House of Commons
Wednesday 3 June 2015
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
It will be for the convenience of Members to know that the private Members’ Bills ballot book is open in the No Lobby today until the rise of the House, when the ballot for 2015-16 will close. The ballot draw will be held at 9 am tomorrow morning in Committee Room 10. The draw will be open to Members, media and the public. As soon as possible, the results will be displayed in the No Lobby and made available in the Vote Office and on the website.
I also remind Members that the ballot for the election of Deputy Speakers is taking place until 1.30 pm today in Committee Room 6. The result will be announced as soon as practicable after the count has been completed.
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Occupied Palestinian Territories
I would like to start by paying tribute to Charles Kennedy, who died a few days ago. Like many Members of this House, I not only found him to be a kind and generous man but had a huge amount of respect for him politically, and I and many others will mourn his passing.
The United Nations assesses that the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories is a protracted crisis with humanitarian consequences. Even before the latest conflict in Gaza, 57% of the population were food-insecure and 43% were unemployed.
First, may I endorse everything the Secretary of State has said regarding Charles Kennedy? He was a gifted politician and a genuinely friendly and funny man, and we will miss him.
Some 46 Palestinian Bedouin communities face displacement from their homes in the west bank to make way for illegal Israeli settlements. The Deputy Foreign Minister of Israel says it has the right to build anywhere in the west bank it chooses. My question to the Secretary of State is not whether she opposes that but whether she agrees that European companies have no business trading with illegal settlements east of the green line.
The hon. Gentleman is right that we oppose that illegal building of settlements, and he is shining a light on some of the decisions that companies themselves have to make about whether they will be part of that activity. It is up to them to speak for themselves, but the Government’s position in relation to those settlements is very clear.
May I welcome the right hon. Lady back to her post, which she fulfilled with great distinction in the previous Parliament?
We are all aware of the terrible situation in Gaza, where more than 100,000 people have had their homes destroyed and not one of them has been rebuilt. Will she use her office to persuade the Israelis that, from the point of view of humanitarian need and future peace, provisions should be brought in to rebuild the houses?
The hon. Gentleman rightly highlights some of the challenges in getting construction materials into the Occupied Palestinian Territories, particularly Gaza, to rebuild homes that have been destroyed. The Gaza reconstruction mechanism gives us a way to do that, and he will be pleased to hear that just under 90,000 people have now been able to get the equipment they need to rebuild their homes.
As my right hon. Friend knows, there is an urgent need for reconstruction in Gaza, but how can she ensure that materials such as concrete and scaffolding are not used to construct weapons that can be used against the state of Israel and its citizens?
We have been particularly concerned to play our role in managing that issue. DFID is helping to support the materials monitoring unit. That means we can check materials as they enter Gaza and check where they are stored, how they are used and how they are reused. So there absolutely are good controls in place to ensure the materials are used for rebuilding people’s homes and helping them rebuild their lives.
Does the Secretary of State welcome Israeli President Rivlin’s call for an urgent international effort to rebuild Gaza, but on the understanding that the hostilities perpetrated by Hamas against Israel must cease? Does she also agree that the continued incitement to violence by Palestinians against Israel must end?
Clearly, the only way people in Gaza, particularly children growing up there, are going to have a better future is if we have a two-state solution. That requires Israel, and the Occupied Palestinian Territories and its transitional Government, to be prepared to do what it takes to get a long-term settlement. That also means not doing things that get in the way of peace talks getting going again.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 80,000 migrants have arrived in Europe by sea already this year. Some are fleeing conflict, such as that in Syria, or persecution elsewhere; others are economic migrants searching for a better life. Addressing the root causes, not just the symptoms, involves bringing peace and stability, good governance, development and jobs to their countries of origin.
My hon. Friend will know that this is an international problem that requires an international co-ordinated solution, not least from the EU, and the UK is part of that. Getting a stable Government in Libya is a crucial part of how we can start to clamp down on the traffickers who trade in human misery, and I assure him that both DFID and the Foreign Office are a part of that work.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. [Hon. Members: “Wrong choice!”] You made the right choice.
The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) is right, in that 92% of the 170,000 who have travelled from north Africa to Italy came through Libya. The Khartoum process is clearly not working, and the humanitarian crisis starts in north Africa, goes to Italy and will end in Calais. What further steps can we take to help the people of north Africa?
There are several steps, one being immediately to make sure that the Khartoum process does deliver. It is crucial because it brings together destination countries, transit countries and countries of origin to work more collaboratively. The other key thing is to work upstream, as the situation shows that we cannot simply assume that countries that are not developing and do not have prospects for their young people will deal with the problem. People see the better lives being led in countries such as ours and want to have the same thing for themselves. In the long term, the only real solution is development.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and over the past couple of years DFID has dramatically increased the amount of our work that is going on, including on economic development and creating jobs and livelihoods. A World Bank report in 2013 estimated that 600 million jobs will be required over the next 15 years for young people entering the labour market, many of whom are in Africa. It makes sense, and it is crucial, that we provide opportunity for them to fulfil their potential there.
The hon. Lady rightly points out that while we in Europe grapple with the challenges we face on migration, comparable challenges are being faced by other countries. It is absolutely right that Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia are now working far more carefully together, and the UK will be playing its role to support them in doing that.
Can we see illegal migrants to Europe first and foremost as human beings and give them all the dignity, care and respect we can, especially by ensuring the availability of rescue facilities as they cross the Mediterranean?
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we need to see the people behind many of the statistics that we read in the paper. That is one reason why we sent HMS Bulwark and Merlin helicopters—so that this country can play our role in providing search and rescue services to help those people. They are literally putting their lives on the line to get a better life, and we should never forget the stories of the people behind those terrible numbers.
May I begin by welcoming the Secretary of State back to her post and welcoming the right hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) to his new post? We look forward to working constructively with the Secretary of State in this very important year for development.
We welcome the reintroduction of search and rescue in the Mediterranean—it was a shameful decision to withdraw it, and the Prime Minister was right to make a U-turn—but we know that the most vulnerable Syrian migrants will not make it to a boat, or get here on a plane; they will die in a camp. Given that the whole world community has come together to relocate those most vulnerable people through the UN, why does the Secretary of State insist on running her own scheme?
We are working collaboratively with the UNHCR. In fact, we have helped just under 200 people through that scheme. The hon. Gentleman should be aware that, through the asylum system, we have received 4,000 asylum applications from Syrians. Critically, what this all shows is that we need to support people where they are. Some 99% of the refugees from the Syrian crisis are still in the countries that border Syria, and the UK has put £800 million into helping them build their lives there and educating their children.
Palestinian Authority (UK Aid)
Our support has enabled the Palestinian Authority to carry out state-building reforms in public financial administration and security. The international community has recognised that the PA is now ready for statehood.
I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
Is the Minister aware of reports that the Palestinian Authority continues to pay convicted terrorists, and will he investigate whether UK payments are being used for that purpose?
More Palestinian civilians were killed last year than in any year since 1967, and the crisis gets worse and worse in the occupied territories, especially in Gaza. I see today that the Foreign Office has called for the Rafah crossing into Egypt to be opened, but what are Ministers doing to ensure that the goods and passenger crossings into Israel are opened? What pressure is DFID putting on the Israeli Government to do that?
We make representations at every level all the time to enable goods and services to be exported into and out of Gaza. There can be no future for Gaza until there is a complete transformation in that process, and for that to proceed, a peace process is required.
Sustainable Development Goals
Since January, UN member states have discussed all aspects of the post-2015 outcome document for September: the political declaration, goals and targets, means of implementation, and monitoring and review. As the hon. Lady may be aware, we have literally just seen the first zero draft of that document. We are looking through it to assess what the UK’s negotiating stance will be.
Last year, I visited Rwanda with Voluntary Service Overseas—I draw Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests—and I saw for myself the enduring impact that the collapse of its healthcare system 20 years ago has continued to have on levels of disability and poor mental health. Will the Secretary of State tell us what the Government have done to ensure that universal health coverage remains an underpinning principle of the sustainable development goals and the aid agenda?
We have advocated very strongly for universal health coverage that truly makes a difference to people and puts them in a position to be able to play a role in helping to develop their country. I assure the hon. Lady that the UK is a strong advocate of that. She is quite right to point out the dramatic progress that has been made in Rwanda. What it shows is that when we make the investment, development happens.
My right hon. Friend is right to point out the Prime Minister’s pivotal role as a co-chair of the UN Secretary-General’s high-level panel. It very much shaped the debate that then happened, which has got us to where we are today. Clearly, the interlocking issues of food security, nutrition and sustainability need to be addressed as part of the new sustainable development goals. One of the main changes that we want to see is sustainability, and the early indications are that we will have a good outcome.
What role does the Secretary of State see for the Scottish Government in the ongoing SDG negotiations? Will she commit to ensuring that her counterpart, the Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Europe and External Affairs or the Minister for Europe and Internal Development, will be part of the UK delegation to the UN SDG summit in September?
Of course, the hon. Gentleman will know that international development remains a reserved matter, but I am proud of the fact that our joint headquarters is up in East Kilbride. I very much welcome him and his expertise to the House. I have no doubt that Scotland has a key role to play in helping to shape the outcomes, and I look forward to discussing them with him.
11. In 2011, British climate scientists said that the famine in Somalia was caused in part by low rainfall, to which climate change contributed. Does the Secretary of State agree that tackling climate change as a single, stand-alone target should be included in the SDGs, or will the Government continue to treat it as an afterthought? (900070)
I do not think that the hon. Lady is right to characterise our approach that way. For many years, the UK has been a leader in the debate and the challenge of tackling climate change, which is included in the SDG negotiation that is under way. We have argued for tough targets, and of course we will be arguing for them in the Paris summit that is coming up later this year, so I can reassure her that we are playing a leading role in making sure that the next set of development goals are sustainable and that they include tackling climate change.
The Department for International Development is one of the biggest international donors in Rakhine state. We have just increased our support by a further £6.2 million, bringing our support since 2012 to £18 million.
Does the Minister agree that the time is long overdue for Burma to address the persecution and poverty that force the Rohingya to flee? Does he think that the time is now right for the UN Secretary-General to lead the negotiations, so that humanitarian non-governmental organisations can gain access to Rakhine state?
Surely, the plight of thousands of Rohingya people adrift in the bay of Bengal must call for greater leadership from not only the United Nations but the United Kingdom. Should we ensure not only that we make representations in meetings with ambassadors but that our taxpayers’ aid and access to our diplomatic doors are made contingent on ensuring proper recognition of the Rohingya and full respect of human rights?
Absolutely. I have taken every opportunity to raise this matter with Burmese Ministers. My caution with respect to my hon. Friend’s suggested course of action is that I am not prepared to withdraw British aid from poor people simply because of the regime under which they suffer.
Our ambassador attended the recent conference with Malaysia and Bangladesh. We participated with a démarche of Burmese Ministers, along with the United States and the French, and we are doing everything that we can precisely to make this a regional response.
Following the devastating earthquake in April, I visited Nepal last month to see for myself the work that the UK is doing and announced £10 million in funding for a new health programme, so that children can continue to be immunised, women can continue to deliver babies safely and we can start rebuilding damaged health facilities. We are now providing more than £33 million to that response, making us the largest donor to the relief operation.
In addition, I can today confirm that the Department for International Development has approved more than £9 million to support Burundian refugees in Tanzania, and those funds will help to provide essential shelter, water and sanitation infrastructure, healthcare and food rations. [Interruption.]
From Doha to Rana Plaza, workers all over the world risk exploitation, abuse and violence, but the Secretary of State’s Government cut support for the International Labour Organisation. Will she admit that her Government got it wrong and reverse the decision now?
The hon. Lady will be reassured to hear that we are still working with the ILO. In fact, in Bangladesh, we have a very effective programme that is helping to improve workplace security and health and safety. That was introduced in response to the Rana Plaza tragedy. Therefore, I can reassure her that we take those matters seriously and we are actively working with the ILO.
May I begin by paying tribute to Charles Kennedy and by sharing the sadness of Members on both sides of the House about his untimely death? He was a brilliant man, a great orator and wit and his death is a huge loss to his party and to his country. Our thoughts are with his family at this time.
The whole House will welcome Sepp Blatter’s resignation as FIFA president and the Swiss authorities’ investigation into the awarding of the 2022 World cup to Qatar. There have been horrific human rights abuses of the migrant workers who are working on the infrastructure there. An estimated 1,200 have died. What steps will the Secretary of State take to support those migrant workers and prevent their brutal exploitation?
The most important thing we can do is to help those people’s countries develop successfully so there are opportunities where these young people are growing up. It is aspiration that is driving them to try to make a better life for themselves and to find work in other countries. The best thing we can do is to get behind the economic development work that DFID is ramping up to ensure that there are jobs in the countries where those young people are growing up.
The Secretary of State talks about aspiration, but those workers’ aspirations have led them to a life of bonded labour and modern slavery. That is what is happening. Workers’ rights are human rights. The whole House will welcome the news that the owner of the Rana Plaza complex, along with 42 others, is going to be prosecuted for the deaths of the 1,100 workers who died when that building collapsed, yet two years after that tragedy the victims compensation fund is still $8 million short of its target. Fourteen fashion brands, including Lee Cooper, Carrefour and JC Penney, which sourced garments from that complex, have not yet paid into the victims fund. What action will the Secretary of State take to ensure that they do?
The hon. Lady will be aware that after the Rana Plaza tragedy we got many of the UK companies that are working in Bangladesh into DFID to talk to them about these very issues. I think we should be proud of the role that our companies are playing in improving working conditions in Bangladesh. She is right to highlight other companies that are not playing the role they should in solving these issues.
