Before I call the proposer and the seconder of the motion on the Loyal Address, it may be for the convenience of hon. Members if I inform the House that the proposed subjects for debate for the rest of this week and for next week are as follows:
Friday 1 November—foreign affairs and defence; Monday 4 November—employment and education; Tuesday 5 November—rights, freedoms and responsibilities; Wednesday 6 November—the council tax; Thursday 7 November—the economy.
It may also be for the convenience of the House to know that, on Friday 8 November, there will be a debate on the environment, on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.
I beg to move,
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, as follows:
Most Gracious Sovereign,
We, Your Majesty's most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, in Parliament assembled, beg leave to offer our humble thanks to Your Majesty for the Gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament.
I very much appreciate the honour of moving this motion, but I have one sadness—the fact that Alick Buchanan-Smith, a colleague and great personal friend of mine, a person who served this House, the Government and his constituency so well, is not with us today. He was a remarkable parliamentarian and, as a Minister, he was with me for many years. He loved his constituency, his country and the House of Commons, and I know that he will be sadly missed by hon. Members on both sides of the House. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]
There have been occasions over the past 30 years when the attendance in this House for my speeches has not been quite as large as it is today. Perhaps the reason for that is similar to a reason given to George Ward, my predecessor as Member for Worcester, who represented the constituency from 1945 to 1959. During his last election campaign, he arrived at Worcester guildhall for his eve-of-poll meeting. The hall was packed to capacity, with standing room only. Encouraged by that, he began his speech: "Mr. Chairman, ladies and gentlemen, this is my fifth campaign as your Conservative candidate. Never before at all the meetings that I have attended have I seen such enormous attendances as I have seen during this campaign and that is illustrated by this packed audience tonight." To which a voice from the back of the guildhall shouted, "We've come to say good-bye."
It was in 1945, as a 13-year-old schoolboy witnessing the general election campaign, that I first had aspirations to become a Member of this House. I recognised at school that I had the talent to become a politician when, at the end of a particularly bad term, the headmaster wrote on my report, "One cannot help but be quite captivated by him, provided one gives him no work to do."
At the same school I also recognised the importance of freedom of choice, when I approached what was then the equivalent of O-levels. It was suggested that, among other subjects, I should take Latin. There was no possibility of my passing Latin. On the afternoon of the Latin exam, a very good film was being shown at the neighbouring cinema to my school. I went to the cinema considering that that would be of more benefit than taking a Latin exam that I could not pass. I was caught and summoned to the Latin master, who said to me, "Walker, you didn't turn up for the Latin exam." To which I replied, "No, sir." He said, "Walker, I've now known you for four years, and this is the first intelligent thing that you have done."
I fought my first general election campaign in 1955, with eagerness and enthusiasm. In 1961, I was fortunate enough to win a by-election in the constituency of Worcester. After that by-election, I remember taking my place in this House and walking nervously towards Mr. Speaker. To my surprise, voices from the Labour Benches shouted, "Put him on the Scottish Grand Committee." That was a form of punishment reserved for English Tory Members at the time—[HON. MEMBERS: "It still is."] Little did I realise that I would end my ministerial career by spending much of my time on the Welsh Grand Committee.
It was a great privilege to become the Member for Worcester. I am very proud of my constituency, which has immense quality. It is a microcosm of England. It has the old and the new, and it has industry and agriculture. It is known as the "faithful city"—[Interruption.] As Opposition Front Bench spokesmen are murmuring, I will say that it has a Labour council; that has been the reason for my increasing majority. Worcester's motto is the faithful city because we were involved in certain civil wars way back.
Shortly after I became the Member for Worcester, the Queen Mother visited my constituency. Over the entrance to our guildhall we have an effigy of the head of Cromwell, pinned back by his ears by two large nails. As I pointed to it, I said to the Queen Mother, "You see, Ma'am, how badly they treat parliamentarians in this constituency," to which she swiftly replied, "Ah, yes, Mr. Walker. but they are very good to royalists."
It has been a faithful city, and I am glad to say that, throughout this century, it has been very faithful to the Conservative party. Indeed, I recall the experiences of the person who was Prime Minister when I first came into this House—Mr. Harold Macmillan. I remember how he had fought Stockton-on-Tees six times. He said how on three occasions he won but on three occasions he lost. He said in his own inimitable way, "On the three occasions that I lost, I reflected upon the stupidity of an electoral system whereby everybody, no matter how ill educated, how ignorant, or even how evil, was able to vote. On the three occasions I won, I reflected upon the inherent good sense of the British people." So, Sir, I have been able to reflect on the inherent good sense of the people of Worcester over the years I have been privileged to be the Member for that constituency.
We have, of course, many famous products. We produce sauce for the benefit of tomato juice throughout the world. We have produced, over several centuries, some of the finest porcelain the world has ever seen. I am delighted to say that both previous Prime Ministers under whom I served are avid and enthusiastic collectors of that porcelain. The present Prime Minister, if he has not already started his career of collecting Royal Worcester porcelain, will he very welcome if he visits the Royal Porcelain Worcester works. Nearby is the county cricket ground. I can think of no better, happier or more beautiful place for watching his county side being defeated than the Worcestershire county cricket ground.
It is also a constituency which inspired Elgar to his greatest music. It is a constituency which possesses the oldest newspaper in Europe. Those were the days, when it started several hundred years ago, when sensationalism was not the habit of the press. Indeed, one will find the announcement about the death of Queen Anne in the right-hand bottom column of page 3 of the newspaper.
I have had the immense privilege of serving the people of Worcester over the past 30 years. In that capacity, I particularly welcome the Queen's Speech today. Looking at the passages in the Queen's Speech that refer to matters abroad, I reflect upon remarks made to me when I was a very young person, eager to enter politics, by the father of my right hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Amery). Indeed, I owe a great deal to Leo Amery for his wisdom, advice and the views that he expressed. He said to me in, I suppose, 1947 or 1948: "If you enter politics, you will find that in your lifetime the world will become a very small place. Matters taking place in one part of the world will immediately affect the world as a whole." Certainly in this Parliament we have seen that happen.
The Queen's Speech refers to events in the Soviet Union, in eastern Europe and in South Africa. For all hon. Members, our most remarkable experience over the past few years was the sight of the transformation of two regimes, both in their different ways hostile to democracy and in favour of diminishing freedom for large numbers of people. Suddenly, two people—Mr. Gorbachev and President de Klerk—have, in such a short time, transformed the attitudes of those countries. Whatever problems they have, and whatever disasters in some spheres affect those countries, I believe that history will judge them as two remarkable and courageous men.
As an observer of that scene, I think that, when history is accurately written, there will be great tribute to the manner in which help, encouragement and advice of considerable quality were given and to the mobilising of the western world to accept that change was taking place. Great credit for that goes to my right hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher).
As I have said, we have seen enormous changes, but I advise my right hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench and all hon. Members who will continue to serve in Parliament in the coming years that the changes that have taken place in those countries in the past few years could well be repeated on an enormous scale in other countries.
The Queen's Speech refers to the relationship between China and Hong Kong. I strongly predict that the changes that have come about in the Soviet Union are likely to come to China in a different form but to the same degree in the years that lie ahead. There will be a change of leadership in China. Hong Kong has transformed the regions surrounding it in the past five or six years. If the same impact was made on the whole of China after 1997, there would be growth economies and expansion on a scale never before seen. That will pose considerable challenges to all politicians—whatever party is in power.
The Queen's Speech is important not only for the way in which it deals with matters abroad, but also for its emphasis on matters at home. I welcome especially its emphasis on education. More than anything else, the key to equality of opportunity is the availability of a marvellous education service. I welcome the efforts that my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science is making to improve the quality of education in this country.
I should like to refer briefly to something in which my right hon. and learned Friend knows that I have a passionate interest. I hope that there will be a crusade in the coming years to encourage more reading in every home in our country. I have had help from the right hon. Members for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) and for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir D. Steel) in advocating that my right hon. and learned Friend should tackle the problem of dyslexia. Thousands of people suffer the handicap of not being able to read or write properly, but that handicap could be eradicated if we put our minds to it in the coming years.
I welcome the proposals in the Queen's Speech on the Cardiff Bay Barrage Bill. I regret the delay that has already occurred and shall watch with great interest the manner in which the Labour party mobilises its forces to support that measure.
I also welcome the mention in the Queen's Speech of the problems in our cities and the progress that we intend to make. I had the privilege of being the first Secretary of State for the Environment when we combined the Ministry of Public Works, the Ministry of Housing and Local Government and the Ministry of Transport. When we were discussing the name of the new Department, I remember a senior civil servant suggesting to the Prime Minister that, with all those powers, it should be called "The Department for Living". That idea was immediately rejected when somebody pointed out that that would make Peter Walker the Secretary of State for Life.
I also welcome the citizens charter. The essence of the Queen's Speech is that it deals with the problems that affect every family in our land, such as those that they encounter with the public services and those relating to education, health and the inner cities.
Returning to the advice that Leo Amery gave me as a young man, I remember reading widely from the great autobiographies and biographies that he recommended, including the works of Lord Milner.
In one of his writings, Lord Milner endeavoured to define patriotism, which he expressed as being the desire to ensure that everybody who is born a citizen of one's country should rejoice in the birthright of being a citizen of that country. He argued that, to achieve that, one had to carry out policies that would eradicate the poverty, misery and difficulties facing those citizens. He said, "Abroad, one should pursue policies so that when a citizen of one's country travels abroad, he is admired by the rest of the world for the policies being pursued in that country." This Queen's Speeech reflects that attitude of patriotism.
I believe that, in his attitudes to politics and policies, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has an immense desire to tackle the problems of the ordinary families of this country. Abroad, he has already attained a high respect internationally for the manner in which he is endeavouring to help the third world and to play a responsible part in eastern Europe. So, Sir, because of that quality of the Queen's Speech, I support it and recommend it to the House. I believe that it will be the first of many Queen's Speeches prepared by my right hon. Friend.
I am delighted to second the motion that has been so ably and amusingly moved by my right hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Walker). He and I do not perhaps instantly fit into the standard parliamentary stereotypes of the steady old stallion and the keen young foal who are usually harnessed together for this occasion. Perhaps we were selected by some mysterious computer which recorded the fact that we have each served a 17-year sentence—mine on the Back Benches, his in the Cabinet. We were perhaps selected by someone with a sense of humour who thought that we might be the right couple to bring in a Queen's Speech which increases the penalties for mutiny in prisons. Whatever the selection process might have been, we both know that proposing this motion is an honour, not so much for us as for our constituents.
My constituency of Thanet, South deserves one or two compliments. It is at first glance a paragon of English coastal charm and tranquility. Our traditional attractions include the beginnings of the white cliffs of Dover, historic monuments such as the landing places of St. Augustine and Julius Caesar, and the medieval cinque port of Sandwich, whose parliamentary representation stretches back in an unbroken line to the days of Simon de Montfort. A more recent parliamentary tradition is 13,000-plus Tory majorities.
The hon. Gentleman who seems to suggest that those 13,000 majorities might not be so solid is, of course, right. My hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) and I intend to increase them.
At second glance, Thanet, South is perhaps not such a typical Tory seat. The principal town of Ramsgate, Britain's second biggest channel port, could be described as Pop Larkin country by the sea. Our political exchanges there are robust. On the hustings in my first election campaign in February 1974, the casualty list among officers of my association consisted of one broken nose, two black eyes and the lady chairman drenched by a bucket of water, which the candidate had ducked.
Since then, over the past 17 years, I have had to fight off challenges of various kinds from representatives of the Kent miners, the Socialist Workers party, the Communist party, the Green party, an exotic assortment of independents and the National Front. That rich mixture is likely to continue into the next election, because already it has been announced that the prospective parliamentary candidates for the Thanet, South seat in the next election will include a Mr. William Pitt and the leader of the Corrective party, Miss Whiplash. Her electioneering methods will, I presume, give a whole new meaning to that old political maxim, "There is no such thing as a safe seat."
You will gather from that thumbnail sketch, Mr. Speaker, that my constituents have had no problem in following my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister's recent exhortations to create a classless society. Indeed, when we hold a Conservative party function in Thanet, South, it is not one of those black-tie, celebrity-packed £500-a-plate dinners at the Park Lane hotel which the Labour party holds. No, when we have a fund-raiser in Thanet it is more likely to be in the nature of a "Knees Up, Mother Brown" in the Eagle cafe at the end of Ramsgate harbour. We had just such a function there last Saturday, where the consensus was that making a living was getting a bit easier, that the economy was startling to move forward, and that, by the time we get round to the season of the darling buds of May, the prospects for Her Majesty's Government might well be "perfick, just perfick". We shall see.
My constituents' feelings of optimism will be increased by several of the proposals in the Gracious Speech. In particular, there will be a warm welcome for the Government's commitment to our great public services and for their determination to improve standards by implementing the citizens charter. I particularly welcome the priority given to the patients charter, which will reduce appointment waiting times and waiting lists in hospitals, and to the schools charter, which will make sure that parents get the fullest information on their children's education. The citizens charter reform means that the Government are making a determined effort to move away from the era when the gentlemen in Whitehall always knew best towards a more open, accountable public service, striving to do better.
One part of the public service that is somewhat unsung is the immigration service. We certainly appreciate it at the channel ports. It is also being recognised that immigration may become a hot political problem on the international scene. If one looks at the continuing difficulties in eastern Europe and the disintegration of the Soviet empire, which some now call the UFFR—the union of fewer and fewer republics—one sees that those troubles could trigger off large movements of displaced persons across national frontiers. There are some signs that that is already happening.
It is not generally known that there are more than 1,000 applications a week at the Home Office for political asylum from new arrivals. With that record number of 50,000 asylum-seekers each year passing through our slow and antiquated legal procedures, it has become vital that we reform the system in the interests of fairness to the genuine political refugee. Therefore, I welcome the passages in the Gracious Speech that promise an asylum Bill to introduce these reforms.
Mention of frontiers is a reminder that the Thanet, South constituency, geographically at least, is Britain's closest to Europe. From my home in Sandwich bay, on a clear day I can look across the English channel and see the coast of France. I understand that from nearby Broadstairs, from the boyhood home and birthplace of my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath), the same continental shoreline is equally visible. It is a case of same view, slightly different vision. [Laughter.] There will be many different visions of Europe, particularly if it widens, as I hope it will, and extends the hand of friendship to countries such as Hungary, Czechoslavakia, Poland and member countries of the European Free Trade Association.
I recall that my right hon. Friend and I campaigned together on the same side in favour of a "yes" vote in the 1975 referendum on whether Britain should remain in the European Community. We both believed, and we believe now, that Britain should be where it is, at the heart of Europe, benefiting enormously from the economic and political advantages of membership of a community of 330 million people.
Our shared experience in that campaign was in marked contrast to the role played by the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Kinnock) who, throughout that campaign, spoke vociferously and vigorously against Britain's membership of the European Community. According to Tribune on 5 May 1975, he even said:
The EEC and its political and economic dimensions is the robber of the real sovereignty of the people.
Talk about a poacher turned gamekeeper. When I listen to him now, gung-ho for Delorsism, I can only reflect that Saul on the road to Damascus was nothing compared to Neil on the autoroute to Brussels.
The Gracious Speech rightly emphasises Britain's constructive role in the two intergovernmental conferences on political union and on economic and monetary union. As we approach the climax of the negotiations, it is inevitable that there will be deep feelings and some divisions on both sides of the House.
I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman should suggest that there are divisions in the Conservative party but not in his party. Labour Members should take a journey from Stepney through Bolsover to Chesterfield, ending up at Hemsworth, where there are two Labour candidates, with two different views on Europe, in the by-election. Then they would not talk about divisions——
I shall not go on being hard on the Labour party, because I think it natural and right that there should be different views on Europe. The treaties have the potential to change our constitutional arrangements and the powers of Parliament.
This is not the moment to rehearse the arguments for and against the various options with which we may be presented in December, so I leave the House with two brief thoughts. First, we would be wise to trust our negotiators. My right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary are good Europeans, but also sound British parliamentarians. They will be shrewd judges of what would be acceptable to the House and the country and what would not. I do not share the fears of some of my Euro-sceptic friends that a giant sell-out is being secretly prepared.
Secondly, I am impressed by the way in which my right hon. Friends have negotiated so positively on some aspects of the treaties, while at the same time drawing the line so firmly with our European partners on those parts of the treaties that we cannot accept. I occasionally wonder whether anyone in Brussels listens to what is said in the House, but my right hon. Friends have made it clear that Britain cannot accept any defence arrangement that would weaken NATO or the Atlantic alliance, and that we cannot accept any declaration of intent or prior commitment to a single currency. Neither can we accept that Community foreign and security policy should be decided by majority voting. The Government have taken a stand on the right principles, and when my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister goes to Maastricht to uphold them, he will have the overwhelming support of the House and the country, whatever the outcome of the summit.
Finally, the opening day of a Queen's Speech debate is one of our most agreeable parliamentary occasions. My sense of honour and enjoyment in taking part in it has been enhanced by one sentimental memory. Twenty-nine years ago to this day, this motion on the Loyal Address was moved by the then hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds, my late father, William Aitken. So far as I can discover, this appears to be some sort of first parliamentary double.
If my father could look down on our proceedings, once he had recovered from his astonishment at who was speaking, he would be even more surprised by the political symmetry between the two debates. In 1962, the Queen's Speech debate was dominated by Europe. Almost every speaker concentrated on that issue——
Almost every speaker concentrated on the European issue, because we were then in the middle of crucial negotiations about Britain's future in Europe and our membership of what was then called the common market.
Those particular negotiations failed through no fault of anyone in Britain, but we did learn that the European process is full of second thoughts and second chances, because, later, under the leadership of my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath), we got an even better deal. Twenty-nine years ago, there was certainly a recognition in the House that a bad agreement was much worse than no agreement, and there may be a message in that for us today.
After all, all those who know and love this House of Commons well understand that it is not just a vehicle for legislative progress or a machine for rubber-stamping international treaties. Above all, it is a sensitive arena of our national will and mood, in which the dogs bark but the caravan does not always move on. Perhaps that is one of the safeguards that has made this country such a successful and stable parliamentary democracy.
I beg to second the motion.
It is a happy custom of this House that, on this occasion, the Leader of the Opposition congratulates those hon. Members who moved and seconded the Loyal Address. I do so today with great enthusiasm in the case of the right hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Walker) and the hon. Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken).
On a sober note, I should also like to echo what the right hon. Member for Worcester said about Alick Buchanan-Smith. He was regarded on both sides of the House not only as charming, but as very honest and courageous, and I think that we can genuinely say that he had friendships on both sides. The same is true of an hon. Member who sadly left the Labour Benches during the summer recess, George Buckley, whose courage no one could ever fail to admire, especially the way in which he carried his mortal illness. His honesty and loyalty is a model to everyone who wishes to be an authentic representative of the people he served in a variety of capacities for so many years. We are going to miss Alick and George deeply. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear".]
The right hon. Member for Worcester will be leaving the House at the end of this Parliament, and I wish him well. I know that one of his reasons for leaving is that he genuinely wants to be able to spend more time with his family. That is understandable, especially as he obviously has such delightful children. Last year provided an instance of that, when the television cameras were congregated around the right hon. Gentleman's home at the time of his departure from Government. His daughter, then five years old, was asked whether she understood why there was such excitement. She said, "Yes, of course. It is because my daddy is getting a new car."
I had a similar experience back in 1978, when I was elected to the national executive committee of the Labour party. I called home and spoke to my then seven-year-old daughter who had been rehearsed by her grandparents about what she should appropriately say. She lisped over the telephone, "Congratulations, daddy, on being elected to the national executing committee of the Labour party". [Laughter.] There was a pause and my daughter then said, "Daddy, does this mean you will be getting a car with electric windows?" Such is the nature of priorities.
The right hon. Gentleman's record in politics is not only distinguished, but it has been distinctive to say the least. He has been a member of every Conservative Cabinet since 1970, despite the fact that, by his own testimony, he is strongly against monetarism, non-interventionism, the high interest rate policy, the poll tax, the European Community policy of the previous Prime Minister and, last but not least, the promotion of hospital opt-outs. That record testifies to a certain dexterity in politics. It is also proof of the high regard that the right hon. Member for Finchley had for the right hon. Gentleman and his presence in her Cabinet. I shall not mention Lyndon B. Johnson's maxim about tents—but there may have been a slight hint of that in the right hon. Lady's strategic thinking.
The right hon. Member for Worcester has said in characteristically self-deprecating phrases that he does not have a great desire to be remembered but I am sure that, given his record, he will take it as an accolade to be thought of, in H. L. Mencken's happy phrase, as a politician who could sit on the fence and have both ears to the ground at the same time.
Clearly, the right hon. Member for Finchley prized the right hon. Gentleman's presence in her Cabinet. When I consider the mover and seconder of the Loyal Address today, I cannot escape the feeling that, while the right hon. Member for Worcester was in successive Tory Governments because of his cleverness, the hon. Member for Thanet, South may have been kept out of successive Tory Governments for exactly the same reason. I noted what the hon. Gentleman said in his biblical reference; it occurred to me that he should be a little more careful when talking about St. Paul. If he is acquainted with the New Testament, he should remember that it was after St. Paul's conversion that he exercised such great influence over all future history.
The record of the hon. Member for Thanet, South shows that he is a man of persistent commitment and deep passions. He is against the channel tunnel; he is against Government secrecy; he is against the concentration of press ownership. To his considerable credit, he persisted with the cause of press freedom even when his stand threatened to take him to gaol 20 years ago. He has had the great distinction of having to deny past intelligence experience—when the former Cabinet Secretary made his allegation a few years ago.
It might be thought that the hon. Gentleman's independence of mind and spirit owe something to his background. He is, after all, the former assistant tennis and funerals correspondent of the East Anglian Daily Times. After that experience, some might think that his career slipped a little when he joined the Evening Standard, but he is clearly thriving in that career. As he was picked to second the Loyal Address today, I think that he can confidently look forward after the next general election to a leading position on the Opposition Front Bench.
There are proposals in this Queen's Speech which we can welcome. The commitment to balanced and verifiable arms control, the commitment to ensure that Iraq complies in full and unconditionally with the United Nations Security Council resolutions, the commitment to fight terrorism and trafficking in narcotics—all these have our support. Naturally, we back other elements of policy, including the efforts to achieve a successful completion of the Uruguay round of GATT and a productive United Nations environment and development conference next year.
We had hoped to be able to support measures on so-called joyriding, on the establishment of an Environmental Protection Agency and on better employment conditions for women, but it appears that the Prime Minister's enthusiasm for this last came too recently for its inclusion in the Queen's Speech. Still, there may be chances, even during the course of what will be a relatively short Session of Parliament, for amends to be made.
Unfortunately, so far such improvements are nowhere to be seen, and we can only speculate on the reasons for their absence.
As the right hon. Gentleman is talking about matters in which there may be joint agreement, and as he has visited Langbaurgh and Hemsworth in recent days, will he comment on the fact that both the Labour party candidates for those constituencies have invested in newly privatised industries? Does he agree, therefore, that he too might wish to recommend such investment, or does he propose to disown the Labour party candidates for Langbaurgh and Hemsworth?
As it happens, I do not share the investments that my good friends the Labour party candidates happen to have made. The hon. Gentleman may have noticed that this is a free country. Those candidates exercise their freedoms and I defend those freedoms—[Interruption.] If the freedoms which Conservative Members say they want to uphold were so widespread, they would not only define freedom in terms of the power to own shares in a company but would seek to defend it in terms of being able to get a job in that company, in a country with getting on for 2–5 million unemployed.
No, I shall not do so for a second, because it will prolong matters.
We are glad to see that the Government continue in their efforts to press for long-term middle east peace and the settlement of the Palestinian problem. Today, everyone in the House will join in thanking those responsible for bringing about the peace conference that opened in Madrid yesterday. It is appropriate on this occasion to record particular gratitude to Mr. James Baker, the United States Secretary of State. We must all hope that, despite great odds, the process now under way will achieve a fruitful and mutually satisfactory outcome, however long it takes.
We are debating the Queen's Speech today because the Government are afraid to face the British people. If the Government were not fearful of the electorate, we would not be debating the Queen's Speech today, because there would be a general election next Thursday. Some Conservative Members wanted that. The Home Secretary said, "Go," the chairman of the Conservative party said, "No," and, in a bold act of leadership, the Prime Minister got the Secretary of State for Energy to call a few favourite newspapers and leak the news that there would he no November election—government by seepage. There has still been no clear personal statement from the Prime Minister. The nearest that we have had to a declaration so far is an off-the-cuff remark to journalists in Harare last week, when the Prime Minister said:
There are eight months to go.
Now that he is back among us, will the right hon. Gentleman say whether there are really eight months to go? I shall gladly give way if he wishes to make an announcement—[Interruption.] The Prime Minister simply smiles enigmatically but does not otherwise respond. It is obvious that he will subject Britain to a guessing game, while the British people must endure more of the poll tax, which they hate; more hospital opt-outs, which they oppose; more business failures and home repossessions; rising unemployment and falling investment. Little can be more disreputable than a Government who hang on to their jobs while pursuing policies that guarantee that thousands of other people will lose theirs.
Nothing in the Queen's Speech can offer better prospects It says that the Government will promote training, but they have cut it. It says that they will promote enterprise, but they are responsible for wiping out more enterprises than any Government in British history.
The Queen's Speech says that the Government will improve the working of the economy, but what is that pledge worth? The Government's policies have sent the construction industry into a nosedive, brought a 30 per cent. reduction in motor sales, caused the loss of 150,000 jobs in engineering, hit every high street in the land and resulted in the biggest fall in investment since 1932.
Who can trust such a Government when they pledge to improve the working of the economy? Far from improving the working of the economy, with their policies they have stopped the economy from working for many families and firms throughout the land. The Chancellor says that all that is a price well worth paying to reduce inflation—of course, the Chancellor has not yet had to pay that price, but he will.
The Chancellor and the Prime Minister are patting themselves on the back for the fact that they have managed to reduce British inflation rates to something like the German levels, but there is a difference between the two. Germany has an inflation rate of 4 per cent. and a growth rate of plus 4 per cent. Britain has an inflation rate of 4·1 per cent. and a growth rate of minus 2·5 per cent. The Government have reduced inflation only by imposing the second Tory slump in 10 years. That is the price the Chancellor and the Prime Minister think is worth paying—the price of decline and despair for families, the price of the dissolution of industries upon which we in this country depend for our future.
The Prime Minister and the Chancellor are now promising recovery. To be sure, the whole country needs recovery. People in every industry, service and region need recovery. We need recovery in my constituency, where unemployment has risen by 39 per cent. in the past 12 months. They need recovery in the Chancellor's constituency of Kingston upon Thames, where unemployment has risen by 102 per cent. during the past 12 months. They need recovery in Huntingdon, the Prime Minister's constituency, where unemployment has risen by 111 per cent. and youth unemployment has risen by 126 per cent. in the past 12 months.
We all need recovery, and the question is: under this Government, when will recovery come? The Confederation of British Industry says that the recovery will not come for many more months. It says that it will be patchy and hesitant and that, even then, Britain will be at the bottom of the growth, investment and employment leagues for the fourth year in succession under a Tory Government.
There is the more vital question: under this Government's policy, will recovery stay, and will it be strong? With this Government, the answer to that question must be no.
If the hon. Gentleman listens, I shall tell him.
In 12 years, all the Government have ever done, and all they are doing now, is hope that the increase in consumer demand will eventually refloat the economy. But that cannot and will not achieve sustained recovery—experience here and everywhere else proves that.
In order to bring about sustained growth, the Government will have to reverse the cuts that they have made in the training budget and develop a long-term programme to increase the quantity and quality of skills throughout British industry. They refuse to do that. In order to achieve sustained growth, the Government would have actively to encourage industrial investment with a tax regime promoting the purchase of new plants and machinery. They will not do that.
They would have to put private money into public transport projects. They will not do that. They would have to allow—[Interruption.] So much of this is obvious. Faced with congestion and crisis in many areas of British Rail, why do not the Government do what the French Government do, and allow the national rail company to float a bond on the British market to raise funds to finance the modernisation of railways properly?
If the Government wanted sustained recovery and growth, they would have to allow councils to start to use their assets to build and improve homes. That is the way to pull the construction industry out of its slump and to combat the growing housing crisis. Those basic actions must be taken to start building for long-term economic strength. Those actions must be taken to ensure that investment leads our country out of recession.
