I beg to move, as an amendment to the Address, at the end of the Question to add:
'But humbly regrets the absence of a Bill to ensure the impartiality of the Civil Service;
and further regrets the centralising nature of measures on regional and local government, housing and planning;
notes the absence of measures to end insecurity in old age with no Bill to abolish the annuity rule or tackle the crisis in the pension system;
further regrets that the Gracious Speech contains no measures to deliver a health service in which no patient is left waiting, but seeks unfairly to charge local authorities for bed-blocking in hospitals, and to grant foundation status only to a small number of hospitals;
is concerned at the failure to reduce the burden of regulation on business and to tackle the crisis in the rural economy;
welcomes the Bill to create a Railway Accident Investigation Branch, along lines recommended by Her Majesty's Official Opposition, but condemns the failure to address the worsening transport crisis or to improve conditions for passengers, motorists and businesses;
and further regrets the failure to give more control over schools to parents and governors, to restore teacher morale, and to improve confidence in the examination system and universities.'.
Before I start on the substantive business, I am sure that the firefighters' dispute may come up in the debate. I will not deal with it in any great detail today because of the pressure on time, but the Deputy Prime Minister may wish to. We will have an opportunity to challenge his handling of the matter another day. I hope, however, that the whole House is with me when I wish him the best of fortune in trying to prevent the strike on Friday, as lives are at stake.
Back in 1999, when the Deputy Prime Minister was last in charge of this area of policy, a Labour-dominated Select Committee condemned his Department's achievements as
Xlargely confined to the publication of documents and policy statements and the establishment of task forces".
With at least four of his Department's Bills included in this Queen's Speech, he is planning to do something, but unfortunately it is the wrong thing. Most of those Bills share a single theme: Orwellian doublespeak, in which the Government talk of devolution of power but do the opposite. They are not devolving power down; they are grabbing it back up.
Before I deal with those Bills I must refer to the one glaring omission from the Queen's Speech—a Bill firmly promised, but not delivered. We urgently need a civil service Bill, to establish a clear boundary between the civil service and party politics. That is not only the view of the official Opposition. A senior member of the Labour party has said:
XNever has a civil service Bill been more necessary in Britain."
According to one senior figure, such a Bill is needed to enhance parliamentary scrutiny and to clarify the boundaries between civil servants and special advisers. That senior figure is Sir Richard Wilson, the former head of the civil service. When he said that, he was speaking with the Prime Minister's authority. There is now general agreement both in the House and outside it that legislation is required to mark the boundaries between party and government. It is a mark of the way in which this Government operate that such a Bill should be necessary now, after so many years without one. None the less, necessary it is.
I am interested in what the right hon. Gentleman is saying. Would such legislation encompass bodies such as the BBC? When its former director general, Mr. John Birt, published his autobiography a couple of weeks ago he admitted to being part of a political campaign involving the Prime Minister and Mr. Mandelson to stop the BBC introducing a Scottish news at 6 o'clock. The current director-general says that he was shocked by that revelation. Would such a Bill encompass the BBC, to secure its historic impartiality, which has been compromised by this Government?
No, it would not. I suspect that that would have to be achieved through an amendment to a communications Bill. The hon. Gentleman makes his point in his characteristically cogent manner, however.
The Deputy Prime Minister and I have something in common as we both famously hate spin doctors. So we should agree on this matter, and I urge the Government, on behalf of many hon. Members on both sides of the House, not merely on the Conservative side, to introduce a civil service Bill as soon as possible. Perhaps when the right hon. Gentleman responds to the debate, he will tell us when the Prime Minister's intention of introducing such a Bill will be honoured.
Will the right hon. Gentleman be going on to talk about what is in the Queen's Speech, or will he take up all his time by talking about what was not in the speech?
Sometimes the Opposition have to highlight what the Government do not do, and on this occasion there is an extremely important omission—as the hon. Gentleman ought to know, given his other position in the House.
The Government are introducing three Bills and one piece of draft legislation, the draft housing standards Bill, which is generally welcome in its intention, although I want to sound a note of caution. History shows us that when Governments try to get too involved in the regulation of rents and housing, it can lead to disastrous consequences.
Although we realise that houses in multiple occupancy play an important part in providing low-cost housing for rent, and we support greater protection for tenants in such houses that do not meet acceptable health and safety standards, it is vital that regulation should not be excessively burdensome for responsible landlords. If it is, it could actually reduce the availability of affordable rented accommodation and increase the cost of housing for those on low and intermediate incomes.
It is not as if the Government have a good story to tell on housing. Since 1997 the number of homeless people in bed-and-breakfast accommodation has trebled to more than 12,000. During the past couple of months, the Deputy Prime Minister tried to blame the right-to-buy policy for the spiralling number of homeless people under the Government, but since they came to office the building of social housing has plunged from more than 30,000 units a year to just over 20,000 last year. Even if the Government had only maintained the level that they inherited, about 35,000 extra social houses would currently be available. That would be enough to house almost three times the number of families currently living in bed-and-breakfast accommodation under the Labour government.
With such remarkable ignorance, we get the most predictable questions. Even Shelter, which is against the right-to-buy policy, admits that it costs at most 1,500 houses a year, against the 35,000 that were lost as a result of the Government's dilatory approach to housing policy. When the draft housing standards Bill is introduced we shall consider it carefully but, while doing so, we shall remember the Government's poor record on housing.
There will be three substantive Bills and I shall deal first with the planning Bill. Last December, the Government presented four Green Papers, which outlined their proposals for planning reform. If anything, those proposals, some of which have been dropped, were more complex than what they were intended to replace. There was a mixed story as regards consultation. The good news is that there were 15,500 responses to the Green Papers. The bad news is that most of them said that the proposals were rubbish.
Let me make it clear that we support changes that will cut through red tape, speed up the system, give greater certainty to residents and businesses and restore power to local people. That was also the aspiration of the former Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions, which was, of course, dominated by Labour Members. In its report on the draft local government Bill, the Committee stated:
Xif local government is going to regain the public respect and authority it once enjoyed, the Government must be prepared to trust it much more."
