Debate on the Address — [First Day]

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:10 pm on 13th November 2002.

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Photo of Mr Clive Soley Mr Clive Soley Labour, Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush 9:10 pm, 13th November 2002

When I look at a Queen's Speech, I look not just at what is in it but at the general thrust and strategy of the Government's policy. The first period of the Conservative Government elected in 1979 changed the mood of the country and the second period began to change the structure of the country. That is what we are doing now and I am pleased to see it.

One paragraph in the Queen's Speech has attracted little attention: that on the second page that deals with the welfare state. It says that the Government

Xwants to create a welfare state based on giving people rights and responsibilities. They will pursue proposals that focus on the importance of work as part of our social security system."

It is important that that part of the speech gains more attention because it redefines the welfare state.

The Labour party created the original welfare state in 1945 alongside the concept of trying to achieve full employment. The problem for us in the intervening years was matching full employment with the welfare state and not creating a welfare state that just paid benefits to people who could not work. The problem for the Tory party—it was shown today by the Leader of the Opposition and one or two other Conservative Members—is that it has not quite worked out what to do with public services and how important full employment is to that issue. Until it addresses that issue and gets its act together, particularly on public services, it will fail to deal with the needs of the public. It does not know whether it wants to privatise more and cut public services or try to match what the Government are doing. There is a fundamental contradiction in where it is at the moment.

The concept of rights and responsibilities runs through much of the Queen's Speech: for example, through the law and order issue. There is an expectation that behaviour should improve, that families have responsibility for bringing up children, that schools and other people have responsibilities over and above teaching and that other members of the community—all of us individually—have responsibilities as well as rights. It runs through other areas but the most important is employment.

I give two short examples from my constituency. One man who had not worked for nine years got a council property when he was married and had one child. He has had three more children since then and still has not worked. He rang me recently to say that he had a right to a bigger flat. Clearly, he needs a bigger flat, if only for the sake of the children, but to put that in context we need to say that he also has a duty to find work.

If we were in the 1980s, I would not have put it in that way because 3 million people were unemployed; in fact, it was rather more than 3 million, but that is what the figures showed. Even in an area such as mine, a prosperous area that survived the two slumps of the 1980s and 1990s quite well, people who did not have many skills found it difficult to get employment. That is no longer true because we have virtually full employment. There is no reason why the man in the example that I gave should not be able to work. I hope to achieve that end in the not too distant future.

A woman rang me this week who is in a similar position, although the background is different. In a way, it was easier to feel sympathy for her. The example highlights the problem that this country has had over a number of years because of high unemployment. It is particularly true of areas outside London—many northern regions have generations of unemployment. She is in her early 30s and had never worked, apart from for a short time in a couple of jobs. She also rang me to get a larger house because she has children; again, there is a need for a larger house. When I talked through with her the importance of getting back into work, the extra child care money available from the Government, the extra money that she could get from the working families tax credit if she were on low pay, she said that she did not want to work at this moment, that she could not work, and that she just needed somewhere bigger to live.

The old idea of creating dependency, on one level, is right; however, that does not explain the full depth of that woman's problem. Basically, she is a depressed lady and, in due course, might end up in a psychiatric hospital because depression will destroy her life. We must get people out of that trap and, to do so, we must combine employment opportunities and training with the benefits system. If we can reform the welfare state in that way, we will achieve something dramatically different and, to some extent, we will produce a system similar to those of other European countries, particularly the Scandinavian countries.

In London, we suffer from incredibly high property prices. I moved a few years ago from Shepherd's Bush to Acton, which was regarded then by estate agents as a downmarket move, although I am not sure that that is technically right. The reality is that four-bedroom houses in Acton in reasonably good condition are renting at #3,000 to #4,000 a month. That produces a problem, of which the Government are well aware, regarding housing benefit and how we keep people in the area.

The Tories are talking about the right to buy for housing association tenants, and I recognise that that is politically attractive. Saying to people in London that they can have 50 per cent. off a house that they can sell for several hundred thousand pounds offers a good prize. However, we must bear it in mind that, during the Conservatives' 18 years in office, 3 million houses went out of the rented sector; about a million from the private rented sector and most of the other 2 million from the council sector under the right to buy. That is one reason why we have a mega-problem in London and the south-east in terms of affordable rented accommodation.