The right hon. Gentleman has spoken about an election, for which he will need policies. Why have the policies advocated by the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist) led to his suspension, when they are exactly the same policies that were advocated by the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Kinnock) 10 years ago?
As to the policies that I am addressing, I suppose that they are a significant ingredient, in that, despite the best efforts of the Conservative party, Labour continues to enjoy a substantial lead in the polls and will again take another seat from the Conservatives next Thursday. That is the best evidence that the public support our policies on the health service, education, industry, training, pensions, transport, the environment, and a whole galaxy of other issues of pressing importance to the British people.
The combination of policies to achieve sustained recovery that I was advocating, and do advocate, and on which we will win the general election, have worked, and do work, in our competitor countries. We must implement those strategies here if we want to compete effectively in the single European market and in the world economy.
As the Queen's Speech again makes clear, the Government have not learnt and will not learn from the success of others. They do not even learn from their own failures. That is true not only in respect of economic policies but in many other areas—not least, in the Government's policy towards local taxation.
The council tax is said to be the centrepiece of the Queen's Speech. [HON. MEMBERS: "It is their flagship."] Then it is the only flagship in history to sink its own fleet. In place of a flagship, the Government now have an iceberg, called the council tax. When the Prime Minister read the Queen's Speech, perhaps he was surprised that it made any reference to a replacement for the poll tax, because only four weeks ago he told The House Magazine:
There were problems … a year or so ago; the community charge was one, but we have abolished that.
A month ago, the Prime Minister said that he thought that the Government had abolished the poll tax. If only that were the case.
We know that the Prime Minister claims that he was bounced into the poll tax, but he seems to think that he can bounce out of it as well. Sadly, that is not the case. He cannot do so and, much more importantly, millions of British people will have to go on paying the poll tax—including those who must pay the 20 per cent. levy even though they are the poorest people in the land.
Every week that the poll tax continues, it falls into further chaos. Non-payment is currently running at £1·5 billion. In many areas, the police are refusing to pursue court orders, because, they say, they do not have the resources to do so. Still the Government refuse to take the action that would ensure that the poll tax was quickly and completely abolished. Still they will not take up our offer of co-operation in introducing the Labour party's fair rates system. That is the only way in which every last remnant of the poll tax can be lifted off the shoulders of the British people.
Now we have the council tax, which retains many features of the detested poll tax. The uniform business rate stays. Like the poll tax, the council tax will require a register. The Government told us that the average poll tax bill would be £178, but it turned out to be double that amount. They are now telling us that the average council tax will be £400. Nobody can believe that.
The council tax will be arbitrary in its effects on people and households, as several right hon. and hon. Members—including some on the Government Benches—are beginning to point out. The poll tax system caused, and is still causing, turmoil, and the council tax system is even less well prepared. Council treasurers, local government finance experts, software manufacturers and the Audit Commission are warning the Secretary of State of the complexities and the cost of the council tax system, but still the right hon. Gentleman charges on.
The right hon. Gentleman proves that, like the authors of the poll tax, the architects of the council tax ignore the advice of experts and the pleas of friends. The president of the valuation officers, like many other independent experts, warns that the council tax scheme is a "recipe for disaster".
The right hon. Member for Brent, North (Sir R. Boyson) has told his own Government:
more than 3 million pensioners will lose out because of the council tax".
He has warned that it will cause "uproar", and that another
group of losers … will take their vengeance on the Government at the next election.
That is rather reminiscent of what we used to hear from the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine), but now the poacher has turned gamekeeper, and the Conservative party critics of the council tax will be treated with arrogant disdain.
Other critics of other Government policies will be not just ignored but abolished. Her Majesty's inspectorate of schools, with all its independence and integrity, is to be privatised. It has criticised the Government for cutting resources and has drawn attention to the fact that one third of all British school children, in its view, "get a raw deal". It has voiced concern at low teacher morale and crumbling buildings. Rather than taking the inspectors' expert advice, the Government have got rid of them. Rather than heeding the critics, they have privatised them.
Will my right hon. Friend—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] I am too generous; it is in my nature. Will the right hon. Gentleman, before he comes to the end of his speech, let us know where he stands on the Common Market? The Labour party has had seven views on the Common Market in 20 years. Does it stand for negotiating for Britain or for a federal Europe? It cannot stand astride the fence for ever. Where does it stand on Europe? Ten years ago, it stood for one thing, but now it stands for another. What is its precise position today?
There cannot seriously be a single Member of Parliament who does not stand for effectively negotiating for a leading position in the European Community. The question that Members such as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Beaumont-Dark) have to face up to is whether we maximise the essential influence that we must exert in the European Community by taking a back seat—he may not want to take that view—or by pressing our Community partners to ensure that, as there is a process of monetary union, we gain both the safeguards and conditions necessary to make it a success for Britain and the rest of the European Community. [Interruption.]
As far as I know, the only party in the European Community, in any of its parliaments and assemblies, that is not interested in securing the necessary safeguards for progress is the British Liberal party. Even the Conservatives are interested in getting some kind of square deal with conditions such as those that are beginning to be inserted in the draft treaty that is the subject of the Maastricht deliberations.
The right hon. Gentleman has reached an important part of his speech but, unfortunately, it is not a clear part. Will he tell us—it is important for the nation—the policy of the Labour party, in a nutshell, on European monetary union and the single currency? [Interruption.] Will he do that briefly—ideally, in fewer than 234 words? [Interruption.]
Because of the row from the Government Benches, I could not catch everything that the right hon. Gentleman said. I think, however, that I have his drift.
The answer can be simply given, and it should be given to every Member of this place. The answer is to secure the best possible deal for Britain, in the knowledge that there is, as I have pointed out in the House before, a process under way in the European Community which, as it moves towards its conclusion, holds a danger—[Interruption.]—for any country that chooses to be left outside that process. It may be that, in defiance of his past, the right hon. Gentleman would choose to be left outside. He will have to live with that. I say as leader of the Labour party, and on behalf of my party, that we shall not let the British people be left outside, because in that way——
May I ask the right hon. Gentleman one further question? He has criticised the Government's position' because he says that it is not positive enough towards a single currency. Will he tell us what he would commit the Labour party to that the Government are not prepared to do? That is the question.
I said that the Government are not positive towards the European Community——
The right hon. Gentleman asked the question, and he will get the answer. When I say that the Government are not positive, that is because they have sought no undertakings on regional policy, growth policy or employment policy. They have sought no undertakings whatsoever. Unless the Government pursue policies of that sort, the Tory party will, and certainly not for the first time in history, be taking us naked into that kind of arrangement within the European Community. It is—[Interruption.]
The privatisation of the inspectorate of schools is a most—[Interruption.] It is a matter of great interest to millions of parents who are deeply concerned about the way in which the Government have allowed standards of provision and of performance in schools throughout the country to be jeopardised. It may be of only partial interest to the Conservative party, because so few Conservative Members send their children to maintained schools.
The privatisation of the schools inspectorate is only the most recent evidence of the obsession with privatisation shown by the Government. Because the British people know about that obsession, they do not trust the Government's claim to have a commitment to a free national health service. They know that the Government are continuing with their process of privatisation.
The public saw what happened only last week, when the Secretary of State for Health dared to say that tax relief on private health insurance should be dropped. The Prime Minister was away on duty out of the country at the time, so he did not see the Secretary of State say on Mr. Walden's programme that tax relief on private health insurance
has not worked very well".[Interruption.] For once we are grateful for the fact that the passage of those exchanges is on film, so that even the Conservatives cannot fabricate any stories about that. The Secretary of State for Health said that the system
has not worked very well … is expensive to administer … and has not been taken up very widely.
He could also have added fairly that it is costing £150 million over three years.
Now that the Prime Minister is here, perhaps he will tell us whether he agrees with the Secretary of State for Health's assessment of tax relief on private health insurance for the over-60s. While he is doing that, perhaps he will tell us what on earth tax relief on private health insurance has to do with a classless society. What have eye test charges and dental check-up charges to do with a health service that is supposed to be free of charge? While the Prime Minister gets round to answering those questions, perhaps he will tell us his position on opted-out hospitals and what it would be were he the Conservative party candidate in the Kincardine and Deeside by-election.
As the Prime Minister says that he believes passionately in free hospital services, what does he think should be done when NHS facilities are closed and charging services are opened, as has happened in Basildon and Thurrock and in the North East Thames region with regard to varicose vein surgery and wisdom teeth extraction? The right hon. Gentleman knows something about that—he had his wisdom tooth operation this time last year on the national health. What would he have done to get that operation in the North East Thames region?
These are essential questions for the Prime Minister to answer. What would he say to the lady from Norwich who was asked to pay £20 for a steel corset needed because of a back injury, when she has never had to pay any such charges for equipment before? What would he say to the Salford lady on income support who has been told that she will have to pay £100 for a nebuliser that she needs to help her breathe?
Does the Prime Minister think that it is a good idea that hospitals such as the new Princess Royal hospital in Haywards Heath are hiring out whole wards to the private sector? Is that what he had in mind when he said a few weeks ago that he wanted "more co-operation" between the public and private sectors? If he did have that kind of arrangement or asset-strip in mind, does he think that such privatisation—because that is what it is—is consistent with what he called
his programme for the 90s—the power to choose and the right to own"?
What does that noble expression really mean when the power to choose is denied to those who cannot buy? What does it really mean when community ownership is being given away as public assets—hospitals—are handed over wholesale to the boards of business men who run the trusts?
In the Queen's Speech, we see references to the citizens charter by a Government who have spent 12 years running down the public services. We see promises of economic policy that are contradicted by the record of the highest unemployment and slowest growth decade since the war. We see the council tax chaos being introduced to replace catastrophe.
When we look at the Queen's Speech, we know that what Britain is being offered by the Government today is not a programme for the future, but a paint job over the past. It is an attempt to cover over the injustices and failures of the Government's making. It will not succeed. The British people remember too well the damage that has been done to them: the huge mortgage repayments, the jobs that have been lost and the essential services that have been run down or withdrawn. They know that any further extension of Tory government would mean more of the same.
That is why, whenever the Prime Minister works up the nerve to call the general election, there will be no further extension of Tory power. The Government will be beaten, and the British people will give themselves the chance to make a fresh start with a Labour Government.
I join the Leader of the Opposition in congratulating my right hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Walker) and my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken) on their splendid speeches in moving and seconding the Loyal Address. I am also grateful to the Leader of the Opposition for his generous remarks about Alick Buchanan-Smith which will have been much appreciated by his family and by all of us on the Conservative Benches. The right hon. Gentleman's tribute to his colleague George Buckley was moving. We share that tribute and express admiration for his courage.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Worcester has been a distinguished Member of the House for 30 years and he was a Cabinet Minister for almost half that time. To all the posts that he held he brought not only an acute mind, but an intensely independent one. He brought genuine concern to the problems that he faced. Twenty years ago when my right hon. Friend was Secretary of State for the Environment and I was a local councillor, I saw those qualities at first hand in Lambeth and I am happy to thank him for them all these years later.
I was intrigued by my right hon. Friend's reference to Oliver Cromwell's ill-treatment in Worcester and by his subsequent invitation to visit his constituency. I will reflect on that invitation and recall that Cromwell was the Member for Huntingdon and perhaps take some care.
More recently, my right hon. Friend the Member for Worcester served as Secretary of State for Wales. At the time, some thought that that appointment was surprising, but it turned out to be inspired—both for my right hon. Friend and for Wales. He developed a great affection for the Principality and found that it was reciprocated. He got to know Wales extremely well in a series of unscheduled visits. On one occasion when a startled shopkeeper said to him, "You don't half look like Peter Walker", my right hon. Friend replied, "A monstrous slander."
When I was Chief Secretary to the Treasury I learnt that Wales was the first priority of my right hon. Friend the Member for Worcester. Public spending control came perhaps a narrow second during those turbulent years. It was therefore always a relief when he applied his powers of persuasion overseas to attract record levels of inward investment to the Principality. He attracted the money and then he opened the factories. He opened so many that when I visited Wales recently, I heard him referred to affectionately as "Peter the Plaque."
My hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South ably seconded the Loyal Address and, as he said, followed a family tradition. His father, Sir William Aitken, proposed the Loyal Address 29 years ago and referred to a subject in terms that may be familiar to the House today. He referred to it as
a matter of controversy in the days, weeks and months to come."—[Official Report, 30 October 1962; Vol. 666, c. 11.]
He was referring to Britain's negotiations with the European Community—plus ca change, as my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South implied earlier. [Interruption.] Travel broadens the mind.
My hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South is also something of a political forecaster. In his book many years ago, "The Young Meteors", he picked as rising stars three men then aged 30 or under. They are now my right hon. Friends the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Secretary of State for Social Security and the Leader of the House. My hon. Friend's percipience was very remarkable so many years ago. It says something, perhaps, of my hon. Friend's independence of mind that, although he has sometimes taken a sceptical view of politics, he has always taken a very vigorous stand for the interests of his constituents, of this House, of Britain and of Europe. I believe that he showed that again today in his remarkable speech.
I will refer to the substance of the Queen's Speech in a few moments, but before I do so, I wish to respond to some of the points which the Leader of the Opposition made. He said, as he has said on a number of occasions in recent weeks, that he would like to have an election. But what is he going to tell people about his programme? Who was it who said in 1983,
If we were to abandon the definition of our Socialism and the policies that go with it there is no reason why anybody should vote for us"?
It was the right hon. Gentleman. So upon that test, does he still believe, as he said then,
We want out of Europe"?
There was some hilarity a few moments ago as the right hon. Gentleman tried to reconcile his past with his present on that subject. Does he still believe in what he referred to as
a major extension of public ownership of control",
or has he ditched that as well? Does he still say:
We do not subscribe to the effective defence of our country by the possession of nuclear weapons"?
Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that he still believes those things—that he is still an anti-European nationaliser who believes in unilateralism? If not, is there any reason why, in his own words, anybody should vote for him because of what he said earlier? We have heard today the speech from a Front Bench that is prepared to surrender any principle, abandon any commitment, and promise anything to anyone and, indeed, everything to everyone. Opposition Members can promise, but, when it comes to the election, they will not deliver. That is not our way, for we will keep to our principles and the lasting values that underpin them.
I shall give way a little later.
We will keep to an enterprise economy, the power to choose and the right to own, for our philosophy has not collapsed around the world, as has the right hon. Gentleman's socialist philosophy. Our philosophy is getting stronger while socialism disappears in the dustbin of history. Our policies emphasise our belief in personal ownership.
I shall give way later.
We must give each and every person the chance to build up for themselves and for their families something of their own—their own home, their own pension, their own shares, their own stake in the future—a stake that they can pass on without fear of penal tax rates, soaring inflation or interference by the state. It is that principle which most clearly distinguishes this Government from that Opposition. The Opposition fought the right to buy and conceded defeat only grudgingly. They fought against the campaign for personal pensions and they threaten them still. They campaigned against privatisation while they bought their shares on the quiet. The right hon. Gentleman says today that he believes in choice, but he would never have given the choice to people and they would never have been able to exercise it.
Just a moment. The hon. Gentleman can intervene when I have finished this point.
But why did that Labour candidate buy shares? His minder told us why. He said:
He bought them when they came on offer because he has a family of four and wanted that security.
But what about the security of the 8 million people who have bought shares and who the Labour party will threaten with its policies at the next general election? The Labour party's motto is clear. It is, "Don't do as I do, do as I say."
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. Based on what he is telling the House about the confidence that he feels in his Government when he compares their policies to those announced by the Opposition, can he tell us why he decided to announce to the nation in that clandestine way that he would not hold an election in November if he is so confident about what he is telling Parliament today?
It comes ill from a party that is now committed to fixed Parliaments to complain that we are going on—[HON. MEMBERS: "Answer."] I have just answered. Let me pursue the point that I was dealing with—[HON. MEMBERS: "No, answer that point."] I have, and this is germane to that point. I have here a leaflet that will help us during the campaign and—[Interruption.]
The Leader of the Opposition and his right hon. and hon. Friends may not like it, but they are going to get it. I have here a leaflet that is a remarkable endorsement of Conservatism. It states:
Many people today are wealthier than they imagine, especially those who have been able to buy their own home.
I am very glad to have that endorsement of Conservative success. It comes from the Labour party. But the people of this country might feel more reassured if that same political party was not at the same time threatening to increase taxes on ordinary people—on their income, on their savings and on their wealth. The leaflet—[Interruption.] Let me just refer to the leaflet—[Interruption.] I am prepared to wait until Opposition Members will listen. The leaflet—[Interruption.]
I shall show the House a leaflet explaining how legacies can help the Labour party. It states:
Whatever the size of your donation to the Labour Party, no inheritance tax whatsoever is payable on it.
Of course, what Labour does not state is that under its plans inheritance tax would be paid on smaller legacies and at a higher rate than today. So now we know; under Conservative legislation, one can pass on one's wealth to the Labour party—that is permitted—but under Labour plans, someone passing it on to his children would be taxed and taxed and taxed again.
A year ago this month Britain entered the exchange rate mechanism. In the debates which followed, the shadow Chancellor made it clear that he accepted that we were right to join the ERM. He agreed with the rate at which we entered. He asked me to forecast the benefits of membership and posed two perfectly fair questions. "Was it my judgment", he asked,
that the rate at which we agreed to join is sustainable?"—[Official Report, 15 October 1990; Vol. 177, c. 930.]
We now know the answer. Sterling has remained firm against other Community currencies and the mechanism has given business the exchange rate stability that it wanted.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman also asked whether the balance of payments deficit would be progressively reduced. Yes again. Our exports to the rest of the Community have shot up. Our imports have fallen. Our trade deficit with Europe has been slashed and manufactured exports, far from declining, recently hit record levels.
Of course, some of the right hon. and learned Gentlemen's colleagues were less cautious. The Leader of the Opposition asserted that inflation was still rising. Wrong. I said that we would bring it down. We have done so and we will carry on doing so—down below the Community average; down to the levels of the best in Europe.
When we joined the ERM and cut the interest rate the Leader of the Opposition called it a cynical expedient. That was distinctly odd, for three days before he said that we should "cut interest rates" and
be negotiating entry into the ERM".
What changed in those three days other than that we did what he had advised us to do? What changed was the right hon. Gentleman. He may or may not have changed his mind. But he certainly changed his tune.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer made a major announcement yesterday that there had been an increase—a seasonally adjusted increase—in optimism. How do the Government measure optimism and how do they seasonally adjust it?
If the hon. Gentleman looked at the surveys from the Association of British Chambers of Commerce, the Institute of Directors and the Confederation of British Industry, he would see the return of confidence that is coming and the way in which it will lead to a return of growth. During the past year our policies within the exchange rate mechanism have brought inflation down to 4 per cent., allowed eight reductions in interest rates, reduced our balance of payments deficit and kept sterling stable. That has set the basis for steady growth with low inflation in the years of Conservative government that lie ahead.
Not at the moment.
Getting inflation down is not easy. It is painful. But the measures are unavoidable and necessary for stable growth in the future. It is always tempting to call for interest rate cuts and the easy course, but that carries great dangers. We are not prepared to play fast and loose for some short-term gain, for we know that inflation is the tax which bears hardest on those in society least able to afford it.
As inflation falls we are moving out of recession and back to stable growth. The Opposition need not just take my word for it. They should listen to British industry and what the chambers of commerce and others are saying. As the Association of British Chambers of Commerce has said:
The country is unmistakably experiencing a turnround in economic performance … commerce and industry is on the road to recovery".
The Institute of Directors says the same and so does the CBI. The CBI's latest survey shows business confidence up, more businesses expecting new orders, more businesses expecting to increase investment and more businesses intending to take on new workers. The International Monetary Fund also forecasts that our growth next year will be as good as or better than that in France, Italy and Germany.
Things will get better and then the hon. Gentleman will get one. Britain is getting back on track again, back to the growth that provides the only way of putting people back in permanent work so that we can add to the 800,000 extra jobs that we have created since 1979.
The hon. Gentleman talks about jobs. We will turn to that. The Leader of the Opposition says that he is concerned for the unemployed. Let us test it. Let us put it into action now. He could persuade his own union, the Transport and General Workers Union, to drop its boycott on youth training, employment training and the training and enterprise councils. Will he do it? No, he will not. Let me try him on another point.
The hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) says that no jobs would be lost as a result of that policy. But that is not what every independent commentator says. It is not what the CBI says. The CBI says that the first phase would cost 200,000 to 300,000 jobs. "Oh, no", says the hon. Member for Sedgefield,
it will make industry more competitive".
There is a gem of Labour newspeak—adding to one's costs makes one more competitive. That is Labour's understanding of the economy.
We hear a lot from Opposition Members about the supply side. When they are not lecturing the CBI or threatening to sack the Governor of the Bank of England they are keen to quote those sources. Earlier this year they were very keen to quote the CBI as saying that we were in recession. They can update that. They can tell us who said recently:
There is at present one economy in Western Europe where manufactured exports have been increasing faster than world trade; where import penetration remains below that in West Germany; where investment in skills and innovation is at record levels and still rising; where private sector inflation is under 4 per cent. and falling.
Opposition Members do not like to hear such words because they can only talk the country down, but those were the words of the director-general of the CBI.
I shall give the hon. Lady her chance in just a moment. The words that I quoted were those of the director-general of the CBI and the country about which he was speaking was Britain, a country which attracts more investment from America and Japan than does the rest of Europe put together.
Earlier this week the Prime Minister revealed his deeply held conviction that it is necessary to further the equality of women in our society. If that was a firm pledge, why are there no legislative proposals in the Queen's Speech to further women's equality, such as a proposal to introduce universal child care?
The hon. Gentleman's hon. Friends had the opportunity to intervene on several occasions. I invite him to wait a while.
It is interesting that the principal paymaster of the Leader of the Opposition, the TGWU, refuses to welcome investment from Japan, especially in Scotland and Wales. What do they call it? [Interruption.] What do they call investment from Japan? They call it "alien". That is what Japanese investment in Scotland and Wales is called. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman can tell us: does he personally think that Japanese investment in Scotland and Wales is alien? Does he want to see the £4 billion that Japanese investment adds to our trade balance, and the 400,000 new jobs that it could bring to this country, or not? Which does he back: the TGWU—his paymasters—or Japanese investment? Let him tell us.
I had the great good fortune to have the first Japanese-owned factory in Wales, Takiron, opened in my constituency back in 1973. Since then, as the right hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Walker) and others know, I have worked assiduously to secure such inward investment. I am delighted to say that Aiwa is flourishing in my constituency. I should like the Prime Minister to introduce policies on retraining, transport, technology, research and development, and science that would make our country more attractive not only to Japanese investment but to British investment.
It is under our policies that that investment has come here. I assume that the right hon. Gentleman now condemns the TGWU motion.
The House and the country face a clear choice on the supply side. The Opposition propose new levies, new regulations and new quangos. We believe in lightening the burden on new business. The Opposition want to extend new powers to the unions—enforced recognition and complete immunity from dismissal for strikers. Those are powers which even the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) dared not introduce in the 1970s. In contrast, we believe in giving managers the right to manage and in giving the unions back to their members.
The Opposition propose a new tax on savings. We know that savings are the fuel for the very investment that they claim this country needs. They propose higher taxes on earnings. We accept that that would enrich industries and laboratories, but it certainly would not enrich them in this country. It would just send scientific and managerial talent abroad.
The Opposition still believe in nationalisation—the only party east or west of the old iron curtain that still does. We know where that policy ends. The private sector of industry would be the bit that the Government controlled and the nationalised sector would be the bit that nobody controlled.
Not at the moment.
In the months ahead we have a full programme for a Session of Parliament. Within it, we intend to carry forward the citizens charter, to extend parental choice, to raise education standards and to establish a stable and lasting relationship between local and central Government.
First, the citizens charter. The best guarantor of effective service to the consumer is competition. That is why we have already extended competition in telecommunications and why we are taking powers to end the monopoly in gas and we are increasing competition in the water industry. The legislation will also bring the powers of all the utility regulators up to the level of the strongest, so that they can set guaranteed service standards and secure compensation, if those standards are not met. The legislation will also include enabling powers to resolve disputes between the utilities and individual customers about the accuracy of bills.
The legislation will put more power in the hands of the individual. That is the essence. That is central to the citizens charter. The charter applies not just to the privatised utilities, but throughout the public services. We do not intend public service to mean second-best service.
I have given way amply.
As well as making the big utilities more responsive to their customers, we shall give parents a greater say in their children's schools and make local councils provide a better service to their electors.
This Session we can put to the test the Opposition claim to care about public services.
I have said to the hon. Gentleman, who appears not to understand, that I do not propose to give way to him now.
We will wait with interest to see how the Labour party votes. Will it vote with us for the charter and for the public or against us, as usual, and for the trade unions and the second rate?
We shall introduce three Bills on education this Session. We will require the publication of local league tables on exam results, staying-on rates and truancy rates for all schools. Parents have a right to that information and they will get it. They also have a right to short, clear reports on their child's school prepared by independent inspection teams, and they will get that, too. [Interruption.] I must say, Mr. Speaker, that if the public at large could see the behaviour on the Opposition Benches, they would know why Labour Members are unfit for government. [Interruption.]
This coming year we will begin to introduce national vocational qualifications to schools, bringing in the high calibre technical qualifications that have been missing in education for so long—[Interruption.] Opposition Members may not regard further and higher education as importantly as we do—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hurrah."] Perhaps they could cheer this. We will give further education colleges and sixth form colleges the same freedom from town hall control as we gave to the polytechnics. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hurrah."]
I wish that we could get the support of the Opposition for those policies, but I doubt that we can. The Opposition voted against the teachers' pay review body and in favour of strikes. They voted to take schools out of the hands of head teachers and governors and to put them back in the hands of NALGO officials. They voted against the national curriculum and against simple tests. There is no doubt that they will vote against parents getting reports on their child's school. For the Opposition, parental ignorance is bliss. They simply do not trust parents to have the interest in their children that we believe parents should have.
In the national health service we will put patients first. The right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Kinnock) may care to listen as he professes such an interest in the NHS. The Opposition fight our reforms because they believe that compassion and efficiency are incompatible. In that they are wrong. Compassion without efficiency is mere sentimentality. Compassion with efficiency delivers more and better health care. That is not a new principle; it is an old principle. It was understood very well 140 years ago by Florence Nightingale, but if the Labour party had been around then, it would undoubtedly have opposed her reforms with the same vehemence as it opposes ours.
For our part, we will continue with our reform of the NHS because only by doing so will patients get the best possible care from the resources that we devote to the NHS.
No one can honestly doubt the Government's commitment to the NHS. It is a commitment to the 1 million patients who use the service each day. It is a commitment that is re-emphasised in the patients' charter, published only yesterday. It is a commitment reinforced by our determination to modernise the service. We are modernising the service and have no intention of abandoning it. Labour Members know that modernisation is necessary, but they have no policy whatever to achieve that.
Not at the moment.
We have seen that sort of trick before previous elections. Colleagues may recall the scare that we would reintroduce conscription, that no roads would be built in Britain and that we would stop raising pensions in line with inflation. Then in 1983 from Labour's health spokesman came a real scare—that if the Conservatives were re-elected we would, within five years of 1983, end the NHS. Well, it is now 1991, and the health service is going strong, with £32,000 million worth of resources from the Conservative Government.
If the right hon. Gentleman does not have the grace to admit that Labour were wrong before, does he have the grace to accept it now when I say that there will be no charges for hospital treatment or for visits to the doctor and that there will be no privatisation of health care in whole or in part? Does the right hon. Gentleman have the grace to accept that?
Will the Prime Minister at last acknowledge that where there were once free services, and those free services are no longer available, so that people are obliged to purchase, because of the pressures of the system, he is privatising the health service and will continue to privatise it?
Were the Labour Government privatising in 1951 when they introduced charges? The right hon. Gentleman knows that there is no privatisation actual or intended in the national health service and that he is deliberately trying to scare people again and again.
The right hon. Gentleman's retreat on privatisation has been matched only by his creeping retreat on funding. Last month the Labour health spokesman affirmed that party's commitment to restore fully what he called the
underfunding of the past decade"—
an amount that Labour has not identified and cannot identify. They have slithered back from that. Now the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) says:
We very much hope to
we will seek to".
Even that is too much for Labour Treasury spokesmen, who say that only "some" of the alleged underfunding could be put right. What weasel words.
Even that game of grandmother's footsteps came to an end when the hon. Member for Livingston admitted:
We shall do it next time because we did it last time—[Official Report, 21 October 1991; Vol. 196, c. 673.]