T10. We made a manifesto commitment to lead on the humanitarian response to emergencies, as we have demonstrated to the people of Nepal. Has the Secretary of State had the opportunity to visit Nepal to see the devastation and the response of the UK? (900059)
Yes, I have. I was able to go there a couple of weeks ago. Unique to the UK’s response is that it leverages the whole of our Government to help people in a country such as Nepal. Not only is that led by DFID, but there has been fantastic work by the Foreign Office in providing consular assistance and by our amazing Gurkhas and armed forces in helping us to get supplies to some of the remotest areas. We should be proud of the work we are doing as a country and realise that we are valued across the world for the role we play in helping people in their hour of need.
T2. Up to 18,000 civilians are cut off in Yarmouk camp on the outskirts of Damascus. This week, the UN co-ordinator described the situation as absolutely critical. What are the Government doing either to get assistance into Yarmouk, or to get more civilians out of Yarmouk? (900051)
There are two pieces to this. We must make sure that the Security Council resolution on humanitarian access remains in place so that we have the right structures to be able to get aid across the border. But it is absolutely key that the UK should continue to play our role in enabling UN organisations and NGOs, which do incredibly dangerous work to try to reach these people, to get the food, medical supplies and shelter that are so desperately needed. The only thing that will truly alleviate the situation is a political settlement, but we all recognise that that is some way off.
It is fair to say that my right hon. Friend’s Department led the world in putting together an earthquake preparedness plan for Nepal. She will be looking at what worked and what did not when the inevitable happened. Will she conduct a full review of what did and did not work, so that we can be ready for the inevitable repeat of this tragedy?
We always look at the lessons that can be learned from our response to all tragedies. My right hon. Friend should be very proud of the role that he personally played in putting the programme in place. It meant that tarpaulins, food and medical supplies were already pre-positioned for when the earthquake hit and that we enabled hospitals to get back up and running quickly. Critically, it also meant that there was a humanitarian staging area close to the airport that prevented the airport from getting even more clogged up than it already was. As the World Food Programme said, all that brought forward the relief effort by three weeks, which undoubtedly saved lives.
The Prime Minister was asked—
During the general election, my blue-collar conservatism resonated very well with my constituents in Elmet and Rothwell. They are very keen that the economic recovery continues on track. Does my right hon. Friend agree that in this Parliament we must achieve lower taxation for working people and a higher minimum wage and that we must ensure that the lowest paid are taken out of tax altogether, to show that we are a true one nation Government?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his return to the House, having doubled his majority. There were a number of results in his part of Yorkshire in which I took a particular interest and was pleased to see happen. He is absolutely right that at the heart of our plan is making work pay: that is the best way to help people out of poverty and give them more security—creating jobs, cutting taxes, seeing increases in the minimum wage and legislating so that people working 30 hours on the minimum wage do not pay income tax. That is our plan for working people.
We all agree about the importance of home ownership, and the Prime Minister has said that he is going to increase it. Can he tell us whether, since he became Prime Minister in 2010, the percentage of people owning their own home has gone up or down?
The answer is that since the right hon. Gentleman became Prime Minister the percentage of people who own their own home has fallen. He mentioned his plan to extend the right to buy to housing association tenants. He has promised that, under this new scheme, sold off properties will be replaced on a one-for-one basis. He promised that on council homes in the last Parliament. Can he remind us whether he kept that promise?
If the right hon. and learned Lady is complaining about home ownership, will she confirm that she will support the extension of the right to buy to housing associations? Will she support that approach? [Interruption.] There we are. There we have it: a landmark manifesto commitment—let us expand the right to buy to housing associations—but, as ever, the enemies of aspiration in the Labour party will not support it.
We support more people owning their own homes, which is not what happened in the last five years, during which the right hon. Gentleman has been Prime Minister. We support more people having an affordable home as well, but that did not happen in the last five years, when he has been Prime Minister, either. He promised that for every council home sold another one would be built. That did not happen: for every 10 sold, only one has been built. Less affordable housing means that people have to be in more expensive private rented accommodation, which means a higher housing benefit bill. Can the right hon. Gentleman confirm that for every affordable home sold and not replaced, the housing benefit bill goes up?
We built more council homes in the last five years than were built under 13 years of the previous Labour Government. I say to the right hon. and learned Lady that she cannot ask these questions about supporting home ownership unless she answers the simple question: will you back housing association tenants being able to buy their homes—yes or no?
The Prime Minister broke his promise on the replacement—one for one—of affordable council homes. He broke that promise, and as a result housing benefit has gone up. At the same time, he says he wants to take £12 billion out of welfare, so where is it coming from? Earlier this week, his spokesperson confirmed that the Government would not make any changes to child benefit, and that is a commitment for the whole of this Parliament. Will he confirm that now?
We made very clear our position on child benefit in the election, and I confirm that again at the Dispatch Box. Let us be clear—absolutely no answer from the Labour party about housing association tenants. We are clear: housing association tenants should have the right to buy. We can now see that the new Labour backing of aspiration after the election has lasted three weeks. That is how long they have given to aspiration. Let me give the right hon. and learned Lady another chance. We say housing association tenants get the right to buy. What does she say?
The Prime Minister’s commitment not to cut child benefit during the course of this Parliament has not even lasted a few days. That is what his spokesperson said, and he has not been committed to it. Will he tell us about another issue of importance to families, which is whether he is going to rule out further cuts to working families tax credits?
Again, we have said we are freezing tax credits in the next two years because we need to get the deficit down and we want to keep people’s taxes down. But is it not interesting that, for the whole of the last Parliament, Labour Members came here and opposed every single spending reduction, every single welfare saving, and they have learned absolutely nothing. Labour is still the party of more spending, more welfare, more debt. It is extraordinary: of the two people responsible for this great policy of theirs, one of them lost the election and the other one lost his seat—the messengers have gone, but the message is still the same.
The Prime Minister promised £12 billion of welfare cuts, and I am asking where those welfare cuts are coming from. Before an election, it is about promises; now they are in Downing Street, it is about the delivery. The Prime Minister spent the last five years saying everything that was wrong was because of the previous Prime Minister. Well, he cannot do that for the next five years because the last Prime Minister was him. I hope he will bear in mind, when things go wrong over the next five years, that there is no one responsible but him.
First, we are still clearing up the mess the right hon. and learned Lady’s Government left behind. She asked for an example of a welfare cut; let me give her one. We think we should cut the welfare cap from £26,000 per household to £23,000 per household. In her speech in reply to the Gracious Speech, it sounded like she was going to come out and support that. Let us see how Labour is going to approach this: will you support a cut in the welfare cap?
My right hon. Friend will be well aware that there is considerable concern on both sides of the House at the proposition that Britain might withdraw from the European convention on human rights. Will he take the opportunity today to make it clear that he has no plans for us to do so?
We are very clear about what we want: British judges making decisions in British courts, and the British Parliament being accountable to the British people. The plans that were set out in our manifesto do not involve us leaving the European convention on human rights, but let us be absolutely clear about our position if we cannot achieve what we need—I am very clear about that. When we have these foreign criminals committing offence after offence, and we cannot send them home because of their “right to a family life”, that needs to change. I rule out absolutely nothing in getting that done.
May I begin by expressing my sadness at the untimely death of Charles Kennedy? I know that we will pay tributes a little later.
It is a stain on the conscience of Europe that thousands and thousands of refugees have been dying in the Mediterranean, when many lives could have been saved. Does the Prime Minister agree that the role of the Royal Navy, the Italian coastguard and the navies of other European countries is making a profound difference? However, much more needs to be done, including offering refuge and asylum to those who need it.
The hon. Gentleman is right to mention Charles Kennedy. We will rightly have those tributes after Prime Minister’s questions.
The hon. Gentleman is also right to praise the role of the Royal Navy in dealing with this tragedy in the Mediterranean. HMS Bulwark, the flagship of the Royal Navy, has been playing a key role in saving lives. However, I part company with him on his next suggestion. We need to do two things to solve this crisis. First, we need a Government in Libya that we can work with, so that it is possible to return people to Africa and stop this criminal trade. Secondly, we need to break the link between getting on a boat and achieving residence in Europe. That is what needs to be done. In the meantime, everything that Britain can do as a moral and upstanding nation to save lives, we will do, and we should be proud that we are doing it.
Eighty years ago, that is what the United Kingdom did, when it offered refuge and asylum to those who were being pursued by the Nazis. We all know about the Kindertransport and the children who were accepted and given refuge in the UK. Now, in contrast, the UK has an appalling record on the resettlement of Syrian refugees and is not prepared to co-operate with other European nations on accepting refugees who have been rescued in the Mediterranean. Why does the Prime Minister think it is fair for Sweden, Germany and other countries to accept those refugees, while the UK turns its back on them?
I take issue with the hon. Gentleman. This country has an asylum system and a record of giving people asylum that we should be proud of. When people are fleeing torture and persecution, they can find a home here in Britain. But let us be clear: the vast majority of people who are setting off into the Mediterranean are not asylum seekers, but people seeking a better life. They have been tricked and fooled by criminal gangs. Our role should be going after those criminal gangs, sorting out the situation in Libya, turning back the boats where we can and using our generous aid budget—this Government achieved 0.7%—to mend the countries from which these people are coming. That is our moral responsibility and one that I am proud to fulfil.
Q2. Thanks to the careful financial stewardship of this Government, York’s economy continues to grow, with unemployment a fraction of what it was five years ago. Will the Prime Minister assure me that his offer of devolution will percolate right through the great county of Yorkshire, empowering rural communities, as well as cities such as York, to deliver a Yorkshire powerhouse that rivals Manchester and London? (900036)
I certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. He talks about the strength of the Yorkshire economy. The claimant count in his constituency —the number of people claiming unemployment benefit—has come down by 74% since 2010. We see the northern powerhouse as the linking of the great northern cities as a counterpoint and a counterpoise to the strength of London. We are making good progress on that, but we certainly want more money, resources and powers to be devolved to those cities. The York, North Yorkshire and East Riding local growth deal, for example, is creating at least 3,000 jobs and allowing 4,000 homes to be built. We have made good progress, but there is more to be done in this Parliament.
Q3. In March, the Prime Minister rightly apologised for successive Governments who had failed to address properly the claims and the righteous indignation of the families whose lives were torn apart and of those who lost their lives in the contaminated blood scandal. He also said in response to a question that he would deal with this matter as a priority if he was re-elected. Can he update us now on his commitment to and progress on that issue, so that it is dealt with finally and fully for all those people who have lost their lives and for those who live with the damage caused by this scandal? (900037)
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue. All of us as Members of Parliament have come across people who, through no fault of their own, were infected with blood with either HIV or hepatitis C, which has had very serious consequences for them.
In terms of what we are going to do about it—as the Scottish National party Member, the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), shouts from a sedentary position—I said very clearly before the election that we have made available £25 million to help those families, and there will be a full statement by the Government before the summer recess to make sure that we deal with this issue in the best way we possibly can.
Q4. A national health service free at the point of use was at the heart of the Conservative general election campaign. Will the Prime Minister confirm that he will continue to deliver the shorter waiting times, better ambulance response times, better access to cancer drugs and more funding that make the NHS the envy not just of the world but of my constituents in Monmouthshire? (900038)
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for what he says. I absolutely say to him that under this Government the NHS will remain free at the point of use, and, more to the point, we are backing the Simon Stevens plan with an extra £8 billion of spending, a commitment that the Labour party still refuses to make. That is not surprising given the Labour record in Wales, where it has cut the NHS, in stark contrast to the decision we made to increase investment in the NHS. That is why we see in the Welsh NHS performance worse figures on A&E, on waiting times and on cancer, and I urge the Labour party in Wales even at this late stage: “Change your approach. Do a U-turn. Put the money into the NHS like we’re doing in England.”
Q5. The fragility of our economic recovery in my constituency is demonstrated by the impending closure of Dixons Carphone in the area, with the loss of 500 jobs and £8 million to the local economy. Will the Prime Minister intervene to keep Wednesbury working—to save these jobs—or at the very least ensure that the company provides appropriate compensation and support for employees to secure alternative employment? (900039)
I shall look very closely at the case that the hon. Gentleman mentions. Obviously, everything that Jobcentre Plus can do to find employment for those people should be done. He talks, though, about the “fragility” of the economy. In his constituency, the claimant count has fallen by a third over the last year, so jobs are being made available. But as I say, where Jobcentre Plus can help with finding people work, we will certainly make sure that it does.
The UN Secretary-General has described the refugee situation in Jordan and Lebanon as
“the worst humanitarian crisis of our time.”
What more can Britain do, in tandem with other countries, to help relieve the suffering, and to learn from the lessons of history to ensure that poorly resourced refugee camps do not become breeding grounds for extremism?
The first thing that we can do is to continue our investment, using our aid budget as—I think—the second largest bilateral donor in providing refugee support and refugee camps, whether in Jordan or elsewhere in the region. We should continue with that, but clearly the answer to this problem is to allow those people to go back home, whether to Iraq or to Syria, so what we need is a Government in both those countries that can represent and work with all their people.
There is some progress in Iraq with the Abadi Government in Iraq, and we need to make sure that they can represent Sunnis as well as Shi’as. In Syria, the situation is far, far worse, but we should still continue, with others, with the plan of training the moderate Syrian opposition and trying to bring about a transition, so we get rid of the Assad regime and Assad himself, who is one of the biggest drivers of terror in the region, because of what he has done to his people. That is the strategy we should pursue, for however long it takes to succeed.
