First Day

Part of Debate on the Address – in the House of Commons at 7:46 pm on 6th May 1992.

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Photo of Derek Conway Derek Conway , Shrewsbury and Atcham 7:46 pm, 6th May 1992

First, Mr. Deputy Speaker, let me congratulate you on your appointment and welcome you to the Chair. A future of long and lonely vigils lies ahead of you, but I hope that your service in the Chair will not be without its lighter moments.

I am sure that the House will join me in congratulating the hon. Member for Warrington, South (Mr. Hall) on his maiden speech. He made some generous comments about my former colleague Chris Butler, and I know that my hon. Friends will welcome the tribute that he paid to his predecessor. Chris Butler was an extremely hardworking representative of Warrington, South, and he will be sadly missed by his Conservative colleagues. The warm words uttered by his successor demonstrate the effort that he put into representing his constituency.

The new hon. Member for Warrington, South brings to the House considerable experience not only of teaching but of local government: that was clear from the confidence with which he spoke. I am sure that he appreciates that the patience with which the House listened to his speech did not necessarily constitute an endorsement of its content. Although we are all enamoured of his delivery, he may not receive a silent reception in future, for much of what he said was controversial. I hope that the hon. Gentleman enjoyed this evening's occasion, but he can be assured of a slightly rougher ride next time. For all that, his speech was very good and very well delivered, and I am sure that Warrington, South will have a potent voice in the Chamber.

Now that you are in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker, I have an opportunity to ingratiate myself with a second occupant, in the hope of stacking up favours for the future. We are all delighted about your appointment, and we wish you extremely well. Some hon. Members have served in Standing Committee under your chairmanship. I recall serving on the Standing Committee that considered the Water Bill—I believe that it was the longest Committee stage that we have ever had, and it was certainly the longest since the war. Your chairmanship then, Madam Deputy Speaker, was patently fair but also good-humoured; nevertheless, as right hon. and hon. Members will discover, you are not a lady to be crossed. I have no doubt that the business of the Chamber will proceed very fairly under your wise guidance: long may you sit there.

Let me get all my obsequiousness out of the way. Another person whom I should congratulate—we go back far too many years, man and boy—is my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire), who appeared at the Dispatch Box today as a new Minister. I hope that he enjoyed the speeches that concerned his Department.

When Conway stands up to speak in the Chamber, all the chairs change. I am delighted to see that my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West (Mr. Sackville) has arrived. His was indeed a wonderful victory, and I am glad to see that he has left the office that is popularly known as the Stasi—but better known as the Whips' Office—and taken on ministerial responsibilities.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Mr. Baker) delivered a humorous speech which was widely enjoyed. He did so competently, as befits a man who has held some of the great offices of state. As I listened, I could not help reflecting that the names of those who have held offices of Home Secretary, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Foreign Secretary tend to come and go with history. No doubt my right hon Friend's will be one of those names; but I suspect that the title "Baker days" will long remain. It is a term that all hon. Members with children hear regularly. In my ignorance, I thought initially that it had something to do with domestic science, but I was soon put straight about the purpose of "Baker days". I suspect that my right hon. Friend has left his mark on the education world for many years to come.

I think that my right hon. Friend has also done something more serious. His education reforms will be widely and, I believe, rightly considered to have provided a sound footing for state education. It is possible that the reforms begun by him and continued by my right hon. and learned Friend, the present Home Secretary, will prove to have done more to sound the death knell of second—rate private schools than anything that the class warriors could ever have said or done in the Chamber. Those reforms will, I think, ensure that those who continue to provide education in the private sector must look to their laurels. Evidence in my constituency suggests that— particularly at primary-school level, but also at secondary level—the challenges and competition that are coming from the maintained sector are encouraging and welcome.

Seconding the motion, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Mitchell) spoke with humour and competence. As he hinted to the House, he is sometimes the subject of envy or jealousy, perhaps because of his youthfulness. Certainly, it will he clear to the House—not only from his speech today but from other contributions that he has made—that talent will out, and I hope that his role today is a sign that he will soon be joining those of his colleagues who form the country's Government.