What did Labour do last time? They put up waiting lists, cut nurses' and doctors' pay and slashed the hospital building programme.
The Conservative party has increased the share of the nation's wealth given to the NHS. I give the House this further pledge now: in each and every year the NHS will, under us, get a real increase in its resources for patient care. That is what a Conservative Government can promise. Labour cannot promise, for their record shows that they cannot.
I have given way enough already.
Our local government legislation will put the council tax in place. That system will reflect ability to pay and ensure that most people contribute something to council services. It will be certain and fair. It will be in place from 1993 and bills will be restrained.
When we introduce the council tax my only regret will be that my former colleague Richard Holt, who played such a part in helping us to frame so many of the proposals, will not be here to see them carried through. We shall all miss him very much.
We shall extend competition into more council services and give new powers to the Audit Commission so that it can name names, authority by authority and service by service, so as to spread best practice and root out incompetence. We shall reform the structure of local government to give people councils with which they can identify, to which they can feel loyalty, and which deliver good services at a reasonable cost.
Will the Prime Minister tell us whether the council tax legislation will include the existing provision in the poll tax legislation for the imprisonment of non-payers? Is he aware that of the 84 people who have so far served a prison sentence, many have been pensioners? The oldest such person is Richard Northover, who, at 80 years old, was sentenced to 30 days in Her Majesty's prison in Dorchester, although he had paid his poll tax. He was the first person, at 80 years of age, to be sent to prison for not having filled in the registration form two years earlier.
As the Prime Minister voted to abolish imprisonment for debt under the Debtors (Scotland) Act 1987, will he now give a commitment to transfer that measure to England and Wales and stop this medieval barbarity?
That question comes ill from the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist), who has played such an ignoble role in encouraging people to get into debt and not to pay their bills. Much though we may sympathise with the hon. Gentleman at the way in which his Front-Bench colleagues have treated him, he should not give such a bad example while he sits in this House as a law-maker by encouraging people to be law-breakers. The law is set and it must be obeyed or the penalty paid.
The Opposition like to pretend that services do not have to be paid for—the hon. Member for Coventry,South-East is living proof of that. However, too many of the Opposition and their councillors do not pay. Even as those councillors were setting inflated bills for others, they would not pay—but not any more. We propose to stop that abuse and to do so in this Session—if they can't pay, they won't vote. That will happen this year.
Recent years have brought home to people the simple truth that high bills do not always mean better services, usually the reverse. Some councils are excellent, but too often standards are unacceptable. Shoddy service comes with the ready-made excuse, "We have special problems". Let us look at two services that the social composition of a borough does not affect.
The hon. Gentleman has set a standard of stupidity in this House that is rarely excelled. He knows what the policy is. He should not try to follow the lead of the Leader of the Opposition in another area and try to pervert what that policy is.
Why does it cost seven times more in Lambeth to issue a library book than in the most efficient councils?
It is a genuine point of order arising from the point of order raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bow and Poplar (Ms. Gordon). The House is not interested—nor, I am sure, are you, Mr. Speaker—in what the Prime Minister meant to say. What we and the Hansard writers are interested in is what the Prime Minister did say. There is no doubt that he said "can't pay, won't vote".
Let me make this quite clear to the hon. Gentleman so that he will not find himself in the position of being able to scare people over this matter. The policy applies to councillors. That is perfectly clear and it is well known to the House. I am happy to reiterate that now. If, by a slip of the tongue, I said otherwise, I am happy to correct it in the interests of ensuring that the Opposition do not, as has been their habit elsewhere, seek to scare people with what is expressly not Government policy. Let me make it clear to the hon. Gentleman that we are referring to councillors. We are also referring to people who are in a position to pay, but do not. There is a full range of rebates in the scheme we propose.
The hon. Gentleman will not tempt me. The Opposition are clearly determined, if they can, to disrupt as much as they can. I think that that will be evident to anyone listening to this debate.
In the Labour party's own words, it says that Labour councils
demonstrate as far as the public is concerned what a Labour Government would be like".
There can be no more awful warning for people as we come to the next general election.
On developments in the European Community——
Tempting though the hon. Gentleman is, I wish to discuss the European Community and Britain's place in forthcoming developments.
Britain belongs to the mainstream of Europe and must remain at the heart of the Community. In the past 20 years, despite many frustrations, we have gained enormously from our membership——
I believe that it is within the knowledge of the House that I have given way rather more often than the Leader of the Opposition did. I now wish to consider something that I believe is of acute importance to every Member of the House and to millions of people beyond it—the negotiations in which we are currently engaged on the intergovernmental conferences.
In the past 20 years we have gained enormously from our membership of the Community. I believe that the Community has gained also from our membership because Britain has determined its direction in so many ways—on budget reform, on reform of the common agricultural policy, on the single market, on free competition within Europe and on free trade with the rest of the world. Too often we overlook the extent to which Britain leads the Community and too frequently we recall the difficulties we sometimes face in it.
I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman at the moment; not in this speech.
I do not doubt that over the next 20 years the Community's evolution will be as marked as it has been in the nearly 20 years since we joined. We cannot dictate what our children will make of the Community, but we must leave them in a position where they can effectively influence the shape of Europe, and that Europe must be one in which we retain our distinct national identity.
The intergovernmental conferences now under way raise vital issues for the future of this country. They involve hard judgments of where our best interests lie. In our approach to those negotiations, we have been guided by the views expressed in debates in the House. We have made progress in a number of areas. We are working to achieve an agreement at Maastricht in December, but it must be an agreement that I could make in the confident expectation that I could commend it to the House.
On economic and monetary union, it would be irresponsible for any Government to ask the people of Britain to decide now that we should adopt, at a future date, a single European currency which will have far-reaching implications for the conduct of monetary and economic union. A move to a single currency that was not backed by convergence between the two economies of the member states of the Community would be a recipe for economic disaster. That is not in the interests of this country, or of our partners in Europe.
This country is in the first rank of the European Community and will remain so. But I am not prepared to commit our country to a single currency. We must be able to judge nearer the time—Parliament must judge nearer the time—whether a single currency is in the interests of Britain. We should not achieve what is best for Britain or the Community by giving up now our right to independent judgment then.
There is still some way to go before we have an agreement on economic and monetary union, but the discussions so far have shown that it is possible to thrash out a sensible position in negotiations. It is our aim to do the same on the draft treaty on political union. The issues raised are more diverse and just as difficult. They include the conduct of defence and foreign policy, and the powers of the European Parliament, the Commission and the European Court. We have to satisfy ourselves that, if we reach an agreement, it is an agreement in the overall British interest. It must be in Britain's interest to work more closely with like-minded European countries on foreign policy, defence and security.
As the Prime Minister has been commenting on changes in policy, I congratulate him and the Government on having moved so far on Europe since
the summer. On the subject of defence, may I remind him that less than a month ago he signed an agreement containing the following words:
Political union implies … a common foreign and security policy and stronger European defence identity with the longer term perspective of a common defence policy"?
The Prime Minister said that on 5 October this year. Will he confirm that it remains the Government's objective?
The right hon. Gentleman is taking that statement out of context and is not listening to what I am saying. I shall be explicit in a moment and then again later on these points.
It makes sense to co-operate with other European countries on judicial, police and immigration matters; but at a time when more and more member states are concerned about illegal immigration, the spread of drugs and the threat of terrorism it makes no sense to agree to measures that would weaken the unique and effective controls in this island. It makes sense to recognise that the European Parliament, directly elected, will have an increasing say in the conduct of European business, but it would not make sense to give the European Parliament powers of decision-making equal to those of the Council of Ministers. The European Parliament should have a larger role in curbing the undemocratic powers of the Commission. Commissioners are answerable to the Commission, not to the Governments who appointed them. The Commission is effectively answerable to no one. It must be answerable to an elected body and that body can only be the European Parliament. The European Parliament must be able to make its influence felt, but it must be the Council that decides on the Community's policies for the future.
At Maastricht the issues may not be laid out in black and white; there will he hard judgments to be made. The crucial judgment for the Government will be to determine what is in the best interests of Britain and acceptable to this House. That is why we are arranging a two-day debate on 20 and 21 November. I and my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Chancellor of the Exchequer will set out in detail the issues at stake and where Britain's interests lie. This will be a vital opportunity for Members to set out their views. It will also be an opportunity for the Opposition to let the people of Britain know where they stand, if anywhere, on issues vital to the future of our country.
The Labour party has consistently sold Britain short in Europe. Out of Government, its members opposed membership; in Government, they bungled the negotiations on fair terms for our country. Now the Opposition have gone to the other extreme—"If it's made in Brussels, it's good enough for the Labour party." No money back and no questions asked.
Nowadays the Opposition try to pass themselves off as modern and moderate. They say that they now accept the agenda which we set through the 1980s and which we will continue to set through the 1990s—but who can believe them? Who could trust them? Are they political chameleons or political turncoats?
We know that what this country needs is sound money, competitive industries, accountable public services, the extension of ownership and choice, and strong defences—and everyone knows who can be trusted to provide these things: not the half-hearted, reluctant converts among the Opposition, but a Government who genuinely believe in these things, a Government who will do what is right for this country without flinching, this year, next year and for years to come. That Government will remain on the Government side of the House after the election.
If what we have seen in this House for the past two and a quarter hours is to set the tone for the rest of this Session and through the general election, God help us. I wonder whether hon. Members understand the appalling impression conveyed by the way in which we conduct our business. The nation will have seen on its television sets the scenes that we witnessed here this afternoon—scenes that were, as an example of what we should and could be doing, an absolute disgrace—[Interruption.] Both sides of the House were guilty. The nation and the House have a right to hear the Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister. The scenes of this afternoon prove the desperate necessity to change our procedures. Today the House recommended what voters in the forthcoming by-elections should do. We have no right to tell those people how to behave when we behave in this fashion——
I challenge the hon. Gentleman to go out and ask his constituents how they feel about what they have just seen. Let them decide whether what I am saying is sanctimonious. Hon. Members may not agree with me but the feeling that I describe is widespread in the nation—it is time the House reformed the way in which it conducts its business.
I shall give way later in my speech if hon. Members want to intervene on points of substance. I have made it clear to the hon. Lady that on this point I am not giving way.
I echo the comments of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition about those who spoke first in the debate, the right hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Walker) and the hon. Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken). Both of them entertained the House enormously——
The hon. Member for Thanet, South reflected on how these decisions are made, When I learnt that he and the right hon. Member for Worcester were to move and second the Loyal Address I fell to thinking along the same lines. The right hon. Member for Worcester represents the most pro-European part of the Conservative party; the hon. Member for Thanet, South, the most anti-European. Their selection portrayed precisely the dilemma facing the Conservative Government.
I also echo the comments of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition on the three hon. Members who are absent from our deliberations today. Alick Buchanan-Smith was widely respected and loved, not only in the House but in his constituency. George Buckley was a strong voice for his community, and I am delighted that the Prime Minister mentioned Richard Holt, whose peculiarly rumbustious style in the House will be greatly missed.
This was a curious Gracious Speech—half an apology, half a speech in mitigation for what the Government have done in the past. It was half a statement to the British people that the Government are awfully sorry for some of the things that they have done and that they promise to try to put those things right before the people go to vote when the Prime Minister chooses the date for an election. Nevertheless, half the Speech makes it clear that the Government intend to continue in precisely the same way. They intend to ram through the council tax, just as they rammed through the poll tax, and I predict that that will have the same appalling consequences.
It struck me that the Gracious Speech was the programme of a Government who have nothing further to say. It should never have been presented to the House because we should either have had a general election or be in the process of one.
The hon. Gentleman may not have noticed, but we do not have a fixed-term Parliament. But he raises an important point, because the Prime Minister, quite rightly, desperately wants and needs a mandate. However, he has not dared to go to the electorate to get one and has had to postpone the election twice. He has twice turned away from the people of Britain because he knows that they have turned away from his Government. He lacks a mandate, and that shows in the Queen's Speech.
We should have had a new Parliament, a new programme and a new mandate today. Instead, we have the tail end of an old Government portraying old ideas and determined to drag out their old life to the bitter end. The Queen's Speech lifts the curtain on the general election, which will not—however much the Conservative party may try to persuade the public that it will—be a judgment on the new Prime Minister. Rather, it will be a judgment on the Government over a period of a full 12 years in which the Prime Minister and his Front Bench have been fully and consistently implicated.
We can look at one of two aspects of the Queen's Speech: an affirmation that the Government have been right for the past 12 years and that they intend to continue—a convincing conviction that that is the right way to proceed; alternatively, we could look for a new direction under the new Prime Minister—a new spirit. The question is, continuity or change? The answer is that the Government are confused. They have now been revealed as unable to justify their past and having no clear idea of where they want to go in the future. That split seems to run right through the Cabinet, some members of which support the continuation of the past while others are opposed to it. Some are prepared to tell Mr. Walden on Sunday that they are opposed to it and then say, the following Wednesday, that they are prepared to support it because of their colleagues.
That does not add up to a programme for the 1990s, nor to a justification for what happened in the 1980s. We should not be surprised, because the record of the 1980s and the past 12 years is pretty miserable. The Prime Minister tried to massage the figures in his speech but people know what has happened in the past 12 years. Despite their propaganda, we now clearly see that the Government have brought about no economic miracle. There has been no industrial renaissance. As in the previous three decades, prices have risen ahead of the average for OECD countries; the balance of payments deficit returns to stalk our economy again and again; and Britain has been forced around the back-breaking cycle of boom and bust twice. Wages have continued to rise ahead of inflation faster than those of our competitors, just as they did in the previous 30 years. Despite the Government's promise, inflation has returned to beset us and it must now be tackled in a way that damages our industry and loses jobs.
The Government say that inflation is now going down. Good. They say that it will stay down. We shall wait and see because we have heard that before. If the Government have achieved that, has not it been done at a terrifying price? Throughout the country, today and increasingly in the approaching months, thousands of business men and tens of thousands of their employees are paying with their livelihoods and jobs for the Government's economic mismanagement. That will increase, as all the figures, including those of the Government, now show. We are approaching what will come to be known as the bleak mid-winter of 1991 for lost jobs and lost employment.
However the Prime Minister may like to dodge the fact, our industry has been weakened by two recessions, starved of investment and denied access to the skills that it needs to compete. It is too emaciated to meet the demand which the Government desperately hope will occur around Christmas this year. If that demand occurs as the Government want, our industrial base may fail to meet consumer demand. We know what happens next because we have seen it before. Demand goes up, British industry cannot supply it and imports are sucked in. That results in a balance of trade deficit, the pound comes under pressure and round we go again on the appalling cycle which, decade after decade, has broken the back of British industry and the morale of our people.
Britain now lies exhausted after two Conservative recessions in a single decade, with its infrastructure under-funded, its education system demoralised, its public services in decline and its private sector burdened with debt. The public must now ask, what has changed after 12 years of this Government? Almost nothing has changed. I do not deny some of the changes that the Government have made with respect to the trade union movement. They were necessary, important and should not be undone. But the fundamentals of our economy remain unchanged. Britain has now suffered 40 years of decline under the Conservative and Labour parties. They have shared equally in the government of our country and we have not pulled out of what has happened consistently for 40 years. Those two parties share the responsibility for that and, if they have their chance, it will continue.
The leader of the Labour party spoke about his promises and undertakings for our country, but how are they to be delivered? The Labour party is good at complaining. It complains about under-funding of the health service but will not guarantee a penny more to spend on it. It is rather poor on action. Labour Members complain about under-investment in education but will say not a single word about a commitment to increase that fundamental investment in our education and training system which this nation needs so badly. We often hear about the Labour party's priorities—whatever the subject this week, it is always a priority. The problem with the Labour party is that everything is always a priority, but nothing is ever a commitment.
The Labour party now says that it has changed its mind on Europe. That is not unusual, as it has done so twice each decade for the past 40 years. There is a new solution. Since yesterday, we now understand that the Labour party will accept a single currency, but it attaches a series of conditions to that. If those conditions were attached, could the Leader of the Opposition have signed the text now proposed by the Dutch at Maastricht? The Labour party says that it is in favour of Europe but the conditions that it attaches are such that it could not now sign the deal which we hope the Government will sign in Maastricht later this year. Indeed, it now imposes conditions on the running of European monetary union that are totally irresponsible. Without an independent central bank we cannot have that central rock upon which a firm anti-inflationary European economic policy must be based.
The Government say that they are not prepared to propose solutions on Europe that are unacceptable to the House. The Labour party says that the conditions that it proposes would be unacceptable to the German parliament. I suspect that they would be unacceptable to almost every other parliament.
Britain would be mad to choose either of those two parties. Why should we allow the Government, who are responsible for two recessions in one decade, to take over the continuous economic running of this country? Why should the people of this country entrust the recovery, if it comes, and the next Parliament, into the hands of a Government who have given us two recessions in a single decade? Why should the people trust the Opposition, who have abandoned all their past policies and principles, and refuse to say how they will fund their present ones?
Has not the right hon. Gentleman been hoisted by his own petard? I understand that as the leader of an Opposition party he prides himself on his understanding of economic matters and his use of economic statistics. Therefore, he will surely know that the recession which has inflicted itself on this country has also done so on all the countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. However, the right hon. Gentleman called it a Conservative recession and laid responsibility for it on the Conservative Government. What would the Liberal party have done to prevent the world-wide recession from hitting this country?
The hon. Gentleman should look at my speech. I did not say that it was a Conservative recession. I said that the Government had given us two recessions in a decade, and I shall explain my statement to the hon. Gentleman. I agree that there has been a world-wide recession and it is fair to say that no Government could have dodged that. But the hon. Gentleman must answer the difficult question: why is it that Britain entered the recession before, plunged into it deeper and will come out of it after its competitor nations? Britain did so despite the huge bonanza of North sea oil that it has enjoyed. It cannot be doubted that, as the country comes out of this recession—as I hope it will soon—we shall find that, during the course of the recession, Britain's share of the world markets has fallen below that which it originally held, whereas other countries' shares will have increased or returned to their former levels.
The Minister can wait his turn.
I shall consider an issue on which the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) has changed his mind in recent years, the Trident missile system. The right hon. Gentleman will have noticed that, according to newspapers, doubts are surfacing, even in the Ministry of Defence, about the efficacy of spending £23,000 million over the lifetime of a useless strategic nuclear deterrent. Will the right hon. Gentleman change his mind again on that issue or is he to stay in a cosy conspiracy of lunacy with the Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister?
The hon. Gentleman's example was incorrect. I should like to have a Government and politicians who are prepared to change their mind in the face of events. I think that that would produce a much saner country and a better form of government. We all change our minds; the Prime Minister has changed the policies of his predecessor, as has the Leader of the Opposition.
There is something of a difference between changing one's mind when it needs to be changed and changing one's mind twice in every decade since the war, which is taking changing one's mind to an art form.
The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan was wrong. My party opposed the building of Trident. We believed that it should not have been undertaken, but that decision has now been made into reality—Trident is there. One cannot pretend that one would not have something which already exists. The question is whether or not this country will have a minimal deterrent. I believe that it needs one, and I have always believed so.
That is absolutely wrong. I have always believed that this country needs the protection of a minimal deterrent, which Trident now provides. I wish that it was not there but it is. If that is the only means of delivering a minimal deterrent, we must hang on to it until it is safe to get rid of it.
I believe that this country has to find a way to break out of the long, miserable cycle of decline inflicted upon it by the two major parties. We need a new Government and a new system of government.
The right hon. Gentleman has returned to the economy. I wonder if he can square the description he has given of the British economy with the fact that between 1980 and 1990 the British economy grew faster than that of France or Germany. It grew faster than that of any other OECD country except Spain, and investment grew faster here than in any other G7 country except Japan.
The hon. Gentleman should look at his figures again—do they really refer to 1980? Is he not selectively choosing his figures from 1981—precisely when we were at the bottom of the recession? If not, he is starting from an appallingly low base. He mentioned investment and I shall answer his question. I predict that by the end of this year overall investment in industry as a percentage of gross domestic product will be lower than it was in 1979. Will the hon. Gentleman give me a commitment that that will not be true? He does not. I do not need any further answers. I also predict that unemployment will be massively higher than it was in 1979.
We need a new Government and a new system of government, and the Queen's Speech should have introduced such a proposal. We wanted the Queen's Speech to give us a new direction for our country, and an independent central bank established to run the British economy. I can understand why Conservative and Labour Members do not want that. They want to continue to be able to debauch our national economy to buy votes before an election, and make British people and British industry pay the price later in jobs and lost industry. I believe that an independent central bank will come: the previous Chancellor of the Exchequer argued for it, and I believe that it is necessary as the rock on which to build a decent, strong, anti-inflationary policy.
The Queen's Speech should have portrayed a series of policies that were much tougher on competition, particularly in relation to the utilities. That would almost certainly be necessary in the banking and finance sector as well. The Queen's Speech should have contained a Government programme proposing a decent charter for small businesses with a tough set of policies to encourage small businesses. It should have mentioned late payment of debts, discriminatory discounts and specific assistance for small businesses that need it at the point of expansion, not when they start up.
The Government should have made a commitment to increase funding in education to the percentage of GDP equivalent to that established by our European partners—about an extra £1·8 billion or £1·9 billion. That money should have been invested in three specific sectors: giving every child in this land the right of access to one year's pre-school education; ensuring that all those aged over 16 have access to decent education and training; and providing, supporting and building up our adult education system to match the needs of an age of high technology.
The Queen's Speech could have contained a commitment to enable British Rail's high speed link to the channel tunnel, with the sort of connections needed to allow industrial developments in the regions. The speech could have included a commitment to allow private services access to the British Rail network and allow British Rail access to private markets to gain the funding that has been so significantly lacking during the past 12 years. The speech could have included the establishment of a long-term energy policy that would begin to tackle the environmental challenges confronting us. The speech could have made it clear that Britain was to be a leader in Europe, not the laggard of Europe.
We heard none of those proposals and no commitment to changing the systems of government—a change which Britain desperately needs. Four years ago the House considered the poll tax, and rammed the legislation through against the dictates of common sense and against the clearly expressed will of the people. The legislation was rammed through on the basis of a minority of votes. The Government who held the minority of votes had a majority of 140 in the House. Unbroken lines of Conservative Members trooped through the Lobby, but now one can scarcely find a supporter for the poll tax outside Finchley and Tewkesbury, which tells us something. The Government are about to make exactly the same mistake again. They are about to push through the ill-thought-out council tax in an even shorter time than that taken for the poll tax. The likelihood is that the Government will make as big a mistake again. The truth is that this country must have a fair voting system that prevents any minority from riding roughshod over the will of the majority, pushing through its ideas, and producing legislation, such as the poll tax, that clearly damages not only our country and its people, but the Government.
We have not only a bad Government but a bad system of government. Far more preferable would be a Gracious Speech that tackled that and introduced fair voting; a freedom of information Act, so that the Government would be unable to retreat behind the iron doors of secrecy—to protect not the nation's secrets but itself; a Bill of Rights to enshrine and protect those liberties of the citizen that ought not to be trodden on by Governments, bureaucracies, or big business; and established Parliaments in Scotland and Wales.
Such a Gracious Speech would mark out a new agenda and direction for our country. As to the Gracious Speech that is before us, it reveals a Government who are trapped by their past and terrified by their future; a Government who are afraid to defend their inheritance but unable to find the courage to reject it. It is time for this failed Government to go, and for Britain's failed system of government to go too.
Having listened to the speech of the leader of the Liberal Democrats, I can only hope that his party will never be in government. It was one of the most confused and confusing speeches I have ever heard in the House. I am left speechless by the right hon. Gentleman's attempt to blame the Government for the current recession, given that, in 1987, when the world faced the biggest economic disaster since 1929, the Liberals, Labour and almost every economist around the world suggested that we should pour money into the hole left by that crash.
We did not do as the hon. Gentleman suggests. The Labour party may have advocated such a policy, but if the hon. Gentleman will study the record, he will find that my party did not.
That is not my understanding. If the right hon. Gentleman is suggesting that the Liberals advocated in 1987 that we should tighten up on credit, as was done in 1929, I do not believe it.
I regard today's Gracious Speech as one of the most important during the lifetime of this Parliament. The issues before us today are perhaps even more significant than any we have witnessed since this Parliament was elected in 1987. The first page and a half of the Gracious Speech deals with Britain's role overseas: in Europe, the Commonwealth, and—because of this country's great experience in the region—the middle east.
I recall, during my own military service, leaving the port of Haifa on 15 May 1948, at the end of the British mandate in Palestine—which led to the establishment of the state of Israel and to the unhappy conflict that has existed between that country and its neighbours ever since. Those passages in the Gracious Speech that deal with that region are of the greatest possible significance, and the opportunity to solve its difficulties which Madrid provides is unlikely to present itself again.
The first page and a half of the Gracious Speech also makes a renewed commitment to the Commonwealth, and lays great weight on Britain's relationship with our friends in Europe. In the near future—certainly until 10 December, and probably right through to polling day for a general election next year—Britain's role in Europe will be a dominant topic for debate in Parliament.
I have no objection to working more closely with our colleagues in Europe. My family has had a home in France for many years—[Laughter.]—and I have a daughter who lives there permanently. To those hon. Members who laugh, I may say that it is rather important to know how the people of other European countries live, rather than simply to attend conferences while staying in big hotels, finding out how other Europeans live only at third hand.
One learns, for example, that France today, far from the glorious economic picture painted by Opposition Members, is a country racked with problems. Recently, there were major demonstrations by workers in all the major public services in Paris, and by farmers who burned British lamb. They are all desperately concerned about what Europe has done to them.
In the last two years, there has been more change and upheaval in Europe than at any time since the Community was established. The Community of Jean Monnet—the Community of the balanced states—has been totally changed by the emergence of a unified Germany. It is the biggest country in Europe, and has its largest population. Germany's economy is potentially the strongest in Europe, but unification has clearly upset its economic balance and its currency's place as the strongest in Europe. Anyone who attempts to cobble institutions together at a time of such turmoil is likely to find that those institutions will swiftly be overtaken by events.
The events in Yugoslavia are a microcosm of what could happen, albeit many years hence, if we tried to compress the countries of Europe into a single state framework. We would have nothing but trouble in the future.
The right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) spoke of the need for a central European bank, to ensure that we are never again confronted by inflation and that there will always be prosperity throughout Europe. It would be a central bank answerable to no one, not elected by Members of the House, probably dominated by the Bundesbank, and in a position to determine which part of this country—or even the whole of it—is likely to be a recipient in future of grants and aid. To throw away all control of our economy and hand it over to a bunch of faceless civil servants somewhere on the other side of the channel would be ludicrous and dangerous.
The Gracious Speech refers to European monetary co-operation, and quite properly to the exchange rate mechanism, which has worked remarkably well. Critics of the exchange rate mechanism say that it prevents the Government from expanding the economy as swiftly as some might wish, but they seem to forget that, long before we joined the ERM, we had the same problems about protecting sterling against the dollar. Forty per cent. of all our exports, including North sea oil, are paid for in dollars, and we have always needed to protect sterling, and always will.
The exchange rate mechanism merely formalises that protection, and it works extremely well. However, I caution against going for the narrower 2·5 per cent. band in the near future, because of the unusual character of the British economy. Whether one likes it or not, ours is an oil economy—and fluctuating oil prices can affect the value of our currency. Nevertheless, the degree of monetary co-operation represented by the exchange rate mechanism has worked well, and our membership of it is no more of a constraint on the growth of the British economy than was the old need to protect sterling's relationship with the dollar.
As we move towards the single European market next year and Britain's presidency of the Community from 1 July 1992, we must be cautious. The changes in Europe are not complete. The European countries, and probably the whole of the western world, are unlikely to see substantial growth for five years. Until the Germans have been able to resolve their problems with the east, and until the German economy is able once again to play its part in lending money to the rest of the world, there will be a gradual growth slope of up to five years. In that time, it would be folly to become involved in monetary institutions that further limited our ability, within those narrow confines, to take action for ourselves. The need for freedom of action will never be greater than in the next 12 months, and indeed in the next five years. To be forced into the straitjacket of a central bank, or anything that looked like a single currency, would be enormously damaging for Britain and her economy.
Page 1 of the Gracious Speech has remarks about NATO and defence, a subject ably covered by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. Again, the need for freedom of action is desperately important. To be compressed into a European institution dealing with foreign affairs and events would be, as we found over the Gulf, the Falklands Islands and other incidents, to surrender an essential piece of our sovereignty which has proved of value not only to Britain but to our allies around the world.