I welcome the hon. Lady to her place and congratulate her on her election success. The first question she asks is about fiscal responsibility and sustainability. I take that as a sign of progress. I would say to her: there is a leadership election on, throw your hat in the ring. In that one question she has made more sense than all the rest of them put together—go for it!
Q7. A push for greater diversity in employment is a key part of my plan for Portsmouth. Can the Prime Minister assure my constituents that the leasing of part of the dockyard to Magma Structures will be confirmed in due course, as we look forward to welcoming yet another high-tech company to the city? (900041)
First, may I congratulate my hon. Friend on her election success and on standing up already for Portsmouth, on all the work she did as a candidate and all the things I know she will do as a Member of Parliament? We are absolutely committed to ensuring that the Portsmouth ship hall is used in the most effective way to deliver capability, to create jobs and to boost growth in the region. The developments in Portsmouth at the moment are exciting, whether in ship servicing, welcoming the carriers when they come to Portsmouth or the Ben Ainslie centre that is being constructed with Government support. May I just say how good it is that Portsmouth is going to be represented in this place by strong Conservative women?
In Her Majesty’s Gracious Speech last week, the Government made a commitment to legislate to implement the Stormont House agreement. As the Prime Minister knows, the agreement has the Democratic Unionist party’s full support. The agreement was signed by all five main parties in Northern Ireland, and by the British and Irish Governments. Now that it has been reneged on—certainly the welfare reform aspect—by Sinn Féin, with vulnerable people being hurt, public services hit as a result of the implementation of £2 million-a-week fines and a black hole in the Northern Ireland budget, does he agree with his Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, following the talks yesterday, that all parties that signed up to the agreement, including the SDLP and Sinn Féin, should implement it? If they fail to do so, will he take steps to preserve the integrity of the agreement?
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that everyone who was party to those talks—they were exhaustive and lengthy talks, ending in an agreement—should implement that agreement in full. The agreement did include welfare reform. That is the first point and he is absolutely right. Whatever happens, we need to make sure that Northern Ireland and the Assembly have a sustainable and deliverable budget, so I hope that even at this late stage people will look at what they can do to make sure that happens.
Q8. Last year saw record numbers of adoptions and prospective adopters, but there are still more than 3,000 children in care waiting to be adopted, with half of them having waited for more than 18 months. What plans does my right hon. Friend, who has a strong commitment on this issue, have to enable more children to be placed in a loving, stable family home sooner rather than later? (900042)
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this issue. Speeding up the rate at which adoptions take place, and making sure more adoptions can take place, is absolutely key to giving more children a better start in life. In the past three years we have seen a 63% increase in adoptions, so we have made progress. In the Gracious Speech and in the Bill being published today there are the plans to create regional adoption agencies, bringing together the many agencies there are in this country. I think that is right because it matters far more that a child gets a loving home than whether that home is in a particular county council area. Let us get on and create these agencies and make sure more adoptions take place.
The UK steel industry is a key foundation industry for Britain, but it is in crisis. Will the Prime Minister join me and the rest of the all-party group for the steel and metal-related industry to call on the leadership in Mumbai to intervene directly in this situation and get their colleagues in Tata Europe to get back around the table and avoid potentially the worst crisis in the steel industry in 35 years?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is very important that the Government talk intensively to the leaders of the steel industry, Tata in particular, about what we can do to try to make sure that we safeguard the growth and the jobs that there have been in the steel industry over previous years. We have started those discussions—we have had discussions, for instance, about the steps we are taking for high energy-intensive industries and the help that we can give—but at the heart of a successful steel industry is always going to be a successful economy and a successful construction industry, which is why we should stick to the long-term economic plan.
Q9. Today, Tidal Lagoon Power, headquartered in Gloucester, announces that China Harbour Engineering is the preferred bidder for a £300 million investment in the world’s first ever tidal lagoon, in Swansea bay. There will be high UK content in the supply chain and there is a commitment to pursue tidal projects together in Asia. This confirms our ability both to attract Chinese investment and to create new export opportunities. Does my right hon. Friend share my hope that the Energy Secretary will soon agree the development consent order needed and also agree soon on the pricing of power from this exciting example of British innovation and engineering? (900043)
My hon. Friend is right to raise this specific case, and also the general case of wanting to attract Chinese investment to Britain. We have seen something like a 73% increase, between 2010 and 2013, and that is partly because this Government have pursued Chinese investment and attracted it to Britain. On the specific case of the Swansea tidal lagoon, it is obviously subject to a planning decision, but I think tidal power has significant potential. I have seen some of the plans for myself and I hope this is something we can make progress on; and obviously, attracting investment to this country to help make it happen is a win-win for both countries.
The devolution of powers to our nations, our regions and our great cities will be one of the themes of this Parliament, but does the Prime Minister accept that Londoners, under their elected Mayor, will expect at least the same powers that are being devolved to the northern powerhouse?
The hon. Lady makes a powerful point, and there has been an ongoing discussion with the Mayor of London about what more powers can be—[Hon. Members: “Where is he?”] He is running London, that’s where he is, and he is doing a very, very good job. He is doing an excellent job—very good. But I think the hon. Lady is right: we have devolved powers to London and we are very happy to go on having discussions, about transport and about other economic powers. London has created half a million more jobs over the last five years. It is a staggering performance and we want that to continue.
I am very glad to see my hon. Friend back in his place. He campaigned very hard on this in the last Parliament, and in our manifesto we made it very clear that there should be no more subsidies for onshore wind farms. It is time to give local people the decisive say. That is what will happen in England; in Wales, obviously, the subsidy regime will be changed because it is a reserved issue, so I think that his desire has been met.
Q11. The Prime Minister might be aware of the ongoing case of my constituent Dr Steve Forman, who, despite his immense contribution to the music and creative scene in Glasgow, Scotland and around the world, the Home Office is seeing fit to try to deport back to the United States. Will the Prime Minister tell the House why people such as Dr Forman do not seem to be welcome in this country? If the Prime Minister cannot run an immigration policy that works for Scotland, I know a Government up the road that would be very happy to take on the job. (900045)
Does the Prime Minister agree that one of the ways forward in the European Union is to have two pillars, the first being countries that want a single currency, a common fiscal policy and ever closer political union, and the second being countries that want none of those, but instead want a free trade area—a common market?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. One of the arguments going on in Europe is about trying to get people to accept what is already the case, which is that there are countries like Britain at the heart of the single market but not involved in the Schengen agreement or likely to join it, and not involved in the single currency, which, in my view, we should never join. We should accept that this sort of flexibility is here to stay. I think the challenge for Europe is to build a European community that is flexible enough for the single currency countries to be happy that their problems and issues can be sorted out, while also flexible enough for countries like Britain at the heart of the single market, but not wanting to be part of the ever closer union, to be comfortable with their membership, too. That is the aim of my renegotiation, and it will be followed by an in/out referendum.
Q12. I welcome the Prime Minister’s confirmation that there will be no cuts in the rates of or eligibility conditions for child benefit, but will he also confirm the commitment he made during the election that there will be no cuts in the benefits paid to disabled people? (900046)
What we have actually done is to increase the benefits paid to disabled people by bringing in the personal independence payment, which is more generous to those who are most disabled. May I say how much I enjoyed meeting the right hon. Gentleman during the general election when we both addressed the Festival of Life in the ExCeL centre in his constituency? I do not know about him, but it is certainly the only time in my life that I have talked to 45,000 people at the same time, and I suspect the same goes for him.
Q13. The Prime Minister referred to Libya earlier. We have exchanged views and had many debates on Libya since our military involvement in that country in 2011, yet the situation is getting worse and worse. What new steps and initiatives is the Prime Minister going to bring, in conjunction with the allies of Egypt and Italy, to ensure that the situation is resolved? (900047)
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this, and there will be some discussions at the G7 in Germany this weekend. We have got to a position in which Special Representative León from the UN has been bringing everybody together to try to form a national unity Government. We need to give everything we can to support that process, so that there is some prospect of Libya having a Government, from which can flow some security, from which can flow the ability to start to deal with this migrant crisis in the way I discussed earlier.
Q14. Under the right-to-buy plan, three social houses will need to be sold to generate enough revenue to build one new one, leaving 1,500 families in York without a home for well over two years. Is that what the Prime Minister means by aspiration? (900048)
First, let me welcome the hon. Lady to the House and congratulate her on her election victory. There are two things we are doing to provide these replacement houses. One is obviously that for every housing association that sells a home, it has that receipt and is able to build a new house. We are also making sure that councils sell off the most expensive council houses when they become vacant. In parts of London, there are council houses worth over £1 million, with which many more houses can be built. What is clear from this Question Time is that Conservative Members understand home ownership, aspiration and people wanting to get on. Labour Members, after the most catastrophic election defeat in years, cannot even begin to spell aspiration.
Tributes to Charles Kennedy
I informed the House yesterday that there would be an opportunity today for Members to pay tribute to the right hon. Charles Kennedy. I shall—I hope with the House’s understanding—deploy the Chair’s prerogative to begin that process.
Charles Kennedy spent almost his entire adult life as a Member of Parliament. He was assuredly at home in this place, yet perhaps happiest beyond it. He was a man of deep progressive principle, but a man also blessed with the popular touch. He was a good talker, but an even better listener. Above all and perhaps most strikingly, Charles had the rare ability to reach out to millions of people of all political persuasions and of none across the country who were untouched by, and in many cases actively hostile to, politics. In this seminal sense, therefore, Charles was the “boy next door” of British public life. We salute him; we honour his memory; and we send today our sincere, heartfelt, and deepest condolences to his family and his friends.
The whole House will have been shocked, and so deeply saddened, by the sudden news yesterday morning of the death of Charles Kennedy. As you said, Mr Speaker, it is a tragic loss for his family, not least his son Donald, who is just 10 years old, and I know that the thoughts and prayers of the whole House are with his family and his friends at this time.
It is right that the House should come together and pay tribute to a man whose character and courage inspired us all, and who served his constituents so well for almost 32 years. There was something very special about Charles. As his good friend Alastair Campbell put it yesterday,
“He spoke fluent human, because he had humanity in every vein and every cell.”
Charles Kennedy will be remembered for his success, for his principle and intellect, and above all for his incredible warmth and good humour. I will say a word about each. Charles was elected as the youngest Member of Parliament in 1983, at just 23 years old. It was a remarkable victory. Standing for a new party while studying in America at the time, he went from fourth place to first, defeating an established Conservative who had been in the House of Commons for 13 years. From there, his political career took off. Just a year earlier, he had been asked by his careers adviser what he was going to do in his life. He had replied that he could be a teacher or a journalist, but if all else failed, there was always politics. On his election, his old careers adviser wrote to congratulate him, saying, “I can only presume that all else failed.”
The new Member for Ross, Cromarty and Skye, as he then was, faced a number of challenges at the beginning of his parliamentary career. His arrival at Westminster was only the third time that he had been to London in his life. Arranging to stay in a friend’s spare room in Hammersmith, he remarked that he did not know how to get from Hammersmith to Westminster. In fact, it was worse than that: he did not even know how to get from Heathrow to Hammersmith.
Charles Kennedy played a pivotal role in bringing together two parties, the Social Democratic party and the Liberals, becoming president of the Liberal Democrats in 1990 and party leader from 1999 to 2006. As leader, he took the Liberal Democrats to the best election result for a third party in British politics for nearly 100 years. Back in 2003, he told Sue Lawley on “Desert Island Discs” that his ambition for his party was for it to find itself part of the government of the country. His achievements laid the foundations for that to happen, and, while he was never the greatest fan of the coalition and, indeed, voted against its formation, he never spoke out against the Liberal Democrat participation in it; for, as much as he was a man of strong views, he was also a man of great loyalty. He equally resisted any overtures from the Labour party, dismissing rumours that he would rejoin it by saying:
“I will go out of this world feet first with my Lib Dem membership card in my pocket.”
As ever with Charles Kennedy, he was a man of his word.
Charles Kennedy was also a man of great principle and great intellect. At the heart of his political views was a deep commitment to social justice. He passionately believed in Europe as a way of bringing people together, but his most outspoken contribution in recent years was the principled stand that he took against the Iraq war. Looking back, it is easy to forget just what a stand that was. He was taking abuse from the major parties on both sides of the House, and adopting a position that was not even supported by the previous leader of his own party. But there was something about the deeply respectful way in which he would conduct an argument: he did not believe in making enemies out of opponents, and he did not, as he put it,
“waste time just rubbishing everybody else.”
He made friends, even with those who disagreed with him, and I think that that was one of the reasons he was so liked and so widely supported in taking on the personal challenges that he faced. I had the privilege of getting to know him a little bit when I was a new MP back in 2001. We both frequented the Smoking Room, and, while we disagreed about many things, we both mourned its passing.
I find myself thinking today about just what an extraordinary talent Charles Kennedy was. All the while that he was battling his demons, he could make amazing speeches, delight a television audience, inspire his followers, take out his opponents with his brilliance in debate, and crack jokes—all at the same time. Above all, it is his warmth and good humour for which Charles will be remembered most fondly. He had a way of connecting with people—even those who did not know him well or even at all. In the tributes to Nelson Mandela in this House 18 months ago, Charles told us the story of their first meeting. He said he was introduced by his friend Lord Redesdale as a colleague from the House of Commons called Nigel Kennedy. As Charles remarked at the time:
“The President’s characteristically firm handshake and jovial welcome confirmed two things for me there and then. First of all, he had never heard of Nigel Kennedy, but far more distressingly, he sure as hell had not heard of me either.”—[Official Report, 9 December 2013; Vol. 572, c. 20.]