Since the last war, Governments of all persuasions, including my own, have exercised too much centralised power over local government, but the Labour Government trust local government so little that they intend to abolish county structure plans. They trust local government so little that they intend to set up what they call Xregional spatial strategies"—in other words, a new raft of red tape. They trust local government so little that they plan to set up what they call a Xlocal planning advisory service": in other words, a new central Government quango to meddle with the decisions of local planning authorities.
The Government trust local government so little that unelected officials will decide no less than 90 per cent. of planning decisions. Their instinct was to trust local government so little that under the original proposals, major planning decisions would have been pushed through parliamentary Committees with little more than an hour's debate—decisions on pylons, incinerators, railways, housing estates and other large infrastructure projects. That led one environmental coalition to publish an advert that summed up the reduced influence of local people with a picture and a slogan, XYour new power station goes here. What colour would you like the gates?" I am glad to say that the Deputy Prime Minister appears to have pulled back from the brink on that heavy-handed, unworkable proposal. Unfortunately, he replaced it with something almost as bad.
The Deputy Prime Minister now has the power to appoint inspectors, conciliators and advisers, and to set the timetable and the evidence taken for any large-scale planning application—and all as the result of one statutory instrument, on which there was 90 minutes' debate. That is control-freakery on the highest scale.
The Government's instinctive lack of trust in local government is bad for the environment, bad for business and bad for democracy. It is bad for the environment because their proposals will impose incinerators, pylons, railways, housing on green fields regardless of local opinion. It is bad for business because the Government will introduce more red tape than they remove. After all,
Xextending developers' planning gain obligations will be the equivalent of introducing a stealth tax on regeneration."
Those are not my words, but those of the CBI. After strong opposition from Opposition Members, the Deputy Prime Minister at least dropped the absurd tariff proposals, which would have constituted a stealth tax on development.
The Government's instinctive lack of trust in local government is bad for democracy because planning decisions will be snatched away from local people and granted to remote regions and a distant Whitehall. That is the purpose of the planning Bill. By itself, it will not create a single new house or bring back into use a single new patch of brownfield land. It will not devolve power, but grab it back. The same is true of the local government Bill.
We in the House forget too easily how much progress in this country was achieved by local government. Its institutions brought water supplies, sewers, street lighting, public baths and health services to Britain's cities after the industrial revolution. Local not central government delivered the reduction in infant mortality from 160 deaths per 1,000 births in 1850 to 20 in 1950. All that was done without best value initiatives, central targets, performance indicators and the like.
Would the right hon. Gentleman have the grace to concede that those very substantial municipal gains were also made in the teeth of opposition from his parliamentary predecessors in the Conservative party?
That certainly not true. What I am talking about was often done by Conservative council leaders. However, if the hon. Gentleman wants to try to score points, I recommend that he perhaps start by reading the evidence given to the Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions when it considered the local government Bill. For example, Professor Travers pointed out only too clearly that the centralisation trends since the last war have been characteristic of all parties, and it is not particularly smart for one party to claim a monopoly of virtue. We have to recognise that there are benefits and virtues to be encouraged.
We support changes that will truly give power to local people, allowing them to take more decisions and empowering local representatives to deliver. Never were such plans more needed. Year after year, the Government have tied up councils with best value, comprehensive performance assessments, inspection regimes and red tape. Whitehall tells local authorities how to spend an ever growing proportion of their money.
In 1997, ring-fenced grants represented 4 per cent. of total central support for local authorities. The figure is now 15 per cent.—nearly four times higher. Local councils today are judged against 130 specific performance indicators. They must agree up to 46 plans with Whitehall, covering everything from pipeline safety to minerals extraction. They are monitored by four different inspection regimes, which cost roughly #600 million a year. The Government's response to all this is not to set local Government free, but to strengthen the grip of Whitehall.
Does the right hon. Gentleman welcome the proposals to increase resources for planning departments, after years of cuts under the previous Government? Does he welcome the proposals for prudential guidelines on capital spending and extra resources—again, after years of cuts under the previous Conservative Government? Does he also welcome the proposals to allow local authorities to trade more freely, after years of legislation through which the previous Government tried to do everything they could to try to stop local authorities doing precisely that?
If I were the former leader of Sheffield city council, I would be very careful about what I said about the virtues of local government.
To address the point made by the hon. Gentleman, I shall start with another quotation:
XThe idea that you give freedom to the people who are already achieving is quite perverse." That is not something that would bother the hon. Gentleman. The quotation continues:
XThe real issues are the Councils in the middle and the failing ones which actually just need a lot more freedom . . . If government keeps pinning Councils down, they can't do the things they want to do and services won't get better".
The right hon. Gentleman should take his advice.
As the Labour-dominated Select Committee also said:
XThe White Paper on which this Bill is based raised considerable expectation about a change in the relations between central and local government. On the whole the draft Bill appears to be far from a radical overhaul and in many cases gives more powers to the Secretary of State".
That further extension of centralisation and control, as bad as it is, is not the main aim of the Bill.
In the light of the right hon. Gentleman's new-found localism, does he accept that there is any role whatever for central Government concerning the support of local government? If so, what is it?
Of course the central Government have a role—to a very large extent, the vast majority of local government activities are funded by central Government at the moment. There is also an oversight role, of course, but the difficulty is that in this area, with four different scrutiny regimes and #600 million of expenditure, it is not competent. Is the hon. Gentleman's question serious? If he does not mind, I shall move on, as that is such an obvious point.
The main aim of the Bill, whichever of the three financial options the Government take, is clear: to gerrymander money from well run, high quality Conservative councils, which provide good service, to badly run, low quality, money-wasting, high-taxing, Labour crony councils, which provide poor service. That is the purpose of the local government Bill. It is the kind of gerrymandering that Britain became used to in the days of Dickens: not the best of times, but the worst of times. For people in Labour-controlled areas it may be the season of light, but for those in Conservative-controlled areas it will be the season of darkness—I am sure that the Deputy Prime Minister recognises the quotation to which I refer, and knows what follows it.