As Chairman of Ways and Means, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and as one who has led the crusade of reform of the private Bill procedure, you will be proud of, and delighted to find, this commitment in the Gracious Speech:
A Bill will be introduced to replace private legislation as the means for authorising transport development schemes.
Effectively, that means that, for the first time, the railway system, through British Rail, will have to adopt different procedures if it wishes to make changes in its structure, build new tracks, close lines, or whatever. The Joint Committee on Private Bill Procedure, of which I have the honour to be Chairman, and which sprang directly from your decision, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to have this matter reviewed, came forward with proposals on the matters covered in the Gracious Speech.
Obviously, British Rail's position is unique in that it requires exemption from nuisance and the ability to interrupt public utilities, and a private Bill not only provides that but wraps up separate works programmes into one document. Although I have been sponsoring British Rail legislation for 10 years, I have never felt that to have a Back-Bench Member of Parliament sponsoring a Bill for what is a nationalised industry, but in whatever form it takes will always be a vastly important industry, is the most sensible way forward.
In his report on the Clapham disaster, Sir Anthony Hidden heard that safety legislation needed review. It is not sensible to have railway development in a way totally different from that for motorway development. Therefore, when it comes to the channel tunnel link, to bring that important railway project to Parliament and discuss it in the way that most private Bills are discussed, and to have it sponsored by an individual Back Bencher, would be to take risks with the safety of that important line.
If British Rail today, or a railway company in the future, wants to add significantly to its already considerable system, or wants to take decisions that are of importance to those who use the system, it should go to the Department of Transport, set out its proposals, receive a draft order and, where there are bones of contention or problems in the system that it wishes to build, have proper local public inquiries. The private Bill procedure is not adequate, although I can see the advantages.
In welcoming this proposal and the Bill that we hope will be introduced this Session, I emphasise that it will be essential to ensure that, when inquiries are to take place, there is no undue waiting time for the appointment of inspectors. If there are such delays, there will be a hold-up in railway construction at a time when it seems to be increasing.
Will my hon. Friend go a little further in respect of the role of railways? Does he agree that the improvement of the railway infrastructure should not be paid for only out of the profitability of British Rail but that, inevitably, it is part of the responsibility of British Government—including the House—to ensure an adequate railway system? Therefore, if the Government need to assist in the improvement of the infrastructure, the House should ensure that such assistance is provided.
My hon. Friend is a persuasive and clever debater. If he is trying to persuade me to suggest that the Government should pay for the channel link, that is ground on which I would not wish to trespass.
I agree that the railway system will inevitably be the responsibility of the Department of Transport, and to that extent we have to recognise that British Rail is receiving more investment than it has ever received before, and that is a good thing. However, I am concerned to ensure that, when we use that investment to build a new railway system, we do so through schemes that the Government have thoroughly vetted, and that they have not been introduced at the whim of a Back-Bench Member and subjected to the vagaries of the private Bill procedure. Schemes should be given full approval by the Department, with proper inquiries in those areas where people feel aggrieved.
I have nothing against the private Bill procedure. No one would wish to see it taken away but, sadly, it has sometimes been used as an excuse for wrapping up in one document several proposals which, if taken separately, might have suffered a different fate.
I am delighted with the whole of the Gracious Speech. Britain's position in the world and in Europe are well spelt out. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was crystal clear about what will happen in Maastricht, and that was, with great respect, quite unlike what the Leader of the Opposition said. I look forward to this Session as the end of a first-class Parliament which will go out on a high note.
In 1988, I made an alternative Queen's Speech for women. Last year, I updated it and had to report a worsening of the situation of many women. Today, I listened eagerly for measures specifically angled towards women. After all, here are a Government on the verge of an election and women form the majority of the electorate. This is a Prime Minister who, just this week, spoke of his commitment to the advancement of women, yet not only has he still no women in his Cabinet, but there is not a single mention of women in the Queen's Speech, nor any measures directed specifically at helping them.
In fairness, I must admit that there is little of anything in this extraordinarily empty Queen's Speech. For a Government presumably setting out their shop window for an election, this is feeble. If I were window shopping, I would recognise an establishment on the verge of collapse.
The Government promise to improve the economy. In my constituency, unemployment increased by a quarter in the past year. It is 18·5 per cent. male and 13·1 per cent. overall, despite the twistings and turnings that we all recognise in the reckoning of the figures. This is a record of increasing misery.
Eighty five constituencies are in an even worse position than Preston. The highest unemployment is to be found in Liverpool, Riverside. It is 27·5 per cent. overall and 37·7 per cent. male. If it is thought that that is because the north-west is especially unfortunate, let it be recognised that 10 of the 25 per cent. worst constituencies in terms of unemployment are in London.
The unemployment figures for women are even more disguised than general unemployment figures. That is because women are frequently not entitled to benefits and. therefore, are not included in the figures. Many women suffer from a forced reduction in their hours. They are part-time workers and their hours are reduced against their will. They are not unemployed, but they are certainly underemployed. They are employed for fewer hours than they would wish and they earn much less money than they would wish.
I know through my union, the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, that we are now meeting the phenomenon of zerohours contracts. This means that employers make no commitment to employ people for any particular length of time in any particular week. The employee has to sign a contract in which he accepts that lack of commitment, which means that he or she remains at the employer's will and pleasure. The employee is not counted as unemployed and is not entitled to unemployment benefit, even if she receives no wages in a certain week. It is no wonder that female unemployment, on paper, is less than male unemployment.
For families, the unemployment of both men and women is deplorable. There are repercussions, of course, In 1980, the homes of 3,500 owner-occupiers were repossessed because of mortgage arrears. In the first half of 1991 there have been nearly 34,000 repossessions. About a quarter of a million owner-occupiers are more than two months in arrears. I am sure that the misery that lies behind these figures is not recognised by Conservative Members. For ordinary people, however, they represent despair.
The plight of those who are having difficulty in paying their mortgages has been deliberately worsened by the Conservative party. In 1986, the changes made to social security legislation meant that owner-occupiers on income support have to pay half their mortgage interest for the first 16 weeks of receipt of that support. That change was extremely bad for many people. It was brought about by the party that talks about a property-owning democracy. That is another illustration of its well-known hypocrisy.
Housing problems cover more than repossessions or arrears of mortgage payments. Homelessness is rocketing. Recently I dealt with a woman constituent who has a three-year-old child and is now pregnant with twins. She is living, if it can be called that, in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. The number of people in bed-and-breakfast accommodation has been shooting up since 1982, despite the fact that the Tory party manifesto of 1983 stated:
Our goal is to make Britain the best-housed nation in Europe.
Instead, the Government have presided over a reduction in public investment in housing by 70 per cent. since 1979. In 1986, the Audit Commission—not an arm of the Labour party—called for higher spending on the improvement and repair of council housing. That is prevented directly by the Conservative Government.
On 27 March 1990, the hon. Member for Worcestershire, South (Mr. Spicer), then Minister for Housing and Planning, said on behalf of the Government:
Our main aim is to reduce the use of bed and breakfast by councils.
Preston council did not have to use bed-and-breakfast accommodation when that statement was made, but it has to do so now. The Housing Corporation, in its latest report, describes housing in Preston as follows:
Preston's housing problems have intensified in recent years, following a period of rapid increases in house prices and increasing pressure on demand on the rented sector at all levels of security of tenure. Homelessness has now reached crisis proportions, with the local authority stock continuing to diminish and a continuing reduction in the number of net relet vacancies. The Council's own hostel accommodation is fully occupied, flats in multi-storey blocks continue to be shared"—
not just occupied but shared, by people with children—
by homeless families and increasing reliance is being placed on bed and breakfast accommodation.
I know that Preston council has fought against doing any of those things. It has tried desperately to avoid doing so. With the attitude of the Conservative party to council housing, it is no wonder that the council is failing to meet the needs, and that my constituents are in agony.
Last year I referred to the agony of women who cannot provide their children with a home. That agony has intensified this year and has spread to far more people. It must be noted, however, that there is not a mention of housing in the Queen's Speech. The Conservative party does not care about housing and forecasts no steps for housing.
In June, the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, the hon. Member for Suffolk, South (Mr. Yeo), said:
Getting people out of unsatisfactory temporary accommodation has been one of the Government's top priorities since 1989.
Bearing in mind the Government's record when dealing with one of their priorities, I shudder to think of what happens to objectives that are merely regarded by them as desirable. The underlying reason for the problem is a shortage of housing and a shortage of resources to repair and improve existing housing.
In 1980 local authority housebuilding produced 41,500 new dwellings; there were only 8,700 new dwellings built in 1990. Ids no wonder that there is a shortage. Should the Minister claim that that building is being replaced by housing association building, I can tell him that association new building in 1990 increased by fewer than 2,000 properties as compared with 1980.
My hon. Friend is dealing with a most important subject. So far as I know, not one Conservative Member over the past 10 or 12 years has protested to the Government that council dwellings have not been built. Does my hon. Friend agree that the situation is even worse than she has described because a substantial amount of local authority housing has been sold off? The best units—houses, not high-rise flats—have been sold. They have not been replaced, and that has been a deliberate act of Conservative policy.
My hon. Friend is right. Perusal of the Housing Corporation's report shows that it has referred to that issue many times. Not only are no houses being built, but others are being taken from the stock of houses available for rent and are, therefore, not available to the people in the greatest need.
Of course, such problems extend to the private housing stock in many areas. In Preston more than 38 per cent. of private houses were built before 1919. Six thousand one hundred are unfit for habitation and more than 14,000 are in need of renovation. Resources need to be allocated for the necessary improvement of private housing stock as well as council housing stock, but the Government's main contribution seems to have been to interpose a neighbourhood renewal assessment system which has made the process of providing help with renovation of the private housing stock and of dealing with unfit houses grind to a halt. The Government have introduced procedures that sound nice, but offers no resources with which to carry them out. Those procedures are merely another hurdle over which local authorities must jump, but they fail to do so.
There is not a word about housing in the Queen's Speech unless we are to assume that the Government are relying on the sentence,
other measures will be laid before you",
for the many social measures that are omitted.
I read the Queen's Speech to try to understand what lies behind the few promises of legislation which it contains. The Government intend to introduce legislation to reinforce the regulation of private utilities. I wonder whether that will include regulation of the inflated salaries that the chairmen of the privatised companies are now paying themselves. The Government intend to introduce legislation to deal with education, but there is no sign that such a Bill would deal with nursery education or that it would contain measures to improve school buildings or the funding of schools in constituencies such as mine. However, there is every suggestion that a Bill dealing with education will, like its forerunners, be more a reflection of Tory dogma than a means of meeting the needs of children in my constituency.
The Queen's Speech states that the Government will make available information about the performance of individual schools. Will they make equally available information about the problems faced by individual schools, or about the wonderful work being done by them, including the school in Preston attended by my grandchildren? There children become bilingual. The school has to cope with different languages and people from different cultures and does so in a way that enriches the background of the children, but it gets precious little help from the Government.
The Government intend to introduce a Bill to revise the health and safety arrangements of offshore installations. That is overdue and I welcome such a Bill, but what about more inspectors for health and safety? What about making it easier for people such as shop workers who suffer from repetitive strain injury to have that recognised and to obtain adequate compensation?
The Government intend
to replace private legislation as the means for authorising transport development schemes.
That might be useful in a technical sense for the procedures of the House, but why is there to be no legislation for more, better and cheaper public transport? That alone would be of enormous help to women who find it difficult to get about cheaply and safely.
I am deeply disappointed with the Queen's Speech, but not surprised. Its tone is epitomised by a couple of sentences on page three which state that the Government
will maintain firm control of public spending with the aim of keeping its share of national income on a downward trend over time.
The next sentence states:
My Government attach the highest priority to improving public services.
The Government intend to improve public services while spending less and less on them—that demands not a competent Government, but members of the Magic Circle. So far, I have seen no sign that the Prime Minister or his colleagues have the competence or the dexterity—to use a word that was used earlier in the debate—to accomplish that miracle. It is impossible to improve public services while reducing costs, and citizens charters will prove to be empty words, just as this is an empty Queen's Speech.
I hope that the hon. Member for Preston (Mrs. Wise) will forgive me if I do not make such a wide-ranging speech as she did. We share a great love of animals, but she was not able to mention them and they are not mentioned in the Queen's Speech. I shall restrict myself to one or two topics in the interests of the many hon. Members who wish to participate in the debate.
In moving the Loyal Address, my right hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Walker) spoke of "the faithful city", which is how Worcester has always been known. I was born there, and I could have invited my right hon. Friend to say a little more about it. The street leading to the cathedral is called Silver street because the local people there threw down silver and the Roundheads got off their horses to pick it up. Their doing so enabled the Cavaliers and the King's men to escape to safety after the battle of Worcester. That is why that fine city bears that name.
I pay tribute to the amusing and witty way in which my right hon. Friend moved the Loyal Address and to the excellent speech of my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken). I was especially delighted to hear him speak of the advance of people through the equality of opportunity in education. During the 1987 general election, when my right hon. Friend came to my constituency, we walked along two or three streets where, as a boy of 14 or 15, he had delivered newspapers. He was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth—his mother was a widow and he delivered papers.
One or two of the people on whom we called remembered my right hon. Friend. The first person he canvassed in Worcester was my grandmother, who lived well into her 90s. I am sorry that he is not here to hear me say that he is an example of someone who has achieved much from humble beginnings and I warmly commend him. He achieved much through the equality of opportunity in education, as he explained, and I shall say a few words about education.
The Gracious Speech states:
Action will be taken to improve quality and choice in education.
They are good words, and they will be well backed up. It continues:
Legislation will be introduced to reform funding of further education and sixth form colleges and to reform higher education in England and Wales, and to make information available about the performance of individual schools.
When I started to teach in 1957, one of my colleagues said that a parent was coming to see him that day, and he asked what he should say to him. Everyone else said, "What has it got to do with him? You don't need to talk to parents." That was the regrettable but widespread attitude in a great profession. Happily, things are changing, as change they must. The Gracious Speech will lead to more and vital changes.
I wish to pick up one point made by the hon. Member for Preston, because I also hope that attention will be paid to the conditions of buildings. Emergency measures had to be taken in my constituency to repair leaking roofs on four school buildings. It was an emergency: if that had not been done children would have been sent home and their schooling interrupted. Emergency shoring up has been necessary in another school.
Those buildings have not suddenly experienced those problems. The problems existed under successive Governments and local authorities of different political complexions over 50, 60 and 70 years. That makes some campaigns, particularly those of members of the Labour party, spurious, because those buildings have needed attention for many years. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning is in the Chamber because he can confirm that school buildings have not received the attention that they have deserved for many years.
The Queen's Speech promises reform of further education and, in particular, of adult education. For some years, I have been the chairman of the all-party adult education committee. The hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) is our excellent secretary. It is right to use the vehicle of adult education to set up courses to allow people to improve their qualifications and so apply for better jobs and perform their existing jobs more efficiently. In that regard, I am thinking of computer courses and courses in car maintenance, book-keeping and secretarial studies, as well as English language and foreign language courses. Those vocational courses clearly lead people to greater success in their professions.
However, I do not believe that vocational courses are more important than non-vocational courses. The two types of courses should be considered equally in adult education and it would be wrong for all resources to be devoted to vocational courses while non-vocational courses are starved of funds. Happily the Government have amended their original view expressed in the White Paper and now consider vocational and non-vocational studies on an equal basis.
I have held senior posts in enormous schools in London. There were 2,200 pupils in my last school. However, I also found time to lecture in adult education for 12 years. Courses in flower arranging, painting, dance and physical education in all its aspects, including sports and body development and control, are valid for those who want to take those courses. At the height of their success, the education committee of the London county council and subsequently the Inner London education authority—I worked for both those bodies—provided 2,000 different adult education courses, and they were all very successful.
Yes, I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Adult education must be accessible to people on all income levels. I hope that all hon. Members accept that adult education is an amazing vehicle through which people can have more fulfilled lives in respect both of leisure and of their professional careers. Adult education is cheap. I have worked in adult education for 12 years and I am proud, like the education spokesman for the Social and Liberal Democrats and, I think, the Leader of the Opposition, to be a vice-president of the Workers Educational Association. I hope that the Government will consider the potential of adult education in a new way and will do all they can to devote funds to it.
The Queen's Speech also states that information is to be
available about the performance of individual schools.
Information about truancy rates will be available to parents. There will also be tables showing examination successes between schools. Somehow, schools must serve and respond to parental choices. However, I am wary of placing excessive pressure on children and teachers where there are behavioural difficulties or deprivation. In those circumstances, teachers do not have a chance of achieving the level of examination success that might be achieved in more favourable teaching conditions.
Where children are well motivated, well supported at home and well funded, they will be easier to teach, especially if the buildings are good, than pupils who struggle to get to school and whose parents are feckless and short of money. I know of a school not far from this place where there are many highly deprived children, but they work well. I do not want to let schools off: they should compete in terms of truancy or examination tables. However, everyone concerned must understand the difficulties that some schools face.
A school prospectus is vital. At the moment, parents find many school prospectuses dull and unexciting. Schools should also hold meetings for prospective parents. Many schools do not welcome the parents of prospective pupils or influence decisions about which school parents should choose for their children. Everything should be done to increase choice in respect of schools.
We should also do more to pay good classroom teachers. Everyone in the profession is aware that some people can be absent from teaching posts and not be missed. In some respects, we are better off without them. However, as a result of my 23 years in teaching, I know that people like that remain in post and nothing is done about it. They are paid the same as people who can teach brilliantly.
There must be a way of discovering why some people teach so well while others fail the children.
I am sure that my colleagues and Opposition Members are highly conscientious people. They have nothing to fear. However, I do not want to be diverted from an issue that is very important to this nation's future. Somehow, children must achieve more from education. More children should gain success in examinations and gain the skills to survive difficulties in life. More children should enter higher education. That can be achieved through an improved teaching profession.
Teachers must be able to evaluate their own performances more openly. Their performance should also be evaluated more closely by their heads of department, heads of school, and inspectors. Good teachers should be paid differently from those who do not teach well. We would then begin to reward the wonderful people who do not want to take on the responsibility of deputy headship and so on, who remain in the classroom and do a wonderful job, but who are currently paid the same as people who are slack, late every day, off early, and so on. I hope that something will be achieved by the Bill.
I associate myself and my party with remarks by several hon. Members about Alick Buchanan-Smith. He was a remarkable Member of Parliament. All hon. Members will miss him across the broad range of his activities.
I agree with the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) that, if this debate is to be the effective start of the general election campaign, it is a very poor beginning. Indeed, if this is the shape of things to come in the general election campaign, the hon. and learned Member for Colchester, North (Sir A. Buck) will not be the only person to have difficulty staying awake over the coming weeks and months.
However, I disagree with the right hon. Member for Yeovil that this poor start is due to general misbehaviour in the House. I should have thought that it was due to the two rather bad speeches by the Leader of the Opposition and by the Prime Minister. There may be a reason for that. It has been argued that, as the Labour and Tory parties come closer together in policy and ideology, the standard of debate suffers because the ideology goes and only the personalities remain. I thought that the quality of debate at the start of this Session was very much reduced.
The hon. Gentleman will have to wait and see.
The Sunday Times could not be called a house journal of the Conservative party in Scotland, but it certainly has the inside track. Last Sunday, it speculated on whether the Tory party had "run out of steam". It accurately forecast the contents of the Queen's Speech. It was a fag-end speech for a fag-end Parliament. The Tory party in Scotland has run out of both steam and ideas. It has even run out of legislation. We have one single, solitary Scottish Bill in this parliamentary Session, because the Conservative party no longer has enough Members north of the border even to man Scottish Committees. Legislation is constricted by the Government's inability to get enough hon. Members to turn up and man the Committees.
Even the few measures that have some relevance to Scotland leave a bitter taste in the mouth. The Bill on higher and further education contains a proposal which will be widely welcomed—a funding council and an extension of the university system. However, parachuted into that legislation will be a further ideological attack on the social fabric of the Scottish education system and the compulsory publication of league tables of primary-tested pupils. I should have thought that, having encountered massive parental opposition to such tests in Scotland over the past year, the Government would have learnt that primary testing is unwanted in Scotland, and decided against moving towards the opting out of Scottish primary schools.
The abolition of the poll tax is probably even more widely welcomed in Scotland than it is in the rest of the United Kingdom. However, it will not go unnoticed north of the border that not only was the poll tax introduced in Scotland a year early but that it was specific Scottish legislation. Scotland was used as a guinea pig for the introduction of the poll tax.
However, when it comes to the abolition of the poll tax, there is no separate Scottish legislation or separate Scottish scrutiny, despite the different structure of local government finance and organisation north of the border. If we were a guinea pig in the introduction of the poll tax, we are an afterthought in its abolition. Apart from anything else, given the various idiosyncracies, nonsense and blunders that were discovered in the poll tax legislation, I should have thought that the Government would welcome effective scrutiny of a new, untried and probably defective council tax system.
The legislation for safety offshore contains provisions that my party will certainly support. The implementation of the Cullen recommendations commands general respect and approval throughout the House. However, although I have not yet seen the detail of the legislation, I doubt whether it will extend to protecting offshore workers against victimisation or guaranteeing their proper rights of representation in trade union affairs.
I hope that the level of debate in the coming general election in Scotland will be somewhat higher than in the rest of the country. That is because clear political choices will be on offer to the Scottish people. There will be choices on the Scottish economy, social services, defence, and Scotland's future within the European Community.
Earlier this week the Royal Bank of Scotland published its authoritative oil index showing a 14 per cent. rise in output, more than 2 million barrels a day, for the first time in several months—perhaps on the way to a new peak in output of 3 million barrels a day of oil and gas equivalent by the end of this century. A basic choice is opening up for Scotland as that new oil and gas boom becomes a reality. With £40,000 million of revenue forecast for the next decade, will that enormous revenue from the North sea fund and bankroll right-wing Governments in London, or will it be invested in the future of the Scottish economy?
At a press conference during the Kincardine and Deeside by-election, I was asked why, in Norway, 60 to 70 per cent. of the orders generated by each oilfield found their way into the Norwegian economy, while the equivalent percentage in Scotland is less than 30 per cent. There is a simple answer. At present in Scotland, we see the active destruction of a steel industry which, over the next decade, should supply millions of tonnes of steel to the North sea market. However, that industry is in the process of being eliminated by British Steel, with the active connivance of the Government. If we destroy the industrial fabric which services and supplies that market opportunity, it is hardly surprising that the Scottish economy stands to lose yet again from the second great oil and gas boom.
For Scotland's energy resources, the matter goes much further than that. Over the past year, the Energy Select Committee closely investigated the real costs of the nuclear industry. The hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse) was interested to make a comparison with the costs of the coal industry, and I was interested to make a comparison with the cost of combined cycle gas generation. The best estimate at which we could arrive for the real cost of nuclear power was about 6p a unit of electricity, which is three times the cost of combined cycle gas generation. However, the Scottish economy faces the ridiculous position of being over-invested in nuclear technology while the great opportunity from massive condensate gasfields in own waters will go a-begging or, more accurately, will be subsidised and piped south to Teesside, again being offest, against petroleum revenue tax where it will then be used to undercut the Scottish industrial sector.
Those are the hard and clear political choices that will be on offer to the Scottish people in the general election. However, there will also be clear choices on social services and on where expenditure should go as between defence and vital services. The right hon. Member for Yeovil has some difficulty in answering a clear question about his party's position on the Trident missile system. All three London-based parties will have that same difficulty in the general election.
Last Sunday's edition of Scotland on Sunday carried on its front page the story that there were severe doubts at senior level within the Ministry of Defence about the cost and effectiveness of the unwanted, dangerous and totally useless strategic nuclear deterrent with its lifetime cost of at least £23,000 million—perhaps more—and about the strains that that would place on the rest of the defence budget.
Let us nail the argument and the excuse that is used by both the Liberal Democrats and the Labour party about their new-found support for the Trident nuclear system. They argue that the money has been spent anyway. That might be true of some elements of the capital cost. The most recent estimate is that about £6 billion has been committed, estimated and contracted for. However, the lifetime cost of the Trident system has been estimated at at least £23,000 million, of which, therefore, less than one third has already been committed. How can any party—especially the Labour party—which refuses to give a precise funding commitment to the national health service live with itself when it is prepared to give a precise funding commitment for the amount of money it will pour into the Trident missile system in the next 10 to 15 years?
I notice that one of the many hon. Members representing the Strathclyde region is now sitting on the Opposition Front Bench. He will be aware of the number of crumbling schools in Strathclyde, so perhaps he would like to comment on the calculation that the Scottish share of the savings from cancelling the Trident missile system could build 12,000 new houses, 16 new hospitals and 177 new schools—schools which I am sure his constituents would welcome.
Where on earth are the 512 warheads of the Trident system to be pointed? They have a range of 6,000 miles and were designed to penetrate the defences around Moscow. Are we really going to threaten Boris Yeltsin and the Russian federation with that useless military plaything for which we have no further strategic use and which will cripple not only the defence budget, but also the social services budget for the next 10 or 15 years unless we call an end now to the madness and obscenity? At the coming election, there will be a clear political choice in Scotland between bombs and beds, and bombs and bairns.
I welcome the positive reference in the Queen's Speech:
The United Kingdom will continue to develop our good relations with the Soviet Union and its republics, and to encourage their integration into the world economy; and will work to help Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania re-establish themselves in the international community.
I also welcomed the Prime Minister's speech in Paris just a few weeks ago in which he said that, during the coming decade, about 30 countries—new states, emerging democracies—would apply for and get a place within the European Community. Although the Prime Minister also said that no one could gainsay that process of democracy and its progress throughout Europe, like the leaders of the other London parties, he will have to explain why self-determination and democracy are good things across the continent of Europe, but cannot be applied to the Scottish people. I do not believe that Scotland will accept the second-class status of being a regional periphery in the Community when the first-class status of membership is available to us.
There is a clear choice. We can either be a regional backwater and allow Scotland's resources to be misused and wasted, or we can start to rebuild the Scottish economy, fund Scottish social services, and ensure that our country once again plays a full and responsible role in the international community. I have great confidence that, if this debate marks the onset of the general election campaign, its conclusion will be that the people will make a decisive political choice in favour of that future for Scotland.
I should like to join in the congratulations that have been paid to my right hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Walker) and to my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken) who moved and seconded the Loyal Address.
It is now quite a long time since I first met my right hon. Friend the Member for Worcester when I went along to canvass for him during the 1961 by-election in the Worcester constituency. Happily, I did not do him any harm and he was returned with a good majority. Since then, he has established himself as one of the outstanding parliamentarians of his generation. He has undoubtedly been one of the most successful departmental Ministers during the period that I have been a Member of the House. He has served at the Departments of the Environment, Trade and Industry and Energy, at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and, more recently, at the Welsh Office. Unfortunately, my right hon. Friend is leaving the House at the next general election. He will be greatly missed by hon. Members of all parties.
Unfortunately, the next months will be dominated by the forthcoming general election—indeed, we have seen some evidence of that this afternoon—and I am afraid that the British people will become fed up with politics and politicians before polling day. Although no one knows exactly when the election will take place, we do know that the Session has a maximum of eight months to run. It is therefore surprising that the Gracious Speech contains a remarkably full legislative programme, most of which I warmly welcome.
Of the measures to be introduced, the council tax legislation is far and away the most important and the most welcome for negative as well as positive reasons. The Bill that will introduce the council tax is welcome for the negative reason that it will result in the removal of the poll tax from the statute book. That measure was fatally flawed from the start because it was a flat-rate tax and was consequently unfair. It violated the fundamental principle of sound taxation that a tax should bear some relation to ability to pay.
However, the council tax should be welcomed for positive reasons also. First, it takes into consideration ability to pay. Generally speaking, better-off people live in bigger houses and, under the council tax, the occupants of bigger houses will pay more than those who live in smaller houses. The discount of 25 per cent. for single adult households recognises the position of those living on their own, more than two thirds of whom are over 60. Moreover, there will be only one bill per household and no expensive register to maintain despite what the leader of the Opposition said earlier. All in all, therefore, the council tax will be fairer and easier and cheaper to administer than either the poll tax or the rates and I warmly welcome its introduction. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment is worthy of the warmest congratulations for burying the poll tax and devising what is undoubtedly a better system of raising local government revenue than any previous system.
