Home Affairs and Constitution
Mr John Pugh (Southport, Liberal Democrat)
It is with some trepidation that I endeavour to make my first contribution in this House. There are two clear reasons why I am a little anxious. The first is the obvious pressure that afflicts those who follow an exalted predecessor. Members will be mindful of the fact that the previous Member of Parliament for Southport, Mr. Ronnie Fearn, will be a hard act to follow. I need no reminding of that.
Members may not be aware, however, that there are some disturbing precedents when it comes to maiden speeches by Southport MPs. In particular, there is the distressing case etched in the minds of Southport parliamentarians of Edward Marshall Hall. As a Conservative Member, he was returned with a narrow majority of 209 votes, and it is almost exactly 100 years ago to the day that he made his maiden speech in this Chamber.
Mr. Hall chose the subject not of licensing changes but of temperance reform, which was a significant political issue in 1901. He spoke particularly of the then endemic problem of under-age children and youths being sent to public houses to fetch ale for their fathers. It is perhaps a mixed indicator of social and moral change that children no longer enter pubs on their fathers' behalf or even with their fathers' knowledge or permission. If they do so, they are motivated no longer by filial duty but by a desire for personal consumption. In his maiden speech, Mr. Hall chose to address the House on the evil of children transporting liquor from pub to home.
The Tory party in those days was clearly entering a period of policy revision. Belonging to the socially liberal wing of his party, Mr. Hall did not propose harsh penalties, but that beer should be sent around in carts like milk and deposited on the doorstep. It is recorded that his bold and imaginative proposal was greeted with hoots of derision, that he was loth ever to speak again and that he felt that his talents were never sufficiently recognised.
That awful precedent aside, to follow Mr. Ronnie Fearn is daunting enough. Members will recall that, in his two spells as a Member of Parliament, Mr. Fearn was a model of diligence in his pursuit of constituency affairs and a resolute champion of Southport and its people at Westminster.
Anyone who, like me, has canvassed the streets of Southport will observe that it is rare to go down any street and fail to find someone who has been directly helped by Ronnie. Indeed, it is rare in some parts of Southport to go down a street and fail to find someone who is related to Ronnie or has been at school with him. He was born, schooled and employed in the town, was a councillor there for nearly 40 years and was awarded an OBE for services to the town. Ronnie has been everything a constituency MP should be. He is a legend in his own community.
It has been gratifying but not surprising to learn on arriving at Westminster how well thought of Ronnie is among Back Benchers. I have learned that he is even held in high respect by those responsible for the running and conduct of this great ship of state who have inside knowledge and whom we disdain at our peril: the team of parliamentary attendants and officers.
Ronnie has remained, persistently and consistently, a man of the people. In his case, there was no disconnection between politics and people. Among a sea of grey suits, Ronnie was a character. Few, perhaps none, in this Chamber would have the sheer nerve and joie de vivre regularly to star in pantomime in front of thousands of their constituents. Of course, there are unkind observers who say that that is exactly what we do, and perhaps there are too many parallels between the activities--indeed, many would say that the experience of throwing sweets at an expectant audience and harkening to shouts of "Look behind you!" is the best possible preparation for political life.
Ronnie will continue to serve Parliament as a peer--a not inappropriate outcome, given that he played a significant role in securing heritage lottery funds for the restoration of Southport pier. Those unfamiliar with that great landmark should set aside any preconceptions that they have about piers: it is far longer than one can imagine, but despite that--and such is the measure of the Southport sands--it fails to reach the sea except at high tide. The pier restoration is only one small manifestation of the on-going renaissance of Southport--a process that not unnaturally coincides with Liberal Democrat leadership of the council.
That has not passed unnoticed in the House. A quality tourist and retail venue, Southport has had an increased influx of visitors in recent months. Those visitors have included the right hon. Members for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo), for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) and for Devizes (Mr. Ancram)--in fact most probable and improbable candidates for the Tory leadership. I trust that they enjoyed their stay.
It would be foolish of me to pretend that all is well in my part of the world, however. There are deep misgivings about the state of public services, and especially about the way in which they are delivered. The local police force has lost 500 police as a result of the systematic planned Home Office reduction endorsed by both previous Governments: the real effect has been real delays in police response and availability. That has been coupled with--dare I say, "masked by"?--a dazzling range of initiatives: partnerships have mushroomed; there has been a constant chorus of consultation; and police have been taught to talk like insurance salesmen. However, nothing can disguise the simple fact that we want more policemen. It is the result of decisions and actions of the House and the Government that we have not got them so far.
What we have instead is the endless reconfiguration of public services, and the continuous and futile attempts to remodel public services on private enterprise--a vice endemic to both previous Governments. When people phone the local police in Southport, it does no good to find that piped music is played as they wait for their query to be dealt with. When people dial 999, it does no good being told helpfully that they are queueing in a call-waiting system. That sort of thing might work for retailers, but it does not work when there is an intruder in the house.
My conclusion is simple. In Southport and elsewhere, public services have been the focus of the election. The issues surrounding the way in which they should be fairly resourced are clear. However, the battles ahead will have more to do with the way in which they are to be delivered. Two parties in the House appear to be persuaded, either wholly or in part, that only in so far as public service is modelled on or involves the private sector can it deliver. The premise is that public services cannot be delivered effectively by public servants. That is a counsel of despair and is recognised as such. One party represented in the Chamber sees a clear difference between public service delivery and selling soap. On behalf of the citizens of Southport, I respectfully submit that the time is now overdue to state the ancient but unhappily no longer orthodox view that public services are best delivered by those whose personal destiny lies with rendering public benefits, not private profits.
The concept of public services pursuing publicly agreed objectives, run by public servants and accountable to nationally or locally elected bodies is clearly one with which the current Government have difficulty. It is of grave concern to people in the north, especially in Southport, that not only is the Government's confidence in public servants in question, but they have seriously weakened the link between the delivery of services and democratically elected bodies. There is a link between our public service problem and the democratic deficit. If the people who truly control public services are increasingly quango placemen, assorted partnerships, shareholders in private companies and the glitterati of Whitehall, what can a vote in a ballot box do?
There is a connection between the disquiet about public services and the disquiet about the workings of our democracy. The House's timidity about constitutional reform has produced regional agencies where there should be regional autonomy, a confusing plethora of partnerships, the marginalisation of local councillors and the sidelining of this Chamber--in a nutshell, the general decay of democratic accountability. Can it not be said that the proper, if not the best way to restore confidence in public service is to restore democratic accountability? That is the message from Southport.