Much of this gerrymandering is being done by stealth, such as the plans to pool capital receipts from housing transfers. Of course that is not about devolving power down.
Not for the moment.
This programme reflects the priorities of politicians, not the priorities of people. That brings us to the Deputy Prime Minister's flagship measure—the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill. As I said, we support proposals shaped by democratic principles, which boost economic growth, slash red tape and truly give power to local people.
When the right hon. Gentleman talks about gerrymandering, will he refer to the imposition of urban development corporations, which totally bypassed local people and local authorities, and did very little to regenerate the inner cities?
I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman has shown that he has just walked in to the Chamber. He missed the first half of my speech, in which I talked about the problems of the previous Administration.
To return to the question of regional assemblies, we talked about ways of supporting people. The Bill will do none of those things. Let us take democratic principles as an example.
In a moment.
In a democracy any referendum, especially a referendum that intends to set up a new institution such as a regional assembly, must offer a clear choice. If people are to vote on whether to establish a regional assembly, they should know what they are voting for. What powers will the Assembly have? How many members will it have? How will they be elected? What will be the cost? The order should be straightforward: plan first, referendum second. However, this Bill turns that order on its head. There will be a referendum first and a plan afterwards. The Deputy Prime Minister is asking people to vote for a pig in a poke. When asked about the issue, his Department's answer apparently was, XThere has already been a White Paper." It will come as news to Members on both sides of the House that a White Paper and a Bill are now identical.
Let us suppose that the House has the temerity to amend a Bill that creates a regional assembly. People could find that they had voted for one kind of assembly, but got another. That brings me to my first question for the Deputy Prime Minister, and I hope that he will answer it in his speech: if the House amends a Bill, thus altering the proposed structure or powers of any assembly, will the people be allowed another vote, or will they have to take what they are given?
Regional government will do nothing to boost economic growth. Indeed, it may slow it. On the Government's preferred measure of unemployment—the labour force survey—the highest unemployment rate in this country is, surprisingly, in London, at 7 per cent. The second highest rate is in Scotland at 6.5 per cent. London and Scotland may not, at first sight, have all that much in common, and their problems are certainly far from identical. However, the one thing they do have in common is new structures of government, and those structures are slowing down economic growth. In London,
Xwe are fast approaching a time when the financial pre-eminence of the City may become seriously imperilled."
Those are not my words, but those of Gavyn Arthur, the Lord Mayor of London, about the Deputy Prime Minister's good friend, Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London. No wonder London is the only area of England where earnings have gone down.
In which case he will need a new ticket—in more ways than one.
It is striking that the gap between the regions in countries with strong regional government has grown wider as the gap between the general economic performance of most countries has got less. No wonder people look to subsidies to close that gap.
No, not for the moment.
Scotland has a Parliament and its public spending is 25 per cent. higher than England's, but the English taxpayer foots the bill. The north-east is likely to be offered an assembly, and the voters there may hope that public spending there may rise closer to Scottish levels, and that taxpayers in the rest of England will foot the bill. That brings me to my second question to the Deputy Prime Minister: will regions that vote for assemblies get more money from the Treasury?
I should tell the Deputy Prime that many people in the north-east are under the impression that they will get more money from the Government if they elect a regional assembly. We do not know where they got that impression. I cannot imagine that Ministers sought to mislead them, so the Deputy Prime Minister can set them right now. Will they or will they not receive extra money?
Regional government will do nothing to boost economic growth, and it could slow it. It will do nothing to slash red tape; indeed, it will increase it. Regional government will usher in a new layer of politicians, and a new layer of bureaucrats, officers, advisers, secretaries, researchers, spin doctors, budgets, expenses, allowances—and trebles all round.Let us not forget the new buildings. Edinburgh and Cardiff are committed to spending #40 million on new buildings but, from my previous role, I have the strong memory that #40 million is the least the buildings will cost. The real cost will be much more than that.Why should the regions be different? For hard-pressed council tax payers, it will be higher council taxes all round.
Above all, regional government will do nothing to give power to local people. Instead, it will take it further away. Decisions made by county councils, which are closer to local communities, will be made by regional assemblies, which are further from local communities. The truth is that there will be no counties. For example, planning decisions now made in Hereford will be taken 60 miles away in Birmingham. Decisions now made in Kendal will be taken 75 miles away in Manchester. Decisions now made in Truro will be taken 90 miles away in Exeter—and all for one simple reason. This Government try to abolish anything that they cannot control.
The counties tend to vote Tory so they will be gerrymandered into what the Government hope will be Labour-run regions, even if local people want to keep their counties, boroughs and districts. That brings me to my third question for the Deputy Prime Minister: if a majority in an area vote for a regional assembly but some counties vote overwhelmingly against it, will a regional assembly be imposed on them, against the wishes of their people? Will counties be abolished even if the majority of their residents want to keep them?
I will not give way.
Institutions must have legitimacy, and that usually takes time. Our counties have legitimacy because they are organic communities, established in the geography and geology, the dialects and architecture, and the customs, practices and traditions of our country. Regions will be nothing more than lines on a map drawn by the stroke of a bureaucrat's pen. They will have no legitimacy whatever, and even less if they are imposed on counties against the will of those who live in them. In England, regions went out in the dark ages. One thing is certain: we on the Conservative Benches will fight undemocratic and costly bureaucratic regional assemblies every inch of the way.
The flagship Bill of the Queen's Speech could have been one that dealt with the real pressing problems in this country. It could have made every hospital a foundation hospital, given heads the final right to exclude pupils, offered treatment to all young heroin and cocaine addicts, or extended the right to buy to all housing association tenants. Instead, the flagship Bill of the Queen's Speech will destroy our historic counties and create a new layer of government. It will employ fresh armies of bureaucrats, create new reams of red tape, impose a new tier of politicians on local people and place new burdens on business. It will not correct the democratic deficit in Britain. It will not answer the West Lothian question. It will not create a single new doctor, teacher, nurse or policeman. All it will do is waste the time of the House, consume the energy of Ministers and distract the attention of the Deputy Prime Minister which should be focused like a laser beam on the firefighters' strike.
