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), the aspect of this Queen’s Speech that worries me most is the whole question of Human Rights Act repeal, and, with that, the introduction of the counter-terrorism Bill and the communications data Bill—the so-called snoopers charter. I am very pleased that the Government have decided to step back from an immediate rush into repealing the Human Rights Act. That seems very sensible. With only 19 days to go until the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, it at least shows some sensitivity to the history of our country and what we stand for—something to which my right hon. and learned Friend referred. We should remember that the biggest lesson of Magna Carta is that the acquisition of liberty and loss of liberty in our history has often happened by accident as much as by plan. We must think about the unintended consequences of what we do when we set about changing these major constitutional issues.
Before this debate I spent a little time looking through the list of adverse judgments against the United Kingdom by the European Court of Human Rights since we joined, but mainly since 2001, when the HRA came into effect. Bearing in mind that I was the person, along with Jack Straw, who brought to this House the motion that stopped the imposition of prisoner votes on this country, I have a very sceptical view of the ECHR, yet I found that I agreed with some 90% of the judgments, on such diverse things as taking away from the Government the right to keep the DNA of innocent people for years, through to preserving the right of British citizens to wear a crucifix while at work. That is the level of diversity that we are talking about. The number of things I did not like was quite small, and that came about largely as a result of the nature of the Court as a body without any feeling for the history and tradition of Britain, with a lot of people from different countries who have no reason to know about our history.
Ideally, therefore, I would like us to keep the main thrust of the HRA but bring the Court judgments back to our own Supreme Court. Unfortunately this produces for us a serious conundrum to which I have not yet heard any Government Minister give an answer. As it stands, the European convention on human rights, in the hands of Strasbourg, is entrenched; no British Government could change it. If we bring its provisions back to the United Kingdom, then it is no longer entrenched. Looking at the history of the past 20 years, I ask myself how Governments would have responded when, let us say, 90 days’ detention without charge went across this set of tramlines, or control orders, or DNA, or anything else. What the Government would do, of course, is change the constitutional measure that was put in place to uphold the Court.
That was my view 20 years ago. Since then, I have lived through three sets of Governments, none of whom I would trust with the protection of liberty in this country. Three clauses are left out of how many? I have forgotten; a very large number have disappeared. The harsh truth is that in the modern world Governments are very quick to modify things that are inconvenient to them. When the Blair Government were in power, they were very happy to do things that were just procedural issues that the public did not pay any attention to, even though their effects were enormous.
The only way to deal with this is to undertake a written constitution for the United Kingdom. That could not be done on a partisan basis—it would have to be bipartisan— and it would take years, more than a single Parliament. I am afraid that at the moment, as it stands, I am unwilling to support Human Rights Act abolition unless I hear an answer to that conundrum, as well as the others put to the House by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield.
I have concerns about the counter-terrorism Bill, which intends to move us from stopping people making speeches that incite violence to stopping ones that incite hatred. I suspect that many people in this House have made speeches that incite hatred, sometimes deliberately, sometimes not. How on earth we are going to make the judgment as to what crosses this line and what does not without massively impeding our freedom of speech, I do not know. Let us remember that Voltaire’s comment, accurately, was this: “I despise what you say but I will fight to the death for your right to say it.” I repeat: “despise what you say”. We must remember that freedom of speech is the right of people to say things we do not like and are not comfortable with.
On the communications data Bill, I differ dramatically from the previous Attorney General, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield. I have watched over many years the operation of our agencies and the foreign agencies. Most of them, pretty much all the time, behave honourably in collecting data, but they take the view that collecting data is not wrong; only looking at it is wrong. I am afraid that is semantic nonsense. If one holds the data, one has the power of the Stasi even if one does not behave like the Stasi—the power of a totalitarian state even if one does not behave like a totalitarian state. All those of us who have been here for many years have seen Governments, from time to time, misuse the data they have in front of them. I would be very unwilling for us to move further down that route, particularly because the Americans, as we speak, have passed the USA Freedom Bill—Act, as it will be—by some 330 votes to 88 votes in Congress. That will reverse exactly the sort of mass collection of data that is being proposed here. It is implausible to argue that the Americans do not need it but somehow we do.
I welcome the main parts of the Queen’s Speech, but some are incredibly difficult in terms of liberty and justice in this country. We are in a small-majority Parliament. I do not want a return to the trials and tribulations of the ’92-’97 Parliament, but I do want a Government who do not just try to solve everything in Whitehall or in a specially selected Committee with specially selected Members. I want these problems to be solved on the Floor of this House, and I hope that they give us the time to do it.
I congratulate the Conservative party on its victory at the general election and the Scottish National party on its victory in the election in Scotland. Two main rules have always been in my head about democracy and the outcome of an election: first, the majority shall prevail; and secondly, the rights of the minorities must always be respected. Winning an election outright, wonderful achievement though it is for the Conservative party, is not a licence to ride roughshod over those who disagree with it—or with us, were we to be in power.