He was the most human of politicians.
In the words of Charles Kennedy himself:
“The vast majority of people think there’s a hell of a lot more to life than just politics. And you’ve got to bear that in mind—because you’re actually trying to represent them.”
At his best he was the best that politics can be, and that is how we should remember him.
We all felt so saddened to wake up to the news yesterday of the death of Charles Kennedy, and the Prime Minister expressed the feelings of the whole House in his generous tribute, as did you in your comments, Mr Speaker.
As we come together to mourn his death and to pay tribute to his extraordinary qualities, there is much that all of us in political life can learn from Charles Kennedy. He was an outstanding parliamentarian and dedicated his whole life to politics. That is a powerful reminder to all of us that giving your life to politics, being a career politician, can be an honourable not an ignoble thing.
He took a philosophical approach to the ups and downs of political life. Despite the adversity that he faced, he never became bitter, because he cared more about his political cause than he did about his personal career. He had a deep seriousness of purpose and great intellect, but he wore it lightly. He could be the most intelligent person in the room but still be warm, funny and generous, which made him convincing and engaging in equal measure. He showed that there could be profound disagreement on matters of serious political judgment while still accepting the good faith of those who take a different view. He disagreed with the decision to go to war in Iraq, and he was right, but he never felt the need to denigrate those of us who got it wrong. He was strongly committed to his own party, but that did not stop him having friendships across party lines. He was partisan, but he was still generous enough to admire people in other parties.
History will show that he was one of a great generation of Scottish MPs, at a time when Scotland gave this House some of the finest politicians of the era. Exceptional politicians such as John Smith, Donald Dewar, Gordon Brown, Menzies Campbell, Robin Cook—he stands tall in a Scottish generation who were head and shoulders above their peers.
I remember when he first came to this House, aged only 23—the golden boy from the highlands. He shone in this Chamber. He was elected so young, and it is a tragedy that he has died so young. All our thoughts are with his family.
A few days ago I got in touch with Charles because I was looking for a telephone number of someone we both knew. His friends will not be surprised to learn that we were texting each other. He was notoriously bad at actually answering his phone, but famously fluent in SMS. He said he did not have the number on him but he would get back to me this week, because he was spending time with his beloved son, Donald, during his half-term break.
While we all remember Charles as a formidable parliamentarian and a much loved politician, it is worth remembering that he retained his greatest pride and devotion for his family. He lived next door to his parents and, latterly, his brother in his grandfather’s croft house near Fort William, and cared for them through sickness and old age. Much though he was wedded to politics all his life, I think Charles would have wanted to be remembered first as a kind and loving father, brother and son, and as an accomplished politician second. My thoughts and condolences are with all his family—especially Donald—and friends today.
That enduring humanity—people always came before politics for Charles—is reflected in the heartfelt tributes over the past 24 hours paid by so many from outside the world of politics who did not know him directly but somehow still felt that they did know him and could relate to him. He had—and still has—that rare gift for someone in public life: when people think of him, they smile. He saw good in people, even his staunchest political foes, and that always brought out the best in people in return. He was the polar opposite of a cardboard cut-out, points-scoring party politician: brave, yet vulnerable; brilliant, yet flawed. As he would often say about people he admired most, he was a fully signed-up member of the human race.
And he was funny—he was very funny. But his good humour must not obscure the fact that there was a steely courage about him, most memorably on display when he took the principled decision to oppose the Iraq war. Just because that might seem now an obvious thing to have done, it most certainly was not at the time. Charles was often a lone voice in this House, standing up against a consensus on all sides in favour of war. The fact that he was proved so spectacularly right is a tribute to his judgment and his intuitive common sense.
I think Charles would be the first to admit, cheerily, that he was not exactly a details man when it came to policy. He treated the necessary but often tedious detail of policy discussions within the Liberal Democrats with the same attitude he viewed Ben Nevis in his own constituency: something to be admired from afar, but a trial to be endured by others. One of his earliest decisions when he became leader of the Liberal Democrats was to end the long-held convention that the leader of the party should attend all the regular and invariably lengthy meetings of the Liberal Democrat federal policy committee. It was a characteristically wise decision, for which I was for ever grateful during my time as leader.
Again, however, his disregard for the undergrowth of policy making should not obscure his unusually instinctive and deadly serious appreciation of the bigger picture in politics. Whether on Europe, constitutional reform, his arguments against nationalism and the politics of identity, or his lifelong belief in social justice, Charles had a gut instinct about the big challenges and the big choices we faced, not the daily twists and turns and sleights of hand that dominate so much of Westminster politics. He understood, above all, that politics is at its best when it speaks to people’s values in their hearts, and is not just the dry policy debates of the head.
There is so much that I will miss about Charles—his wit, his warmth, his modesty—but I suspect many of us will feel his absence most keenly when our country decides in the next year or two whether we belong, or not, in the European Union, because, of all his convictions, his internationalism endured most strongly. He was a proud highlander, a proud Scot and a man who believed in our community of nations within the United Kingdom, but he was also a lifelong believer that our outward-facing character as a country is best secured by remaining at the heart of Europe rather than retreating elsewhere. As the debate becomes dominated, as it no doubt will, by the noise of statistical claim and counter-claim, I will miss the lyrical clarity of Charles’s belief that our future as an open-hearted and generous-spirited country is at stake and must be defended at all costs.
A couple of years ago, Charles and I found ourselves cowering under the shelter of a parasol on the terrace of the National Liberal Club in the pouring rain, for what he called, “A wee bit of fresh air”—a wonderfully inappropriate euphemism for a quick smoke. We talked at length about the difficulties that the Liberal Democrats were facing within the then coalition Government. It is a measure of the man that, even though he was almost alone in our party in not supporting the decision to enter into coalition in May 2010, there was never a hint of reproach or “I told you so” in the advice he gave to me both then and in other conversations. He remained unstintingly loyal, no matter what the circumstances and no matter how strong the temptation must have been to blow his own trumpet and say that events had proved him right. He was far too subtle for that. He had made his views clear at the outset, but respected in good faith what his party colleagues were seeking to achieve in government and provided support and advice every step of the way, which is why it was no surprise when he said, after being challenged about his loyalties after the 2010 election, and as the Prime Minister has already cited:
“I will go out of this world feet first with my Lib Dem membership card in my pocket.”
I am just devastated that it has happened so soon.
Our Liberal political family has lost one of its most admired advocates; British politics has lost one of its best storytellers; this House has lost one of its warmest wits and most loyal parliamentarians. If we could all carry ourselves with a little more of the honesty, wisdom and humility of Charles Kennedy, politics would be held in much higher esteem than it is today.
I am grateful for this opportunity to make a very brief addition to the tributes already paid by the party leaders, with which I wholly agree.
I too am one of those who remember Charlie Kennedy first arriving in the House of Commons in 1983, when he made a startling impression. He was very young—he was a student; he looked like a schoolboy—but people rapidly realised that in addition to all those striking attributes he was highly intelligent, very articulate, very self-confident, and capable of addressing this House in a very fluent and eloquent way, with that jokey, relaxed charm which was his distinctive style and which I do not recall anybody else quite achieving in that way. As he was such an unexpected and unique figure, he rapidly became very prominent not only in Parliament, but nationally, and he looked as though he would have been destined for a brilliant national career but for the limited expectations of the Social Democrats and the Liberal party with which he then associated himself. Well, he did achieve a good national career, and he eventually took his party to electoral heights that would have been unimaginable when he first arrived. I believe that his own distinct personality made a very great contribution to that.
People have said that his great moment was the Iraq war, and I agree, but he took many other strong, principled positions. On Europe, he was wrong sometimes, as he was on the coalition, but he always expressed his views with candid sincerity and always came to clear and principled conclusions for which he was prepared to argue.
We will all miss him. His personal attributes we all know; but they never made him unpleasant, if sometimes they made it a little difficult; it made him a more rounded character. He was one of the last of that great tradition that said we should best address political problems in the atmosphere of a smoke-filled room, which has been lost today. If I may, I will agree with the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman): my main memories of Charles, apart from the pleasure of always being on good terms with him, demonstrate that in making a life in politics one can meet some remarkably decent, honest, very highly principled people. People such as Charlie Kennedy will leave their mark on this House for many years to come. My sympathies also go out to his family and friends.
I first met Charles Kennedy on his first day in the House of Commons, when I entered the Members’ Dining Room and saw a young man looking forlorn and lost, wandering around and wondering what to do. I asked him to join me for lunch and I found out who he was. As the youngest Member of the House of Commons, he was not going to assert himself at that stage, but he knew why he was here: to stand up for certain principles about which he felt strongly. He stood up for those principles in the House and outside it from that first day right through to the end. He had strong views, but he was never vindictive and never malevolent in expounding them. He knew where he stood, he worked out where he should stand, and you knew that when Charles Kennedy spoke he had thought it out and thought it through, and that he would not budge unless you could argue him out of a position—and his positions were pretty strong.
It has rightly been mentioned again and again that he opposed the Iraq war, which at that time was not an easy thing to do, and it was not the view of the overwhelming majority of the House of Commons, but if Charles had worked out a position and he believed that position to be right, he would not budge.
He was always genial, always fun, and it was good to be in his company. You rarely saw him without a smile on his face, but that smile was not a smile of appeasement; it was a smile of geniality and it was a smile of good will. I knew him over the years and always valued his company and his opinions. I join with the rest of the House in expressing my profound sympathy to his family. We shall miss him.
May I begin by expressing my sadness and that of all Members of the Scottish National party at the untimely death of Charles Kennedy?
Most people in the political village knew he had been unwell for quite some time. During the last Parliament our offices were just around the corner from one another on the third floor of Portcullis House and we would bump into each other regularly coming to the Chamber or returning from Committees. It was clear that he was still having to battle his challenges, but not in my worst dreams did I ever imagine he would be taken from us at the young age of 55.
Politics is a hard business and while I and my colleagues were delighted that the SNP won Ross, Skye and Lochaber, I was saddened that Charles Kennedy would no longer be in Parliament. It is a mark of the man that when I got in touch with him after the general election, he readily agreed to meet up and share his experience of his leadership of the Liberal Democrats when it was the third party in the House of Commons.
People across politics will attest to the generosity of spirit that Charles Kennedy showed to people on all sides of the party divides, and I strongly urge those who have not yet had the opportunity to do so to read the blog by Alastair Campbell, illustrating their friendship. My predecessor as Member of Parliament for Moray, Margaret Ewing, and Charles Kennedy were also very good friends, and I know that others in this House and elsewhere enjoyed such friendship and mutual respect tremendously.
We all know that Charles Kennedy was a formidable and witty debater, and his skills were honed long before he came to this Chamber at the age—unbelievably—of 23. His skills were honed at his beloved Glasgow University. As anyone who has ever debated against anybody from Glasgow University will attest, the prodigious talent that has come through the Glasgow University Union and the Dialectic Society is in a league of its own, and has won more world championships than Oxford and Cambridge combined. In the Observer Mace, Glasgow has won 15 times—significantly more than any other university. Charles Kennedy was one of the top-drawer debaters. He won the Observer Mace, an accolade that he shares with the former leader of the Labour party, John Smith, the former Secretary of State for Scotland and First Minister Donald Dewar and my hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (John Nicolson).
My abiding memory of Charles Kennedy in this Chamber is his powerful condemnation of the Iraq war—a position that was shared by the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National party. Charles Kennedy forensically and repeatedly questioned the Prime Minister of the time on the case for war, the lack of evidence for weapons of mass destruction and the role of the United Nations and international law. His speeches and questions at that time have stood the test of time and underline that his convictions were right while others trooped through the Lobby in support of what was an illegal war.
Charles Kennedy was a giant in Scottish and UK politics. He was a lad o’pairts from Lochaber, an area of Scotland of which he was very proud. He led his party to historic successes while remaining rooted in the real world. He was liked by people of all political persuasions—there are few people in politics who can live up to that. It is such a tragedy that he died so young. Our condolences go to his family, his friends, his son Donald and all his party colleagues in the Liberal Democrats.
I had the honour and pleasure of knowing Charles for some 37 years. When I first went to Glasgow University Union, he was already the star of the debating chamber there—in fact, he was the pre-eminent debater of his generation. He was terrifying to speak against, but a positive joy to compete alongside. He had tremendous debating skills, with which he regularly enriched the Chamber and it is a pity that those Members who were elected just last month will never have the joy of seeing how enriching he could be to the House of Commons.
Charles was a man of considerable wit, as has been mentioned, and of great charm and phenomenal intelligence. He was absolutely passionate about his politics and he had deep-seated views, but however passionate he was, there was never a hint of malice or threatening behaviour from him. He was one of those great politicians who would absolutely love to have a blazing row with you in the House of Commons and a chirpy pint with you in the Strangers Bar half an hour later. He was a man of great authenticity. In an era when the public feel that politicians are moulded to be as colourless as possible, he was a man of great integrity who spoke from the heart about the issues he cared so much about.
Charles loved this place from the minute he came here, and I remember coming to see him a few weeks after his election. He absolutely loved the House of Commons, but however important he became in this place, he was never self-important. I will remember him for integrity, humanity and decency, and I wonder how many of us in this House will have that accolade. I am very sad for his family for their untimely loss, but I am sad for us all, because our entire public life is poorer for his passing.