The Deputy Prime Minister's Bills share a single theme: the Orwellian division between claiming to devolve power while actually grabbing it back. Conservative Members will not only oppose the Bill; we will fight to ensure that real power is given back to the people, where it belongs.
Mr. Duncan Smith can go to bed early tonight. Indeed, if he hears that speech he will get to sleep much quicker.
In line with my undertaking to keep the House informed, I will briefly update hon. Members on the fire dispute. I am grateful to David Davis for requesting information on that. I can say from experience that I will certainly need the best of fortune.
The House knows that we have done all we can over recent weeks to avert a fire strike, which we managed to do until the two-day stoppage last week. The House will want to thank the armed forces and the police in particular, and the other emergency services, for the great job they did last week. I also want to thank the public for heeding the safety warnings we issued. Incidents and calls were both down on normal times.
I am doing all I can to avert the eight-day stoppage planned from this Friday. If a two-day strike was unnecessary and unjustifiable, an eight-day strike is even more so. It must be the Government's goal to prevent it from going ahead. Yet again, I call on the Fire Brigades Union to cancel its eight-day strike.
Yesterday I held talks with the employers and the union, and this morning with Sir George Bain. I will continue my discussions later today. I am hopeful that the employers and the FBU can make good progress in their talks today and tomorrow. I have made it clear that any pay rise above inflation must be linked to modernisation. Sir George Bain has given us a route map to achieve that.
As I and, indeed, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have repeatedly made clear, the issues involved are relevant to the whole public sector, to people's mortgages, to their jobs and to the strength of our economy at a time of world downturn, as the Chancellor highlighted to the House yesterday. Our three responsibilities are, first, to seek to avert the strike; secondly, to make all necessary preparations should it go ahead; and thirdly, to ensure value for public money by giving a fair deal to the fire service and a fair deal to the public who fund it. I am sure that the House would want me to use all efforts to avoid a strike and its consequences, and I will keep it informed of progress.
Today's debate is about those factors that affect the quality of life of individuals and our communities.
I saw the Deputy Prime Minister speaking on television on Sunday about his visit to his local fire station. The impression given, certainly in reports, was that some of the firefighters thought that the Deputy Prime Minister and the Prime Minister were not fully at one on the dispute. How was that impression conveyed and why was it gained?
That was not the impression given; those were not the exact circumstances. I note that an FBU union official made that point, and I leave the hon. Gentleman to make judgments on that.
It was rather touching to hear the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden calling for a new localism, but we must judge that against his record. He was a member of the last Government for a long time. When he talked about giving power to local people he was certainly was not talking about giving money because in the last four years of local authority finance deals under the Tories, there was a 4 per cent. cut in real terms. Compare that with the first four years of this Labour Administration, who gave a 20 per cent. increase in resources. Resources are quite important if there is to be power, decision making and services in a local area.
The right hon. Gentleman asked us to trust local authorities and wondered why we do not do so. The previous Administration's record had nothing to do with trust. They did not give enough resources, and against the wishes of the people of London, Humberside, Berkshire and Cleveland, they abolished county councils. I can remember the arguments on the Floor of the House about people wanting to keep their local authorities—all Tory local authorities, of course; that was why they wanted to keep them. That did not stop the then Government abolishing county councils. Yet the right hon. Gentleman now says, XLet us trust the people and listen to their views." I am afraid that his record does not bear out his claims for himself.
I am sure that we will have many debates about devolution and regional government. When the right hon. Gentleman talks of bureaucracy, he should remember that his Government set up an unaccountable regional bureaucracy. They sent a considerable number of civil servants to every region—every Department was represented—but they could not bring themselves to make those civil servants accountable to the people of the regions. So the right hon. Gentleman should not talk to me about trusting the voice of the people in the regions. Under his Government there was no accountability whatever.
When I made my statement to the House about communities in July—I hope to come to the House in January to complete the statement on housing provision—I said that all Governments, both Labour and Tory, had totally failed the people of this country as regards the provision of housing. Let us look at the figures. In the 1960s, there was a total of 1.2 million social housing units. In the 1970s, that figure was 1.1 million. During both those periods there were Labour and Tory Governments, so I do not seek to make the point that one was better than the other. There was a decline throughout those decades. By the 1980s, the figure had fallen from 1.1 million to 440,000, and in the 1990s it collapsed to 256,000. Social housing provision is the most important aspect of housing programmes.
The right hon. Gentleman talked about the right to buy. Yes, there were about 1 million right-to-buy cases—something like 50,000 a year—but at the same time we saw a fall of almost 1 million in the number of new houses. The right hon. Gentleman might be concerned about providing social and new housing, but the right to buy does not achieve that. We do not oppose the fact that it gives people a property right, but it is more important, especially in areas of housing crisis, to provide new houses.
The right hon. Gentleman is the one who raised the question of the right to buy in areas of housing stress where there are shortages of affordable social housing. Does he deny that had his Government carried on for the past five years at the 1997 rate—we are talking about now, not ancient history—there would be 35,000 more social houses?
I presume that the right hon. Gentleman is arguing that capital receipts might be used to buy houses, and he has a fair point. When we discussed the matter, he said that he was going to send me his plan on that, but it has still not arrived. I look forward to its arrival, as we must have a proper debate on the subject. It is an important issue and we intend to enter into a debate on it. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, I will make a fuller statement in January on the community plan and how we will allocate resources to social housing and to housing provision generally. He well knows that the situation is different in different parts of the country. The previous Administration's right-to-buy legislation exempted rural areas where that right could be considered a threat to the provision of housing. The position was not felt to be the same in urban areas, but there is a powerful case to be made for certain areas of London with a housing crisis. I intend to claim for urban areas the rights that have been claimed for rural areas.
The right hon. Gentleman said an awful lot about giving housing associations the right to buy. We shall wait for the plans which he suggested at his party conference were part of a new policy. The proposal is in fact not new—it was proposed by Mrs. Thatcher in 1979 and, I believe, by Mr. Hague. The trouble, however, is implementation. Housing charities have real difficulties with the long-term financing of housing—I am sure we all agree about that. The proposal was good for conference, but there was not much action—it was just about getting conference going.