I also warmly welcome the Government's commitment in the Gracious Speech to the national health service—not that that commitment should be in any doubt. On the basis of any objective assessment of the Government's performance during the past twelve and a half years, they have shown a very strong commitment to the national health service. By any standard, whether judged on the real-terms increase in expenditure, on the increase in the number of patients treated, on the increase in the number of nurses and doctors employed or on the shortening of waiting lists, the national health service is in a much better state and gives a much better service now than it did in May 1979. Of course, it is not perfect. From time to time things go wrong, particularly in such a large organisation as the national health service, employing as it does probably more people than any other organisation in Europe, But the deficiencies and weaknesses that occur do not excuse the disgraceful and deplorable campaign which is being run by the Labour party.
Labour's campaign is based on falsehoods and distortions which are causing worry to some of the most vulnerable people in our society. I have always believed that the Labour party is an honourable and caring party, although sometimes it is misguided. I hope that it will have second thoughts, at least about certain aspects of its campaign.
One of the main charges that the Opposition make about the health service is that it is underfunded. I am not sure what that means but if it means that more could be spent on the NHS, that is a statement of the obvious. It has always and always will be true, and not only about the national health service, it is true about everything, for the simple reason that resources are limited and always will be.
The hon. Gentleman makes points which will be replied to later in the debate from the Labour Back and Front Benches. Is he aware that a major credit company has sent out a leaflet telling peple that they should take various measures to safeguard themselves? It says:
You probably find your whole way of life affected while you wait and wait to go into hospital. You might suffer irritation or embarrassment from a painful or unsightly condition. You may even be forced to take time off work.
That is from not the Labour party but a major credit company. It urges people to go private because it is aware of the long time that people have to wait for NHS treatment.
I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman should quote a major credit company as gospel on an issue such as this. I should have thought that in most cases he would denounce such an organisation. Indeed, the opinion of one body does not matter very much. In any case, I think that I am right in saying that there was a bigger movement to the private health sector in 1979 when his friends were in office than has taken place at any other time.
I was talking about the limitation of resources. It is as well to remind the House that the Royal Commission on the national health service concluded that we could spend the entire gross domestic product on health and there would still be unsatisfied demand for health care. However, the real world is about determining priorities. The percentage of the GDP devoted to the national health service provides as good a measure as any of the priority which a Government give to health.
In an answer to a written parliamentary question which I received from my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Mr. Dorrell), the Under-Secretary of State for Health, on 22 October I was told that total Government expenditure on health as a proportion of the gross domestic product was 4·70 per cent. in 1974 and 4·77 per cent. in 1979. By 1990 it had risen to 5·22 per cent. The anticipated level for this year is 5·7 per cent.
In the debate on the national health service in the House on 21 October the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) said:
Over the lifetime of the Parliament, we shall seek to restore the underfunding … We shall do it next time because we did it last time."—[Official Report, 21 October 1991; Vol. 196, col. 673.]
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister quoted that this afternoon. But the figures show an increase in the proportion of GDP devoted to the NHS of only 0·07 per cent. when the last Labour Government were in power, compared with an increase of 0·5 per cent. of GDP between 1979 and 1990, and an anticipated further increase of 0·5 per cent. this year. That makes a total increase of about 1 per cent. under this Government.
The figures show clearly that the present Conservative Government have given higher priority to national health service spending than did their Labour predecessors. They also show that the Government have given higher priority to reducing underfunding in the national health service than did Labour. So we know what Labour did the last time. The hon. Member for Livingston has warned us that Labour will do the same again. Therefore, the NHS can expect little or nothing from a future Labour Government.
Despite the Government's reasonably good record on health spending, I personally believe that we should spend a higher proportion of our GDP on the NHS. Therefore, I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury is being generous to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health in this year's public spending round. While I accept that throwing money at problems does not necessarily solve them, it can help. If anyone doubts that, perhaps I could remind them of the £140 per person thrown at poll tax payers in the Budget this year.
Earlier this week I attended a dinner to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the vote in this House on 28 October 1971 in favour of the principle of British membership of the European Community. My passionate belief in the unity of Europe made that vote the high point of my membership of the House. Since 1971 progress on the Community has been disappointingly slow, although the establishment of the European monetary system and the Single European Act were important and significant advances.
During the past 20 years Britain's attitude to the Community has left a great deal to be desired. Too often we have opted out of negotiations about new developments in the European Community, only to have to accept at a later date decisions in which we played no part and which do not particularly suit us. Therefore, I am pleased that Britain is playing a full part in the negotiations in the intergovernmental conferences on political union and economic and monetary union.
Greater political co-operation in the Community is essential if our influence is to be felt in the world. It is becoming increasingly obvious that if the countries of the Community speak with one voice in the world they will exert more influence than if they speak with separate voices. For example, does anyone seriously believe that the Prime Minister's safe haven plan for the Kurds would have been a starter if it had been a purely British rather than a European Community initiative?
Greater economic and monetary union are also essential if Britain and her European Community partners are to ensure that they gain full advantage from the single market, which will be completed in 14 months. Despite the Government's hesitations, I am convinced that a single currency in the European Community is in the interests of Britain, in exactly the same way that a single United Kingdom currency has been in the interests of the member countries of the United Kingdom and that a single United States currency has been in the interests of the states of the USA.
Surely no one seriously suggests that California, which has a population not greatly different in size from that of Britain, would be as prosperous if it and the other American states had separate currencies, with all the obstacles that that would create for the flow of trade and other economic activity. Why should things be any different in the European Community? A single currency must be in the interests of the people of the Community, and the sooner we have it the better.
The draft treaty on economic and monetary union which was published on Monday offers to member countries the possibility of opting out of the single currency. That has been hailed as a triumph for British diplomacy. But opting out of a single currency is not an option that Britain should seek to adopt. Why of the Twelve should we appear to be the only country to need that option, even if only in reserve? Opting out would be for the second rate and I do not believe that Britain is second rate, although we are perhaps somewhat lacking in self-confidence.
I should like to make two, final, brief points about the intergovernmental conferences. First, I hope that my right hon. Friends will not allow themselves to be influenced in the negotiations by scare stories about conceding sovereignty. A great deal of the substance of our supposed sovereignty has already passed from this country for reasons beyond our control. Only the form of sovereignty remains with us. The only way in which we can retrieve the substance of that sovereignty is by pooling the form with our European Community partners. United we can exert far more sovereignty than the sum total of what we can exert separately.
Secondly, there is much criticism of the democratic deficit in the European Community. I have a great deal of sympathy with that criticism. If we want to do something about the democratic deficit, we must show a greater willingness to give increased powers to the one body that can make the Community more democratic—the European Parliament. After all, it is elected by universal suffrage. Because of our long experience of democracy in this country, I have always hoped that we would play an important part in the democratisation of the Community. I hope that we can now give a lead to the Community in that respect.
It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Mr. Knox). Although I found some of his arguments persuasive, I do not intend to pursue them.
We have all read with great interest the proposals in the Gracious Speech. The right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), the leader of the Liberal Democratic party, made his customary argument for fixed-term Parliaments. Whatever the merits of the argument, by common consent this Government are now living on borrowed time. We had 12 years of Thatcherism, which was supposed to have cured all evils. On the contrary, in a recent book Mr. Christopher Johnson, a well-known and respected economic commentator and a Treasury adviser during some of the Thatcher years, points out that her reign achieved little. He asserts that the country
is still suffering from the ills she set out to cure.
The right hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) constantly lectured the nation about the dangers of living beyond its means, but her Government presided over the biggest spending boom in British history. In the mid-1980s people were bombarded with literature from banks, building societies and business firms imploring them to borrow and lay out money far beyond their means. The consequence of all that mismanagement is the recession and all the hardship suffered by British people, particularly in the past 18 months. Yet the Gracious Speech refers to pursuing "firm financial policies". It seems to be a case of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted.
Our public services have been shamefully run down and the blame attributed to our local authorities. There has been a marked widening of the gap between rich and poor. The introduction of the poll tax was a disaster of the first order and its successor—"the new council tax" referred to in the Gracious Speech—is likely to be equally unjust.
In the Gracious Speech the Government say:
Action will be taken to improve quality and choice in education.
That action is vitally needed because the morale of our teachers is at an all-time low. Students are being denied state benefits during vacations and many of them, invariably from working-class homes, are quitting their courses.
The Gracious Speech also refers to improving
the working of the economy.
Again, that is long overdue. Bankruptcies are at a record level. In the first nine months of this year more than 33,500 businesses collapsed. Every working day 200 firms fail. As Chancellor of the Exchequer, the present Prime Minister held interest rates at their highest ever for the longest ever, placing a crushing burden on British business. Home repossessions are running at a record 100,000 a year, with all the anguish and hardship that they cause.
In the Gracious Speech the Government say that they will
develop policies to enhance the nation's health.
Yet our national health service, once the pride of the nation, is now ill equipped and underfunded, besides suffering from creeping privatisation under the guise of reform. No gimmicky patients charter can paper over the cracks.
The greatest scourge of all is the ever-escalating rise in the unemployment figures. In the Gracious Speech the Government say that they will
maintain the conditions necessary for sustained growth.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer has told us that unemployment is a price worth paying—we heard that straight from the horses's mouth, so to speak—but unemployment is not a thing; it is made up of life upon life and person upon person whose existence is cramped and crushed by the inability to earn money and have the self-respect of working. Unemployment has risen nationwide for the 18th consecutive month and has now reached a peak of well over 2·4 million. The cost of unemployment to the Exchequer is reckoned to be £8,900 for every benefit claimant.
The cost in social and human terms is even greater. All manner of deprivation is associated with unemployment. Research has consistently shown that unemployment and poverty are linked to ill-health. The escalating crime rate is also clearly associated. Likewise, unemployment can be closely identified with the escalating divorce rates, child abuse and child battering. Yet the same Government who have created this heavy unemployment claim a commitment to family life and talk about the sanctity of children's rights. They could have fooled me.
My constituency has good communications. On the eastern seaboard it is linked to the motorway network both to the south-east and to the midlands. Yet unemployment in the Newport travel-to-work area now stands at 11·7 per cent. In my constituency 27 people compete for each vacancy. Ministers constantly lecture us about high wages being a major factor in the rise in unemployment, yet Wales, which is invariably top of the league for the number of jobless, is correspondingly bottom of the table for wages. The real cause of our problems is that as a nation we are no longer making things. The former Chancellor of the Exchequer, the right hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Lawson), once told us that a pound earned in the service sector was as good as a pound earned in manufacturing. Yet the strength of the two major industrial powers, Germany and Japan, has been built on the success of their manufacturing industry.
By contrast, in Britain 342,000 jobs have been lost in manufacturing since August 1991. Unless action is now taken to rebuild British manufacturing, we are doomed to a further bout of inflation and a third recession. The loss of manufacturing capacity in the early 1980s played a major part in the overheating of the economy at the end of the decade.
The motor industry provides one example. It is a vital sector of the economy, yet according to a recent publication by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders the Government's fiscal policy is putting the whole future of the industry at risk. The vehicle market has suffered its worst decline for a decade. Car sales for the first eight months of this year were down by 22 per cent. The recession was aggravated by the Chancellor's punitive Budget. The 10 per cent. special car tax and the recent increase in VAT combined to add more than 27 per cent. to the price of a new car.
We in Wales have a vital stake in the motor industry. Our steel industry is closely linked to it and we have major component manufacturers—Ford Engines at Bridgend, Lucas Girling at Cwmbran and the new Bosch alternator plant in the vale of Glamorgan.
In his recent book, the former Secretary of State for Wales, the right hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Walker), pointed out that had it not been for the intervention of the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher), we should have had the Toyota motor assembly plant in Newport. Instead, it was diverted to Derby, where there are more Tory marginal seats. How cynical can one get? I am sorry that the right hon. Member for Worcester did not mention the former Prime Minister's intervention this afternoon. The people of Wales are not likely to forget it and all Tory candidates in Wales should be reminded of it during the forthcoming general election.
The present Prime Minister held important offices in the Thatcher Administration and many punitive measures can be directly attributed to him, especially in his capacity as Chief Secretary to the Treasury. The freezing of child benefit for four years and the abolition of benefit for 16 and 17-year-olds are but two examples. I have already referred to the punitive interest rates for which he was responsible which did so much damage to the British economy.
The Thatcher years were a disaster for Britain. We are back where we started and people have paid with their homes, their jobs and their businesses. Now it is the principal task of the chairman of the Conservative party to try to pretend that those things never happened. He has a difficult task. The Prime Minister claims to be a modest man. After 12 years of Conservative Government, all that I can say is that he has a lot to be modest about.
The first day of a new Session of Parliament is always interesting and has a particular flavour, even though the old Session had been consigned to its vault only a few days earlier. It is almost a feeling of renewal as we confront a new Queen's Speech. Generally, people start off being nicer to each other—that applies not only to Members on the other side of the House but to Members on this side. That is a very pleasant experience for us. The lion sits down with the lamb. It is glad confident morning again. Then we get to the afternoon, the speeches begin and the old ways quickly come back.
With reference to the economy, it has been a painful business pulling ourselves out of the difficulties into which we ran—or rather, walked—in 1987–88. Since then, two factors have been strongly in our favour. The first is the Government's firm resolution against inflation. That has meant increased unemployment—unfortunately, that is the cost of inflation and of any effective method of eradicating inflation. We all know from our constituency experience how distressing it is for people directly affected and for those who fear that they might be affected.
In Portsmouth now, as in the early 1980s, unemployment has been, and still is, rising. Fortunately, the Government have produced policies to improve the employability of individuals through training, retraining and the more efficient operation of jobcentres, job clubs and executive job clubs. All that is important, and it is being carried out efficiently in Portsmouth.
The Government know, as do the recent converts among Opposition Members to much Government thinking, that in the end it is the strength of the private sector that counts. Businesses, large and small, expanding and employing people, will create the jobs to put the unemployed back to work. That was the experience in the mid-1980s and it will be so again in the 1990s, provided that we can keep Conservative Governments, with their ideas for improving the public sector. The necessary conditions are lower public spending in relation to gross domestic product, as envisaged in the Gracious Speech. low taxation and lack of bureaucratic interference. The jobs will surely follow if we pursue those policies.
The second factor favouring swifter progress out of the recession has been the negligible number of strikes and the small amount of other industrial inaction. Strikes and so-called industrial action—in fact, it was inaction—dogged the Governments of the 1970s and slowed the recovery of the 1980s until a new culture, based on sensible new laws, took a proper hold.
It is an immense advance to be able to pull an economy from recession into growth without all the hassle of incomes policies, pay pauses, pay freezes and all the other paraphernalia which now—thank goodness—seem like ancient history. It is important that people should bear that strongly in mind, especially those who will vote for the first time in the general election. Such people do not remember—indeed, they never knew—what it was like to wonder almost daily, especially in winter, whether the ordinary citizen would be held to ransom in one aspect of life or another.
Would the lights turn on? Would the heating be gone? Would the trains or the buses be running? Would the post arrive? Would petrol be available without having to queue and wish that one had been kinder to the local petrol station manager over the years, so that he would give one a gallon or two although well back in the queue?
All those fears and insecurities have virtually gone. However, I still recall them, because even now I still use candles from the boxes I had stored during those difficult years. That dates me almost as much as remembering when Paul Anka was top of the hit parade with "Diana", or Brigitte Bardot first leapt into the air advertising Air France.
We all have memories of those far-off days of union warfare against the public. I remember with nostalgia the encouragement to share a bath, if not a bed. That was a moment in history when patriotism and passion could be unequivocally combined. It was not only Queen Victoria who was encouraged to "do it for England".
The Labour leader is anxious to jettison any inconvenient ballast in the face of storm clouds—the storm clouds of a general election. However, under a Labour Government there is no doubt that militant unionism would be back. I do not pretend for one moment that the majority of the Labour party wants such a result. It would not happen on day one of a new Labour Government, but, after those first days of sweetness and light and brotherly love, the laws of the past 10 years against union militancy—laws that have been painfully and courageously erected—would be dismantled. Worse still, those laws would not be enforced.
Under such a Labour Government, we would have a repeat of the images that appeared on the television screens in the late 1970s, which I remember well. Then, apparently, impotent Labour Ministers would virtually throw up their hands while asking what they could do in the face of the grave difficulties that the public were experiencing. We do not need any reminding that those experiences led to the election of a Conservative Government in 1979, who have remained in power ever since.
When the election comes, the electorate will seek a pledge from the Labour party—it will face a serious challenge. Many people will want to know how a Labour Government would deal with the pay-off to the unions, because the unions would claim that they had helped the Labour party considerably to get back into government. The answer to that question will influence much of the voting at the general election.
The citizens charter is a good example of the way in which times have changed—it is a monument to the new climate of the 1990s. The transformed state of industrial relations and the major reforms undertaken to our public utilities and services form the essential background to the charter. The proposals in that charter would have been met with a horse laugh and sheer incredulity in the 1960s and 1970s. No one would have believed that one could produce such improvements, given the size of the then unions and the massive public sector.
Over many years, the Government have returned much of the public sector to the private sector—where it should have been in the first place. I expect that those changes will remain even though the Labour party has promised that some services will be renationalised. However, the cost of returning such services to the public sector would be so great that I do not believe that a Labour Government would choose that action should they ever have the chance. Any such attempts would be totally impracticable and Labour Back Benchers would soon discover that their Chancellor would say "No, no, no" to any such fanciful schemes.
People no longer believe that the citizens charter is impractical, and it does not cause a hollow laugh. Instead, people ask whether it goes far enough. I hope that it will go further when experience shows what success can be achieved by concentrating seriously on improving public services. We must, as far as possible, achieve the same standard of service in the public sector as we expect when we walk into a shop operated in the private sector. That shopkeeper is interested in our business, because it is his livelihood and he must make a profit to keep it. We must transfer that discipline to the public sector.
Of course, many people employed in the public sector work as hard as they can and have all the right attitudes. We must make that practice the norm, just as it is in the best businesses in the private sector.
The Government face the challenge to introduce a system of local government taxation that proves fair and acceptable. In common with the community charge, the crucial test of the council tax will be the amount that people are expected to pay. That should be the bottom line of any reform. The words of Macaulay always hang over Ministers when they attempt to introduce a new tax—they were there when the Government attempted to reform local government tax through the community charge. He said:
Unjust and absurd taxation to which people are accustomed is often borne far more willingly than the most reasonable impost which is new.
I remember that that tendency dogged any new tax that was proposed by previous Labour Governments. I remember SET—selective employment tax—which came and went rather quickly. I also thought of those words many times during the community charge saga.
We must get the amount right, and it must be calculated on as fair a basis as possible. No one likes paying taxes, whether they are local or central. However, the amounts must be right and people must be made aware that their contribution is made in accordance with their ability to pay. The system must be perceived to be fair: then support for it will follow.
The Opposition claim that the council tax is a new rating system, but that is a hollow claim. It is difficult to identify the type of property tax that would be introduced by the Labour party. I should be interested to learn how the Labour party distinguishes what it proposes from what the Government are proposing. I wish good luck to those hon. Friends responsible for the legislation.
Does my hon. Friend acknowledge that there is another partner in the enterprise—those who spend all the money raised by local authorities as well as the enormous grants by which taxpayers subsidise them? It is important that local authorities recognise that they have a responsibility for the new tax. It is their responsibility to maintain spending at a reasonable level, and it should not grow anything like as fast and by as much as it has in the past few years.
That is at the root of what happened during the first year of the community charge. Local councils pushed up their expenditure to such an extent that the gap that had to be met by the community charge was greater than that that had to be met by the rates. If that matter had been addressed with greater effect, the problems with the amounts charged would not have arisen.
Under the new system, there must be an obligation on local councils to ensure that their expenditure is kept within reasonable limits and takes account not only of the local taxpayer but of the national taxpayer who has to meet so much of the local bill.
I also welcome the commitment to establish a review of local government structure in England. Every time we have such a review, it is claimed that the result will lead to cheaper and better local government, which is closer to the people. However, we often find that it is difficult to put such reforms into effect. In 1974, the reforms that were introduced met with disapproval from many people from the start. I accept that any change meets with some disapproval, but the changes made in that era are still met with widespread disapproval.
I am pleased that those changes are now to be reconsidered, and I hope that that will lead to Portsmouth's independence from Hampshire county council. That would be the best result for Portsmouth, in common with other major cities. Those cities should return to their former county borough status so that they are perceived to be closer to their local people and are able to make the decisions that relate to them. I have absolutely no doubt that the people of Portsmouth will make their views well known to Ministers during the review. I want to make it absolutely clear that this is where Portsmouth stands on the matter.
The Queen's Speech also refers to the regeneration of our cities, a crucial aspect of which is the continuing concentration on improved housing in Portsmouth and other great cities. I agree with the hon. Member for Preston (Mrs. Wise) about the importance of this subject, but I do not agree with her solutions. On several occasions during my four and a half years here I have discussed this matter. It is not the shortage of homes in which people can live satisfactorily that is at the root of the problem. We have more than enough homes in the public and private sectors: the problem is the mismatch between the number of places in which people can decently live and their availability to those who need them.
We do not have this trouble with the supply and demand of food and clothing—the other two basics—but we do have it with shelter. The crucial difference in the case of shelter has been the virtual eradication of private rented accommodation. If, since 1945, there had been Clothing Acts to discourage or suppress Marks and Spencer, C and A and so on, to tell them what prices to charge and which customers to keep; if there had been Food Acts to shackle and control the operations of Sainsbury, Tesco, Asda and the rest, the hon. Member for Preston would have bitterly complained that the Government were not doing enough about queues for council food or council clothing. Of course councils would not be able to cope in such circumstances; nor should they be expected to cope with the demand for shelter.
Bed-and-breakfast accommodation is not the solution for families; it is short-term emergency accommodation only. In the 1990s it must be discontinued.
Thus far, everyone agrees, but at this point agreement between the two sides of the House breaks down. Never in my lifetime have Governments or councils coped satisfactorily with the queues for council housing—not even when tower blocks and flat-roofed maisonettes replaced prefabs. Many people were reluctant to leave their prefabs; much of what replaced them was built in the same sort of ferry way. In the 1960s and 1970s, the accent was on numbers. Flimsy construction did not matter: nor did the destruction of communities. People had to be given state-of-the-art homes—that was the solution to everything.
Unfortunately, this was not the solution. Such accommodation now requires a great deal of expenditure on rebuilding, refurbishment and even demolition. Tower blocks were a well intended attempt to sort out the queues for housing, but they failed in that attempt.
I remind the House that the programme "Cathy Come Home" was made a generation ago, not when my right hon. Friend the Member for Finchley was Prime Minister. Years of Labour government followed it. It is difficult to take advice on housing from the Opposition. given their record while in government.
We cannot sort out the problem merely by injecting more and more local and taxpayers' money. The Government have rightly begun to expect councils to adopt an enabling role in the provision of social housing. We may not be able to do anything more about the Rent Acts yet, but we tried in the most recent housing legislation to free lettings under those Acts. That will have an effect, as will some other initiatives that I intend to mention.
The enabling role of local authorities is crucial. It puts aside the idea that councils alone must provide housing. Instead, they must work with whatever means are to hand—housing associations or the private rented sector. Councils should be able to winkle out housing for people who need it. If homes are under-used or empty, they should make it possible to occupy them. If this attitude is adopted—it already is by forward-looking councils—we shall get to the bottom of the problem.
I welcome three initiatives, the first of which is the pilot schemes encouraging private owners to let homes through housing associations as managing agents. That is a good start; if we cannot repeal the Rent Acts so as to free housing, like food and clothing, we can at least use housing associations as managing agents to give people the confidence that they can let their houses for a guaranteed period and for a reasonable rate of return, knowing that they will be able to get back their homes at the end of a fixed term. I hope that the scheme will be successful, and will spread throughout the country as soon as possible. I read the other day that the first tenant to take up accommodation under such a scheme is pleased with it.
The second initiative offers encouragement to let empty flats over shops. Twenty-five million pounds has been made available, and local authorities can bid for it to develop schemes to this end. Housing associations would run the scheme. In Portsmouth, there are many empty properties, over shops and in private housing—indeed, most housing there is private. Many people would use some of their accommodation for letting if only they were constructively allowed to do so. This is a good scheme.
The housing investment programme is to be distributed on the criteria of how efficiently councils have managed their housing stock and of how well they have executed their enabling powers. That is a great improvement. It is important to know how well councils have carried out their responsibilities under the legislation.
The housing problem desperately needs maximum co-operation from all the political parties. It is no good re-fighting the old battles—as the hon. Member for Preston did—over the sale of council houses. In any case, I understand that that is now Labour party policy. The sale of council flats should also be more encouraged.
Official Labour party policy will soon catch up with what we Conservatives do, which is why I strongly urge the Government to take their courage in both hands to mobilise the private sector in an effort to provide more rented housing.
There is much to be done in the 1990s, and I have no doubt that the Prime Minister is the man to lead the Government during that time. Much of the world is already moving in the direction marked out by my right hon. Friend the Member for Finchley; our example has been adopted by many formerly left-wing countries. Even Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen have concluded as much.
We are flattered by the Opposition's adoption of so many of our policies, but when it comes to the election, people will be able to distinguish the real thing from the imitation which has been concocted from an abandonment of principles in an attempt to fool enough people for one election. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is welcome to go the whole five years if he wants to, and I have no doubt that, when he presses the button, the Government will be re-elected for another term.
I listened with great interest to the speeches of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. Naturally enough, I listened specifically for references to one of the greatest problems that has been affecting this Parliament for a considerable time. I heard no reference to it. Perhaps it was the din or the fact that people are becoming excited as we approach not only the beginning of a new Parliament but the end of a new Parliament. I still hope that, at some time during the debate on the Queen's Speech, I will hear a reference to an issue that has resulted in more than 3,500 dead people and the expenditure of £2 billion a year, caused enormous suffering and disruption, blighted the legal system of this country, and brought the Government before the bar of the European Court on numerous occasions and caused them to derogate from it. I could go on ad infinitum.
On that basis, one might hope that there would have been a little reference to that problem in those major speeches. Perhaps the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in their wisdom decided that certain issues transcend the party haggling that goes on across this Floor and that some issues are too serious to be dealt with in a contribution to the debate on the Queen's Speech. If so, I do them a substantial injustice. If not, I hope that my scepticism does not turn into cynicism too soon.
The hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Martin), who spoke so well, referred to the beginning of a new Parliament. It is a new Session of Parliament but I prefer to see it as the beginning of the end of this Parliament. In many ways it is the end of an era of what is and will be known as Thatcherism. I shall not comment on that. It could well be the end of a period when one-party
government was the norm. It may be the beginning of the end of that too. It is certainly the end of an era when everything in political terms looked cast in concrete and permanency. However, when we consider what is happening throughout the world, we see that that is not the case. Echoes are reaching us from Madrid, and the whole world hopes that that ancient problem will be tackled and solved. We have seen what has happened in Germany and Russia and the advances that have taken place in South Africa. We have even seen changes in Vietnam's approach. Yet, in the words of Winston Churchill:
The dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone still are haggling about their ancient quarrel".
We can smile when we consider the matter in those terms.
The only question that I wish to pose tonight is whether the political parties involved—that means all of us, including the Government, the Opposition, my party, the Unionist parties, the Liberal and Social Democrats, the Scottish Nationalists, Plaid Cymru and everyone who enters the Chamber, as well as the parties that sit in Dublin—have the will to create a political solution to a fundamental political problem. That is the essence of the Northern Irish problem as it affects us as legislators. It is not good enough for Prime Ministers and Leaders of the Opposition to ignore a fundamental issue that has faced us for 21 years. We must realise that that is the key question. If politics and the political process mean anything to us, it is the solving of political problems. If we do not do that, we are not facing up to our responsibilities, we are not in a position to pontificate to anyone else, and we are shirking what we have been elected to do. We are shirking our roles of government if we are in Government, opposition if we are in Opposition and spokesmen if we are in minority parties.
Are the Government or the Opposition content to let that problem simmer away on the back burner? Is Parliament content to allow the problem to seep over unresolved into a new century, or will the last anachronism of Europe finally be solved in a positive, creative way by those of us responsible for solving it? That is our challenge.
I thank the hon. Member for that legitimate and serious question. This House has a role to play because Northern Ireland exists under the Government. The House, individual hon. Members and political parties have a role to play, as have the political parties in the Republic of Ireland and the Government of the Republic of Ireland, who have a central role. However, our role is more central, even on the most banal basis—the £2 billion of the Government's money that goes into that bottomless abyss year after year. Soldiers from this country stand at look-out posts and are shot. For what? People from this country are suffering the embarrassment of it all and that is why the primary responsibility lies here and should never be shirked.