The Government have not done enough to replace such housing but I understand the difficulties, particularly in the south; so much so that I am now looking at packages for people in my area. When I am approached about housing, I ask whether the people concerned are prepared to move right out of London. I have talked to several colleagues from the north and the midlands—where there are houses to spare; often quite good houses in quite good areas—and suggested that we move that person or family out. However, there are problems. Often local authorities, to their credit, will pay a removal cost and the better ones will even pay for a family to visit to see the area.

Frankly, we need a number of things, including a more sophisticated package, including more than one visit to the area and the ability to stay in an area for a day or two to find out about jobs, schools, hospitals and so on. There is also the umbilical cord syndrome, as I call it. A number of people have told me that they would move from London, but that their mother, father, uncle or friends are in the area and give them some degree of support. They also know that many who move out of London have a better quality of life, particularly those from the income group about which we are talking.

I would like to see a system in which we are able to say to people who move that they will have a two-year gap to test out their new location. If it does not work, they can come back to a property of similar size, which will be provided for them. My guess is that many people would go, not just younger people. There used to be an organisation called Seaside homes. When the Greater London Council was abolished, Seaside homes went with it; it was privatised. Those homes at the seaside were offered to elderly people in London who wanted to retire to the seaside. In doing so, a house was freed up in London. Such packages, including more help to buy and the shared equity approach, should be explored to deal with the serious problem in the south of England.

I briefly mention education. In areas like mine, some schools are trapped in the situation where, inevitably, they draw from areas where there are multiple social problems, so the schools need additional help. The Government have not failed to give that additional help. Indeed, we gave one school in my area—which was regarded some years ago as a failing school and has been turned round extremely well in recent times—#3 million over and above the norm in order to achieve that. It was one of the six failing schools throughout the United Kingdom. I was there last night, when the school mounted a splendid presentation, which was very impressive, with well disciplined children—a real turnaround.

Whether in that school or in other schools in such areas, two things are needed most. The first is somewhere for the more disruptive children, not necessarily on the school site. Secondly, there is a desperate need for tutorial groups to be smaller, because some of them consist of 24 to 29 pupils. Although some people argue that the evidence does not necessarily prove that results are better for smaller groups, I do not believe that private schools—for which parents pay a fortune—that have groups of only eight, 10 or 12 do not believe that it is a good thing. I am sure that it is a good thing. If we could reduce the size of some of the tutorial groups, we would help those children who could achieve more in those groups.

I should have liked to speak a little about the media regulation Bill, but I am aware of the time. Let me bring together two issues that address the problem of regulation, particularly in the print media, which I know are not covered by the media Bill. It is a subject of general interest. There is a link to education because I refer to the resignation of my very good friend, Estelle Morris.

The way in which politics and journalism function in this country at present is doing both journalism and politicians no good whatever. As a result, we are both regarded badly in any polling. If it is any comfort to Members, politicians are regarded slightly more highly in all the polling over the past five to 10 years than are journalists—but only slightly, so we should not get too excited about that.

One of the reasons for that low regard is that so much of what we do both as journalists and as politicians is macho, aggressive and assertive. Looking back to the resignation of my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley, if she had a fault—in my view she did not; she was a very able person by all standards—it was that she wore on her sleeve her openness, her inclusiveness and, above all, her willingness to accept criticism and to accept that she might not have the best policy. All the coverage of that suggested that it was weakness, and the word Xweakness" was frequently used. In my view, it was a strength, actually, and we should say that very firmly.