The campaign that enabled the Government to construct the agenda in the Queen's Speech was interesting. I do not know how much other hon. Members enjoy election campaigns; I have been in politics for 23 years, and I am one of those masochists who find them quite good fun. I do not look forward to them, but, once they begin—especially in a constituency such as Shrewsbury and Atcham, which is an extremely pleasant place to represent and in which to campaign—they are certainly no trial. Indeed, they constitute a very enjoyable and informative process.

One of my main votes of thanks should go to the pollsters. I began the campaign expecting a reduced majority. Halfway through the campaign, I began to realise that my majority would increase, owing mainly to the distortion that the polling organisations were introducing. Experienced canvassers know from the look in the eye of the elector to whom they talk roughly what that voter's intentions are. They know how truthful the elector's response is when he answers the door: they know whether he will support their party or another one. 1 suspect that that is not an experience on which polling organisations can build; thus, in the final week of the campaign, those organisations were able to dominate the election with talk of hung Parliaments and proportional representation. That distorted the opportunity that we had as a nation to hammer out policies in that final week.

The greatest beneficiary was, I think, the Liberal Democrat party. The Liberal Democrats managed to get away with talking about proportional representation without anyone looking at their policies. I read their manifesto in great detail—especially page 39, which promised to do away with mortgage interest relief. That would have cost my constituents who have mortgages of £30,000 or more £68 a month. The Liberal Democrats were never prepared to debate that issue before the electorate with any confidence or courage. The same applies to their tax policy. If their policies had been known, they would probably have received an even greater hammering.

The result of the election is this: my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister continues in his post, and has been able to present the Government's agenda in the Gracious Speech. I think that he fought a very good campaign. It showed what a steady hand he has—a fact that was not doubted by those of us who saw him take over the Conservative party leadership at a time of crisis, not only for the Conservative party, but for a country that faced the unsure outcome of the Gulf conflict. The steadiness of the Prime Minister's hand was proven during that conflict. More important, the electorate understood—certainly this was the message that we received on the doorstep—thatthe Prime Minister was sincere.

When the Prime Minister talks about a classless society, I am never entirely sure how we are to aim for such a goal. At the outset of today's debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Mr. Soames) was sitting on the Front Bench. I could not resist the temptation of picturing the new Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food—who is an extremely able man, as well as being very good company; I am sure that everyone will welcome him into the Government—in this context. I could not help but juxtapose his presence with the idea of a classless society. What the Prime Minister means by that in terms of the Conservative party is that class is irrelevant. Those who continue the class battle outside in the country or in the Chamber have got the message from the electorate because, for most of those who do not regard themselves as upper or middle class, class is irrelevant. Like the Prime Minister, I was brought up in a council house and went to a secondary modern school. In those circumstances the class war has no appeal. Most people are preoccupied with getting on with life.

Sadly, life is not equal. I would prefer to be thin and to have hair my wife would wish the same—but I was born to put on weight and go bald. I regret that and it is not fair of God to have delivered in that way. However, life is not equal and we must come to terms with that and do the best we can.

When I stay in London I live in a one—bedroom flat in Pimlico. It is a nice flat in a nice area. It is not the fault of the greater Being, the Government, history or society that I stay in a one—bedroom flat while the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), one of the House's great class warriors, lives in a nice mansion in Holland Park, or that the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould), perhaps soon to be the leader of the Labour party, has a rather nice country mansion. I do not begrudge them that but I wish that they would not begrudge it to others.

During the next four or five years the purpose of the Government is to get the balance right for the duty that our citizens have towards society through their taxes to provide for society's needs and for those who are less successful. The Government must also create oppportunity for individuals and their families. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister's commitment to that is unequivocal. He has shown that by deed. In the Gracious Speech the Government have put before us the proposition to extend council house sales through the rent-to-mortgage scheme. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and those responsible at the Department of the Environment will consider the difficulty particularly facing older council tenants. Obtaining a mortgage is not difficult, but they have a problem in funding the insurance commitment that tends to go with the mortgage for those over the age of 50. I hope that as the House discusses the proposals that issue will be considered.