If the hon. Gentleman asks me whether I agree that the Irish issue should be pushed upstairs and taken off the Floor of the House, I certainly do not. The matter must be resolved on the Floor of the House and within this forum. I see why many hon. Members on both sides of the House would want it to be pushed upstairs out of sight and out of mind. That would be a substantial problem for everyone concerned with the north of Ireland. If the hon. Gentleman says that there is a device whereby legislation could be scrutinised more efficiently, I would look at that.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the British-Irish parliamentary body, on which we both have the honour to serve, at least provides a forum where British and Irish parliamentarians can meet twice a year? Does he also agree that, although the violence of the provisional IRA and others who claim with no legitimacy to speak for the Irish people as a whole, is sickening, it is equally disgusting, disgraceful and sickening to see those who claim to be loyal to the Unionist cause killing, tit for tat, for no reason other than that people happen to be Catholic?
The inter-parliamentary body has been successful. Last week there was a successful visit by members of one of those committees to Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. It did not sit in the hallowed tombs of Stormont or Leinster House, but went out to the border areas, saw the problems and listened to those involved. It was a remarkable education for all of us, including me, who has lived there for many years.
The hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) knows my views on violence from whatever source. Let those involved in violence—who plan it, carry it out or are in any way responsible for it—realise the damage that they are doing to people living in the district. They damage not only the unfortunate victims and their families, and those touched in an immediate way by the violence, but the entire community. Such violence saps hope and resilience out of a community, and induces despair. As the rest of Europe and the world progresses, are we to be left in a quagmire of despair at the end of another parliamentary Session, another era and another century? Is it too much to hope, ask or even start demanding that those who exercise authority in respect of the problem—those sitting in Government, whether here or in the Republic of Ireland—start to solve that problem? We should at least he able to start anew with some element of hope.
There are no excuses left for me or anyone in my position, for Government or for Opposition. Some people try to use the escape hatch of saying that the problem is a religious one, but it is not, although there are substantial religious overtones. It is not a socio-economic problem, although poverty exacerbates it. It is not an ethnic problem, although differences of identity are involved. It is simply and solely a political problem which politicians, political parties and Governments must set about solving through the political process. If we do not do that, we are abdicating responsibility and refusing to fulfil our primary role—to tackle and solve problems of a substantial nature. If we do not begin to address the problem, we shall be doing irreparable damage to our political profession, which I greatly respect. We shall be debasing and demeaning it, and allowing people involved in violence, thuggery and gangsterism to usurp the role of elected representatives.
The question I pose is the one that I asked at the beginning of my speech: do those in government and opposition have the courage to set about creating a new beginning to bring about peace, political stability, and an end to the tensions between Ireland and Britain, and can they bring the beginnings of hope for my constituents and the people in the north of Ireland? We shall answer that question; we shall not ignore it when it crops up. When the time is right to speak about it we shall do so. The time was right for the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition to do so today, but they did not. Out of sight is not out of mind; the problem will not go away, but must be solved. It is our job to do so.
I shall not follow the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) who spoke about Ireland, because I am not qualified to do so, except to say that Ireland recently gave us the best rugby match in the world cup. Many years ago I spent several happy hours playing rugby against and with the London Irish and other Irish teams of both Catholics and Protestants. We played and fought hard, and it is sad to reflect that the plethora of political parties to which the hon. Member referred seems unable to produce the good will, fellowship and spirit that prevailed in those days.
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Walker) who so skilfully moved the Loyal Address. He and I have been friends for many years; we were Young Conservatives together—it seems like almost 100 years ago—and since then we have remained friends. I have increasingly admired his remarkable ability. In my parliamentary experience, I do not think that there is anybody with such quick political acumen. As one who served as a junior Minister in his Department many years ago, I know of no one as good at creating a team spirit among colleagues. He will be missed from the Chamber and I shall miss him personally.
I shall confine my remarks to one aspect of the Queen's Speech, the citizens charter, which is important. Historically we were brought up to believe that the customer was always right. During the war there were queues of people docilely waiting while rations were doled out. If we add to that the natural British subservience and our reluctance to complain, we realise the bleak position of the time, which to some extent continues. We then experienced post-war austerity under gloomy Sir Stafford Cripps, with ever increasing demands for higher standards. We sometimes responded to those demands with excessively bureaucratic consumerism; quangos were set up, the sole effect of which was not so much to help the citizen but to stifle industry, particularly small industry.
I am sorry to say to Opposition Members that since the war we have been cursed with the wretched socialist philosophy that work is for the benefit of employees, not consumers, and employees come first, while customers come second or last. The return of free enterprise and healthy competition has changed all that. However, I must make the criticism that in recent years, despite some improvement, we have faced another dangerous new philosophy in the business world, that what one can get away with is justified. I condemn that philosophy. It has become fashionable to skate just within the law.
I spent much of my working life in the City of London and was brought up to believe that my word was my bond, which was the traditional philosophy. I am bound to say that if someone in the City today were to say that his word was his bond, one would be well advised to take his bond. It is not just one side of our industrial affairs that must be rectified. Nationalised industries and so-called state enterprises are still the most ghastly and still give the worst service.
When dealing with staff at any British Rail terminal booking office, one would think that they did not want to sell a ticket, so reluctant are they. I think that the standard of service given by British Rail staff at any terminal would be bettered by that given by the Prison Officers Association in somewhere like Brixton prison. I know that one receives better service at Littlehey prison in my constituency than at any British Rail terminal.
Reference has been made to the national health service. In many ways the service within the NHS has been deplorable. Opposition Members should take note that the service was particularly appalling in 1979 when they were in office. In my constituency we will never forget the time when, due to action taken by the Confederation of Health Service Employees at the famous Addenbrookes hospital, consultants' records were seized, appointments and operations were cancelled and wards had to be closed. We should not listen for one moment to criticism from the Opposition on standards in the NHS which have improved dramatically over the years but which still leave a great deal to be desired. That is not true of the clinical treatment of patients, which is superb. At Papworth and Addenbrookes hospital in my constituency patients receive fine, top-class treatment from surgeons, physicians and experts—better than anywhere else in the world. People come from all over the world to receive the treatment, but the service falls down in its administrative and ancillary sectors.
The way in which NHS patients are sometimes treated is unreasonable. I cite the example of a member of my own family. A little while ago, I had occasion to visit an elderly relative who was dying in hospital. It was not in my constituency, but it was a good hospital, and I have no criticisms of the treatment that she received. However, when I asked my relative whether there was anything she needed, she pointed out that the light bulb above her bed was broken. She had asked a nurse about it, but could not get anything done. When I spoke to the nurse, she told me that she could not get a light bulb from the caretaker, and the ward sister told me that she had also met with no success. I told her that I would go and see the caretaker for a light bulb, and would even fit it myself. The sister was not sure whether he would release a light bulb to me, but I said that I would try.
Off I went into some dungeon, where I found some cloth-capped oik, who was filling in his football coupon. With great difficulty, I managed to persuade him to give me a light bulb and to fit one for another patient. That kind of poor service is disgraceful and intolerable when one is dealing with elderly people. It is the kind of poor service that lets the NHS down. It is not the fault of the people at the top, surgeons, or nurses, but of staff further down the ladder who need shaking up. That is why the citizens charter is vital. It is a relevant and most necessary concept for the 1990s. It would be wonderful if it were the prelude to that long-forgotten quality known as good manners.
If the citizens charter is to be effective, it must have powerful teeth. We must be careful that it does not provide another excuse for yet more litigation. When that legislation comes before the House, we must ensure that it is tightly drawn, because we would not want an endless series of court cases to arise from it.
The charter should not only deal with contractual obligations, and serve merely as an extension of the Sale of Goods Act 1979, but protect the citizen's other fundamental rights and provide remedies in tort as well as in contract. One of the greatest curses affecting society today is that of noise, which increasingly makes life intolerable for many. I refer, for example, to the amplification of electronic so-called music, and the consequences of the remorseless growth of the internal combustion engine. The noise problem is growing worse and worse and is physically affecting many people, and is something that the citizens charter should address.
Likewise—and here I declare an interest as president of the Guild of Experienced Motorists—we must protect the individual's right to stay alive and uninjured on our roads and motorways, and particularly on the M25 and on the M11 in my constituency. As I have told Ministers straight out before, the smug comparison of figures with other European countries is of no comfort to the bereaved or to the permanently injured.
The concept of the citizens charter is vital and ought to be pursued with all vigour. It is a concept that stems from the enthusiasm of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, whom I beg to continue pressing his Ministers hard to implement it. The citizens charter will make a great and overdue contribution to the quality of life of many if it is vigorously put into effect.
Today's Queen's Speech was the first that my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) has heard as Prime Minister. As others of my right hon. and hon. Friends said, it will undoubtedly be the first of many. I am immensely proud to have him as a fellow Cambridgeshire Member of Parliament. In the short time that he has been at No. 10 Downing street, he has transformed many of our affairs for the better. He is very much a man of the 1990s and beyond, and deserves the wholehearted support of not only the House but the nation as a whole.
The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) seems to have doubts about the good work that could be carried out by a Select Committee. There is little enough time to devote to debates about Northern Ireland on the Floor of the House, and perhaps the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh is labouring under a misunderstanding. If such a Select Committee came into being, the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh, like the rest of us, would be able to call and to question Ministers to find out what is going on. I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman, as much as any right hon. or hon. Member, would welcome such an opportunity.
Today, we heard the last Gracious Speech before the general election and there were clear signs in the House this afternoon that the election campaign is now well and truly under way after several false starts earlier this year. It will be a long campaign, lasting for up to eight months according to the Prime Minister.
Every right hon. and hon. Member will have an interest in particular legislation mentioned in the Gracious Speech and Members of Parliament representing Ulster constituencies naturally take a special interest in the commitment to defeat terrorism in Northern Ireland and to deal with prison disorder. I wonder whether the latter Bill will be confined to Great Britain or will be extended to the whole of the United Kingdom.
Right hon. and hon. Members will also hold different views on the order of priority and importance of the proposed legislation. However, given that the Prime Minister will be taking part in the Maastricht conference later this year, no one should be in any doubt about which of the decisions to be taken during the lifetime of this Session will be of the greatest import, and have the biggest consequences for right hon. and hon. Members, Parliament, and the people of this country for many years ahead.
The Gracious Speech referred to the Government's pursuit, within the framework of the exchange rate mechanism, of
firm financial policies designed to reduce inflation further and maintain the conditions necessary for sustained growth.
We should not need the straitjacket of the ERM to achieve that aim, because it should be a basic requirement of any elected Government. I listened with interest to the Prime Minister's comments on that aspect and to his remark that the country needs sound money. What is any Government elected for, if not to provide sound money? Inflation is simply the theft of people's work and savings. The Prime Minister said that he wants to retain our national identity and that, in his opinion—presumably he was speaking for his Cabinet and party as well—a single European currency could be a recipe for disaster unless certain conditions are satisfied.
The question before us is far more fundamental. It is one that has engaged the attention of Parliament for centuries; that of control and supply. It is the question of the control of the nation's wealth and economy. It took Parliament a very long time to wrest that control from the Crown and we forget at our peril the battles that were fought in that respect by our spiritual forerunners in this place.
It is no secret that I do not love the concept of a European superstate. I never have done and I have found no reason, since first entering the House 18 years ago, to change my mind. If we do not control our own money supply and the other factors that influence our national economy, someone else will. I never was too happy about someone else being in charge of my household budget. I prefer it to remain within the control of my wife and myself and to abide by the good biblical teaching on that particular question.
We will surrender at our peril control over our own economy and the value of our currency. That control should remain within the House. Only if we retain control of these things will we retain our national identity. Without control of the nation's finances, we will rapidly find that we shall be dictated to by someone else, not only on whether a railway will be built but on every facet of the decisions that the House takes.
If hon. Members doubt what I say, I suggest that they take a few days off, go across to Northern Ireland and look at the political situation in the Province and the way in which it is run. They will then understand what political powerlessness is and how corrosive that is in a community. The House should learn from what it has inflicted on that Province. If hon. Members have not taken the time to do that, unlike the hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, South-West (Sir A. Grant), it is time that they improved their education.
It is impossible to sign up in principle to a united European superstate and then escape the consequences; because those consequences are inevitable, there is no escape. The decision is whether we want to submerge ourselves within that state and submit to the rule of others. As we are grossly outnumbered, it would be to the rule of others.
There are those who will say to me, as they will say on many occasions in the next few weeks and months, "What about the fact that we simply cannot survive on our own?" That is the greatest insult that can be offered to the nation and its people. The folk who say that have not considered the economic miracle of Germany and the even greater economic miracle of Japan, the colossus that bestrides the world. There is no good reason why this nation cannot do as well as they have done, other than the mismanagement of our affairs from which we have suffered for so many years. The nation has tremendous natural and human resources and if they are properly directed, applied and motivated, they will give the results that we have seen in those two nations.
The other evening, I listened to a Conservative Member of Parliament speaking on television—I cannot remember who it was. He said that there were 15 or 20 Conservatives who were totally against Europe and who would always be of that mind, and that about the same number were totally committted to Europe. In other words, about 30 or 40 people in the Conservative party were committted either for or against and had closed minds, but the rest of the party was somewhere in the middle. I ask those in the middle whether, when the vote comes and they consider the issues, they will follow their conscience or be driven, by the Whips, into the Lobby that they should not be in.
Only the Liberal Democrats seem to have no divisions in their ranks. They decided long ago that they cannot manage the country—if they had not, they would not be taking the attitude that they are now taking. All the other parties know that they have divisions in their ranks. The Conservative party cracks are perhaps more apparent than the Labour party ones. I say to the country at large—although, as most of the gentlemen of the press have departed, I doubt that many will read my words—that Labour Members who are present know of the divisions beneath the thin coat of paper that has been laid over their European policy. I pray God that all those divisions will surface in a solemn and cohesive manner across the House and I will then again have hope for my country and its future.
I add to the tributes to my right hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Walker) whose elegant and delightful speech captivated the House. For 30 years, my right hon. Friend has represented a Conservative tradition that I have always tried to follow. I had the pleasure of serving under him when he was Secretary of State for Wales and seeing how well he was able to apply in practice those Conservative traditions. I have with me a copy of his excellent book, price £16·99, published by Bloomsbury. I get no commission for this puff, but in the light of the interesting speech that we have just heard from the hon. Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross), I should like to quote from the book. It concerns Europe, which will be the subject of my speech.
Speaking of my right hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher), the former Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend says, quite categorically:
She got it wrong on Europe. This was partly because of her patriotic feelings and her reluctance to give up sovereignty. Yet sovereignty is no longer that relevant. The world is so interlinked. We give up sovereignty on defence to belong to NATO and on trade to be part of the European Community. It is to our advantage.
The prospect of European monetary union and a single currency has upset some Tory MPs. It should not do so. My children will see a united Europe and a European currency. It is only the timing which is in doubt. What has been done will lead inevitably to greater conformity in Europe's economic performance, on inflation, wage levels, investment. Once that is achieved a single currency and union will be easier to agree.
This is the last time that I shall be speaking in the debate on the Address. I made my maiden speech in the same debate very nearly 27 years ago, and I spoke then, as I shall speak now, about Britain's relations with Europe. I have never before quoted myself, but perhaps I can break my rule for this one last time. I said:
I had the privilege of working closely
with the then right hon. Member for Stechford, now Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, and with the then right hon. Member for Gloucester, now Lord Diamond, on what I called
the great enterprise with which the name of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexley (Mr. Heath) will always be associated … In that great enterprise there were political ideals … the vision of nations living together in a new and better way."—[Official Report, 10 November 1964; Vol. 701, c. 890–91.]
Many things have changed in 27 years. Britain is now a member of the European Community, but there are still people who complain that they were never told that there was a political dimension to our membership—what utter rot! What nonsense to talk about there having been no debate on these issues. No issue has been more thoroughly and exhaustively debated in our political life. It has not been a very good debate, and that is because all too many of the opponents of Europe, who recently took to calling themselves the Bruges group until that collapsed in public ridicule and who now call themselves Euro-sceptics, insist on reducing every debate to an argument for or against membership when that question was settled a long time ago.
I know that those people are now talking about the need to enlarge the Community rather than to strengthen it, but no one believes that that is what they really want. Are they suggesting, for example, that free movement of labour should swiftly extend to all the countries of eastern Europe, or that east European textiles or foodstuffs should have unregulated access to our markets without any protection for our producers? Of course they are not.
These people call themselves pro-European, but what kind of Europe do they want? Do they want a free trade area? Quite apart from the fact that they are the first to complain about the flood of imports from the European Community, how can they maintain that a free trade area can work properly without rules governing free trade and competition and institutions—the Commission if need be—to enforce and adapt those rules? Furthermore—this is what matters more to me—what possible contribution to greater security could be made to an increasingly balkanised continent by loose co-operation between fully sovereign states, each jealously clinging to its right of veto and to the right, in the last resort, to invade or bomb its neighbours if they become sufficiently annoying?
The so-called European sceptics are not European at all. They want to weaken the European Community and, if possible, to destroy it. That is the policy that Harold Macmillan allowed Reggie Maudling to toy with in 1960, and a hideous failure it was. Harold Macmillan was quick enough to draw the conclusion that we could not beat them, so we had better join them as soon as we could. It is just the same today. To imagine that we British can stop the other 11 member states from going ahead with the steady—it is somewhat erratic—progress towards monetary, economic and eventually political union is the most foolish sort of daydreaming. It was brilliantly described by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence at Blackpool earlier this month, when he spoke of somebody living in a world of his own in which he had great influence.
Of course we can opt out of the process of integration. Of course we can refuse to take part in the agreement on a single currency. We can settle for the second rank if we want to. Personally, I will fight against it as long as I have political breath in my body. What we cannot do, and it is downright dishonest for any politician to pretend that we can, is to stop the other 11 from going ahead without us, and to blather on about using our veto.
Any fool can see that the other 11 could sign a new treaty among themselves, leaving us out. The personal charm of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the diplomatic skills of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary have seemingly averted that for the time being, although in practice there are already two ranks in the European Commuity—for the exchange rate mechanism and for the abolition of frontier controls—and in both cases, I am sorry to say, we are already in the second rank.
Shall we never learn? I thought that we had finished with that sort of nonsense when my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister pledged that we would play our part in the centre of Europe. That is where we must be. It is far more important to uphold Britain's long-term vital interests in Europe than to buy off a potential revolt by the irreconcilable anti-Europeans in the Conservative party.
There is indeed talk of right hon. and hon. Friends who might be ready to put their anti-European convictions before their party loyalties and to vote against any move towards European monetary union. I do not for one moment question their absolute right to do so, although I feel entitled to say that, for the most part, they are the ones who most stridently proclaim their party loyalty.
I must make it clear that there are quite as many of my hon. Friends who came into the Conservative party because it was—I believe that it still is—the party of Europe. We are as entitled to put our European convictions first as are the so-called Euro-sceptics. Moreover, unlike the anti-Europeans, who have nowhere else to go, our views are consistent with what has become, I am glad to say, a consensus that stretches right across the parties in the Chamber.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Mr. Knox), I attended the dinner earlier this week to mark the 20th anniversary of the vote on Second Reading of what was then the European Communities Bill. In that vote, 69 Labour Members, including the then chairman of the Parliamentary Labour party, defied a three-line Whip to vote for the Conservative proposal of membership of the European Community.
I came into politics and joined the Conservative party because I wanted my country to take its proper place in Europe, and because I took the Conservative party to be the party of Europe, as it has been since 1962. Although I have been deselected by my constituency party because of the minor role which I played in the events that brought my right hon. Friend the present Prime Minister to office, I have pledged myself to work as hard as I can for a Conservative victory, both nationally and in my constituency. However, if some people on the right of the Conservative party are to start threatening to vote against the Government if they go too far down the road towards European unity. I must tell them that there are those at the other end of the party who feel equally strongly, and that we are prepared. if need be, to go equally far in support of our convictions. What is more, we know that it is we who are in the main stream of both British and European politics, and that the future belongs to us and to Europe.
I wish to associate myself with the remarks that have been made about our late colleagues, Alick Buchanan-Smith, Richard Holt and my dear friend George Buckley. They all brought their individual personalities to the House, and most certainly they all left their mark. They will certainly be missed.
A section of the Gracious Speech says that the Government
continue to prepare for the privatisation of the British Railways Board and the British Coal Corporation.
The Government have been doing that since 1984. We have seen a rapid decline in the coal industry. The industry has been savaged without any thought for the social consequences. In 1986, in a report on the coal industry, the Select Committee on Energy referred to the dangers. It warned that the rundown was too rapid and that insufficient thought had been given to the social consequences. Since then, those consequences have been extremely severe. In 1986, it was the men over 50 years of age who were mainly affected. They were made redundant, and few of them have worked again.
In the period since 1984, miners' homes that were formerly owned by British Coal have been sold off to private property speculators. In Castleford, there is an estate of about 240 houses, 48 per cent. of which are empty. The policy of the property owner has been not to occupy the houses when they have become empty, because he purchased them for the price of the land. Hardly any repairs have been undertaken and miners have to live in squalid conditions.
Miners and their widows are being pestered by British Coal to sell off their concessionary fuel entitlements for a small sum. There are miners who spent their working lives in the coal industry who are suffering from emphysema, a dreaded disease which is extremely disabling. Many of these men are unable to put coal on the fire. They can hardly lift a cup to their lips. They have been told clearly by British Coal that, if the local authority were able to move them out of their houses into houses where they would not have to handle solid fuel, they would face the loss of their concessionary fuel entitlement. That is what has been happening. Those have been the social consequences during the period to which I have referred.
Consultants at Pontefract general infirmary have made statements to the effect that some of the unfortunate people to whom I have referred are receiving substandard treatment because of insufficient finances to enable doctors to provide the treatment that is needed.
The Select Committee on Energy reported in July. I shall quote a passage that serves to highlight the position now:
The main conclusion of this part of our Report is that a long-term view needs to be taken of the value of having a substantial indigenous coal industry offering secure supplies at stable prices, and of coal's place among other fuels in providing for the country's long-term energy needs … The market may in the event be effective in reflecting some of the long-term considerations, but we do not believe it can be relied on to do so, and if the generators take decisions which turn out to have unfortunate long-term consequences, it is the nation as a whole (and electricity consumers in particular) who will pay the price, rather than the generators themselves … Above all, if a significant proportion of the UK's coal reserves were abandoned, which we hope will not happen, resulting in a major reduction of long-term energy security, the Government should understand that the country will see this not as a commercial decision, but a largely irreversible decision of historical significance for the UK.
We are now facing that situation. I am sure that we have all heard of the recent Rothschild report which suggests that, if British Coal is to be privatised—as suggested in the Queen's Speech—it will have to be run down to 14 pits mining about 30 million tonnes of coal. In that case, we shall finish up with about 12,000 miners. It will mean that we shall be able to meet only half of the country's demand for coal. It would be crazy for a Government to sterilise millions, or billions, of tonnes of coal—a natural energy resource which the nation will need in the medium and long term—merely for short-term commercial considerations.
Such circumstances have been brought about by the policies of National Power and PowerGen, which are hell bent on importing as much as they can which is why they have taken 80 per cent. control of the subsidiary company of the Associated British Ports to extend the ports at Immingham. We shall have to pay high prices for imported coal once we can no longer meet our own demand. That makes no sense.
The average age of the young men working in the pits is 33. Many of them have been encouraged to go to other coal mines when their mines have closed. The Selby coalfield is supposed to be the jewel of the coal industry. If the Rothschild report is correct and if the coal industry is privatised, some of the pits at Selby—the jewel in the crown where, over the past 10 to 15 years, billions of pounds have been spent—will close.
The young men were promised a secure future and they have mortgaged themselves to buy lovely homes to which they are entitled. They are now worried sick because they can see a time coming in the not too distant future when their jobs will be taken from them and they will not be able to meet the mortgage payments. At the same time, we are taking decisions to sterilise our natural source of energy.
What else has happened in the mining industry? The young men who left school at 16 had an automatic avenue into the coal industry, but that is no longer the case. Like the rest of the country, we have suffered severely from unemployment—there has been mass unemployment among the 16 to 24-year-olds. These young men see no hope. In the town of Pontefract where I live, we have one pit left—there were eight pits in the area in 1984. The major pit now left is one that, according to the Rothschild report, will close.
Since 1984, the Government have not given one penny of assistance by way of grants. There was some hope of financial assistance in the form of the European RECHAR programme. However, we now discover that the Government are also blocking that avenue. The Government may say that they are not blocking it. We do not concede that the money should come to the Government, even though it comes from the European regional fund for mining communities, and that the Government should decide where to distribute it. But Commissioner Milian says that it is the Community's duty to decide where there is real need in the mining communities.
Therefore, the mining areas are more or less piggy in the middle. If the money comes from the RECHAR programme in Europe to the Government, what guarantee to the mining communities such as mine have that the money will find its way to where it was intended to go? The Government's track record in such circumstances does not fill us with confidence, because we have received nothing yet.
Wec have recently received what I hope will not be a fatal blow. A few months ago, I was delighted when British Coal decided to site its freight depot for the north in my constituency and in that of my hon. Friend the Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien). However, we found that, for some reason, the Secretary of State has called in the planning application. That means that there will be at least a long delay, and the probable threat of the developers losing interest. That freight depot could be the saviour of our area. We have been told that it could eventually generate 10,000 jobs, and it would go a long way to replace the 20,000 or so jobs lost in the mining industry.
I am confident that the mining industry will never be privatised, because I do not believe that the Government will win the next election. Should they win—God forbid—how could any responsible Government decide to make the nation rely for its energy needs on foreign competition? If the Government privatised the mining industry, they would have to run it down in accordance with the Rothschild report. The report states that the industry would have to be run down to such an extent because it would not otherwise be saleable, just as the nuclear element was not saleable in the electricity privatisation.
If the Government are hell bent on privatising the industry—and the Rothschild report states that they would have to reduce it to 14 pits—they will have to take a major decision. I hope that, even at this late stage, they will seriously consider forgetting the privatisation of the mining industry. Such a privatisation would create dangerous conditions, which I experienced in my younger days.
In recent years, the mining industry has rightly made repeated attempts to get its prices down and during the past five years it has done a hell of a good job in increasing tonnage and so on. If the mining industry finds that it cannot reduce costs any further and if the Government continue to close down the industry, we shall—God forbid—see a breakdown of law and order in these communities. None of us would condone mischief, vandalism or theft, but what would we do if we were teenagers with no jobs, no money and no light at the end of the tunnel which might be a job? What would we do if all we had to do was to get up in the morning and join our pals on the street corner? There is an age-old saying that the devil makes work for idle hands to do. I do not know what I would do if I was a 16-year-old youth in those circumstances. There was a 27 per cent. increase in crime in West Yorkshire last year, but there are 200 fewer policemen on the beat because the authority's budget is controlled by the Department of the Environment and not by the Home Office as it should be.
The signs are clear. If we do not do something for our mining communities, they face a bleak future. If this Tory Government are returned to office—and that is doubtful—I hope that they will seriously reconsider and not privatise the coal industry.
It is more than 30 years since I first spoke in a debate on the Loyal Address. I pay tribute to the speeches made by the proposer and the seconder of the motion and I also pay tribute to our colleagues Alick Buchanan-Smith, Richard Holt and George Buckley who we wish were with us. The tributes that have been paid to them by hon. Members on both sides of the House show how much we feel about them.
The Queen's Speech can be divided into several portions. The first part is related to the individual and promotes freedom of individual choice. Parents will have control over which schools their children attend and there is a promise that education will be improved. Patients will also have new rights and there will be a citizens charter. The Queen's Speech also deals with defence and the European Community. It looks ahead from the 20th century into the future.
Our defence commitments are so great that the proposed reforms will leave us with inadequate forces to deal with NATO, about which agreements have been made, in addition to our other obligations around the world. Unlike other countries, we have many such obligations. We do not know what might happen. Could we possibly mount another expedition as we did to the Falklands? Could we deal with another Gulf war with such slender defences? I cannot endorse such reductions in our forces. They are too great and too soon in an uncertain world.
The world has already changed. Gorbachev came to prominence in a few months, but things could change. Indeed, the whole edifice might collapse, although of course we hope that it will not.
In the Queen's Speech, I welcome the co-operation with the Soviet Union, so long as it behaves itself. It has its own problems with the Ukraine and other satellite countries.
