Debate on the Address — [First Day]

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:31 pm on 13th November 2002.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West 9:31 pm, 13th November 2002

Last year's Gracious Speech followed a massive Labour victory in the general election. Hon. Members can well understand Labour's enthusiasm to set out its clear legislative programme, but the Government have been found wanting in all respects. They were strong on rhetoric but short on delivery. I have no doubt the same will be true of this Gracious Speech.

I want to say a word about today's ceremony. The state opening of Parliament is precious and dear to the country. I am very proud of our Head of State. The golden jubilee celebrations were splendid. I regret the fact that the royal family has recently entered choppy waters. I hope that our precious gift of the sovereign and the state opening of Parliament is not going to be spoiled. We read in the newspapers that certain elements want to change all that, but it would be an absolute tragedy if anything were altered.

I have looked carefully at the Gracious Speech and have to ask: what is the point of any legislation? Given that laws are not enforced, we are in great danger of becoming a laughing stock. What is the point of meeting here as legislators, working hard on Bills that become Acts of Parliament, only to discover when we ask questions that laws are not being enforced? I have been fortunate to sponsor two private Members' Bills. The first, the Protection Against Cruel Tethering Act 1988, was a long time ago. A few weeks ago, I asked how many times that law had been enforced. I am still waiting for an answer. But I still get letters from constituents complaining about horses, ponies and donkeys abandoned on wasteland. I cannot chide the Government for not enforcing the other Act with which I am associated, the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000, because we are still hearing what they plan to do to deliver the programme of ending fuel poverty within 10 years. I am, however, worried about the general lack of enforcement of Acts that we put on the statute book.

The Government are concerned about their performance on public services, but is there anything in the Gracious Speech to help to retain and recruit people in our key services? As a result of the Bills on which we will deliberate, will more women and men be in our police forces; will more of them work in our hospitals; will more teach in our schools? Sadly, I think not.

The centrepiece of the Gracious Speech is the criminal justice Bill. Oh dear, here we go again—more rhetoric, more gimmicks. There is absolutely nothing new in the detail of the proposals to combat antisocial behaviour. I find it bizarre that at the same time as the Government are telling us that they will deal with antisocial behaviour, we will see a relaxation in our licensing laws. I am proud to say that I enjoy a drink, but I am concerned that unless the Government later reveal something that we have not already read about in the newspapers, the proposal will place huge pressures on our already stretched police forces.

In Southend there is a pilot scheme for on-the-spot fines. That is wonderful, and I hope it works, but I am not aware that the Government have provided Southend police with any extra people to enforce the fines. It would be a brave police officer who tackled some of these yobs, if that is the idea of the pilot scheme, without being in fear of his or her life. The policy is another example of gesture politics.

Still on the subject of the lack of enforcement of existing laws, I know that some hon. Members are not interested in pro-life matters; I am. If we do not regard life as precious, I do not know what the House of Commons is about. Sir John Bourn of the National Audit Office tells us that, under the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, #600,000 of licensed treatments took place but were not billed. Are the Government doing anything about that? They are doing absolutely nothing.

Of course, some laws are being enforced. Today, my hon. Friend Bob Spink received an answer saying that, in 2000, nine babies were aborted at up to 24 weeks' gestation because they had a cleft palate. What a disgrace for the mother of all Parliaments. Even more shockingly, a baby with a cleft palate was aborted after 24 weeks' gestation. I hear absolute drivel talked about the reform of our working hours, which I regard as an absolute disaster. How on earth are we properly to scrutinise legislation if we are to work short hours? No doubt some of the measures on which we voted a week ago are good, but overall the reforms further diminish the worth of this, the mother of all Parliaments, and I despair of them.

The health and social care Bill is also splendid, but I have been advised by my local authority in Southend that fining local authorities who are not responsive in dealing with delayed discharges will cause them serious problems. The Health Committee on which I serve spent a great deal of time discussing delayed discharges, and we learned from our visit to Canada and America that it helps if one person is commissioned to ensure that people do not take up a bed unnecessarily.

It is very unfortunate that the Government are targeting local authorities. The idea comes from Sweden, but that model is not a good one. There, the measure was introduced gradually over two years and an enormous amount of money was put into sheltered homes. If the Government want to know why so many people are lying in hospital beds unnecessarily, it is because of their short-sightedness about the standards that they imposed on private and local authority residential homes, many of which, regrettably, are now having to close.

The Government believe that education is at the heart of all their proposals, and I welcome several of the measures in that respect contained in the Gracious Speech, but if the Government really want to know why truancy is so prevalent, they need look no further than parenting skills. I see nothing in the Gracious Speech that will address those serious issues. I regret that there is also nothing to deal with the issue of AS-levels. I should have thought that after the embarrassment that we all felt a few weeks ago, the Government would have recognised that AS-levels are not the right way forward and that they would have quickly inserted into the Gracious Speech a measure to change that examination. Unfortunately, however, nothing has been presented.

In local government, we in Southend have a splendid Conservative-controlled council, but it is struggling in several respects. Councillors are doing their best, but they tell me constantly that this centralising Government are taking away more of their powers. We have a housing crisis because so many people are being sent to Southend, mainly from London boroughs. My constituency, Southend, West, is a tiny urban area and there is no land on which to build. We ask for Government assistance. The chairman of the housing committee, Councillor Gwen Horrigan, has worked extremely hard on the problem, but we desperately need support from the Government.

I am concerned about the proposals to change our planning laws. It occurs to me that although the Government use the rhetoric of involving local residents in planning matters, the details of their proposals suggest that in future local people are to have even less of a say than they have now.

I conclude by listing a few Bills that I would have liked included in the Gracious Speech. Every Member of Parliament says how shocking the issues surrounding mobile phones are—they are worried about the health scares, they do not want any more of those ugly masts to be erected, and they are concerned about the number of people who drive while using their mobile phone. My local authority tells me that it has no powers in that respect—so who has the power to do something about the overuse of mobile phones?

I have tried to persuade the House to accept a Bill to protect endangered species. Surely we can find time to do something to protect exotic animals? It is no good Members of Parliament saying how terrible rhino hunting and other such activities are when we in this country import—albeit illegally—a huge number of exotic animals which are slaughtered.

Any number of Members of Parliament have talked about fireworks, and I eagerly awaited an announcement of legislation on that issue. Only this afternoon, a constituent faxed me to say that fireworks were going off nearby at 3.30 in the afternoon, scaring her family and the animals. Again, there was nothing in the Queen's Speech about that.

The Government are supposed to be extremely keen on energy efficiency, but sadly, their record on climate change is slipping backwards—in fact, the latest figures show that carbon dioxide levels are now higher than when Labour came to power. I would have liked to see in the Gracious Speech binding targets for energy efficiency improvements; energy efficiency surveys on new house purchases; cuts in VAT on energy saving materials; and energy efficiency measures in offices. Sadly, none of that is in the Gracious Speech. All Members will have had a briefing from Age Concern saying that it would very much have liked a proposal in the Gracious Speech to deal with age discrimination.

Yet again, the Gracious Speech is strong on rhetoric, but will be short on delivery. However, if any of the proposals that we shall spend the next year discussing are to be worth while, it is about time that we looked at Acts that are unenforced because of the lack of woman and manpower.