Will the right hon. Gentleman answer my question? There has been a shortfall of 35,000 in the last five years in the creation of new social housing. The right hon. Gentleman has been blaming the right to buy for the fact that his Government have presided over a trebling of the number of people in bed-and-breakfast accommodation to 12,000. The social housing shortfall is three times that number—35,000—so why is he not building enough houses?
That is a good point, and I accept the criticism. I admitted in my last statement in the House that the amount of new social housing continued to fall under Labour Governments as well. Although it does not excuse the fact that we are not building enough houses, there is a fundamental difference: the right hon. Gentleman's Government kept #5 billion in capital receipts from local authorities' sale of houses, but would not allow them to buy more houses. I acknowledge the right hon. Gentleman's interesting idea, but if the available capital receipts could be used to build more houses, why were capital receipts of more than #5 billion from the sale of houses not used to provide new houses under the Conservative Administration? We dealt with that problem and put an equivalent sum into refurbishing well over 1 million council houses, whereas the right hon. Gentleman refused local authorities the right or resources to improve housing. That is the difference in our approach.
We can argue about differences in our approach to housing, but I shall repeat what I told the Opposition last July. It would be better if Members on both sides of the House got together and agreed that having the right to live in a house—a right that is denied to too many people—is important for communities. Where we have the political will to do better—this applies to all political parties and Governments—we can make fundamental changes. When I make my statement in January, I hope that we can reach agreement about how we will achieve the plan instead of getting into party political business—we can all do that, but it does not build one more house.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that one of the least eligible forms of tenure is ownership of a mobile home? Many park owners have neither the social nor the managerial skills to make a success of it, but have the whip hand over the tenants and can make their lives a misery. Why is there nothing in the Queen's Speech about new contractual arrangements which could bring much relief to those people?
The Queen's Speech, as I shall mention later, does include some powers over landlords, and we are reviewing the position on mobile homes. Without doubt, there is an awful lot to be done, and we shall continue the debate. But to my mind we must deal first with the problem of landlords exploiting rented houses through housing finance, and the legislation contains powers to enable us to begin to do so.
Like everyone else, I have had a warning from you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have given way to quite a few Members and must get on with my speech.
Our planning framework, about which the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden said a considerable amount, is now further reformed and has already begun to change our communities, including those aspects to which he referred. We had a target of 60 per cent of all new homes being built on brownfield land. That target has been achieved eight years ahead of time. That is something to be proud of. Thirty thousand hectares have been added to the green belt. That is a considerable change and never happened under the previous Administration. We have tougher controls on out-of-town shopping. In 2000, for the first time since the 1980s, we achieved more in-town than out-of-town retail development.
If we compare the number of social houses built in the 1960s with the number built in the 1990s, we can see that year on year, we are building almost 100,000 fewer social houses than we were 30 years ago, as I said earlier.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that a properly regulated park homes system could make a major contribution to the development of affordable housing, particularly in the countryside? Will he agree not to take any lessons about park homes from the Opposition, who left 200,000 people vulnerable by their failure to regulate the sector properly? Will he assure me that he will try to bring forward the excellent work that has been done under this Government—
I agree with a great deal of what my hon. Friend Mr. Dawson said. I may have a vested interest, as we have one of the biggest producers of caravans in my area, as does the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden in his. I recognise that there is a great need for regulation of the sector.
No, I must make progress. I may come back to the hon. Gentleman later, if he will give me some time.
As well as providing more resources, we are speeding up the delivery of affordable homes. The Housing Corporation has been given the go-ahead to fast-track 4,400 new homes to be built in London and the south-east; 2,800 of those homes will be for key public sector workers. Together with the approved development programme, the Housing Corporation will deliver more than 22,000 homes in 2003–04, but that is not enough, by any definition. There clearly is a problem, as I have outlined.
In the Queen's Speech it was announced that the housing Bill will be published in draft to allow the Select Committee the opportunity for pre-legislative scrutiny. The Bill will improve the standards of management of private rented accommodation, with selective licensing of private landlords in key areas and a reformed housing fitness regime. The Bill will also introduce a compulsory home seller's pack in order to tackle the stress and expense suffered by hundreds of thousands of house buyers each year when home sales fall through or are delayed.
In my statement to the House on
Fundamental to any community is the quality of public services—schools, health centres and safe and reliable transport. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport will speak later about a Bill to create an independent body to deal with safety and investigating accidents. Equally important is the quality of the environment. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will introduce measures to promote better management of our waste and our water supply and to combat climate change.
In the previous Parliament, the Government gave the people of Scotland, Wales and London the power to take more decisions for themselves. Interestingly enough, each of those measures was opposed by the Opposition, and interestingly enough, each was accepted and endorsed after it had been introduced. I suspect that they will take exactly the same approach to regional government. I am delighted to tell the House that our Bill on referendums will give the same choice to the people of the English regions, and not before time.
Regions, if their people so choose—hon. Members tell us that we should trust the people—will be given a distinct political voice and a real say over decisions that matter to them. Elected assemblies will take functions from Whitehall and its agencies, not from local authorities. For the first time, regions will have a responsibility to take greater control over things that matter to people—economic development, regeneration, planning, housing, transport, health, culture and the environment. That is what we intend to bring about with our regional proposals.
The Deputy Prime Minister says that we should trust the people. Will he confirm that even if every single person in Cheshire, Lancashire and Cumbria votes against a regional assembly and the abolition of their counties, those counties will be abolished and the regional assembly will be imposed if the people in Manchester and Merseyside vote for them?
We will provide the opportunity of a referendum if we decide that enough people want it. We will then give people an opportunity to decide not only whether they want regional government, but what kind of unitary government they want. In the circumstances, a two-tier system would be the only possibility. People would know that they would be voting for regional government alongside unitary government, which would leave out the counties. We would be abolishing a tier—a bit like the last Administration.