One lesson that must be learnt is that we, as a nation, must retain our Trident defence. We must maintain it not necessarily against the Soviets or Russia, but against countries such as Israel which have or are developing their own nuclear capability. I also welcome the reference in the Queen's Speech that we will continue our policies in respect of Iraq.
Any arms reductions must take account of our possible—not our actual—requirements. In that respect, it is necessary for us to retain our Trident nuclear capability. I do not want now to consider the reductions in the Army as that will be for another debate. However, I am sad that the reductions will affect the tremendous spirit of our services and in particular the Territorial Army.
I also welcome the reference in the Queen's Speech to the
Association Agreements with Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia
and to the recognition of the Baltic states. Incidentally, we have never broken off contacts with Lithuania, and they retained their ambassador here. When those countries are free, perhaps they will look to the European Community and join some kind of association. We might then have a very large trading community. However, I must warn the House that immigration might be a problem if that occurs. We are a small island and there is a limit to the number of people who we can absorb. We already have difficulties with asylum seekers and I am glad that the Government intend to tackle that problem. However, the problem could be much greater and we must consider it on a European scale.
What kind of Europe do we want? Do we want to lose all our sovereignty? Do we want the ecu straight away? Do we want European economic and monetary union? I do not believe that we want those things. I have been pro-Europe for 25 years. However, there is a danger of going too far. I have every faith in my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. I am certain that he will ensure that nothing is given away at the meeting in December. This Parliament must control its own affairs. It should not be told what to do by Brussels—by the Commission—instead of by an elected Parliament, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made clear for the first time today.
Why should we be controlled by the Commission? We want to remain a sovereign Parliament and work as such in Europe. We do not particularly want a common European currency. However, there will be difficulties and nothing definite might happen for 10 or 15 years or before we are fully integrated. It is a choice which this House alone can make in line with the Government's recommendations. I am certain that all hon. Members would exercise their unique talents and knowledge to achieve a settlement on proposals laid before us by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. There may be dangers, but there is also tremendous potential. This coming together of nations offers the best opportunity to preserve peace in the world. Nations which were previously potential enemies are now with us. There will be a conglomeration of nations most of which, instead of being anti-Europe, will be part of the European family and will recognise the advantages of democracy and the creation of wealth.
I now refer to health. It is the patient who matters. Hospitals must have the freedom to run themselves. I am against enormous expenditure on district, regional or area health authorities, all with vast offices and computers. I should like to think that most of the money is being spent on patients and on hospitals. I am old-fashioned—I am sure that I will be challenged on this—but I would like to see hospitals run by matrons. When hospitals were run by matrons they were a jolly sight more efficient. We know that we need more money—there is no question about that. The Government have given more money and I am certain that they will continue to do so in future.
I will not compare the present Government with the previous Labour Government—it is no good doing that. We must consider what the patient is getting. We must see where the mistakes and the hold-ups are. We must consider transferring patients from one area to another. Those are the things that matter to patients. Instead of saying that they have another two years to wait, we should look for another hospital where there is a bed and a surgeon who can satisfactorily perform the necessary operation. Those are the ways in which to cut waiting lists. The Government intend to make hospitals more independent.
I now refer to the waste of talent and the unattractive wages that are paid to some ancillary staff. We must consider how best we can serve the patient, reduce waiting lists, and make time spent in hospital more pleasant. Many people do not agree with me, but I do not see why a patient who is awaiting a serious operation should not go to another health authority. People now spend a shorter time in hospital after an operation. Surely it would be better for people to be separated from their families for three days rather than suffer the inconvenience and unpleasantness of a chronic disease or ailment.
The implementation of the citizens charter is a great step forward in respect of the citizen's right of redress against the state without having to approach Parliament. That is an inherent right which has at last been grasped by our Prime Minister and I am sure that he will continue to do so. Many cases come to hon. Members that never should come to them. Our constituents write to government authorities but receive useless replies or no replies at all. The citizens charter will enable people to get a proper service from agents who are paid by the Government, anyway, so there is no reason why they should not be civil to their customers. A direct approach under the charter will help.
We look for freedom of opportunity and freedom of choice, whether it be in respect of schools, health, education or whatever. I was very impressed by the amount of money that the Government will spend on further education. Further education is vital for the future of our nation. New technologies can be learnt only through higher education.
In the months before the general election, let us hope that these words can be inscribed in the Tory party and in the nation: that a person has freedom and the right to choose how he is treated, how his children are treated and how he himself can preserve his wealth and position in society.
On such occasions I normally refer to defence and foreign affairs, but I shall not be tempted down that road, although the hon. Member for Windsor and Maidenhead (Sir A. Glyn) will find that I refer to the national health service. I associate myself with the tributes that have been paid to the recently departed hon. Members, George Buckley and Alick Buchanan-Smith, each of whom was gracious in his manner and good in his humour. Their work rate and conscientious application to duty would serve as a role model for any hon. Member.
I must make particular reference to Richard Holt. Richard Holt was not only a fairly close neighbour in constituency terms, but he entered the House on the same day as I did. I later found out that he had gone to the same school. Richard, as we all know, was strong-minded, single-minded and independent-minded, but we would expect that of a product of a Jesuit school—it would be strange if that were not the case. Richard Holt is already missed because, as has happened when I have spoken in previous debates on the Queen's Speech, he would be intervening and contradicting something that I said. I am certain that, somewhere or other, he is smiling a wry smile because I am confessing that he is missed. Rest well, Richard, and other departed colleagues, such as Eric Heller.
Hon. Members will have seen me getting slightly agitated during the Prime Minister's speech. I should explain why. I was somewhat aggrieved because of his bland references to Europe. He was simultaneously trying to say everything and nothing. I could not help comparing that attitude with his disparaging references to issues such as the national minimum wage and the potential benefits of the social charter. My dissatisfaction stems from the fact that, time and again, we and British industry are told about a level playing field—the common base from which we are all supposed to benefit. Her Majesty's Government fail on two counts to deliver their promises in relation to that level playing field. They deny support for the national minimum wage, despite the fact that many of our EEC partners recognise a national minimum wage, in much the same way as they allow the British work force to lose out on holiday, pension and other entitlements, compared with standards in our EEC partner countries.
British industry suffers from the Government's dilatory standards in creating a level playing field when compared with other industrialised countries throughout the EEC. For example, I refer to the current Davy bid for the refurbishment of the Roukela steel plant in India, where there is a need for aid and trade provision and for export credit guarantees to match two German bids which, incidentally, I am led to believe are considerably higher than ours. Our ATP support and export credit guarantee needs are being studiously ignored by both Departments responsible for them. There is a real danger that British industry, especially the steel industry, is being put gravely at risk by the Government's reluctance to render it the same type of aid, on the same scale and at the same time, as that which is rendered to German industry by the German Government.
We should not be surprised by such a failure to deliver a promise because every Government paper that has been published by this regime should have carried a Government truth warning. Without exception, they are deliberately misleading. The hon. Member for Windsor and Maidenhead referred to defence, which provides an ample illustration of my point. Let us consider the very title of "Options for Change". There may well be "change", but although the word "options" suggests alternatives, the Government have studiously ignored the pleas from every quarter to consider any alternatives. The paper on the health service, which has the encouraging title "Working for Patients", actually reveals a set of proposals that would do anything but work for patients.
I do not want to knock the national health service because I have every reason to be grateful to it. At 6·15 am today my wife and I were the proud grandparents of five grandchildren—Lyanne, Jemma, Vanessa, Claire and Megan. We also have an adoptive granddaughter, called Charlotte, courtesy of a son-in-law who joined our family not long ago. I can now tell the House with some pleasure that at 6·17 am today my eldest daughter delivered a grandson——
That may well come, but not in the Chamber. Later, I hope.
I am very grateful to the staff concerned because I understand that the overnight delivery was somewhat arduous and that the staff were as patient, hardworking and diligent as ever, as they were to me 12 months ago when they took a substantial cancer from my body and put me back together again over a long period. They were magnificent to me and, at the same time, to another daughter who was in a different hospital having gall bladder surgery. I am sure that magnificence among health service staff not only has been and is, but will continue to be the norm. That is the way in which they have been trained and how they apply themselves to their task.
I make no complaints about the staff, but as I lay awake at night in Westminster hospital, I saw staff who were sorely distressed and in tears because of redundancies that were being made, wards that were being closed, beds that were being removed and because elective surgery that had been cancelled in October would not be carried out until April. That was happening in a teaching hospital where trainee doctors who were supposed to gain experience of surgery, albeit at arm's length, could not get that experience for another six months.
That is the sort of criticism that my right hon. and hon. Friends and I are making about what is happening in our national health service. When we talk about underfunding, we are talking not about the size of the budgets, but about where the money is spent and how it is used. There is a big difference between parties on this. I appeal to those thinking Conservative Members—I know that there are some—to try to understand exactly what we are saying.
Two important things have happened in the politics of the health service in the past few months and neither can be of any comfort to the Government. First, opinion poll after opinion poll has demonstrated that people do not trust the Conservative party with the national health service. Secondly, as a result of that public perception, it has become clear that the Government are rapidly becoming hysterical because they have been found out. Both the Prime Minister and his predecessor have said, and continue to maintain, that the national health service is safe in their hands. However, the people who are about to vote in the by-elections this week, and especially the people of Langbaurgh, are clear in their minds that that is not true. The underfunding of the past 12 years has caused severe problems generally, and even more severe local problems in South Tees. More than one in three acute hospital beds has been cut since 1979. In the South Tees area last year nearly 4,000 people were left in pain when their non-emergency operations were cancelled. More than 4,000 people are still waiting for hospital treatment.
The Government say that there simply is not enough money, but they have spent literally hundreds of millions of pounds on their opt-out experiment and on employing those individuals who might be prepared to try to put their plans into effect. Not a penny of that money has been spent on doctors or nurses. All the money has been spent on accountants and computers that have been brought in to commercialise the system. The Government have tried to turn hospitals into supermarkets, doctors into accountants, and nurses into some kind of super-efficient and almost bilocated skivvies.
Having been discovered doing that, the Government have now become hysterical because people believe that they will privatise the health service. The Government's hysteria has been caused because they have been rumbled. Having been rumbled, they realise that they are now lumbered with that public perception—and not only in the three coming by-elections, but in the general election. With their customary common sense, the British people have made up their minds based on what they have already seen of the Government's actions. I must advise Conservative Members that what the Labour party is saying about health is not what the Labour party is telling the people, but what the people are telling the Labour party. If the Government choose to ignore that, it will be to their own cost at the next election.
In 1979, everyone had the right to a free eye test, but the Government have changed that they now charge people. This spring, the Association of Optometrists calculated that only 40 per cent. of the public qualified for a free eye test. That means that 60 per cent. of the population do not get a service that is free at the point of delivery. In my book, that is privatisation. The association has also calculated that 2·7 million people have not had a test because they cannot afford the average cost of £12. A mathematical calculation reveals that 4,500 electors in Langbaurgh have not had an eye test because they cannot afford it. The association also estimates that the eyesight of 5,500 people will deteriorate because they cannot get an eye test. That means that just over 1,000 people will be affected in Langbaurgh. In my book, that is privatisation.
On 16 October, the Secretary of State for Health claimed in his statement to the House that each application to opt out of the local health service had been
the subject of a full public consultation."—[Official Report, 16 October 1991; Vol. 196, c. 311]
That consultation was more of a public relations exercise. The Conservative party's attitude to the public is different from that of most people in Langbaurgh. I can testify to that from experience canvassing on the doorsteps.
Last July, the opinion pollsters, MORI, revealed that three quarters of the people of Cleveland wanted a real vote on whether their hospitals and ambulance service would opt out of the NHS. There is little chance of them getting it. Not surprisingly, the Government have so far refused to give the people the right to vote on keeping their local health service in one piece. We all know why. They know that they would lose. However, the by-election on 7 November will provide an opportunity for the people of Langbaurgh at least within Cleveland to have a say. Those of us who have campaigned in the constituency know that the people's view is clear and will be made clear a week today.
People want to keep their local hospitals and ambulance service within the local health service. The by-election will be a referendum on whether the local hospitals and the local ambulance service should opt out of the local national health service. Unlike his counterpart in Kincardine and Deeside, the Conservative candidate, who is from Gateshead, supports the opt-out proposals. Labour supports the local campaign to keep our local health service in one piece.
In the past few days, following the development of hysteria on the health service, the Conservative campaign in Langbaurgh has become increasingly frantic. The Conservatives claim that Langbaurgh is in the middle of an economic recovery. That is surprising news to all of us. They seem to think that the economy depends on abstractions such as confidence. The Labour candidate, whom I look forward to greeting next week as the next Langbaurgh Member of Parliament, works in industry. Along with other local people in Langbaurgh, he knows that the real economy is about the bread and butter issues of jobs, full employment and investment.
If the Conservative candidate thinks that recovery has started, he should take a trip to the jobcentre in Guisborough. There are no signs of recovery there, I am afraid. Indeed, most of the 183 jobs on display are outside the constituency. Almost a quarter of them—43—offer wages which are lower than the £3·40 per hour that the Prime Minister described so disparagingly earlier today. That would be the minimum wage under Labour's policy for a national minimum wage. A further 63 job adverts—or 34 per cent.—do not give a wage range. They say that: pay is negotiable or on a commission-only basis. What have we sunk to?
One job advert was for a trainee butcher in Saitburn to be paid at £1·50 an hour. Another advert was for a driver at £1·77 an hour. Another was for a security guard at £2 an hour. But one of the conditions of employment was that that employee supply his own dog. I suppose that eventually we shall have steel workers supplying their own steel furnaces. Those are the jobs on offer to the 5,000 unemployed people in Langbaurgh.
Each person who is unemployed costs the nation dear. Apart from the cost of unemployment benefit, there is the loss to the nation of the tax which that person would pay to the state. Across Langbaurgh constituency unemployment is wasting over £44 million. From Loftus and Brotton through Guisborough and Middlesbrough, unemployment in every area costs millions of pounds. The Conservative party claims that an economic recovery is under way in that region. If it believes that, perhaps it can tell the constituency when it expects unemployment to fall below the 5,000 currently on the register and when the Government will stop squandering money through their unemployment policy.
The Gracious Speech is a fairly barren document. I wish to give one reason for saying that. In the summer of this year I took my wife to Germany to visit my son who is in the British forces stationed in Hameln. We went from Hull to Europoort by ferry. As we approached the port in the morning we had breakfast at a table with an elderly couple who were clearly Dutch. Being the friendly soul that I am, I happened to ask them whether they enjoyed their holiday in the United Kingdom. The gentleman was clearly suspicious of this Brit. He immediately said to me in an aggressive tone, "We are Dutch." I said, "Yes, I can see that clearly," and left it at that. His wife was somewhat abashed by his aggression. She said that they had been not on holiday but to visit their son who was working in Britain. I asked whether he was well and she said yes and that he was happy and settled and things were going well.
The Dutch lady said to me, "Isn't England a poor country?" I said, "What do you mean by poor?" She said, "Everything is for sale. Wherever you look, this, that and the other is for sale. Why do Englishmen want to sell their country?" I was stumped for an answer. While I was stumped, the old gentleman who had been so aggressive jumped in and said, "And there are holes in the road everywhere. Don't the English know how to repair their roads any more?"
It is never my practice to flaunt my position in public. Those hon. Members who see me walking around during the recess will see that I look more like a dustman than a Member of Parliament.
At the moment, yes. My usual reluctance was reinforced on that occasion because I should have been doubly embarrassed to admit to the Dutch travellers that I was a Member of Parliament. My point is that I see nothing in the Gracious Speech to enable me to counter the opinions expressed by our European partners who are still proud to know us but bemused that we have a Britain which in their eyes is no longer as great as it was.
I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) on becoming a grandfather again. I thank him for his most generous tribute to our former colleague Richard Holt, who will be remembered by hon. Members on both sides of the House with considerable affection. The hon. Member for Stockton, North said that, when he had only been going two minutes, Richard Holt was already on his feet challenging him. That is the most authentic memory that many of us have of Richard Holt.
How things have changed, both at home and abroad, during the year since the last Queen's Speech. It was almost exactly a year ago that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Surrey, East (Sir G. Howe) resigned, with momentous consequences for the politics of our country. As is well known, I was one of those who felt that adjustments and changes were needed to the Conservative party and to the policies which were being pursued by the Government. I welcome the changes that have been made since then and the leadership which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has given the country. They are reflected, of course, in the contents of the Queen's Speech which we are now discussing.
I wholeheartedly welcome and endorse the proposals contained in the Gracious Speech, with only one minor caveat. One matter which I should like to have seen included would almost certainly have merited parliamentary discussion before the inevitable dissolution of this Parliament, which will make this a short Session.
For some time we have been promised legislation to reform the laws on friendly societies. Such legislation has been through detailed preparation including the publication of draft clauses. Such a Bill could have passed through Parliament with considerable agreement among hon. Members on both sides of this House and another place. I hope that my right hon. Friends will consider finding time for such legislation when they penetrate the meaning of that wonderful phrase, "Further measures will be laid before you." There is absolutely no doubt that the legislation that governs friendly societies is long overdue for reform.
Many generous and warm tributes have been paid to my right hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Walker) for not only his speech but the massive contribution that he has made to this Parliament and our country during the last generation. I wish to pick up one matter from his speech—that of dyslexia. As the parent of a daughter who has had to struggle and cope with dyslexia, I have perhaps more personal knowledge of the difficulties that it causes than many hon. Members.
Earlier, my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Education and Science, was in the Chamber and I know that he takes a personal interest in the subject. I hope that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, who is on the Treasury Bench, will ask the Department of Education and Science to take a much more robust attitude with certain local education authorities, probably the majority, about the provision of a statement of special needs for children with dyslexia in our public state system, as many provide a monstrously inadequate one. I know from constituency experience that the Northamptonshire education authority does not provide a satisfactory statement of special needs for such children, but it is by no means the only local authority of which that could be said.
The House heard the gibberish of the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Kinnock) about the Labour party's position on the current intergovernmental conferences on future developments in the European Community. It was impossible for anybody to make head or tail of what he was saying. Certainly it is being put around that the Labour party is enthusiastic about participating in further developments that will tie EC countries more closely together. All those who are repeating headlines handed out in press releases are not looking at the small print, which needs to be examined much more closely.
Before and after the Maastricht summit, it will become plain in our debates on the changes that will take place in Europe that there is an enormous split between the Leader of the Opposition, whom we can expect to take a pro-European line, and the dozens and dozens of Labour Back-Bench Members who will take a very different line. That different and hostile line towards the EC will come not merely from the right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore). Nor will it be confined to the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner). One Labour Member after another will pour scorn on any effort to draw Europe closer together in the manner in which it is being discussed.
When we consider the Labour party's attitude towards a common currency, let us bear in mind that it lays down two fundamental conditions before supporting economic and monetary union. The first is that there shall be a central bank that is under "democratic control". What the Leader of the Opposition means by that is fundamentally different from what the German Chancellor and others in Germany mean by it. They certainly do not want the right hon. Gentleman's fingerprints on any central bank, because they know perfectly well that its work will be completely undermined. The right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) spoke the truth when he said that, although the Labour party says that it is in favour of these things, it is clear from the small print that it is not.
The second condition is a massive increase in the amount of regional and social aid funds coming to the United Kingdom. Let us all remember that the Community is financed by Germany and Great Britain, and that although France is a modest contributor, all the other countries are net gainers. Not one other Community country is prepared to accept the Labour party's proposals for massive increases in regional and social funds to Great Britain. After all, it can be only at the expense of Greece, Portugal, Spain or Italy. None of those countries will agree to it. Alternatively, such an increase could be bought at the price of a massive increase in public expenditure in this country, to be paid for by higher taxes, given over to Brussels and then handed back to us after a dividend has been deducted on the way. It is about time that everybody in this House and elsewhere woke up to the fraud that is contained in the figleaf devised by the Leader of the Opposition in relation to economic and monetary union.
We have listened to much discussion on the national health service and there will be more. The hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) said that the Labour party was listening to the people. At present, it is building up expectations that cannot possibly be fulfilled. Every Labour Member knows that that is the case—it is clear beyond peradventure. Although it is useful to point to what happened between 1974 and 1979, many of our people cannot recall that period and, of course, the Labour party relies on that. The other night I tried to work out what happened and I could make out only one or two things. It is a mist to me.
It may not be to my hon. Friend, who has a very much better memory than I have.
France today, which has the equivalent of a Labour Government, shows what is happening to its health provision. Within the past fortnight, the socialist Government of France has teargassed nurses in Paris. To those who say that a British Labour Government would not do the same, I say let us remember the unburied dead and the chaos to which the NHS was reduced by the end of 1978.
Nurses being teargassed on the streets of France is bad enough, but there is worse. One of the minor but important changes that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made as soon as he became First Lord of the Treasury was to reverse Government policy and to pay compensation to haemophiliacs who had inadvertently been given by the NHS blood contaminated with AIDS. Last week three doctors in France were charged with a serious criminal offence: they had knowingly supplied blood contaminated with AIDS to haemophiliac patients. We were past that stage years ago. The doctors said that it was done to save money in the health service in France, under instructions, essentially, from the Government.
An enormous amount of humbug is talked about these matters. Expectations that cannot possibly be fulfilled are being built up. It is about time that my right hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench and all the people in the media who are gathered to pack the Press Gallery this evening woke up to the fact that France today shows us what the inevitable consequences of a British Labour Government would be. In particular, according to the Leader of the Opposition, who appears to accept the disciplines of the European monetary system, a Labour Government would pursue more or less the same policies as those pursued by the socialist Government of France today.
I welcome the commitment to NATO in the Gracious Speech. NATO must remain the fundamental cornerstone of our defence, as it has been throughout the previous generation. However, in our enthusiasm for NATO we must bear it in mind that things are beginning to change in Europe. France does not share our enthusiasm for NATO, because the French cannot stand the American involvement in Europe. Just over a year ago, the then French Minister of Defence, Mr. Chevenement, used to breathe fire and brimstone against the Americans, and say that French participation in the military side of NATO was impossible because of American involvement in Europe.
Until recently the Germans took a robust attitude towards the French on NATO, but there are clear signs that, although many people in Germany—Mr. Kohl, for example, and many among the Christian Democrats and the Christian Social Union—remain sound, that is not the universal view in German politics. There are signs that the German nation as a whole may not be as keen on NATO as it used to be. It is foreseeable that, as these trends develop, we may be asked to remove the remaining part of the Army of the Rhine from German territory in a year or two or three.
We must be alert to the fact that changes are taking place in western Europe, just as they have taken place in central and eastern Europe, and we must do what we can through active diplomacy to ensure that the worst does not happen, that the French vision of the defence of Europe does not prevail. A United States withdrawal from Europe would be the fastest way to ensure the return of instability and of rivalry between European nations. Twice this century, the Americans have had to rescue Europe from itself. We must never forget that; no country in Europe should be allowed to forget it.
I welcome the emphasis on education in the Queen's Speech. My right hon. Friend the Member for Worcester was right to say that education is fundamental to our domestic policy. I am delighted that, since my right hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Mr. Baker) became Secretary of State for Education—I see that my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Burt) is here, too—there have been substantial efforts to improve the quality of the state education system.
The changes are long term. We shall not see the full benefit of them for a generation, or perhaps longer. We must be patient and see the reforms through. They are of fundamental importance. We all know that too many of the 50 per cent. of children in our state system who are average—not those with special needs or those who can take advantage of our superb higher education facilities—are failing. The information in the reports in last Sunday's edition of The Sunday Times is based on a sample three times the size of the opinion poll samples on which so many of us plot the chances for the future. If that research is anything like accurate, the first testing of 7-year-olds shows a serious failure among those children to be able to answer straightforward questions.
I know from my constituency and my county how serious is the crisis in the public education system. Let us not forget, either, the often overlooked fact that, during the past decade, 70 per cent. of children have been educated under the auspices of local authorities controlled by the Labour party or by the Liberals and the Labour party. Labour-controlled education authorities have been responsible for the direction of resources and so on for the education of the overwhelming majority of children. The Labour party cannot escape its involvement in local education authorities, in rural as well as urban areas, over the past decade. That fact must be emphasised more to our people.
I am listening carefully to my hon. Friend's excellent speech. Will he emphasise what the Government have done to encourage liaison between industry and education? Clearly, the closer the contacts and involvement between education, whether in the private or the maintained sector, and industry and commerce, the better for the country and the more meaningful young people's careers will be in due course.
I could not agree more. My hon. Friend leads me on to my next point.
Seventeen city technology colleges have been set up to provide a new style of education with a new curriculum. I am fortunate enough to have one in my constituency. It is an outstanding institution. I am not one of those who believes that CTCs should be confined to a few—far from it. On the basis of the experiment with the initial 17 CTCs, we must build upon the experience gained, so that CTCs are established across the country. That will involve a massive investment of public funds in public education. As soon as it is expedient, I hope that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Government will give the green light for such CTCs. That is the direction in which we should go.
Comprehensive education is an experiment which, by and large, has failed. In the late 1990s and in the early part of the next century, it will be no good trying to make a success of a form of social experimentation that does not work. The new type of school will be based on the CTC model. It is important that we should learn the lessons from that CTC experiment and move ahead as quickly as we can.
During the summer, we witnessed events in Yugoslavia that besmirched the reputation of our continent. I have watched and admired the way in which Croatia has suffered and bled as a result of a dispute that it is virtually impossible for anyone in Yugoslavia to explain to the rest of the world. That dispute must end, and we in western Europe must use our strongest diplomatic efforts to put an end to what has become a disgrace to our continent.
Throughout my years in the House, I have taken great interest in the piracy of computer software. Fortunately, the law has been strengthened and there have been many criminal prosecutions and civil actions to tighten up on the huge amount of theft of other people's property. We need to ensure that software is audited each year, in common with company accounts. That is already beginning to happen, but the software audit which is best practice must become usual practice everywhere. When it has, the Companies Acts will need to be changed so that it is as much a matter of the law to have a software audit as it is to have account audits now.
A year ago, my right hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) was rightly drawing attention to the huge crimes committed by Mr. Saddam Hussein of Iraq. Whether he should be tried in some international tribunal was discussed by my right hon. Friend and others. Unfortunately, this country has not taken a lead role in the United Nations in establishing an international tribunal of criminal jurisdiction. There is a great amount of ignorance in our universities and elsewhere about the huge progress that has been made in sorting out many of the problems involved in establishing such a tribunal. The United Nations is now beginning to function in something like the way in which its founding fathers intended a generation ago.
I should like the British Government to take the lead in trying to establish, if only on a regional basis to start, an international court of criminal jurisdiction. I commend to the House and to the country the enormous amount of work that has been done on this by Professor Cherif Bassiouni of De Paul university, Chicago. He is the draftsman of the draft United Nations convention on this matter. We could proceed quickly if the political will existed. I should like to see more of such political will from the Government.
As the House would expect, I welcome the channel tunnel link line that has been selected—running through the Thames crossing and east of London. I want to offer another idea for public debate. We all want freight to travel from the regions, from the midlands, the north-west, the north-east and from Scotland, to the channel tunnel. The construction of urban railways, like the construction of urban roads, is the most expensive form of railway building. Houses must often be acquired and pulled down. Tunnelling is immensely expensive.
So should we not also think of bypassing London with a line running from Rugby—connecting into the west midlands, the north-west and the Glasgow routes—across the country to Peterborough—connecting with the Yorkshire and Edinburgh routes—to Stansted airport—thereby integrating, as the French do, airport and rail transport—and then straight down to the channel tunnel? Then, instead of coming into London, freight from the constituency of Macclesfield, say, would not have to pass through all the marshalling yards but could leave Manchester, go to Rugby and Peterborough, underneath Stansted airport and straight down to the channel tunnel. We need to get away from the overwhelming concentration of transport on London.
I have spoken for too long, and I know that some of my hon. Friends still want to speak. I warmly commend the Gracious Speech to the House.
The hon. Member for Corby (Mr. Powell) would not expect me to agree with much of what he said. I profoundly disagreed with virtually everthing that he said about the domestic scene. Nevertheless, I agreed with one or two of his remarks towards the end. I wholly agreed with his opinion about the tragedy of Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia offers a lesson for some other countries—notably the Soviet Union as it disintegrates. Unless steps are taken to prevent this sort of tragedy from occurring there, such events could take place.
I am absolutely certain that no British troops should be involved in any attempted peace-keeping exercise in Yugoslavia, even though I understand that it has been tentatively suggested in certain quarters.