I fear that having gone from a situation of great political volatility, we may now try to assume that it is back to business as usual and that, because there is a majority, this place is a sausage machine that is here just to ram through legislation. That would be a disaster for the nation at any time, but particularly when fundamental issues impacting on our democracy are going to come before us over the next five years. “Back to normal working” is a bad philosophy. We need to respect those who have different views and, through our processes and procedures in this House, to accommodate these debates. If we fail to do that, we will be putting a lid on things that will explode off our democracy in the not too distant future.
We have a very long Parliament ahead. I can understand the new Members, in particular, being very enthusiastic about coming to this place—the pomp and the finery and the rest of it, and what an experience it is—but there is going to be five years’ worth, and the edge will go off that feeling. There will be a lot of drudgery and a lot of routine, and there will be a full five-year Parliament. On the previous occasion, we did not pass the Bill that became the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 until about a year into the Parliament, so it did not feel like a full five years, but that is what we are now facing.
I am a Fixed-term Parliaments Act person, and one of the good things about the Act is that it allows a Government to plan their legislative programme: not to ride roughshod over people with whom they disagree, but to have proper process. From the Floor, we have heard repeated calls—from the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), the former Attorney General the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), and the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), as well as from Opposition Members—for the need to understand the issues, to listen and to work stuff through. I agree with the leader of the Plaid Cymru Members, the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards), that when we are recreating a democracy, there is a moment when those of us who believe in the Union will need to work very hard to work out how to save it. That is not a problem that my friends in the Scottish National party need worry about too much, but those of us who do care about it need to work at it very carefully. Pushing stuff through is not the answer, and using—or abusing—this Parliament is not the way to do it. That is a long-term matter.
There are many ways to skin a cat, and given that we have five years and are not thinking that maybe there will be a general election next year or maybe the Government will fall—maybe, maybe—we can use all such devices. I referred earlier to the possibility, under Standing Orders, of having a special Committee. I would argue very strongly—as I was Chair of the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform, I would, wouldn’t I?—that there should be a serious pre-legislative stage and a post-legislative stage in our Select Committees. That is the role of Parliament, and my worry is that the Government may seek to ride roughshod over us. That is not a partisan point.
If I make any point today, I want to make the simple one—I make it to GCSE students, let alone Members of Parliament—that Government and Parliament are two separate and distinct entities. We tend to conflate them, which makes life a lot easier; when we do not know what the business of the day is and the bell rings, it is easier to be told what to do. They are two distinct institutions, and the legislature and Executive have a different view of life—not always.
If I may be so bold, one thing that new Members will learn is that there is a permanent conflict in this place, particularly if they support a party or a Government view, because they will be torn on a daily basis. If they have two brain cells, it is a difficult role to fulfil: working for their constituents and for democracy while following their party line, particularly when it is laid down by the Prime Minister or their party leader. That permanent conflict—the eternal battle, as it were, between the Government and the legislature—is one with which we need to engage.
The Government currently control Parliament and our daily agenda. Many years ago when I was a new Member, before the House had even met I sought out the doyen of Parliament at that time, a guy called Chris Price, the Member of Parliament for Lewisham West, who has sadly passed away. I asked, “Where do I go and who do I talk to to understand this place?” He said, “You go to see a guy called Murdo Maclean.” No one had heard of him.
They have now. The current Murdo Maclean is a guy called Roy Stone—I am sure he is very happy at my naming him on the Floor of the House—who is the private secretary to the Chief Whip. He has a buddy on the other side called Mike Winter, who is the head of the Leader of the House’s office. They are the two most powerful people in Parliament. New Members do not know who they are or where they live, but I suggest that they go round, seek them out, knock on their door and ask their advice. I am sure that they would be absolutely delighted if 40, 50 or 100 new Members came round to understanding how Parliament and Government really work.
It is essential to make sure that we are equipped for the task of scrutiny, but we are still to set up a House business Committee. Before the last election, the Wright Committee reported to the House on a whole series of reforms, including things we now take for granted, such as that our Select Committee Chairs should be elected by secret ballot, not gifted to us by the Whips, and that members of Select Committees should be elected by party in a secret ballot, rather than appointed by the Whips. Many other reforms went through at that point. One of the key things that we missed and was sidestepped, but to which the previous Government and no doubt the Labour Opposition agreed, was a House business Committee. It would have meant that when we have an issue such as how to deal with the Human Rights Act or whether it is right that some order from 1997 determines whether or not we can elect the people who decide on everything in this House—of course that was never intended to be the case—we had a mechanism to debate those issues. If they are not debated, we may be trying to be fair, but people outside Parliament will not understand it, and some people may even exaggerate the importance of such matters for their own political gain. I am sure that that would not happen, but it could do so.