I reiterate the words of the previous speakers: it is a sad day for all of us in this House. I feel privileged to have the opportunity to express my condolences and those of my party, the Social Democratic and Labour party, to the family and friends of our good friend and colleague, the late Charles Kennedy.
From a distance, I first became aware of Charles when, as something of a boy wonder, he stormed to election as a Member of this House way back in the early 1980s. Later, I had occasion to meet him at various events, and he was always generous, warm, humble and humorous. In a word, he was very human, and that has been reflected by the comments of others here today. Charles reached out to everyone, listening as much as talking, as has been remarked.
When I was elected to this House, I got to know Charles better, and he was always kind, considerate and helpful—he was a genuine, great human being—and I am heartened to hear so many warm comments from Members from all parts of the House today. Honourable colleagues have referred to his wisdom on Iraq and the perils that would follow that decision. He was a formidable politician and a great colleague, not only on Iraq, but across a whole range of issues, including Europe, which was a great passion of his. Today, we are all much the lesser for his going. He has gone to his eternal reward much, much too soon, and I extend my deep sympathies to his family and friends. I pray that God in his mercy will look kindly on Charlie’s gentle soul.
If I may, I would like just to say a few words. I walked into this House for the first time as a Member with Charles almost 32 years ago to the day, and among our new intake he was already quite a celebrity. We were just another large Tory intake—you know, Mr Speaker, they come and they go—but he had fought and won his highland seat. For all the 32 years that I served with him in this House and on the Council of Europe, although I was always a political opponent, in a way I always felt we were soulmates. Sometimes he had to go against the groove and I had to, but there was something powerful there. I think his faith was very powerful, and I like to think that in some previous life he and I might have marched together in some hopeless highland cause, perhaps as Jacobites—I do not know.
Charles’s causes were never hopeless, and his legacy will live on. Let me talk for a brief moment about that. For instance, it has been said on the Iraq war that he wanted to place his party as a radical alternative to Labour, but I think it went much deeper than that and was more powerful. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) and I would not have listened to his arguments and followed him into the Lobby if we had not been convinced by what he was saying—that there were limits to liberal imperialism, and that he was a true Liberal and understood those limits and understood what a difficult part of the world that is. He understood the difficulties that we have met ever since, and so he has been proved right on that.
If Charles was still here, or if he was in the other place shortly, he would have been a powerful advocate for our Union, because his was a gentle patriotism, not some narrow-minded nationalism. He would also have been generous in terms of the participation of the Scottish National party in this place, which is important. We must welcome that participation and recognise that those Members must take part in all our debates. He would have been a powerful voice in that, too. He would also have been a powerful voice and influence in other areas, for instance his opposition to the coalition—I rather agreed with him on that. I thought it would be disastrous for our party, but I was proved wrong—it was disastrous for his own. But his opposition was principled. It was not just that he recognised that it is difficult for a party of protest to become a party of power; as on Iraq, there was something much more principled than that. I think he instinctively believed that politics is not just about the pursuit of power; it is also about the pursuit of truth. He was always a powerful advocate for that.
Lastly, when I saw him operate in the Council of Europe, I felt that was Charles’s true métier. Let us not be too serious: Strasbourg is a convivial place. But there was more to it than that. He was determined to extend freedom and democracy to eastern Europe, and he played a powerful part in that body. All those years I admired him and it is truly said that when we die, we can only take with us what we have given away. This man gave everything to our House. There never was a braver and a truer spirit.
I thank you, Mr Speaker, for the opportunity to speak today as we pay tribute to the previous Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber. Charles was a man who was clearly loved by many in this House, but he was also deeply loved by many in his constituency. The Prime Minister spoke about Charles winning the seat in 1983, when he came from fourth place to first. I suspect that many of his then colleagues in the Social Democratic party did not expect that Mr Kennedy would win that seat. There are legendary stories around Ross, Skye and Lochaber on the campaigning that took place back in 1983. Charles travelled around the constituency with his father, with his father playing the fiddle. What truly happened in that election campaign is that Charles charmed the constituents, just as he charmed others when he came into this House, when he burst on to the political scene and when he became a big figure, not only in Scotland, but on the world stage, as leader of the Liberal Democrats.
Charles loved campaigning. We saw in the recent general election campaign his desire to appear in front of the electorate at both his own public meetings and at hustings, where we saw that debating style that has been referred to by so many. It was an absolute privilege to campaign against him. When I look at the strength of the Scottish National party in the Chamber today—56 SNP members were elected—I see that truly the national tide meant Charles lost the seat of Ross, Skye and Lochaber.
Many have referred to Charles as that cheeky chappie, as we would call it in highland terms—they refer to that highland bravado that was demonstrated in his debating style—but we should also reflect that highland characters tend to be complex. While Charles had that exterior of wanting to engage in debate and to be jovial, there was also the private Charles, a man who had many traditional highland characteristics—he was a rather shy character as well, so there was a contrast between the two faces.
Much has been said about the humanity and the humility of the man himself. He was robust in debate, but had respect for those of all opinions, whether on the Iraq war or anything else. My abiding memory of Charles is not from the recent period, but from the first election to the Scottish Parliament in 1999. I can recall that evening that Charles and I were in the television studios. Unlike the recent election, it was not a wonderful night for the SNP—it was not as great as we had hoped on that occasion. There were a number of seats that we would have liked to have won but did not. I was getting a hard time in debate. I remember Charles turning to me and consoling me. Rather than putting the boot in—if I may put it that way—he recognised the kind of evening we were having. That was the mark of the man: a decent, human man, who saw the struggles that others were going through.
I deeply regret, as my constituents will, the passing of this supremely talented man. Rest in peace.
I want to pay a short, personal tribute to a remarkable man. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), I came into the House on that very hot day in June ’83 with Charles Kennedy. In those days, there was no induction programme, the Whips Office did not do HR, and Members were not given offices for many months, so we got to know all the other new MPs.
We spent a lot of time finding our level in the House, mainly on the Terrace. I went to many all-party groups with Charles Kennedy during those months. After yet another brilliant, incisive performance of his, I remember saying to him, “Charles, I think we have just seen a future party leader.” He said, “Don’t be so ridiculous, Henry. My only ambition is to represent my constituents—and have a good time.”
He did have a very good time in those early weeks, because it was not until 15 July that he made his maiden speech. I remember him sitting on that Front Bench below the Gangway, sandwiched between Roy Jenkins and David Owen. It was one of the most brilliant maiden speeches of that intake. I recommend that anyone who has not read it does so. It was a remarkable maiden speech.
Charles had that extraordinary quality, whenever he met people, of making them feel that much better about themselves. I last met him about four days before the House dissolved. He asked me how things were going in Norfolk, and about the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb). We talked about the highlands and I wished him well. He had that amazing ability to make everyone feel better about the day, better about their lives.
His four passions were obviously his family, above all else, and Donald; the highlands; Glasgow University; and Europe. I will miss him no end. A quite remarkable person has left our lives. All the people who knew him well will be the poorer for it, but many others will as well.
On an occasion like this, our thoughts are first and foremost with the family of Charles Kennedy, and especially with his young son, Donald. On behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Democratic Unionist party, we offer them all our sincerest condolences. Their loss is immeasurable, but I hope they find some comfort in the depth, the extent and the tone of the tributes offered in the House today to the man they loved dearly, and whom the country as a whole now mourns.
Charles Kennedy was that rare thing. He was a professional politician from almost the start of his career—he was a politician to his fingertips—but he was one who the public saw as one of their own. They did not see him as someone apart from them or distant from them, but as someone who embodied the very point of why people vote and campaign, and why they become passionate about causes, and why they believe in politics.
Others have charted Charles’s wit and skills as a public speaker from early youth, but the man I saw in this place stood out most of all for his sincerity and his honesty. Following the loss of the leadership of his party, there was nothing but public, professional loyalty to his successors. The party he handed on to them—the party he led to its greatest electoral heights in almost a century—was in enviably good political health.
Charles’s personal tragedy was to be the victim of a terrible disease, the effects of which are intermittent and especially cruel, in that it momentarily robs the sufferer of the ability to be himself. The real Charles Kennedy was the man we remember today and admire, and mourn. He believed utterly in the causes he stood for, without hating anyone else for believing in theirs. He approached each day—I remember meeting him on many mornings—with good-natured relish, free from any contempt for his political foes but absolute in his convictions. From his youth in the House to a far-too-premature passing, the greatest memories he leaves with me and, I suspect, with most of us, are his immense warm heartedness, his tremendous likability and his great good humour.
May God bless all his loved ones and comfort them at this tragic time of bereavement.
Many colleagues have spoken today of Charles’s great talents in this place and his great ability as a parliamentarian, but I rise to speak very briefly because, in common with the new hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), I had the good fortune to spend a year in Ross, Cromarty and Skye, as the constituency was then known, as did Mary Macleod, our much lamented colleague, the former Member for Brentford and Isleworth, on whose behalf I also speak.
My experience of campaigning against Charles during the 1982 general election resounds well with the warm speech that his successor made a few moments ago. Charles could easily have very much resented this English-looking and English-sounding Scot that I am, turning up in his beloved highlands, trampling all over them and turning up at every single event. I remember taking part in a sponsored walk. A very good photograph appeared in the Aberdeen Press and Journal, with the magnificent headline: “The Tory is miles ahead”. I saw Charles that evening. I said, “I’m awfully sorry, Charles.” He said, “Don’t worry, James. The Aberdeen Press and Journal gets everything wrong.” I am extremely glad that, on that occasion, the Aberdeen Press and Journal did get that wrong.
Charles was warm and magnanimous in every single dealing I had with him. During the election campaign itself, we met at church hustings and public meetings. He was always kindness personified. He used to turn to me and say, “I can’t remember what the Liberal Democrat policy is on this, James. Can you just remind me?” and I would fill him in on a few details.
Five years later, when I arrived in the House to represent what is perhaps my more natural home of North Wiltshire, Charles was the first to welcome me with open arms. He remained a close and good parliamentary friend ever since. His warmth and magnanimity of personality spoke for him. He was a highlander through and through: he had a highland warmth and a highland welcome; a highland lack of interest in party politics; and a highland friendship for people of every kind.
Every time he spoke, he spoke for ordinary people. Ordinary people understood and sympathised with him. Even the true blue Tories, of whom at that time there were still a few in the north of Scotland, none the less liked Charles enormously. The people of Ross, Cromarty and Skye absolutely loved their Charlie. He will be greatly missed in this place. He was a fine parliamentarian and a true friend.
I knew Charles through Sarah Gurling and got to see beyond the public figure and party leader. He was shy, but always polite. He was kind, engaging and a good dad. I enjoyed his wry humour. He used to joke about how we shared the same private investigator from the News of the World. He had an ability to bring levity to the dark corners of British political life that made the bad days at the office easier to cope with, yet as many Members all too painfully know, politics often takes a toll on the lives of our loved ones in a way that we never properly know or understand. Through you, Mr Speaker, I would like to direct my words at Donald, son of Charles and Sarah.
Your father was a very great man; he stood up for what he believed in. He led a party of the centre-left with dignity and compassion. When you are older, you will know that your mum and dad believed in a cause greater than themselves and you will be proud.
Charles Kennedy was an immense talent, and it says so much about the man that so many Members in this House have spoken about him with such complete genuine warmth. He had the extraordinary ability to reach out beyond the narrow confines of his own party to make genuine friendships with people of other political persuasions and to achieve an extraordinary affinity with people beyond this place, speaking in a language that people understood—not in the language of the Westminster village. That was a remarkable talent not shared by very many people here. I guess, overall, we probably all share this overwhelming emotion, and our hearts go out to young Donald and his family on this day, and that is the most important thing. Our thoughts are very much with them.
I had the privilege of working as Parliamentary Private Secretary to Charles in my first Parliament here, between 2003 and 2005. I saw at close quarters his extraordinary ability, his compassion and his never ceasing courtesy to people. He never lost his temper in dealing with people; he was always polite. He used the power of argument to win his case.
Tragically, he suffered from an illness that afflicts too many people in our country. There is still a stigma attached to mental ill health and addiction, and all of us here and beyond still have a lot to learn about how we combat that stigma and treat the condition as a genuine illness and try to offer help to the individual as much as we possibly can.
There are three things in particular for which I remember Charles. The first one, which defined him among many members of the public, was his courageous stand on the war in Iraq. The Prime Minister was absolutely right to reflect on the strain that he must have been under when he spoke in this House with the massed ranks of the Labour Government and the Conservative Benches against him, but he was steadfast. He knew what he believed. He articulated the case very strongly and effectively and he reached out to our country at a very critical moment in our history.
The second thing that defines him for me was his internationalism. His total commitment to the European cause came not from any narrow economic case but from a belief in the real power of the European Union in bringing countries together, turning its back, as a continent, on conflict, working together, trading together and bringing people together. His politics was about uniting people, not dividing people; that is what made his commitment to the European Union so strong.
Finally, there was his complete commitment to social justice. He challenged injustice wherever he saw it. Everyone will know that the Liberal voice in our country has been diminished as a result of the general election result, but I and the rest of my party must unite together to do everything we can to ensure Charles’s legacy and to rebuild the Liberal voice in our country. I am sure that everyone in this House, whatever their political persuasion, will recognise the force of liberalism and its importance in these Houses of Parliament.
I am grateful for this opportunity to pay tribute to Charles Kennedy on behalf of the current Plaid Cymru group and also on behalf of my former colleagues from the 2001 Parliament: Simon Thomas, Adam Price and particularly Elfyn Llwyd, who was Charles Kennedy’s friend and who worked alongside him to oppose the war in Iraq.