When my right hon. Friend was replaced by my right hon. Friend Mr. Clarke and he was replaced by my right hon. Friend Dr. Reid, who was previously the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the press and media described the new Ministers as bruisers. I know all three of those people extremely well and all three are good listeners and very good on understanding policy and problems of policy. Although my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley wore her openness on her sleeve and that was one of the things that got her into difficulties, all three bring to politics something that is profoundly important; but my right hon. Friend brought something that was rather different from the norm. That is why it is so important that we get more women not only in this place, but in the media. If we had more women in senior places in the media, the media might not have the problem of being seen as displaying the same aggressive, macho style. Even when women do reach a senior position in the media, it is significant that some seem to get trapped into being equally aggressive, assertive and macho. To name but one, for whom I have a lot of respect—she probably will not forgive me for this—Kirsty Wark, the television news presenter, is often more macho and aggressive than many of the men, and she has got to the top by being like that. That is how it has happened, and people like my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley, who brought that refreshingly open and different approach, pay the price for it. That is very sad, and I say that in the context of the media generally, which is an area that we need to consider.

I want to speak briefly on Iraq—I hope to do so at greater length in the not-too-distant future—because I have a very large number of Arabs in my constituency. Two of them are active members of my party. One, a Palestinian who was brought up in the camps, is the treasurer of my party, and would have taken the view that Palestine should extend from the river to the sea—thereby precluding the existence of Israel—but, over the years, has moved dramatically and sensibly towards the position that we must negotiate security for the Israeli community and the Palestinian community, and that there must be two states. When I talk to the many Arabs in my patch, I find that a majority—not as big a majority as people sometimes think—are opposed to us taking military action in Iraq. The overwhelming feeling among the Arabs in my constituency about Saddam Hussein, however, is a mixture of contempt, hatred and fear.

Let us make no mistake: Saddam Hussein is a psychopathic killer, and he would be in prison in any country where the rule of law applied. Speaking as someone in west London, every time such a person takes over a country—Milosevic is another example—we receive waves of refugees, and I cannot describe to hon. Members how horrific their experiences are. I know that many other Members have refugees in their constituencies, but, being in west London, I have a lot of them. I can understand—although, clearly, I do not condone it—how brutality can happen in the heat of a battle or a fight. There is something fundamentally different, however, when, in cold blood, a human being is held and repeatedly raped and tortured, or sees members of their family or friends being tortured or killed in front of them.

I do not want to go into the matter much deeper, but I understand the practical reasons why we do not want to get in a position in which we merely change the leaders of states whom we do not like. The United Nations, which has been pretty successful at preventing nation states from attacking each other, has not, for understandable historical reasons—not least that it was not set up for the purpose—been very good at dealing with those states that are taken over by psychopathic killers who proceed to murder their populations. My hon. Friend Ms King made a brilliant speech on that today, and she was right to focus on the genocide issue. We stood back and did nothing during the conflict in Rwanda, and we should have done something. I sat on the Opposition Benches when the Conservatives were in office, and I remember pointing out that Milosevic would not stop killing until we stopped him. I remember people saying that we must put in UN troops, which we did, but they had their arms taken off them and were tied to poles in exposed positions to say to the UN, XDon't push your luck." It was only when NATO intervened, without the formal structure of the UN, that we were able to stop the killing.

I want the UN to consider this question again—as a matter of reform—because, in terms of the moral question of whether Saddam Hussein should be removed, the answer is undoubtedly yes. Such action is morally justified, whatever the Church, bishops or anyone else says, and they are ducking their moral responsibility to think otherwise. There are practical considerations to take into account, such as whether we might make a disastrous situation worse, what we replace the regime with and whether the west's double standards towards Israel may inflame the region, but those are not moral reasons for walking by on the other side.

Let me compare the situation with domestic violence. Some 30, 40 or 50 years ago, a man could beat his wife to a pulp as long as he did it in his house. The people on the street would say, XIsn't it terrible? I'd hate to live there. Why doesn't she leave him? It must be awful for the children", but we are taking a similar approach to the Saddam Husseins of this world. We have to stop that and start saying that such behaviour is unacceptable.

I have several thousand Arab constituents and am fascinated by the fact that although most of them oppose military intervention, nearly all of them would agree with what I have said. We need to recognise that and address it, and I hope that we will return to the subject. Although the social issues and foreign policy issues, on which I touched, are profoundly important, I want to flag up a new aspect of foreign policy—the need to reform the United Nations so that we find ways to deal with such states.