May I ask the right hon. Gentleman to retrace his steps briefly? What assessment has he made of the impact of changes in the rules governing the use of capital receipts from the sale of council houses on the size of payments of interest on local authority debt?
That is an important question, to which the Select Committee addressed itself. It is a difficult one. We came to office saying that the receipts should be released to allow the refurbishment of housing. Owing to the debts incurred by some local authorities and the interest payments involved, we decided that the Treasury should provide more money and that some capital receipts should be retained. We did not take all the capital receipts. Money was made available to the Treasury, and all our actions were influenced by the level of interest and the level of Government debt. The Select Committee was anxious to achieve a balance between debts and capital asset receipts, especially in the context of housing. I realise that these are complex and difficult matters.
May I return to the question of the regions? If the Government are so keen to set up regional assemblies, why do they not positively advocate that local people choose regions, rather than maintaining a studied neutrality?
I have never been accused of studied neutrality, particularly where local government is concerned. Perhaps my hon. Friend has not often listened to what I say. I clearly advocate the case, and I will do so during a referendum. Is that clear enough for my hon. Friend?
The Queen's Speech included the announcement of a Bill to reform the planning system. Despite past attempts to reform the planning system—I think all Governments have had a go at it from time to time—it is still too slow and inflexible. David Davis made a number of points about that. The planning process, along with the culture of planning itself, needs to change. Ninety per cent. of councils fail to meet the targets for dealing with planning applications, and 47 councils still have no up-to-date development plans. I know that that is sometimes to do with resources, and sometimes to do with personnel. That is why we have had to address ourselves to the requirement for resources that were often cut under the last Administration because of the lack of resources given to that Administration.
The planning Bill will establish the reforms needed to overhaul the system and increase effective community involvement. It will streamline the system and introduce a single level of plans, with strategic planning at regional level. It will also introduce business planning zones, and establish new processes to speed up the handling of applications for major infrastructure projects.
Reform of the planning system is urgent, and this Government recognise that it requires new and additional resources. We do not just say that something needs to be done; we provide the necessary resources. Our announcement in July of a #350 million investment in the planning system over the next three years is, I think, unprecedented. Furthermore, #50 million will be released to allow urgent work to start immediately. The extra money will go to authorities that demonstrate their commitment to high-quality planning. I will not hesitate to take action against authorities that are not performing adequately.
In future, the planning system will help to deliver priority services to our communities: new homes, new schools, new hospitals and a reliable, safe public transport system—all in a clean and safe environment.
My right hon. Friend mentioned bringing the planning system closer to the community. I understand that the Bill envisages an improved role for town and parish councils. Does my right hon. Friend expect any resources to be provided for training and skills at that important level of local government?
We are concerned about the position at parish council level. I have always argued that parish councils could do a lot more about some of their own facilities: village hall developments and things like that. There is more to be done on that. There are pilot proposals on how that may operate and work. The more chance people have to make a decision that affects their communities and their lives, whether at parish or at urban level, the better. We are actively developing pilot proposals to achieve that.
Will the Deputy Prime Minister consider, even at this late stage, the fact that he will be asking for regional plans only when regional assemblies have been given backing by the local electorate and that until such time as regional assemblies have been given that backing, the county structure plan will stay with elected county councillors?
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman knows this but those bodies are staffed by an awful lot of Tory-elected councillors, as well as Labour-elected councillors, and I do not think that they have heard the message from here that they should not be co-operating. Even in Beverley, the leader of the council, Councillor Parnaby, sits on the assembly. We will give the opportunity for people to be elected to a body, a regional government, but in the meantime we think that regional assemblies have a role to play.
We have given resources to check what the RDAs are doing. They can play a part in regional planning. We think that they have a role to play and so, apparently, do many Tory councillors. Although they obviously hear a different view here, they are prepared to concentrate on what they do and get actively involved.
The House will agree that strong local government is essential for successful and thriving communities. Local government needs to deliver the quality of services that people expect and to have the resources for that. I have pointed out the greater importance we give to providing resources—as opposed to discovering in opposition that local authorities are important.
Much has been achieved. The average performance of 80 per cent. of all councils is improving and in many areas the gap between the best and worst councils is closing. We have strengthened the Audit Commission's role to produce comprehensive performance assessments for local authority activities. Those assessments will for the first time give us a baseline to judge each council's performance. We will reward the best, provide support, tackle weaknesses and intervene where necessary.
The local government Bill was published in draft in July and benefited from consultation and scrutiny by the Select Committee. I am grateful for what the Select Committee did in examining the Bill. I always have trouble with Select Committees; it goes with the job. They make criticisms—they are there to do that. Sometimes, I like a bit of praise, but you cannot ask for too much.
I have always been an advocate of the pre-scrutiny of Bills. It would be good if Bills were examined by a Select Committee before they came to the House. The Government may agree or disagree with the Select Committee; we may have another opinion, which is usually well founded. There is a lot of information and evidence, which I think has been cited by the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden, and on which the House can make a judgment when the Bill comes before it.
Our response to the Select Committee was placed in the Library on, I think,
The Bill offers new flexibility and extends the freedoms available to local government. I believe that it will free successful councils to innovate and to make real improvements in local services and the quality of life in communities; there is considerable evidence to show that it will. New borrowing powers will give local authorities the option to fund capital projects where they have the means to pay back the borrowing. Local authorities will have the power to charge for discretionary services and will be able to trade in any service in which they have demonstrated a strong performance on delivery.
The Bill will give local authorities greater freedom, allowing them to end the 50 per cent. council tax discount for second homes and long-term homes: they will be allowed to reduce the discount to 10 per cent. That will give extra income to local authorities of approximately #65 million, which they will be able to use to improve local services.
I am pleased that the 50 per cent. discount will be abolished, or at least that councils will be given the right not to discount the council tax by that much, but why not get rid of it entirely? The notes with the press release talk about an incentive being given to the owners of second homes to come clean. Surely that is not necessary. None of the rest of us has an incentive to comply with the law. Just get rid of it all together.