We opposed the war from the very start, and for us it was very straightforward; we were united in our opposition. For Charles Kennedy, though, it was a bigger challenge. He took the brave decision to lead his party against the war, against prevailing opinion here and in the media, and he had to fight to get some of his leading colleagues to follow.
Standing against the war was not easy for any of us. It was not a comfortable place to be. But we have come to this place not to be comfortable but to do what we think is right. Charles Kennedy took that path and it is a fitting tribute to him that he prevailed.
Today, our thoughts are with his family. As for his legacy, the well known couplet from the Welsh poet Hiraethog inevitably comes to mind:
“Segurdod yw clod y cledd,
A rhwd yw ei anrhydedd”—
idleness is the glory of the sword, and rust is its distinction.
Charles Kennedy achieved many things, but his opposition to the war in Iraq will prove to be his distinction. Heddwch i’w lwch.
I was elected to this House on 5 May 2005, and Charles Kennedy was my party leader. In the weeks running up to that election, he was meant to pay a visit to Westmorland and Lonsdale—to the University of Cumbria, Ambleside—but in the event he had a very good excuse for missing that appointment, which was the birth of Donald. I remember the immense pride we felt in having Charles as our leader, and the immense pride he felt in becoming a father.
I won my seat at that election by 267 votes. When a candidate wins by that small amount, everything counts. I am quite sure that the additional publicity of Donald’s birth contributed to the capturing of Westmorland after 96 years of Tory rule.
As the months went by, I did not get a phone call. There were a good number of us and many were appointed to positions in junior shadow ministries and junior junior shadow ministries. Then in September I got the phone call from Charles. He said, “I’m sorry I haven’t given you a job. I just completely forgot about you.” He asked me whether I would like to be the youth affairs spokesperson, which was obviously an entirely natural fit. That was the only time I ever felt forgotten by Charles. A year before that, I lost my mother—she was a year younger than Charles at his passing—after a long and pretty horrific illness. I remember seeing him when I was among dozens of other candidates, and he knew exactly about the situation that I and my family were going through, and he showed immense compassion. He never stopped asking me about the situation. When she passed away, he asked me how I was. That was the measure of the man. He went through some very difficult things in terms of his personal health, but he was always primarily concerned about the wellbeing of others.
Charles was a persuader; he was able to reach people in their gut. People make up their minds on the basis of all sorts of things, but generally speaking we can only move people if we can get them in the gut. He was the only Social Democratic party MP ever to gain his seat in a general election. Four years later, when the SDP and the Liberals merged, he argued on the conference floor against his own leader, David Owen. We could see the faces of people in that hall as they changed their minds. Charles Kennedy had reached into their hearts and turned them.
To my mind, what Charles was so good at was his ability to communicate and get to people, and it was not contrived. People say that Charles Kennedy was human. Yes, he was, but he was not contrived. The first time that I went on, I think, “Any Questions” a few years ago, he gave me a piece of advice. He just said, “Be yourself.” Charles was successful because he was himself. If any hon. Member is ever invited on to “Have I Got News For You”, my advice is, “Say no, unless you want to be made out to be a prat or unless you are Charles Kennedy.”
Charles had a natural ability to communicate with people, because he was absolutely himself. That humanity is one thing; his principle has been spoken of several times, but it cannot be said enough that his stance against the Iraq war seems like the populist and right thing to do today. Twelve years ago, it was not. He was surrounded by people baying at him as though he was somehow Chamberlain or an appeaser of Saddam Hussein, and The Sun had a front-page picture of Charles Kennedy the anti-patriotic rattlesnake. By golly, someone must be doing something right when that happens!
Charles Kennedy was principled and he changed people’s minds, and he was right. He was human; he was principled; and he was effective. He led our party to the largest number of Members of Parliament since Lloyd George’s day. I suggest that that humanity, that principle and that effectiveness—those three things—are connected. If we want to understand why Charles Kennedy was great, we should realise that it was because he was himself. People say that politicians should have a life outside politics before they become Members of Parliament. Maybe. Charlie was elected at 23. It is hard to argue that he did. The reality is that it is not what you have done, it is who you are, and Charles Kennedy was a very, very special man. Donald, you should be really proud of your daddy. I am proud of your daddy. I loved him to bits. I am proud to call him my friend. God rest you, Charlie.
Charles Kennedy was an associate editor of the House magazine, of which I am the editor, and we would have meetings every Tuesday morning for an hour to discuss what happened during the week and where we would go the following week. Charles made some of the meetings and he did not make others, but it was always very clear that we had extraordinary, indiscreet exchanges of opinion that never, ever left the room. For something like 15 years, what was said in that room stayed in that room, and the discussions were always enlightening, because Charles would come up with points of view that simply had not occurred to me. It shows his extraordinary generosity that, even when people were not just stabbing him in the back—it was quite clear that they were stabbing him from the front—he would nevertheless always be generous towards them.
I want to say something very briefly, given that people outside here will hear this as well. I think that Donald should read a book “The Little Prince” by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, where the Little Prince explains why he is about to die and says, “I will be a star, and every time you look up in the skies you will see that star, and it is me smiling and you will end up being glad to have known me.” I think that we will all end up saying that we were glad to have known Charles. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]
Charles Kennedy was one of those people everyone remembers meeting for the first time: his distinctive look, his very attractive highland accent, his unusual and warm manner as a politician. I remember meeting him very excitedly as a new prospective parliamentary candidate, and I was touched at how genuine this great figure of liberalism who I was finally getting to meet actually was. He wanted to know how I was and how things were going in Leeds.
I was very lucky during the 2005 election campaign to have not one but two visits from Charles. The first was to an older people’s residence, Teal Beck Court and Teal Beck House in Otley. The second was a rally at Headingley stadium towards the end of the campaign, when it appeared that I might make the breakthrough for the Liberal Democrats in Leeds. On both occasions, Charles lit up the room when he walked in. At the rally, he inspired people to go out and do that bit more over the last 24 hours to win the seat. But it was the ordinary people, not the party activists, who were particularly touched by Charles and his natural style and the way that he engaged so humbly with the older residents, the hard-working care staff at the home and people at the rugby and cricket ground. Everyone commented, “Isn’t he such a nice bloke?” and they were surprised that a party leader could be such.
I am very proud that I was elected in 2005, with Charles Kennedy as a great leader of my party, in what was the best ever result for the Liberal Democrats—something that we will not forget. I was doubly overjoyed when Charles became a new father, with the joyous news, albeit rather inconveniently timed, of Donald’s birth in the general election campaign. A few months later, I had my first child, my daughter Isabel. Charles and I would meet and chat and, sometimes a little tired from having been up, would talk new-father talk about how we were getting on, and Charles always asked and always cared.
Charles was a truly genuine, warm and humble man, and he always asked how people were and how their family was before he got on to politics. My sincere condolences go to his family and his friends and all who knew him. They are in our thoughts and our prayers, and as has already been expressed, I hope that the genuine outflowing of tributes to Charles is some comfort at this very difficult time. As one of the eight Liberal Democrat Members of Parliament, rather than 62 in 2005, I want to say that we now have the job of restoring the Liberal Democrats to where Charles took us in 2005. That is what Charles would have wanted, and it is what we will work and strive to do.
Many hearts broke yesterday morning when we heard the news; it came as such a dreadful shock. It is equally heartbreaking that Charles Kennedy, our friend and fellow parliamentarian, cannot be aware of this great outpouring of affection that has swept across the whole nation and, in fact, wider than the shores of these islands. Perhaps we could have done more to help and support Charles and to let him know how loved he was, because it may be too late now, but it will be comfort to the family to know that this was a man who was loved and adored right the way across the political spectrum, across the national spectrum and across the world. Certainly, all those who came into contact with him grew to love him and to hold him in great affection. We should perhaps cherish those who are with us now and never forget that we owe that support and friendship.
Charles Kennedy set the industry standard for humour and wit in politics, and I have to say that that was rather distressing to some people who aspired to the foothills of that great Ben Nevis of wit that was Charles Kennedy. For many years, he and Austin Mitchell and Julian Critchley enlivened the airwaves with a three-way commentary on current affairs. They were known as “Critch, Mitch and Titch”, which was unfair. Mitch was obviously for Austin Mitchell, Critch for Julian Critchley, but Titch for Charles Kennedy—no! He was a fine figure of a man in every sense, and my memories are not just of him absolutely creasing the sides of the nation until our ribs ached with the humour, not just on the radio or on television. To comment on the earlier remark made about “Have I Got News for You” that you either had to be prepared to be a prat or Charles Kennedy, I appeared on “Have I Got News for You”. Demonstrably, I am not Charles Kennedy. [Laughter.]
There was another side to Charles. He was a man of very great and deep faith, who drew great strength from the well of that faith. Some people in the Chamber today will know that on Wednesday evenings, when we celebrate mass here in the Undercroft, he would be there, very quietly, very much in the background. I appreciate that it is a Roman Catholic tradition to stand at the back of the church in case there is a collection, but Charles would be there very quietly just worshipping and communing with his God, from whom he drew such strength. I hope you will forgive me, Mr Speaker, for pointing out that tonight, mass will be celebrated for the repose of his soul and for the comfort of his family in the Undercroft chapel.
Charles Kennedy—the words must give us pause to realise how much we have lost, but how blessed we were to have known that great man. Charles Kennedy—may light eternal shine upon him and may he rest in peace.
It may be too sentimental to describe political parties, some big, some perhaps rather too small these days, as families. We could describe this House as a family perhaps today. Today, this family is mourning one of its finest sons. Much more important than that, our thoughts must first and foremost be with the Kennedy family, as all hon. Members have said throughout this very moving set of tributes to a great man.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland), I was immensely proud to be elected in 2005 under the leadership of Charles Kennedy. I was proud to be one of his foot soldiers. I think back to the time when he ceased to be our leader. It was a particularly harrowing time. In later years, some of us still looked to Charles as the leader of our particular brand of Celtic liberalism.
In 2005 I won by just 219 votes. I have often reflected on what the determining factor was. I have no doubt it was Charles Kennedy’s principled and brave stand on Iraq. When I once attributed my win to him, he told me with characteristic modesty, humility and generosity that I was talking utter nonsense. But I was right. His leadership of our party at that time was engaging, inclusive and inspirational. So too, we must not forget, were some of the perhaps not as frequent as we would have liked appearances in this Chamber in recent years. I still think of the doors opening, Charles arriving to sit down there in the corner in one of those flash light suits, glasses perched on the end of his nose. We knew we were in for a treat and that Charles Kennedy was going to say something of significance and importance. How good it was to rush home on a Thursday night to ensure you were there in time for Charles Kennedy on “Question Time”. Charles the great communicator, Charles with his great capacity, as everyone said, to put everyone at ease, including the nervous, new, unexpected MP, as he had been in 1983 and many of us were subsequently—everyone, from every walk of life.
When he came to Wales, whether he was meeting students, health managers or party activists in Ceredigion, or farmers in the mart in Newcastle Emlyn, whether he was canvassing during the by-election at Tredegar or Blaenau Gwent, he had the same effectiveness with people. Those who know their psephology know that there are not many Liberals in Blaenau Gwent or Tredegar, but it did not matter. Charles Kennedy, knocking on doors, would enjoy meeting people, and he left an impression that would stay with them for the rest of their lives.
Charles Kennedy—dignified, compassionate, principled, honest, yet somehow vulnerable. Above all else, as others have said, he was a fully signed-up member of the human race, a rare breed—a politician who was universally liked if not loved.
I am grateful for the opportunity to pay tribute to Charles Kennedy. As we have heard, he was a politician with all the talents, but as one of the MPs who were here at the time of the Iraq war and as one of the small group of Labour MPs that voted against the Iraq war, I remind the House that it was not just remarkable that Charles Kennedy was the one party leader who took the correct position against the Iraq war. Those of us who opposed the war from the beginning were very worried that in the end Charles Kennedy would not be able to lead his MPs through the Lobby because he was under pressure within his own party. We cannot understate the judgment and courage he showed.
We had the biggest rally in London ever against the war. I remember Charles Kennedy on the platform addressing the crowds and how excited and happy they were to hear him speak. His position on the Iraq war was the right position for him, and it was the right position for his party because he led it to its greatest ever victory. It was also the right position for Westminster politics because the public like nothing better than to see a politician stand on principle. He exemplified that.
Sometimes the people who pay the price for the personal ambitions of MPs are our families and our children. I would like the message to go out to his son that he should never cease to be proud of his father—the best of the political class and the best of men.
I thank all colleagues for what they have said and the way in which they have said it. We must, I am sure, all hope that the warmth of the sentiments expressed and the demonstrable unity of the House on this occasion will offer some, even if modest comfort and succour to the family in the harrowing period that lies ahead.
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, we have a lot of pressing business. Perhaps we can come to it later.
Education and Adoption Bill
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Secretary Nicky Morgan, supported by Secretary Elizabeth Truss, Mr Oliver Letwin, Matthew Hancock, Nick Boles, Mr Nick Gibb, Edward Timpson, Caroline Dinenage and Mr Sam Gyimah, presented a Bill to make provision about schools in England that are causing concern, including provision about their conversion into Academies and about intervention powers; and to make provision about joint arrangements for carrying out local authority adoption functions in England.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 4) with explanatory notes (Bill 4-EN).