We need to have such mechanisms so that our democracy can function effectively. My worry is that now a majority Government have been returned, the instincts of various officials around the place is to ask not what we should now do to renew our democracy, but how to push their laws through the House of Commons. That contradiction could be very divisive and explode in our faces if we do not do our job properly.
Many of these things were covered in the reports of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, which might have covered them again. Briefly, the reports have talked about the crisis in the Union, our relations with Europe, devolution in Scotland and England, the role of this Parliament, improving the legislative process, the role of the second Chamber—a quiet moment in the Queen’s Speech, I noticed—and the need, as many colleagues have said, for a proper constitutional convention that goes beyond the bubble to bring people from outside Parliament alongside on how we can recreate a new democracy within the Union. Our boundaries are a matter of great concern to people in this place. Where will that issue be decided, and where will the pre-legislative scrutiny of it take place, asking whether there should be 600 or 650 Members and so on?
We have a crisis of legitimacy in our democracy. Either the House steps up and devises means by which we can debate that crisis effectively and make our institutions more legitimate—with parliamentarians deciding to support Parliament, rather than just the Government or an alternative Government—or, just as the people of Scotland faced a very different morning after the general election, we could wake up on a morning in 2020 to find our Union not only in jeopardy, but destroyed. That is something that some people would approve of, but if we do not want it, we need to act on that now.
It is a pleasure to follow my east midlands colleague, the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen). Not for the first time, he has made a very thoughtful and interesting speech. I hope that those who did not have the opportunity to listen to it will read it in Hansard tomorrow. I dare say that the good people of Nottinghamshire will set it to music.
I agree with the general thrust of the hon. Gentleman’s point that to be a Member of Parliament on the Government Benches does not absolve us from holding the Government to account. It is important for all of us, from whichever part of the country and party we come, to remember that our job as a Member of Parliament is, first, to represent our constituents, but secondly, to hold the Government to account. During discussions on the Queen’s Speech, it is important to remember that constitutional point. Even though we have a largely unwritten constitution—it is written down in several different documents, not in one compendious constitutional document—the Executive sit in Parliament, but should not be allowed to sit on Parliament. That distinction tends to be forgotten by those of us who get more or less enthusiastic about ambition, promotion or whatever it may be. The hon. Gentleman’s speech was a timely reminder, at the start of this Parliament, that individual Members have a special role to perform.
I want briefly to complain about the yet further delay to the development of St Luke’s hospital in Market Harborough—I weave this in because the Queen’s Speech referred to the NHS—which means that this farce has continued into another year. The delay has now lasted for more or less the entire 23 years of my membership of the House. The waste of taxpayers’ money has been compounded year on year, under the coalition Government, under the Labour Governments prior to 2010 and under the Conservative Governments in the 1990s. It is a disgrace, and I hope that the Secretary of State for Health and his Ministers will get a grip of the throats of the management of the scheme and make sure that something is done.
On another quick point, unlike the hon. Member for Nottingham North, I regret the Fixed-term Parliaments Act and had rather hoped we would see measures to repeal it. I have not yet given up hope, but who knows? I simply put that down for later consideration.
I want to talk most about the provision in the Queen’s Speech where the Queen said:
“My Government will bring forward proposals for a British Bill of Rights”.
It seems to me that too many politicians have not read the law and do not understand the human rights regime in this jurisdiction, but it is equally fair to say that far too many lawyers do not understand the politics—I plead guilty as a lawyer. There is therefore a tension between the desire of a Government full of politicians to do something that is politically attractive and the desire among stuffy old lawyers to inhibit the political will of the Government, either because they are legally illiterate or just inconvenient.
If I am delighted about anything relating to human rights legislation that the Queen’s Speech deals with, it is that there appears to be a delay, or some proposal to allow the matter to be thought about. I refer hon. Members to pages 60 and 73 of the Conservative party manifesto, which I confess I only read the other day, some days after the general election. Page 73 states:
“We will scrap the Human Rights Act”,
and page 60 states:
“We will reform human rights law and our legal system”.
I will not amuse the House with the paragraphs underneath those two headlines. The proposals in the manifesto are confused, and because they are confused they are confusing, thereby fuelling the tension between the politicians in a hurry and the lawyers who do not like politics.
I have identified seven points that need to be thought about carefully as we consider what to do about the human rights story. There are seven political and legal difficulties to overcome if we are to replace the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights. First, as discussed, there is the impact on Scottish devolution, and secondly there is the impact on the Good Friday agreement—in addition, there is the effect on the Welsh devolution settlement. Thirdly, there is the need to deal with Conservative supporters of the Human Rights Act and the European convention on human rights. That is a straightforward piece of political management that the Government will have to sort out. Fourthly, again on a matter of political management, they will have to think about what to do when an amendment to, or repeal of, the human rights regime gets to the other place. They do not have a majority there, so some acute minds—political, legal, intellectual and otherwise—will have to be deployed to get t