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

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I should like to continue for a while as I want to give other hon. Members the opportunity to speak.

Britain takes over the presidency of Europe at a crucial time, with many European countries facing internal difficulties and many European institutions facing self-doubt. It would be very easy indeed for Europe to lose momentum at this stage. Perhaps that is what some in the Conservative party want—and many in the Labour party, too—but I hope that the Prime Minister will realise that Europe cannot stand still: if it does not go forwards, it will begin to go backwards, and a Community in retreat would be a Community that had dangerously lost its way just when leadership was much needed in an increasingly turbulent and troubled continent. I urge the Prime Minister to combine his courage with what I believe are his true convictions and give a strong lead in Europe, ignoring the voices of his own party and showing that Britain does not have to lag behind in Europe but can give a lead in Europe.

In particular, I urge the Prime Minister to get rid of the opt-out on the social chapter. There is now a new and growing understanding in Europe of the undesirability of recreating, at European level, the old corporatist industrial structures and attitudes that we in Britain got rid of in the 1980s. Britain has a real chance to influence the social chapter in favour of liberal markets, a more flexible approach to employees' rights and a more flexible labour market. I hope that the Prime Minister will take that chance, which is a considerable one for him and for Europe.

We also hear that the Government are at last prepared to consider voting reform for the next European election. Let us be clear that it is one thing for the House to be distorted in its representation by our voting system but quite another to unbalance the make-up of the European Parliament because we alone insist that our system must not be proportional. Unless the Government are prepared to give the people of Britain the same fair voting system for elections to the European Parliament that every other European citizen enjoys, their claims to be the Government of the citizen will be exposed as fraudulent. I hope that the Prime Minister will tackle that as well.

We hope and expect that the Government will take a lead at the earth summit in Brazil. Regrettably, the environment was barely mentioned during the general election, but it is one of the greatest challenges that mankind faces. I applaud the Government's recent, if belated, decision to reduce the period within which we stabilise carbon dioxide emissions, but the target that the Government have chosen is inadequate in the face of the urgency of the problem and still leaves Britain well behind other advanced nations. It is extremely depressing that the commitment to a powerful environmental protection agency, which was given by the Prime Minister and was promised in the recent Conservative party manifesto, finds no place in the Queen's Speech.

Why does the list of things to which aid might be linked not include progress in environmental areas as well as in economic and human rights areas? I cannot see how the Government can claim credentials on environment matters when they duck every tough decision that they have to take in that area.

There are welcome items in the Queen's Speech, but by and large they are small items. I greatly welcome the Prime Minister's agreement to acknowledge the existence of MI6. However, the public acknowledgement of something about which the nation was aware previously is a small item. It would have been a big item if the security services were made accountable to the scrutiny of a Select Committee of Privy Councillors in this House. If the Prime Minister really wants open government in this country, it would have been a big item to ensure that we at last had a freedom of information Bill, but there is no sign of that in the Queen's Speech.

There are other points about the tone of the Gracious Speech. It was inconceivable under the Prime Minister's predecessor that the Government's programme would have included a celebration of a visit by Her Majesty to the European Parliament or a statement in favour of rail transport.

We welcome the Government's commitment to increase rail use and to give private services access to the British Rail network provided that the profits from that are ploughed back into the rail system. We also welcome the citizens charter proposals to make the public service more responsive to the consumer, provided that they are matched by a commitment to invest in public services to improve quality for the consumer.

Behind all that, however, there is no evidence of a Government with a clear set of new ideas for our country. Instead, I see a Government who intend to stumble on after an election that they did not expect to win. We are told that this is to be a Government of opportunity. Britain needs a Government committed to widening opportunity and to providing escape routes for those who are trapped, but that would require investment in education and a commitment to housing. It would require giving greater chances to employees to share in the ownership and success of their jobs. It would require a new boost for individual enterprise and a programme to create greater flexibility in the labour market. It would require giving new chances to women, to ethnic minorities, to the poor and to the trapped. None of that is visible in the Government's programme in the Gracious Speech.

I fear that the Gracious Speech shows all too clearly that the Prime Minister was as surprised by his election victory as were many other people. Having obtained his mandate and opportunity, he has yet to propose a clear idea of how he intends to use it. I am reminded of the famous words of Winston Churchill who, when asked what he thought of a pudding, said, "It has no theme". Nor have the Government.