First Day

Part of Debate on the Address – in the House of Commons at 4:03 pm on 6th May 1992.

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Photo of Mr Paddy Ashdown Mr Paddy Ashdown Leader of the Liberal Democrats 4:03 pm, 6th May 1992

Perhaps I should start by thanking the hon. Member for Stockton. South (Mr. Devlin) for what was—as far as I was concerned, at any rate—a very timely point of order.

I join the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in congratulating the right hon. Member for Mole Valley (Mr. Baker), who proposed the response to the Gracious Address, and the hon. Member for Gedling (Mr. Mitchell), who capably seconded the motion. The latter wishes that he has a future; the former wishes that he did not have a past.

I must confess that I found nothing particularly odd in the right hon. Gentleman's partial and badly informed view of proportional representation. Such views should not surprise us, coming from someone who has been in charge of Conservative party propaganda. I thought it rather odd, however, that the Prime Minister—perhaps providing evidence of a somewhat wicked sense of humour—should ask the right hon. Gentleman to propose the response to the Gracious Address, given that the right hon. Gentleman was responsible for nearly all the real disasters that occurred in previous Government programmes. For my hon. Friends and, I suspect, for many others, almost the most frightening of the Prime Minister's choices in his new Cabinet, as testimony of his determination to have a successful Government, was to commit the right hon. Gentleman to the Back Benches. Nothing could have shown more surely that he is serious about seeking to succeed.

I should like to join the right hon. Member for Mole Valley in his words about the Leader of the Opposition. I do not know whether this is the last time we shall have the pleasure of hearing the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Kinnock) at the Dispatch Box leading for his party since the leadership election is a few months away. However, if this is the last time, I should like to say that many of us who do not share his views or belong to his party have, nevertheless, looked with great admiration on his leadership of the Labour party. He has done an immense and historic service to his party. In my view, the service extends beyond that to the Labour party to the country at large. By ensuring that his party more nearly matches the mood and spirit of the nation than was the case when he took over, he has strengthened our democracy.

I congratulate the Prime Minister on his election victory. It was a considerable personal achievement in which he is entitled to have some pride. The Government are now entitled to our good will in their task of governing our country, especially if they take the strong action necessary to get the country going again and to get people back to work. A wise Prime Minister would reject the triumphalism that has been evident in some quarters of his party. A wise Prime Minister might reflect on the fact that his victory was won not so much on the basis of enthusiasm for Conservative policies or on the Conservative party's record but out of fear of what the Labour party had to offer. Perhaps the Prime Minister senses that, as he has spoken of a Government who will be gentler in their approach. The tone of his speech seemed to carry that forward. He has told us that he will be more concerned with constructing consensus and more committed to building a nation that is, in his phrase, "at ease with itself". If that is so, the change of style will be welcomed, and my hon. Friends and I will respond to it.

The central question on which the new Administration and the Prime Minister will be judged is this: having been given this opportunity, what does he intend to use it for? We now have the curious spectacle of a Government and an official Opposition who have abandoned their previous creeds—Thatcherism and socialism, respectively—because those creeds made them unelectable, but each has yet to find anything appropriate to replace them.

The Government tells us—it was at the centre of the Prime Minister's speech—that their big idea is opportunity. If that is proved to be so, it is welcome, but we shall need more than words in a Gracious Speech to make that point. For millions in our country, opportunity has died rather than grown in the past 13 years. Where is the opportunity for those in rural areas who have seen their public transport vanish with the privatisation of the bus service? Where are the opportunities for poor students who have seen loans and cutbacks put higher education beyond their reach? Where are the opportunities for the young who crowd into our surgeries looking for homes that the Government have refused to allow councils to build for them? Where are the opportunities for those who live in squalor in our tumbledown inner cities which the Government promised to put right, just as they do now, but then forgot? Where are the opportunities for those who rely on our education system to provide them with escape routes but who now see that system increasingly demoralised, confused and underfunded? If the Government are really to live up to the Prime Minister's rhetoric, and the words in the speech, they will get a genuine welcome from the Liberal Democrats.

I see little or no sign of such a change in the Queen's Speech. Indeed, such signs as there are seem to point in the opposite direction. In the past the Prime Minister has said: Nothing is more important than education to ensure all our young people have the opportunities they deserve". I agree, but what does he intend to do about it?

In the Gracious Speech it was said that the Government would raise standards in education, but those are empty words unless the Government are prepared to increase investment in education—which, as a percentage of national wealth, has declined rather than increased over the past 13 years. If the Government are serious about those words, we must ask whether the process will be reversed. It seems that it will not. Indeed, quite the opposite: the election was only a few weeks ago, but already a new round of education cuts has begun. Many councils are now leaving teaching posts unfilled, and others are cutting staff. Her Majesty's inspectors of schools now estimate that nearly half our schools are using inappropriate buildings. In a recent report the Audit Commission tells us that there are £4 billion worth of repairs outstanding to the fabric of our educational institutions, and that after 13 years of Conservative Government one third of all lessons are still unsatisfactory.

I have looked in vain in the Government's programme in the Gracious Speech for a commitment to tackling the problems of underinvestment which blight the opportunities of so many of our children. All that I have seen has been more educational dogma of the sort that has created such damaging innovation fatigue in education over the past 13 years. Now that appears to be spiced with a little personal neo-Victorianism from the new Secretary of State for Education. That will not bring opportunities to education; all that it will bring is more confusion, uncertainty and disruption—and fewer chances and opportunities for those who pass through our education system.

The Prime Minister spoke of opting out and of grant-maintained schools, but neither he nor the Government have answered the question about their long-term aim for grant-maintained schools: do the Government want all schools to opt out?