European Union (Finance) Bill
Mr Chancellor of the Exchequer, supported by Mr Secretary Hammond, Greg Hands, Mr David Gauke, Mr David Lidington, Damian Hinds and Harriett Baldwin, presented a Bill to approve for the purposes of section 7(1) of the European Union Act 2011 the decision of the Council of 26 May 2014 on the system of own resources of the European Union; and to amend the definition of “the Treaties” and “the EU Treaties” in section 1(2) of the European Communities Act 1972 so as to include that decision.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 5) with explanatory notes (Bill 5-EN).
Debate on the Address
Debate resumed, (Order, 2 June).
Question again proposed,
That an Humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, as follows:
Most Gracious Sovereign,
We, Your Majesty's most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled, beg leave to offer our humble thanks to Your Majesty for the Gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament.
Devolution and Growth across Britain
I beg to move an amendment, at the end of the Question to add:
“but regret that the Government has offered piecemeal measures which threaten to leave some areas behind; recognise that devolution needs to be part of an ambitious UK-wide plan not simply a limited series of one-off deals done by the Chancellor; note that the Government has failed to offer an economic growth package including new powers in transport, housing and skills for all areas, including for county regions; further regret that the Government is not offering all combined authorities in England the ability to retain all business rate revenue growth; further note that the Government has failed to offer a comprehensive strategy to build the homes, including the badly needed affordable homes, that our country needs; note that the Government has pledged a funding floor for Wales, but is concerned that fair funding will be contingent on an income tax referendum; note that, whilst the timeline of the cross-party agreement reached through the Smith Commission has been met and the Scotland Bill will make the Scottish Parliament one of the most powerful devolved parliaments in the world, the Government has failed to confirm that the Barnett formula will be protected and welfare provisions do not go far enough; and resolve that devolution should be delivered without leaving Scotland worse off.”.
May I associate myself with the comments that you, Mr Speaker, made about Charlie Kennedy? Our thoughts go out to his family, his loved ones and his friends.
It is good to see you, Mr Speaker, back in your place not only re-elected to serve the people of Buckingham but re-elected as Speaker of this House. We meet this afternoon to discuss the Queen’s Speech and, in particular, its impact on devolution and growth across the UK.
Before I dive in, I would like to welcome the Business Secretary and his new ministerial team to their places. I congratulate him on his appointment. I am glad that, while the Business Secretary has changed, the right hon. Gentleman carries on the tradition that I and his predecessor appear to have set for those doing this brief in having little or no hair. I also welcome the new Communities Secretary and his ministerial team to their posts. Finally I would like to welcome all new Members to this House. I look forward, in particular, to hearing those who will deliver their maiden speech today. It is an honour and privilege to serve in this place, and all the more pleasurable when one gets to deliver a speech without intervention—my advice would be to savour the moment.
I turn to the Queen’s Speech and the relevant Bills. Of the 21 Bills, clearly, the cities and devolution, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland Bills are all of direct relevance to this debate and, when exploring growth, the enterprise and housing Bills too. Arguably, the European Union Referendum Bill, the tax lock Bill, the energy Bill and high speed rail Bills are also of relevance to our debate today, but there have been opportunities and will be another tomorrow to discuss those issues. For the purposes of our debate this afternoon, we will focus on the six primary Bills that I have mentioned; in closing, the shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government will go into more detail about housing in particular.
I start by setting out the rationale for the official Opposition’s position on devolution. Why devolve? We are one of the most centralised countries in the western world. Some 70% of spending is done by central Government, compared with the OECD average of 48%, and the GDP per capita of all but one of our largest eight main cities is below the national average, which serves to show how we are missing out on the full benefits that every region can bring.
It is fair to say that in the last Parliament a growing consensus evolved around the need to change and devolve more power down. Some see devolution as a useful vehicle for shrinking the state. They are happy to cut what the Government do at the centre, but they are not too keen on Government action at any level. Devolving power is not really their goal; they simply want to hack off chunks of what Government do to support people and provide them with a platform to get on. That is not our approach.
Some talk a good game on devolution, and a shrinking state is not the be all and end all for them. However, when it comes down to it, they are happy to devolve power, but less happy to provide the resources to make such power meaningful. In the last Parliament, we heard a lot of talk about localism, but that came with a 60% cut in the Communities and Local Government budget. The Communities Secretary’s predecessor sought to park blame for the lack of resources with our local authorities, when blame properly rested with the last Conservative-led coalition and will rest with this Government if they press on with the extreme cuts that, during the election campaign, they said they would pursue. Again, that is not our approach.
Finally, some see devolution as simply a stop on a journey towards breaking up the United Kingdom and pursuing independence. If that were not the case, why do we hear so much about devolving power to the Scottish Parliament, but so little about devolving power from that Parliament to the regions and localities of Scotland? Double devolution is what is required in Scotland; that is why in the last Parliament my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) brought a private Member’s Bill to devolve immediately the job creation powers mentioned in the Smith agreement and ensure double devolution to local authorities, which are best placed to grow local job markets.
None of the approaches from the Scottish National party or the Tories reflects our position.
The hon. Gentleman made an interesting point about the need for the SNP to devolve power to local authorities in Scotland. He forgot to mention the possibility of the Labour-run Welsh Assembly devolving powers to local authorities in Wales. Does he think that is also important?
In this House, we generally argue for subsidiarity within Europe. We should not stop at Europe; we should have subsidiarity in our own country, too—in all the different parts of the UK.
During our time in office, we pioneered much of the devolution that we now see across the United Kingdom. It was not perfect, but given the creation of the Greater London Authority, the Mayor of London, the Scottish Parliament, and the Welsh and Northern Irish Assemblies, we did much to devolve power down. We also established regional development agencies in England, which did important work. We are proud of that record.
I am sure that this was just a slip of his mind, but the issue of English votes for English laws was not on the list that the hon. Gentleman presented. The Labour party was the stoutest defender of Scottish voting rights in this House. Will he back us in insisting that, rather than simply changing the Standing Orders, the Government bring forward a Bill for something as significant as the voting rights of hon. Members?
As has been discussed during the series of debates held since Her Majesty delivered the Queen’s Speech, we do not want two tiers of MPs to be created in the House of Commons.
We devolved power then and we support the principle of devolving more power now, in the Bills that I mentioned, for two principal reasons—one economic and one democratic. I turn first to the economic case. Decisions on how to grow our economy are often best made at a sub-regional and local level. Local actors, whether policy makers, business people or trade unions and others, best understand the unique combination of history, geography, demography and institutions that give their area a niche—a competitive edge, a comparative advantage—in the global marketplace.
The fact is crucial because in this era of globalisation, nations and regions need to concentrate their efforts on producing the services and goods that they are best at and then to trade them to generate the good, secure, well paid jobs of which we want more all over the UK. That matters because we have a higher incidence of low paid work than other developed nations. Despite the fact that our people work among the longest hours in Europe, output per worker in the UK lags behind that of our competitors.
To address the issue and raise productivity levels, areas need to harness their specific local skills and strengths and use them to become clusters of expertise and innovation. The simple fact is that one-size-fits-all policies devised in remote departmental silos are simply incapable of nurturing specific local strengths. It is the different players in our local areas and regions that are best placed to do that. We have to give them the tools to be the masters of their own destinies.
I want to ask about devolution within Wales. Swansea Bay city region, the conglomerate of Neath, Port Talbot, Swansea and Carmarthenshire, is the biggest urban footprint in Wales. It projects the international brand name of Swansea, thanks to the city’s football success, on the back of two universities plus Tata Steel and a confederation of local government, industry and academia. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is the way forward in a global marketplace—perhaps along with regional banking, which we have not yet got from the Government?
Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be a mistake to confuse London as a whole with the City of London, which is of course hugely powerful and wealthy? People in London would not understand if other city regions such as the northern powerhouse got devolved powers, particularly over health, that were then denied to Londoners.
The Government insist that areas such as the north-east can have further devolution only if they have a mayor. Does it strike my hon. Friend as a strange anomaly that so-called devolution should insist on one way of doing things and deny local people a say on whether they want a mayor in the first place?
I completely agree. I will come specifically to that point in a moment.
We have talked about some of the examples of where the approach works. Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel has turned the city into a hotbed of innovation that attracts the best graduates. A good European example is Eindhoven in the Netherlands. It has rebooted its innovation and, as a city comprising only 4% of the population, now generates 37% of Dutch patents.
My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) mentioned the example from Wales. Many of our colleagues in local government are doing pioneering, innovative stuff across the UK. In Oldham, Labour has introduced enterprise hubs in every secondary school; in Plymouth, it is working with housing associations to build 1,000 homes; in Leeds, it is setting up an apprenticeship brokering service for small and medium-sized businesses; and in Lambeth, where I am, it is using council buildings to provide a home for small businesses. We need to promote such ways of working if we are to address the ongoing structural imbalances in our economy. We may have achieved 2.8% growth last year, but our economy is still seriously imbalanced. We need look only at the Office for National Statistics regional gross value added figures to see the uneven distribution of growth. The Queen’s Speech talked about the Government’s desire to build a northern powerhouse, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott). In truth, we should seek to make every single region a powerhouse, not just have the northern powerhouse.
My hon. Friend is making a very powerful speech. Bearing in mind that the UK trade deficit widened from the last quarter of 2014 to the first quarter of this year, does he not agree that local authorities and local enterprise partnerships play a very important role in helping to support businesses to take advantage of export opportunities, so that Britain’s businesses can meet their maximum potential in the world?
My hon. Friend raises a very important point. The current account deficit is at its highest ever level at the moment, and she is absolutely right about the approach that we need to adopt.
Beyond the economic argument, which I have talked about, there is a bigger argument to be made for devolution. We know that levels of trust in politics are low, but we also know from research that policies formulated and delivered locally command far greater trust than those made in Westminster.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that west midlands manufacturers felt completely neglected for 13 years under the previous Labour Government and have enjoyed a renaissance only since the coalition Government? Is it not true that the severity of the financial crisis was much greater for the United Kingdom because our economy was so unbalanced in 2008?
I would say two things to the right hon. Lady. First, when I was in her area, I heard so many complaints, particularly during the last Parliament, about the abolition of Advantage West Midlands, the regional development agency. Secondly, those involved in the renaissance in the automotive sector in particular—the likes of Jaguar Land Rover and so on—tell us how helpful and important it was that the previous Labour Government established the Automotive Council.
As I was saying, I want to move beyond the economic case to make the democratic case. We know that levels of trust are higher in decisions made locally, but we also know that the contempt people have for politics is fuelled not only by a sense that we are all in it for ourselves, but by a sense of powerlessness—a sense of citizens’ powerlessness in shaping what the system does for them and a lack of confidence in politicians’ power to change things in the face of powerful global forces. What better antidote to that sense of powerlessness is there than to give people more power in their localities and communities?
This is very much my personal view of what we in this House are all guilty of, but people are desperate for an end to the partisan point scoring we sometimes see in this place. There is an increasing desire for politicians to transcend the partisan bickering that characterises a lot of debate here. On that point, I should refer to the last hour in the Chamber. We all mourn the loss of Charles Kennedy, the former Liberal Democrat leader and former Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber. He was a great and brilliant parliamentarian. He was so popular, and there has been such a huge outpouring of affection since his sad passing, in part because he could transcend the Punch and Judy of this place. If we are honest, it is fair to say that our colleagues in regional and local government are often far better than us in putting aside party political differences and working together. An example often cited is the way in which Lord Heseltine, a Conservative, collaborated with our Labour colleagues in Liverpool over the years. That led to his being awarded the freedom of the city by the Labour administration there in 2012. Let us look at the work of the cross-party London Councils body, which has rolled out its successful apprenticeship scheme across the Labour and Conservative-run boroughs of the capital. That is another reason for devolution, and it would actually help our democracy.
My hon. Friend is making a very powerful democratic case for re-energising democracy through devolution to local authorities and local communities, and certainly through trusting local people to make decisions over their own spending at local level, but should we not also trust local people to have the ability to raise more of their own taxes at local level? That is a place where those on neither Front Bench have so far wanted to go, but is not fiscal devolution just as important in the total approach to devolution as the devolution of spending powers?
I believe—this is my view—that fiscal devolution is important, and I will say a little more about that shortly.
I have been clear that we support devolution across the UK in principle. It cannot, however, be devolution for the sake of it; it must be a devolution of powers for the purpose of creating a fairer and more prosperous society for everyone. As our amendment sets out, we want an ambitious UK-wide plan to devolve powers, not a series of piecemeal measures or one-off deals, and those powers must cover transport, housing and skills for all areas.
The hon. Gentleman is making some very good points. In the spirit of cross-party working, I am sure that he, like me, would welcome the concordat between the Greater Manchester Combined Authority and central Government to devolve more powers to the north-west of England. Would he join me in encouraging other large councils, such as Lancashire County Council, to come forward to the Government with plans to ensure that more powers can be devolved to the constituents I represent in Lancashire?
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will make a little progress if I may, but I may come back to the hon. Gentleman later.
What of the Government’s proposals in the Queen’s Speech that we are debating? We are told that the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill will provide the legislative framework necessary to deliver the Greater Manchester deal and other future deals in large cities in England that choose to have elected mayors, as my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) mentioned, and in other places. Shortly before the general election, devolution deals were announced in relation to Sheffield and West Yorkshire. In addition to Manchester, we were told that the Government will pilot allowing councils in Cambridgeshire and Cheshire to retain 100% of the growth in business rate revenue so that they can reap the benefit of decisions to boost growth locally.