I must resist the temptation to comment on the industrial relations Bill. I am a former branch secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union. However, since my appointment as parliamentary private secretary to my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth) I am precluded from making comments on any legislation relating to the Department of Employment. I am not sure whether my appointment is to stop my hon. Friend from diluting his sensible and sound views, but the opportunity to learn from, and work with, one of the brightest Ministers in the Government who is also a friend was too good to resist. Also, I could not resist the opportunity to work with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment and her excellent team, which includes my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. McLoughlin) and my noble Friend the Viscount Ullswater in another place. It is a vibrant Department with challenging portfolios and I look forward to playing a small part in it.

In the Gracious Speech the Government announced their intention again to put before the House the Asylum Bill. I am glad that that is so because there are problems that will not go away. I regret the fact that the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) described the Bill as racist. That is not an honourable term to apply to the Bill and its intention or practice. Lectures on honour are something that we cannot take and do not need from that right hon. Gentleman.

The Bill with which I shall have greatest difficulty is that covering the Maastricht treaty. My scepticism about the European cause is long standing. I was one of a handful of Members of Parliament to defy Mrs. Thatcher's three-line Whip when she was our Prime Minister to vote for the Single European Act. Many have since considered that the powers that we gave to Brussels through that Act and through the limited use of veto should not have been given and, with hindsight, would not be given were the Bill to come before us again.

One of the problems that I and many of my hon. Friends have with that Bill is the realisation that, although we may not like all that it contains, we cannot gainsay the fact that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister did a superb job in the negotiations. I believe that his success could not have been achieved by his predecessor. I hope that in our dealings with Europe he will ensure that the growth of the Brussels bureaucracy does not continue. Some of its ideas make some of the madder councils look positively prudent. I doubt whether the Bill will make us citizens of Europe.

I am pleased to be a subject of the Queen rather than a citizen of Europe. Those of us who voted for the United Kingdom to be part of the European Economic Community voted for just that—an area of free trade and free movement of capital, people and goods. The European Commission and too many others have lost sight of that.

Shrewsbury, which it is a privilege to represent, is a historic borough. Last year we celebrated the 150th anniversary of Benjamin Disraeli's time as a Member of Parliament. The borough was also the home of the first Parliament—the first occasion on which peers and commoners sat together. Therefore, it has a special link with the Chamber and what it tries to achieve. Like so many other areas, it prospers along with the nation.

Shrewsbury has a particular part to play in our heritage. We are listed as one of the 12 ancient boroughs with properties of particular historic importance to the country. Some, I hope not many, believe that the role of the new National Heritage Department and the proceeds of the new national lottery should be directed towards the arts. Although that is undoubtedly important, we need to ensure that we maintain the fabric of our historic buildings that play such an important part in making our country special. I hope that the new National Heritage Department will have a broad perspective on how to allocate its resources.

To the outsider Shrewsbury may seem to be an affluent town and, in many parts, it is. However, my constituency contains 120 villages as well as the county town. Many people perceive the farming community to be a well-off sector of society, particularly those who live in towns. However, those of us who represent farmers know only too well that they are running businesses on reduced incomes and that the demands upon them are ever greater. In the Finance (No. 2) Bill I look forward to ensuring that the inheritance tax proposals go ahead so that those who have invested in unlimited companies as small business men and in the farming community will be able to ensure that their families continue that business without the dead hand of the Inland Revenue pressing them too far. That is often one more pressure that many small businesses, of which there are many in Shrewsbury, find all too great. That was proved by the uniform business rate valuations which took place when capital values were unrealistically high and it is one of my fears for the council tax Bill, judgment on which is yet to come.

The Gracious Speech sets a good agenda for the Parliament. It contains many sensible Bills—16 in all. I believe that we shall make steady progress. Perhaps the Government's reduced majority will enable the legislature to exercise better and more effective control over the Executive, and that is no bad thing. All that will be underwritten by a strengthening of our economy with its reducing interest rates and reducing inflation rates so that we shall reach a point at which we are poised to lead Europe out of recession.

The fact that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was returned to office—it was not expected by the media —was an acknowledgement by the country of his widely known and respected competence. His mission has not been to penalise success—that is what many of my constituents feared about the policies offered by Opposition parties—but to spread success and prosperity ever wider. In that he will have the full-hearted backing of the party and, I believe, the warm good wishes of the people of Shrewsbury and Atcham.