I also agree that there should be international machinery to bring notorious war criminals to justice. We know that that was done successfully at Nuremburg after the last war and I see no reason why notorious mass murderers such as the one who unfortunately continues to rule in Iraq should not be brought to justice. I hope that he will be.
The hon. Member for Corby began by saying that much has changed in the past year. It certainly has. On the occasion of the last Queen's Speech the right hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) was Prime Minister, cheered on loudly by Conservative Members. One month later, following an old-style, Soviet-type coup, she was gone—and now she is hardly mentioned by the same Members.
We know that if the political climate were different, we would be in an election campaign now, or it would already have taken place. The only reason why there has been no election and why this Parliament, unlike the last few, is going to last five years is that the Prime Minister lacks the confidence—understandably—that he will win it. In the words of the right hon. Member for Finchley, he is somewhat frit about going to the country. He did not go when he was appointed Prime Minister. He did not go in June. He is certainly not going to go in November. He will hold on as long as possible, although there are not many months left before he has to hold an election.
In the meantime, there seems once again to be some bullying of the BBC, if not directly by the Government, at least by Conservative central office and the chairman of the Conservative party. All kinds of pressures have been brought to bear on the corporation. Anyone who knows anything about the BBC knows that the senior executives of that organisation are not all enthusiastic Labour voters. I do not know the voting intentions of the most senior people in the BBC, but I should be surprised if there was a Labour majority. That is understandable because of their background, income and expectations. However, the biggest cheer at Conservative party conferences is when there is an outlandish attack on the BBC. One Tory delegate—if that is the right word—described it as the "Bolshevik Broadcasting Corporation", which raised a tremendously enthusiastic cheer.
The hon. Gentleman nods his head in agreement. Such bullying should not be allowed and the BBC should understand that the Labour party will monitor the position extremely carefully to see whether such bullying and intimidation has any effect.
Reference is made in the Queen's Speech to improving
the effectiveness of the health and social services".
It is not surprising that, despite all the speeches that we have heard from the Tory Benches and on other occasions, Ministers cannot persuade the country that the national health service is safe in the Government's hands. They have strenuously denied that they intend to privatise any part of the NHS and some of my hon. Friends have already referred to that today. The Government pride themselves though on privatisation. The Queen's Speech
says that, if the Government continue in office, they will continue to prepare for the privatisation of the railways and the coal board.
However, the Government are sharp and hesitant about the national health service and deny that they plan to privatise it. If it is right to privatise and if the Government take so much pride in what they have done in the past 12 years, why are they so reluctant—as they claim to privatise the national health service? The national health service has not been privatised outright—we have never said that it would be—purely because of electoral fears. There is no other reason. Does anyone imagine that someone with the political philosophies of the right hon. Member for Finchley believes in the concept of a national health service? It goes against the grain for many Tories, especially those with a strong right-wing bias. That may not apply to the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton), who is an enthusiastic defender of the national health service. I hope that I am not harming his reputation——
I am not sure whether compliments from the hon. Gentleman will do my reputation any good, but I am none the less grateful for what he said. I am committed to the health service. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the Government have increased the resources to the national health service each year by 3 per cent. above the rate of inflation? Whereas in 1978–79 £7·75 billion was being spent on the health service by a Labour Government, more than £32 billion is currently being spent by a Conservative Government. Whatever the hon. Gentleman may say about the reforms, surely that shows a genuine commitment to the health service.
I do not accept that the Government have a genuine commitment to the health service. Without wishing to harm the hon. Gentleman's reputation, may I say that we admire his stand? I was a Back-Bencher in the late 1960s and I sometimes found it necessary to rebel against my Government. It is not always easy and the Whips do not always appreciate it. But the hon. Gentleman has shown great courage and that should be said on the Floor of the House. However, the hon. Gentleman should consider the eye and dental tests for which fees are now charged. That is totally unnecessary and even dangerous for reasons that have already been given about the number of people who no longer have eye tests. People have been wrongly deterred from doing so by the charges, which should be abolished.
The Government have now increased prescription charges. How can anyone state that the Government are genuinely committed to the national health service when there has been a real increase—taking account of inflation—of 594 per cent. in prescription charges? They were 20p when the Labour Government left office in 1979 and they would be about 46p now if the price had simply risen with inflation.
I have already quoted briefly from the brochure of a credit card company. I do not think that the hon. Member for Macclesfield was present then, and he may be interested. A major credit card company has written to its card holders stating:
How would you feel if you or a member of your family needed to go into hospital for a hip replacement and your doctor said that you had to wait your turn—a wait that could be months or even years? You would probably find your
whole life affected while you waited and waited to go into hospital. You might suffer irritation or embarrassment from a painful or unsightly condition. You may even be forced to take time off work.
Clearly, the organisation understands that so many people wait months or years for hip replacements and other operations for which they should not have to wait so long. That is hardly illustrative of a Government concerned about the national health service. While some of the figures given by the hon. Member for Macclesfield may have been correct, the demand is such that more and more needs to be done, and most people would accept that the NHS remains underfunded.
Last Saturday I saw someone who came to my surgery and said that his wife required incontinence pads. We can all understand what happens to a person who unfortunately and sadly loses control of his or her bodily functions—it could happen to any of us. Apparently, the health authority is normally willing to supply up to four free pads daily, but in this case only two were supplied. The rest must be paid for.
When I made inquiries with the Library here I found that the health authority had no legal basis on which to charge in the first place, and I have taken up the matter with the health authority. When an official from the Library telephoned an advice worker involved with the disabled it was discovered that, in order to keep dry, more than 12 pads daily could be needed. Incontinence is an unfortunate condition. It is not a major illness, but if one loses control of bodily functions, why should not the pads be supplied as required? What will the person do with them—hoard them or sell them on the black market? The person who came to see me said that he was provoked into doing so by something that the Secretary of State for Health said. My constituent said that it was one illustration of what was happening on the ground and he thought I might be interested. I was certainly most interested.
There was no mention of unemployment in the Queen's Speech. The number of jobs in manufacturing fell by almost 7 per cent. between January 1990 and July 1991, which amounted to a loss in manufacturing of 348,000 jobs. Yet again, as 10 years ago, the recession has been more severe in the west midlands, the heartland of engineering, than elsewhere. Between the middle of August and the middle of October this year 32,271 jobs nationally were lost. That happened under a Government who were responsible for a previous recession.
In the early 1990s the Government were responsible for the loss of jobs throughout the country and the west midlands was devastated. Ten years later the same is happening. Many of the people—some of whom are my constituents—who were made redundant previously and who were fortunate enough to get new jobs have been made redundant again. People of all age groups who were adversely affected either then or now are in an unfortunate position. In some respects it is worse for those in their fifties or even their late forties who know that the chance of being able to find employment again is remote. People who would normally have another 15 or 16 years in paid employment, be able to earn a living, perhaps make savings and build up some form of pension contribution to supplement their old-age pension will now, having exhausted their 12 months of unemployment benefit, be on income support only. They will have to rely on the smallest of incomes. What do they have to look forward to—the old-age pension in due course? My right hon. and hon. Friends have said time and time again and to a large extent this philosophy is what the Labour movement was all about from the beginning—that people have a right to be employed, and we should never accept the situation in which someone who wants to work is denied that opportunity. Today, far too many people are denied that opportunity.
I referred to the situation in the west midlands, which affects not only manual workers. That is particularly true of the current recession. I do not suggest for one moment that substantial unemployment is confined to my region, but many non-manual, semi-professional and professional people in the west midlands and elsewhere who never dreamed that they would ever be out of work are now unemployed—in some cases, for a considerable time.
The Government say that the recession is coming to an end and that recovery will take place. Of course, the recession will end—recessions always do. Why should the electorate be grateful to the Government when that happens when, in the course of 12 years, the Government have been responsible for two major recessions? How are the electorate meant to react? Are they supposed to say, "That's remarkable. Thank you very much. We will vote Tory again"?
The Government are desperately holding on and in some respects they remind me of the Tory Government of 1963. I was not a Member of Parliament at that time, but I recall that the then Prime Minister, Sir Alec Douglas-Home—rather like the present Prime Minister—did not want to hold an election until the very last moment. He kept telling the House that the Conservatives would win, but he had little confidence that they would. We all know the outcome.
The present Government are clinging on to office. They have largely lost the confidence of the country and there should have been a general election when the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) became Prime Minister. In any event, a general election should have been held by now. I am certain that whenever a general election is called the Government will, after 13 years in office, lose. I am confident that many people throughout the country who voted Conservative, with enthusiasm or otherwise, and who in many cases gave the Tories the benefit of the doubt—especially in 1983 and 1987—are clear in their minds that they will not vote Tory again. I hope that most of them will vote Labour, although obviously some will support the Liberals. The fact remains that many people have lost confidence in the Tory party—in my view, with every possible justification.
I will not follow the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) in all his remarks. He ended speaking cheerfully, as other Labour Members have done this afternoon, of the prospects of Labour returning to Government, but deep down inside the hon. Gentleman knows that he is whistling in the dark. He talks hopefully but does not really expect to arrive.
I intended not to say much about the health service but to concentrate on other aspects of the Gracious Speech. However, I am roused to comment about the national health service by the remarks of the hon. Members for Walsall, North and for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook). There is no bigger deceit in British politics than Labour's claims that it is good for Britain's health and for the NHS. Time and time again, the statistics prove that the health service was more poorly handled by Labour than by anyone else.
Why was it that the new general hospital in my constituency was not built between 1974 and 1979? The answer is that a Labour Government made the country bankrupt. Why was it that for the first time ever spending on the health service in my constituency fell between 1974 and 1979? It was because Labour went broke and could not spend enough money. Why is it that since 1979 the number of patients treated in Bury hospitals and the number of inpatients and outpatients has risen? Why is it that we now have more doctors and nurses, and have not closed a ward because of lack of finance? Why is it that, to my knowledge, no operations have been cancelled in Bury hospitals because of lack of finance? All this is because the Conservative party cares about the NHS and works hard for it.
The Labour party talks more nonsense and deceit, and tells more blatant untruths, about the national health service than about anything else. It does not mind who it scares or frightens, nor does it care what it says so long as it might gather an extra vote. It talks nonsense, and it knows it talks nonsense, but worse than that it talks sanctimonious nonsense. Were there no health service queues when the Labour party was in power? Did nobody ever miss an operation? Where was the hon. Member for Walsall, North when 65 cancer patients were sent home, because of industrial action, in Birmingham in 1979? Which side of the line was he on then? We never hear anything about that in the sanctimonious humbug from the Labour party now. Labour Members should examine their consciences and their past and be more careful.
The truth about the health service is that it is good, but it has problems that need to be solved. Why is it that when anything goes well in the health service, Labour Members say that the staff have done a wonderful job, but when anything goes wrong, they always blame the Government? There are problems in administration. The work of the NHS is patchy and not always as good as it should be. These problems need to be addressed, but nothing serious about how to solve them comes from the Labour party, and we hear nothing about from where the money to live up to its false expectations will come. It is bad news for all concerned.
As Chairman of the Select Committee on Health, I know that the Committee has undertaken some work into ophthalmic services. The hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) spoke about dental and eye test charges. He rightly said that, as hon. Members on both sides of the House will know, I voted against the introduction of charges. However, it is right to support my hon. Friend's argument by pointing out that the evidence to the Select Committee shows that the number of people going for eye tests is returning to the level that it was before the new charges were introduced. That shows that, after the implementation of new charges—after all, the Labour party first introduced charges in the NHS, thereby setting the precedent—there was a period of consumer reaction but the number of people coming forward either for dental treatment or for eye tests is returning to the level that it was before charges were imposed.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that so clear. His commitment to the NHS is not questioned by any Labour Member, just as the commitment of every Conservative Member should not be. My hon. Friend may agree that numbers took such a dip because people were frightened by the Labour party talking about charges. Everybody assumed that they would have to pay because the Labour party never spoke about exemptions.
I wonder how many illnesses the Labour party has been responsible for, given the propaganda that it produces. That propaganda is nothing new. In 1979, the Labour party circulated leaflets claiming that the Conservative party would introduce charges for seeing a doctor and staying in hospital. That was not true, and it did not happen. In 1983, it claimed that the Conservative party proposed to cease funding the NHS from taxation. In 1987, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) claimed that the Conservatives would carry out the privatisation of Britain's hospitals. All these claims were untrue—the Labour party scares on health, and continues to do so, but does not back up its claim.
The hon. Member for Walsall, North claimed that waiting lists and queues drive people into private health schemes, and are thus part of the move to privatisation. That is the Labour party's weasel way of getting out of what it said about privatisation. I wonder whether he knows that the biggest boost to private health came not during the Conservative Government but at the tail end of the Labour Government. The events of 1978–79 sent more people into private health schemes than anything else.
We have other accusations apart from those about the Conservative Government's behaviour and the charges that they have introduced—charges that. as the hon. Gentleman knows, have not been defended by all his colleagues. He may have voted for them but many Conservative Members honourably voted against them. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that at the Conservative party conference the Selsdon group produced a pamphlet in which it was suggested that the national health service should be privatised? It stated that there should be a sort of framework for the very needy and that otherwise people should pay. Apparently no press conference was held because that was considered inappropriate so near to an election. The production of the pamphlet demonstrates that changes have taken place under the Government to which we are opposed and that there are many Conservative Members and others, such as the members of the Selsdon group and other right wingers, who believe that the NHS should be privatised. There is no such pressure group within the Labour movement.
The hon. Gentleman must not charge me with association with the loony right any more than I would say to him, "What about the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist)? Where do you stand on what he says?" Members of our parties are entitled to their views. I hold no brief for the loony right in my party, as most of my right hon. and hon. Friends know. I do not know which brief the hon. Gentleman holds within his party for the various sectors of the political spectrum that his colleagues occupy. We all have colleagues who put forward ideas for which the rest of us would not give house room. I have not been submitting anything that has come from a pressure group. I have presented the facts on what the Labour party did to the NHS when the Labour Government had charge of it. The facts are distasteful. The Labour Government ran the NHS poorly and an incoming Labour Government would do that again. We have had enough nonsense about the NHS from Labour Members.
I enjoyed hearing much of what is contained in the Gracious Speech. It has a confident tone of a Government who are progressing and building on the changes that have taken place within the past decade while retaining the base of economic reality, which is the major difference between the Government and the Opposition. In addition, the Government are introducing a more rounded set of policies in the context of society and the community that are better than those that we have seen over the past few years.
I have many reasons to welcome certain parts of the Gracious Speech but I shall concentrate on two. The first is the citizens charter. One of the most striking features of the past decade is that a Conservative Government sought to dismantle barriers in our society that had been in place for too long. It is we, uncluttered and free of the grip of public sector trade union leadership, who have sought to change the worst aspects of post-war Britain, which have caused so much damage and decline.
Such damage and decline are not always measurable in terms of lack of output, productivity or performance, but the consequences can be seen throughout our society, often in ways that cannot be measured. These range from the could-not-care-less attitude that is taken by those who should know better, to the unreasonable demands of those who have forgotten the virtues of patience and courtesy. The citizens charter is part of our progress to a society without barriers. There is much in the charter which sets out the responsibility of those in public and formerly public authorities and the rights of citizens—consumers—to obtain service from them.
The balance of power in our society has too often been with providers of public services, and protection for citizens has not been as great as it should have been. The citizens charter should not become something that puts the boot on the other foot for reasons of vengeance. It is not to become a whingers' charter. It is right to set out clearly the responsibilities of those who provide services, and it is equally right to remind us all that we have our own obligations and duties as citizens in our society. We have no right to demand the unreasonable, nor to pressurise and treat unbearably those who seek to provide a service for us.
The Government have spoken before of the concept of active citizenship. In spelling out the responsibilities of public authorities, the citizen needs to be aware of his or her duties. For example, it is no use requiring hard-pressed health authorities, which through the NHS have created a record second to none for care and devotion, to set targets and maximum waiting times for operations if citizens do not do all that they can to look after their own health. We all have sympathy with those who are made ill through no fault of their own, but too many illnesses in our society contain elements that are preventable. If we expect services to play fair with us, we must play fair with them.
The same applies in education. The concept of the active parent has been expanded through the work of the Education Reform Act 1988, but it can be taken further. We can require schools to open up details of their performance, but must back up schools and teachers who resent bitterly parents who take no interest in their children, throw them into school at the age of four or five, prop them in front of the television at night and then expect teachers to do all the work and to take all the criticism if the child fails to perform to the best of its ability. A good society requires the partnership of those who request and those who provide, and it is that type of society that we should seek.
In helping to build such a society I should not wish the citizens charter to be seen merely as an opportunity to criticise those in the public services. The public services contain a wealth of talent and expertise which is at the service of the general community. In the past it has too often been the case that the citizen's frustration in dealing with the public service—owing to the absence of such a charter—has built the wrong attitude between the two. The right type of charter can break that down and establish the correct relationship for the benefit of those who provide and for those who use the services.
The American poet Robert Frost said "Good fences make good neighbours." In his direct way he expressed the belief that what some might regard as a barrier between people was the basis of a relationship of trust, understanding and friendship which enhanced their lives. So should it be with the citizens charter. When dealing with the public service it is important for the public to recognise that they also have a role to play and that their attitude——
My hon. Friend will know that I represent a constituency which has perhaps the highest percentage of people employed in manufacturing industry. About 55 per cent. of employment in my constituency is in manufacturing and, as my hon. Friend knows, I am committed to the private sector and to business, as he is. Does he agree that many of us were perhaps embarrassed during the years of our Administration at some of the excessive attacks on those who work in the public sector and at the implication that those who work in that sector were interested only in working the shortest possible hours or in their inflation-proof pensions? However, throughout the north west and Lancashire and in my hon. Friend's constituency of Bury and in Pendle there are many hundreds—or thousands—of people who work in the public sector who give genuine service and who try to help members of the public in so many ways. The citizens charter is a two-way arrangement and a two-way relationship. We must acknowledge the contribution of those who work in the public sector as much as we justifiably defend and build up the rights of those who will be defended by the charter.
My hon. Friend has waited long and patiently to make that point which I appreciate. He is right—something seemed to go wrong between the Conservative Government and the public service during the past decade. We know that there were problems to be put right and we perhaps made the error of grouping people together, a charge which should never be levelled at politicians. If we get something wrong, we should acknowledge it. Sometimes things have not been right in the public sector and changes must be made, but if we conveyed the impression that the public sector was somehow second class it was the wrong impression. I hope that we can now deal with that problem and ensure that that is not the belief.
Hon. Members who visit the public service in all its guises in our constituencies know the work that it does and we value and appreciate it. I agree with my hon. Friend that the charter should form the basis of a better relationship, one which recognises the public sector's work and which protects those who work in it. Those who work in it must be protected from the unpleasantness, abuse and—worst of all—the downright violence to which they are subjected by some members of the population. People who work in the public sector also have rights. I hope that the charter will acknowledge that fact, and that the Government will work to build a better relationship.
The second issue to which I wish to draw the House's attention is that part of the Queen's Speech relating to Europe. The past 45 years are but a tiny proportion of Europe's history but what has been achieved is, I believe, remarkable. The House should never forget the reasons for the origin of the European Community and why there is a different perspective on integration in continental Europe and in these islands. The experiences of occupied and war-torn continental Europe in the first and second world wars were fundamentally different from those in this country. However, our shared experiences easily enabled us to understand why the French and Germans especially wished to create an order in Europe which would prevent their children warring with each other ever again. That is a vision to which I wholeheartedly subscribe. I believe in a Europe in which, unlike generations before them, my children will not have to don uniforms to fight other Europeans and begin the conflagration of another world war. If that goal is to be achieved, I am prepared to put up with a great deal.
Seen in that context, the European Community has done an extraordinary job. It has created a modern day situation in which our young people, as they travel the continent, do not entertain the notion that they might be at war with their continental neighbours. Designed to prevent such an evil, the Community has been a success. However, how do we progress from here?
The key to European development is long-term, patient progress. It is unnecessary to force the pace too quickly within presidential cycles or to limit our options. Politically that would be inept because our political backgrounds are simply too diverse. Nations need time to alter their structures and prepare their people for great constitutional change. The suggestion that such changes might be imposed or driven in some way by people outside their boundaries only makes the process more difficult.
Historically, that pressure is inept. Europe is living proof that national hot-headedness lies always just below the surface in our different races. We cannot view the changes in eastern Europe or the day-to-day events in Yugoslavia without recognising that fact. Those who fail to understand the dangers of a European superstructure reawakening latent nationalistic feeling ignore the most basic and awful lesson of history that Europe has ever taught.
That historical lesson is many-sided. It is just as important to recognise that, while attempts to suppress national identities are doomed to failure, those who have come together in a larger unit voluntarily and for reasons of peaceful co-existence and harmony tend to do better than those who separate. The desire for unification in many European states in the 19th century after the chaos of civil strife of their previous existences proves that point. Accordingly, the best way to proceed is to have some sense of historical patience and allow some time to be taken over the major decisions that we face.
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary made that clear the other day when he said that there was no blueprint for Europe's future and that the decisions would ultimately be taken by what he called his children. I am old enough to be one of the children to whom my right hon. Friend referred. Perhaps hon. Members of my generation and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) will take the decisions. We will be guided by the wisdom and experience of hon. Members of slightly earlier generations.
We have time. We should not be pressed to take decisions in Europe too quickly. When we consider the 2,000 years of strife that Europe has experienced and the 45 years of harmony, it is clear that there are many good things to aim at.
There is more to today's debate than simply an analysis of the Queen's Speech. This debate must be the prime opportunity prior to a general election for the Leader of the Opposition to put aside all doubts about himself, his party and his policies. That opportunity has been comprehensively missed.
This debate was a chance for the Leader of the Opposition to deal with the charges that Conservative Members make about tax and spend; the lack of an anti-inflationary policy and the folly of a minimum wage and its dramatic impact on jobs identified by union leaders and economic experts alike and the incredible gap between Labour's promises to spend and a lack of commitment about where to find the finances. All those chances were lost.
There is a spirit hovering over the Opposition Benches tonight to which reference has not yet been made. That is the spirit of Thomas Digges, a former Member of this place. It was revealed in today's Daily Telegraph that he invented the astronomical telescope 30 years before Galileo, but the discovery was kept quiet for security reasons and we have all been under a misapprehension ever since. That so-called Digges doctrine is alive and well on the Opposition Benches—[Interruption.] Indeed, one would need an astronomical telescope tonight to discover any life on the Opposition Benches apart from the hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes), who is in his customary position on the Opposition Front Bench.
We have been under a misapprehension about Labour's key policies for many years. The truth has been hidden from us. Of course, the Labour party has been in favour of Europe all the time. The manifesto commitment in 1983 to pull out, the views of the Leader of the Opposition and the 13 shadow Cabinet members who voted against the Single European Act in 1986 were all just a smoke screen.
Of course, the Labour party's commitment to personal choice and opportunity is a matter of long-term and deeply held belief. Therefore, Labour Members' votes against the sale of council houses, the open enrolment policy in schools, and their support of the abolition of grant-maintained schools and city technology colleges, the assisted places scheme and their belief in the return of secondary picketing, with its denial of choice and opportunity to work, have all been part of the Digges smoke screen—"Get your policy, hide it from people, and, 30 years later, say that it was your idea all the time." The Digges doctrine will not hold water at the next election.
The debate on the Gracious Speech has been very good and hon. Members have enjoyed the day, but we are very interested in what the next Gracious Speech will say. I venture to suggest that the debate will be equally good and equally interesting. It will come from the Conservative Benches, and it will come from my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major).
When Her Majesty delivered the Gracious Speech this morning, I wondered for a moment whether she would tell us when the next general election would be. She could have told us with certainty that the next general election will be held during the first half of next year. However, on a serious note, never having before served in a Parliament that has gone into a fifth year, I believe that the continual speculation in certain quarters about the timing of the election is extremely damaging for the recovery of the economy. I never thought that I would say that I was open to persuasion on fixed-term Parliaments, but that is very much my case now. For parliamentarians to be subjected to weekly or monthly opinion polls is, to say the least, boring. To have continual jibes from the Opposition, taunting us that we are scared to have a general election, is childish and will lead the general public to become more disillusioned with politicians and politics than they are already. Perhaps in Parliaments to come we may seriously consider having fixed terms.
I have always been against the televising of our proceedings and I am still very much of that view today. However, I am glad that the behaviour of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and that of the Leader of the Opposition were seen. It enabled the general public clearly to see the contrast between the leaders of the two main parties. We saw the Prime Minister clearly set forth a positive set of policies around which the country can rally. We saw the Leader of the Opposition make one of the most damning, destructive and negative speeches that I have ever heard. When it came to a point of policy—my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer intervened—the Leader of the Opposition was totally floored. He could not answer. Of course, as we saw later, the Opposition are devoid of any policies.
I praise the details of the Gracious Speech. Conservative Members have always had clear views on our defence policies. The Opposition parties have also had clear views on our defence. However, in the two Parliaments in which I have served, the Opposition have seemed to change their views or change the goal posts. They were in favour of unilateral disarmament. They were always lecturing us that we were over-armed. They were always urging us to reduce our forces. They were always telling us that there was no nuclear threat and that we should respond accordingly. Of course, once we saw the change in the eastern bloc, once the overall threat was rather diminished, once we had our policy review and we announced changes, what did the Opposition do? As ever over the past few months, if they see an electoral opportunity, they jump on the bandwagon and say that we are reducing our arms too quickly.
My constituency contains GEC Avionics and Marconi is nearby, in Chelmsford. We have always recognised that it is not easy for such companies to diversify their activities. Nor is it easy, if one suddenly has to reduce one's work force by 500, to stand outside the factory and say, "Well, lads, you are just going to have to find other jobs because the country does not need as many arms as it used to." The Conservative party has always said that that is a problem, but the Opposition have simply said, "We do not need as many arms as we used to." The Opposition's hypocrisy over the current defence review has been absolutely appalling. Conservative Members have always had a consistent defence policy, but the Opposition have not.
I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Burt) mentioned the citizens charter. It is a splendid document that should receive all-party support. My goodness—it contains what the Opposition parties have always asked for. Whatever the problem, we can fix it. All Opposition Members should be rallying round to support our citizens charter. As the Prime Minister said, the citizens charter offers the citizen nothing less than a revolution in the way in which public services are delivered. It will be the most comprehensive quality initiative ever launched. New and tougher standards of service will be set. We will introduce a wide range of mechanisms to ensure that those standards are met to the citizens' satisfaction. It should also point the way to a new pride and purpose for those who work in the public services. All those are sensible things and should unite us. As ever, however, the Opposition appear churlish.
I also support the words in the Gracious Speech about improving education. I am delighted that standards of education in Basildon have improved in each of the eight years that I have represented the constituency. I am proud to be the father of five children. My two eldest children attend a local state primary school. They can read well, they behave reasonably well and they have mastered the basics of arithmetic. Not only are standards of education improving in Basildon, but we also have the first grant-maintained school in Essex, which has been an enormous success.
I am also delighted that the Gracious Speech referred to British Rail. Basildon has the worst rail service in the country, the Fenchurch Street line. Three weeks ago I publicly made a journey on that line. British Rail's representatives did not even turn up to meet me and the Basildon commuter group. When the engine rolled in, it was pulling eight carriages, of which two were locked. Only about one fifth of the people on the platform managed to get on to the train. When we arrived at Fenchurch Street, a British Rail official rushed up to me to apologise for this delay. I was given a card giving 10 excuses for the fact that the train was 20 minutes late. I am delighted to tell the House that on 12 November Sir Bob Reid will be travelling on the 8.34 am train, together with the Basildon commuter group and Essex Members of Parliament.
I conclude with Europe. My hon. Friends and I would like some honesty from the Opposition——
No, there are not many Opposition Members in the Chamber, but we should like some honesty from them about where they stand in relation to Europe. The Liberal Democrats have a firm policy. They are prepared to support a federal Europe and to sell out British interests and British sovereignty. They make no secret of that. But where does the Labour party stand on Europe? We just do not know.
When the general election is called the media will give equal coverage during the three-week campaign to the three political parties——
Four political parties. Then the general public will listen carefully to the policies which the various parties enunciate. I have no doubt that the public will endorse the Government and that the Conservative party will lead us into the year 2000.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) asked about the Labour party's policy on Europe. Look at the time that he asks that question. The debate finishes at 10 o'clock. How the hell does he expect a response from me? If he is here tomorrow, I may have the opportunity to tell him.