To pick up my hon. Friend’s point, however, why limit these arrangements to those areas? Why not give every region the opportunity to reap the benefits of the decisions they make to boost growth locally through such deals and through the devolution of business rates? Although I am a big fan, what about areas which, as she said, choose not to have elected mayors? Why should they be denied the benefit of greater local freedoms? Combined authorities, with or without a mayor, can provide a useful vehicle through which to do all this, but one important point for the Government to consider as they proceed with their legislation is this: what about areas which do not have or do not desire a combined authority, and how will they get more powers? My criticism of what has been proposed—I accept that we need to see the Bill—is that it does not seem to go far enough and is rather piecemeal. The Government need to find a way of ensuring that all areas can enjoy greater autonomy.
The Government say that their Scotland Bill aims to deliver in full the Smith commission agreement, to which the five main Scottish political parties signed up in November 2014. We are absolutely committed to ensuring that the vow—a promise made and a promise to be delivered —made on the eve of last year’s referendum is delivered in full to make the Scottish Parliament one of the most powerful devolved Parliaments in the world. As we set out in our manifesto, we will work to amend the Bill to give the Scottish Parliament the final say on social security and the power to top up UK benefits. This settlement must recognise the strength and security offered by being part of the UK, which means retaining the pooling and sharing of resources that flow from the Barnett formula. It is imperative that that is protected and, for the sake of the Scottish economy and public services, one hopes that the SNP’s economically illiterate plans for full fiscal autonomy are dropped. The worst-case scenario for Scotland would be the hon. Members of the SNP in this House pressing for full fiscal autonomy and the Tory Government delivering it.
The Labour amendment equates fair funding with the so-called Barnett floor, yet the hon. Gentleman has just said that he is committed to the Barnett formula for Scotland. If Wales had the same level of investment as Scotland, it would be worth an extra £1.4 billion a year. Would that not be fair funding? If that were in the Labour amendment, I would be more than happy to march through the Lobby with him. As it is, we cannot.
Perhaps I will help the hon. Gentleman shortly, because I am coming straight on to Wales.
We are told that the Wales Bill will deliver a clearer, more stable devolution settlement for Wales and devolve important new powers to the National Assembly for Wales and the Welsh Government. We understand that a funding floor is to be introduced to protect Welsh relative funding and provide certainty for the Welsh Government in planning for the future. We support measures to put Welsh devolution on a stronger statutory basis, as is the case with Scotland. We agree with taking forward proposals from the Silk commission and extending the power that the people of Wales have over their transport, elections and energy.
To come to the point made by the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards), let me be clear that Wales must not be unfairly disadvantaged by the Barnett formula. The Conservative-led coalition cut the Welsh budget by £1.5 billion. This Conservative Government must ensure that there is a fair funding settlement for Wales by introducing a funding floor. That funding floor should not be contingent on an income tax referendum.
The Queen’s Speech refers to legislation to implement the Stormont House agreement in Northern Ireland. This issue was raised in Prime Minister’s questions. The legislation will provide the architecture to deal with the past, institutional reform at Stormont and certain economic measures, including the devolution of corporation tax. In view of the concerning escalation of the dispute over welfare reform, we urge the Government to do all in their power to work with the Northern Ireland parties and, where appropriate, the Irish Government to avert this serious threat to political and economic stability in Northern Ireland.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that if the impasse is not resolved and the hole in the Northern Ireland budget of 6% for the remainder of this year is left unresolved, the only answer is for the Government to take over the welfare reform powers from the Northern Ireland Executive, because some parties have clearly shown themselves to be incapable of dealing with them?
Without wanting to fuel the dispute, I would say that the important thing is that it does not get that far. It is important that all the parties manage to find a resolution to the dispute. I know that the talks are ongoing today.
I have talked a lot about growth, but before I conclude, I want to turn to the specific growth measures in the Queen’s Speech. I sincerely hope that this Government have more success than the last one in the delivery of their policies on regional growth. In the last Parliament, having hastily and mistakenly abolished the regional development agencies that we established, the Government asked local enterprise partnerships to do basically the same things as the regional development agencies, but without the powers or the resources. Local enterprise partnerships have had mixed success. We want this Government to resource them properly and give them the support that they need to do the job that is being asked of them.
The last Government’s flagship regional growth fund was mired in chaos and delay from the start. Eventually, it managed to get moneys to successful bidders, although I suspect that a substantial amount is still gathering dust in Treasury coffers. We wait to see what further measures there will be in that respect in the Budget.
I could ask the hon. Gentleman why, in the 18 years beforehand, his party did not come up with the ideas of the Mayor of London, the Welsh Assembly or the Northern Ireland Assembly.
We will, of course, hear a lot more about the Government’s plans for growth in the Budget, but in the Queen’s Speech we had the enterprise Bill. To the extent that it promotes growth and supports businesses, we will support it. I see the new Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise in her place. I am pleased that the Government propose to extend the primary authority scheme, which we established, to reduce the regulatory burden on business. That is good.
I would like the Business Secretary and his new deputy to go much further in the Bill than they have indicated they will in order to clamp down on the national scandal that is the late payment of small and medium-sized businesses by their large customers. We will press the Government on that during the passage of the Bill through this House. A conciliation service is all well and good, but what small businesses want is a regime with teeth that will impose sanctions on late payers automatically, without their having to have a row with their customers. That must be the Government’s goal.
To reform our economy, we must invest in our infrastructure. The key thing is to ensure that people in every part of the UK have a decent, affordable place to live. The shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government will say more about that later.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that economic devolution must include mending our broken banking system, which is sucking money into London? Does he agree that, although the Government are about to announce, I imagine, the selling off of RBS at a massive loss to the taxpayer, we should instead use our investment in RBS to create a local banking network to support small businesses and rebalance the economy?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right that when we look at economic devolution we should consider reform of the way banking works. I am a big fan of regional banking.
I am conscious of time and I know that many Members want to make their maiden speeches, so I will finish where I started and return to the rationale for devolution. Often, people dismiss debates such as this as not being high up the list of concerns for the public. It is true that the turnout in the referendum on whether to establish the Greater London Authority and the Mayor was just 34.6%, and that the referendum on the establishment of the Welsh Assembly was carried with just 50.3% of the vote. However, I leave this thought for hon. Members to consider: if any Government now proposed to abolish the institution of the Mayor of London, not only would my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) go crazy, but there would be a public outcry. The same would be true if a Government proposed to do away with the Welsh Assembly or any of the new institutions we have set up. That reinforces my view that, when it comes down to it, people want more power, so we should ensure that they have it. For that reason, I commend our amendment to the House.
I echo the tributes that were paid to Charles Kennedy earlier today. I was not fortunate enough to know him well, but his reputation for courage, his principles and his humour were well known to all. My thoughts are with his family and friends.
I extend a warm welcome to all new Members of the House and to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, upon your return. I also welcome back the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna). I look forward to our many encounters over the coming months. The hon. Gentleman and I have an unusual connection. Soon after I was elected back in 2010, as was he, it came as a great surprise to be recognised so frequently by members of the public. I later discovered, after a particularly excited individual took a selfie with me, that they thought I was the hon. Member for Streatham. [Laughter.] I consider that to be a compliment, but I am not sure whether the same is true of him.
The title of our manifesto promised three things if we were returned to government: strong leadership, a clear economic plan and a brighter, more secure future for our country—our whole country. After Labour’s record-breaking recession, the British economy is experiencing record-breaking growth. Maintaining that growth will be at the heart of everything this Government do over the next five years. Because the Conservatives are the party of the many, not the few, we will deliver that growth in a way that benefits all of Britain’s people: creating opportunity for everyone, rebalancing our economy, devolving power to every corner of the United Kingdom—a one nation party; a one nation Government.
The Scottish and Welsh Governments already have more powers than they did five years ago. The Scotland Act 2012 contained significant new financial powers for the Scottish Parliament, all of which will be enforced by April 2016. The Wales Act 2014, introduced last December, moved various tax and borrowing powers from Westminster to Cardiff. Legislation introduced earlier this year paved the way for the devolution of corporation tax to Northern Ireland. Now we will go further.
The Secretary of State just mentioned the powers—including some minor taxes—devolved to Wales in the Wales Act 2014. Therefore, the principle of fiscal devolution seems to have been conceded. Why are he and his Government still insisting on a referendum about income tax devolution to Wales?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and I assure him that I will come to just that point in a moment, but I hope he will please allow me to refer to Scotland first.
Of course, Scotland has had its referendum and its people chose to stay in the United Kingdom, which was the right decision. However, the referendum also sent a clear message that Scotland wanted a greater say over its affairs and greater control over its economic destiny. That is why we will deliver the Smith commission agreement in full.
The right hon. Gentleman may be one of the many in England, but in Scotland the Conservatives are most definitely the few, with their one Scottish MP and their 14% of the vote, their lowest share of the vote since the 19th century. Will he listen carefully to the clear demands from the Scottish Government about strengthening the Scottish Bill to give us the job-creating powers that our Scottish Parliament wants and the Scottish people voted for?
I remind the hon. Gentleman that although the Scottish National party did remarkably well in the election—and I congratulate it—still almost half the Scottish people did not vote for it, and there are all sorts of voices across Scotland that need to be represented in this Chamber.
Once the Smith commission agreement is in place, the Scottish Parliament will have additional powers on income tax and air passenger duty. All told, more than half the money spent by the Scottish Government will be raised in Holyrood. This package is an historic one for Scotland, which will soon possess arguably the strongest devolved Government anywhere in the world, empowered to build on the progress made over the past five years. Yet Scotland will retain the huge benefits of remaining part of a strong United Kingdom: the economic benefits; the social benefits; the defence benefits: and many more besides.
As we have seen with revenue issues on the Irish border, the decision to give control of air passenger duty to the Scottish Parliament, which I well understand, could have massive implications for regional airports in England. What protections will the Secretary of State build in to protect the jobs and the economies involved?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and we need to consider such issues carefully. However, the decision to devolve air passenger duty has been made.
I note that the Opposition Benches have adopted an entirely new look since the last Parliament. The SNP enjoyed unprecedented success, and I congratulate it on earning the trust of so many Scottish voters. However, the SNP should enjoy this honeymoon period, because the hard work is about to begin.
I turn to Wales. We will deliver a clearer, stronger and fairer devolution settlement, implementing in full the St David’s day agreement, led by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales. The Wales Bill will make devolution clearer by introducing a reserved powers model, which is the system already in place for Scotland. It will make Welsh devolution stronger by devolving more powers to Cardiff, especially those covering energy, transport and the environment. We will also agree the precise level of a funding floor for Wales, and the mechanism to deliver it. That will be done with a clear expectation that the Welsh Government will call a referendum on income tax powers.
Northern Ireland does not fall within the scope of this debate as defined by the party opposite. However, we will take forward legislation to give effect to the Stormont House agreement and we look forward to working with colleagues in Belfast to make the devolution agenda benefit all the people of Northern Ireland, including, of course, Northern Ireland’s First Minister, to whom I wish a full and speedy recovery.
Central to the Stormont House agreement was the implementation of welfare reform. If that proves to be impossible because of the intransigence of both the Social Democratic and Labour party and Sinn Féin, who agree to the Stormont House agreement, will the Government take on responsibility for introducing welfare reform in Northern Ireland?
Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the most significant decisions that the previous Government made in their final year was to devolve corporation tax to Northern Ireland—to ensure that Northern Ireland was able to compete on a far more equal footing with the Republic of Ireland—and that that should be celebrated?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight that decision; as he has alluded to, it took into account the unique situation of Northern Ireland, with its larger neighbour and the tax situation there. It demonstrates what this Government will do to bring about further devolution.
I turn briefly to England. No matter where people live, our intention is that they have a Government that is on their side and that represents their interests. As we have heard, devolution is strengthening the voices of Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as that of Scotland, within our Union. That should be just as true for England.
I will give way in a moment.
As a one nation Government, we will revise the Commons rules to make the law-making process fair, bringing about constitutional reform that serves people living in all parts of the United Kingdom. The introduction of English votes for English laws will do just that for England. Our proposals will balance the principle of English consent for English measures with the process of MPs from all parts of the UK continuing to deliberate and vote together.
Will the Secretary of State define what he means by an English-only matter, because I represent a seat in Wales that uses hospital services in England, transport in England—[Interruption.] No, it is because of geography. It uses employment in England, airports in Manchester, and it has people employed at Vauxhall in Ellesmere Port. These are big issues. Will he tell me why I cannot speak or vote on them?
The right hon. Gentleman should be reassured that he will still be able to speak out on behalf of his constituents on any issue he wishes to speak upon.
I am the MP for Bromsgrove; I was born in Rochdale; I was raised in Bristol; and I went to university in Exeter. I barely set a foot in London until my early twenties.
May I just add to the point that the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) made by suggesting to him that there are many people living in England who rely on getting their health service in Wales, and their MPs are unable to speak about it? Does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State agree with me—a proud Welshman and a proud British subject—that there is a strong Unionist case for having English votes for English laws?
As ever, my hon. Friend makes a very powerful point, and I think that he is referring to the same Welsh NHS that has seen its funding cut by 10% over the last five years and that has some of the worst performance statistics of any part of the NHS in the United Kingdom.
I know all too well that England does not begin and end at the M25. Up and down the country, businesses of all shapes and sizes make an incredible contribution to our nation’s economic growth. All too often, however, they are held back by the age-old regional divides between the north and the south, and between the capital and the rest. For too long, politicians have shrugged their shoulders and claimed that these so-called divides are inescapable realities—an inevitable part of life. We do not accept that; we believe that every corner of the country has the potential to deliver economic growth and personal prosperity. We will take the steps necessary to boost local growth in England, devolving powers to cities, towns and counties, and allowing local people to take control of the economic levers in their areas.