First Day

Part of Debate on the Address – in the House of Commons at 6:44 pm on 6th May 1992.

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Photo of Michael Spicer Michael Spicer Chair, Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology 6:44 pm, 6th May 1992

I have no difficulty or hesitation in congratulating the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) on a witty, able, fluent and independent-minded maiden speech. Most hon. Members, including myself eighteen years ago, wait two or three months before making a maiden speech, but the hon. Gentleman has got his maiden speech off his chest at the first available opportunity, and he has done extremely well.

I also congratulate you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, on rising to your high office. Had the Chairman of Ways and Means still been in the Chair, I would have made some jokes about tennis. As I do not know whether you play tennis, I shall pass by that matter and move straight to the meat of my speech. However, you will need very good neck muscles to move your head from side to side, as happens on the tennis court.

It will come as no surprise to the House that I welcome enthusiastically the bulk of the Queen's Speech. I judge it by the criteria by which I suspect that many of my hon. Friends will judge it—that is, by what it does for individual motivation. Contrary to most Opposition Members, I believe that society is no more and no less than the sum of the individuals within it. I therefore welcome, for instance, the references to increasing the individual's respect for the rule of law. That is in part a matter of proper sentencing policy. It is a matter in part of spending money on the police force. Perhaps it is a matter of divide between the two sides of the House, but it is also very much a matter of the rhetoric of and attitude towards personal responsibility. A crime such as joyriding is as much a matter of the responsibility of the parents of young people and the young people themselves as it is, as so often claimed, of society. I certainly welcome the aspect of the Queen's Speech referring to law and order.

Equally, I very much welcome those aspects of the Queen's Speech referring to the encouragement of individual motivation and of removing distortions in the economy. One of the major facets of motivating individuals is that they should have confidence in the means of producing and distributing goods within the economy. That is why I very much welcome the proposed measures for privatisation.

As a former Minister with responsibility for coal and electricity, I shall say one thing about coal privatisation. When I was in Government, I lost the battle to privatise the coal industry much earlier. I still think that I was right about that. There were arguments which prevailed against what I was saying, but the coal industry would have been protected and preserved in a rather better way than it has been within the public sector in the past two or three years. We would have had a new approach to management and marketing. Above all, the industry would have had access to private capital in a way that would have been of enormous benefit to it.

I offer the Government one word of caution. In doing so, I must declare an interest as chairman of the Association of Independent Power Producers. It would be a great shame if, in order to protect coal privatisation, special deals—in particular, secret special deals—were allowed between the coal industry and the large producers of electricity, National Power and PowerGen. If there were secret contracts which were, in a sense, supported by the Government so that the coal industry could be easily privatised, it would be extremely distortive. We need to have more competition among electricity producers and less protection for the big producers of electricity. If the privatisation of coal resulted in further protection for National Power and PowerGen, it would be very unfair.

I now refer to the Government's proposition to introduce a more balanced budget as we come out of the recession. They are absolutely right. Again, it is a distortion for the individual to have excess spending and, therefore, excess borrowing, which has all sorts of detrimental effects on the economy. That is something which we did not have in the 1980s but which we undoubtedly have today.

I hope that the Government's view is correct that as we come out of recession the take from income will be greater and expenditure will be less so that we get the balance right. The longer term problem is that demands on public spending are becoming greater by the day. Taking health as an example, the demands of new technology, new standards of living and an aging population build up continuously and create cumulative pressures for more spending on health.

The Government have only a few alternatives if they are to achieve a balanced budget. Either they say no to some of the increased demands, which will be increasingly difficult; or they raise taxes. Or they increase borrowing, which will mean unbalanced budgets. Or new means will have to be found—no doubt controversially—of funding an element of expenditure on, for example, health. That would mean some sort of mesh of private and public finance for health.

Socialist France goes even further than we do in involving private contribution in certain types of health provision, though obviously not chronic or emergency health provision. We shall have to move more towards such a system if we are to meet the increasing demand for public spending in that sector.

I have said that I agree with and welcome the bulk of the Queen's Speech, but I have reservations on two matters. One is referred to indirectly in the Queen's Speech under the "any other business" section, which says: Other measures will be laid before you. The other matter is referred to directly.

The matter referred to indirectly was mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in his speech. It is the so-called reform of Parliament. Proposals will be put before Parliament for its reform. I agree with what the hon. Member for Thurrock said about the need to protect this Parliament. It is a difficult and complex job because, unlike most Parliaments—for example, the Congress of the United States—our Parliament is not divided from the Executive. It is part of the Executive. It is controlled by the Executive. The Executive exists only so long as it controls the legislature. That is what gives the Executive its legitimacy.

As a result of the constitutional constraints under which we operate, it is therefore difficult for a British Parliament to establish any measure of independence from the Executive. One way in which this Parliament has traditionally exerted some measure of influence and control over and independence from the Executive is through the messiness with which we conduct our activities. It is precisely because we do not always know at what time the House will rise, and because we do not have a push-button, nine-to-five Parliament, that the Executive often have to take into consideration what Back-Bench Members on both sides of the House are saying to them.

It will be of enormous interest to the Executive to move across to a nine-to-five, nine-to-10 or whatever Parliament. It will be welcomed by them. It will make life much simpler to have a "reformed", "modernised" Parliament, which will be far easier to control. I shall therefore watch with enormous scepticism measures introduced to "reform" Parliament and make it far more manageable for the Executive.

The other matter about which I have reservations has been referred to several times in the debate. I understand that the legislation to ratify the treaty of Maastricht will be forthcoming soon. Many of my hon. Friends—and, I suspect, many Opposition Members—have great reservations about the inexorable move towards a federal Europe. There is a great deal of common ground in the House. The question is, "What is to be done?" What perspective should be taken on what is going on?

Some people argue that the thing is breaking up of its own accord. The Italians do not believe in the treaty and do not comply with it. The French have started to debate it in their assembly. The Germans do not like the thought of sacrificing their mark. It looks as though the Danes might reject the treaty in a referendum. It is argued that the move towards federalism is breaking up.

There is another argument that, even if the move towards federalism is not breaking up, Britain has achieved everything that it needs for itself by temporarily opting out.

In considering the treaty, all I can do is to read the print which I see in front of me and which I have been asked to ratify and, therefore, indirectly to sign. When I look at the specifics—the black and white of the treaty—I have certain strong anxieties.

For instance, I am anxious about the new concept of the union citizenship. I know that it is said that, although the union citizen will have new rights over and above and independent of those of the sovereign country, for the moment those rights will apply only to local government elections. But I also read in the small print that through unified voting those rights can be extended once we have set up the concept of a citizen who is no longer exclusively loyal to our country but has a wider loyalty.