Well, I think that the judgment has been made. The way to establish a register and to identify such homes is to require at least a 10 per cent. payment; otherwise, we would have to go searching for all those houses. A legal requirement to pay 10 per cent. is a practical measure that enables the keeping of a register, so that local authorities can get their resources.
In looking at this issue, it is important to recognise that we are talking about a discretion on the part of councils. As my right hon. Friend will recognise, many people in towns such as Burnley cannot sell their homes, and the introduction of 100 per cent. council tax on those homes would constitute a tremendous burden.
My hon. Friend gives a good reason why we leave the matter to the discretion of councils. However, to judge by what I have seen of his constituency—in certain cases, there are terrible circumstances—it would be nice to know who does own their own home. That is one of the problems that the pathfinder scheme that we have implemented in his and other areas seeks to address.
New business improvement districts will generate a real partnership between business and local authorities, to improve local areas for everyone.
In all these ways, we are continuing to strengthen communities, and to give them a greater say in the decisions that affect them most. That principle is at the centre of the programme of legislation before this House. All of us will need to work together, and to think differently, if we are to make a step change towards building sustainable communities.
We have stability in our economy. We have a generous financial settlement from the Chancellor for regional development agencies, local authorities, housing, planning and regeneration. We have the legislation in the Queen's Speech, and the forthcoming communities plan. With all these measures in place, we have put in hand what is necessary to secure the step change in policy that is required to build successful, thriving and sustainable communities. I ask the House to reject the Opposition's amendment in the Lobby this evening.
The Deputy Prime Minister has stood accused of many things in this House, but one thing that he cannot be accused of is legislative inactivity, whether in the past or the present. In previous roles, he has helped to produce many hefty Green Papers and White Papers, followed by a number of hefty Acts of Parliament. Since he became Deputy Prime Minister in 1997, at least 11 major Bills that he proposed have become Acts. In particular, I remember his legislative tour de force: the Greater London Authority Act 1999, which, I am reliably informed, emerged into the daylight as the longest Act of Parliament since the India Act 1784. I doubt whether he now considers that creation his finest, given the debacle over Ken Livingstone and the sad, ongoing saga of public-private partnership for the tube.
To me, that flawed legislation should be in the minds of the Deputy Prime Minister and his Ministers as they approach the Bills promised in this Queen's Speech. The GLA Bill, like those on regional assemblies and local government reform, promised devolution. Its rhetoric was very much like today's rhetoric on regions and councils. London was going to get its own government; it would regain its freedoms and pride. Yet what did we end up with after three months of trench warfare in Committee? A toothless, hybrid monster, whose parents effectively disowned it almost from birth. The problem then—as now, with the Bills on regional and local government—was that its parents did not want an independent, free-thinking child. They dreaded creating an offspring that might rebel, talk back, and challenge their parental authority. So the Government produced a weakened, malformed creature, with few powers to act and few incentives to grow up.
The 1999 Act not only gave few powers away; it contained almost as many references to the Secretary of State as to the Mayor of London. The lack of trust that produced such weak devolution has resulted in weak government in London. I am afraid that the London experience may well be repeated in the Deputy Prime Minister's programme in this Queen's Speech. Indeed, that is exactly what will happen if the Government continue with their limited vision for regional and local government across Britain.
On regional government, the Government seem not just timid but almost cowardly—or perhaps it is just that the Cabinet cannot agree. There is more than a suspicion that the Deputy Prime Minister is fighting a reluctant Downing street. As for local government, the Government's proposals show a total lack of trust. How can they talk so warmly about partnership with councils, when so many of their actions show their disdain for them? Neither of the main Bills for the regions and local government begins to match the rhetoric that has accompanied them.
Before I discuss the Deputy Prime Minister's proposed legislation in more detail, I should like to comment on his update on, and his work on, the fire strikes. We hope that the employers and the Fire Brigades Union will talk, and that they will avoid the threatened eight-day strike. I wish all those involved in trying to prevent that strike the very best. In many ways the fire strike negotiations could have potential legislative implications. I was surprised that the Gracious Speech did not mention some legislation on fire safety.
The basic proposition on the fire strike proposed by the Government and the Deputy Prime Minister is not disputed in many parts of the House. The proposition as I see it is that any pay deal must be accompanied by comprehensive reform of the fire service. There have been many questions and much argy-bargy about the handling of the dispute, but on the central issue of the link between pay and reform there is some agreement. It is more important that we focus on the reform agenda and modernisation because there has been far too much talk about particular pay figures when we still have not had proper discussions about reform. No matter what the final pay figure is, although it matters hugely for the economy and wider the public sector, modernisation is the key to the dispute. Without wanting to be over-dramatic, the case for modernisation is a case built on saving lives.
Yes, reform might produce efficiency savings, which must be costed to see whether they will help fund the pay increase, but let us remember the stronger case for modernisation and the fact that it could dramatically improve the quality of protection for the public. Reform will save lives. The Government have been too mealy-mouthed in making that case. It may be that they did not want to inflame the dispute or it might have been a negotiating tactic, but as crunch time approaches we need more of the Deputy Prime Minister's famous plain talking on reform.
In a moment.
It may be that the FBU has at last come up with its own proposals for reform—good and about time too—but it should be putting those ideas to the Bain review, and from what we have seen of its ideas so far, they do not seem to measure up to the Bain agenda on reform.
In the detailed press notice that the hon. Gentleman is reading with such care does he have space for an insertion on the views of elected Members such as that in industrial disputes people have the right to put their point of view, the right to demand at least some understanding of their position and the right to exercise that under existing trade union law? Also, could he please not read the rest of his speech?
I am grateful for that intervention, but I am simply following the lead of the previous two speakers. The hon. Lady is right that there needs to be a negotiated settlement between the employers and the trade union officials. However, the FBU leadership needs to get real about the need for reform and modernisation. Some of the terms and conditions of the fire service in the XGrey Book" are arcane and go back not just to the 1970s but to the immediate post-war period. The FBU needs to grapple with the reform agenda.
Order. In the circumstances the Chair has allowed reference to the fire dispute for obvious reasons given the concern of the House and the country. However, it is outwith the terms of the amendment under discussion and I hope that we will now move away from that subject.
I am more than happy to do that. I simply wanted to respond because the Queen's Speech talks about a range of public service reforms, and that public service needs massive reform.
Order. The hon. Gentleman does not need to justify himself to the Chair. I am simply suggesting that we should draw a line under that subject.
I suppose we should be surprised that the Queen's Speech contains no surprises. Much of the legislation has been trailed. We have seen the draft local government Bill, which was welcome and we are now to see the draft housing Bill. I congratulate the Government on publishing their legislation in draft form as it is helpful. We must hope that that will lead to better parliamentary drafting and more consultation, but I am concerned that the content will not improve.
Let us start with the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill, which has already been published. The Liberal Democrats are, and have been for many years, strong advocates of regional government. My immediate predecessor with responsibility for regional government, my hon. Friend Mr. Foster, published detailed proposals and won our party conference's support for them. I am indebted to him for that work, because it enables me to compare the Government's programme with our own. On Second Reading next week, I hope to make that comparison in more detail.
I have two points to make tonight about that little Bill. First, and bizarrely, the Bill would allow referendums to be held before the final decisions have been made about the powers for the regions, as David Davis said. Nowhere in the Bill does it say that the House must have decided what powers it will give to regional assemblies before people are asked about them. Ministers might refer people to the White Paper, XYour Region, Your Choice", but since when has a White Paper—which is subject to consultation and change by Parliament—established legal powers? It is a strange notion of democracy to ask people to vote for something that has not yet been decided. It is like holding elections when the parties have not got round to finalising their manifestos. On second thoughts, perhaps that is where the Government started.
Given the hon. Gentleman's avowed commitment to localism, does he accept that most people's primary loyalties are to their village, their town, their district, their borough or their county, but not to amorphous monstrosities, otherwise known as regions?
I am grateful for that helpful intervention. Of course people support their local communities, possibly more than they do regions or other tiers of government. However, it is nonsense to suggest that there is no demand for regional government in many parts of the country. The hon. Gentleman has only to visit the north-east, Yorkshire and other regions to see that.
The Member for Yeovil in the last Parliament said that that Commons is too big and its membership should be reduced. What is Liberal Democrat policy on the creation of regional assemblies? Should there be a corresponding reduction in the size of membership of this House?
We have argued for just such a reduction.
The Deputy Prime Minister is doing down his own cause as a proponent of regionalism. If we had a referendum campaign, it would soon become clear that people were being asked a hollow question, with no clarity. I cannot think of a better weapon to give to the opponents of devolution. The strategy of failing to set out the powers of the assemblies before the referendum is counterproductive to the right hon. Gentleman's aims.
Would the hon. Gentleman vote for or against a regional assembly, given the opportunity?
We will vote for regional assemblies, but we will also make detailed criticisms of the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill. It has a second major failing that the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden did not mention. By tying a referendum on a regional assembly to local government restructuring, the Government are shooting themselves in the foot again. The most recent experience of such restructuring shows that it can be very destabilising, setting council against council, councillor against councillor—often from the same party. The net effect of the coupling of the regional question with local government restructuring will probably be that both are lost, because people who would normally be sympathetic to devolution will fight to preserve powers for their own communities. That is why the Liberal Democrats believe that the two issues should be decoupled. By all means, let us ask local government to restructure, but we should not tie the issue to regional assemblies. At the very least, the Government should ask people two separate questions—one on the regional assembly and one on any proposed local government restructuring. That would be more democratic and more likely to ensure maximum support for future regional assemblies.
The hon. Gentleman suggests decoupling of the issues. Would he ask areas that already have unitary authorities whether they want secondary or tertiary levels?
We shall certainly not propose that they be given the choice to revert. Most unitary authorities have had that debate and have made their choice in the very recent past.
Will the Deputy Prime Minister say when he expects the local government Bill to be published? A lot of work has already been done: a draft Bill was prepared, and the Select Committee published a report to which the Government responded. I hope that the Bill is not too far away from publication.
That is helpful. In fact, all the work that has already been done gives us an idea about what the Bill will contain, so we can talk about it in some detail. Many aspects are welcome, but it is extremely disappointing overall.
As I said earlier, the Bill is built on distrust of local government. I am not alone in thinking that, because, as the Deputy Prime Minister admitted, the Select Committee was very worried about that. It stated in its report:
XThe Government promised to redress the balance between central and local government. The Bill fails to achieve that. It makes some small steps in the right direction, but at the same time increases the power of the Secretary of State...Central Government seems to be terrified of trusting local authorities and allowing them their independence."
That is from an all-party Select Committee. In addition, the local government information unit published earlier this year its commission on local governance report entitled XFree To Differ". The report looked at the White Paper proposals on which the Bill is based, and stated:
XWe have been left with misgivings that the proposals in the White Paper will not be sufficient to counter the trend of increasing centralisation and diminishing responsibility for local government."
Is there anything good about the White Paper and the draft Bill? Yes, there is. The prudential capital regime is welcome. Liberal Democrat Members have pushed for abolishing controls on council borrowing and for the proposed system of credit approvals, and unequivocally welcome them. However, those new freedoms will be coupled with some worrying new powers for the Secretary of State. The draft Bill makes it clear that there will be special powers—unconstrained powers—to intervene in any local authority's ability to borrow. Intervention will not be possible only in special circumstances defined in the legislation, but can be undertaken at the Secretary of State's whim. That is a real concern.
In addition to the powers to intervene over borrowing, the Bill will contain new powers to intervene in connection with minimum reserves, and its proposals to pool capital receipts could have some bizarre effects. Those pooling proposals give us real cause for concern. In some cases, they could act as a disincentive for councils to become free of debt or to manage their asset portfolios efficiently. That cannot be right, and we shall seek significant changes in that regard.
We welcome the Government's change of heart over their original proposals to merge the revenue support grant with national non-domestic rates. That shows the value of consultation. As the Deputy Prime Minister has realised, the proposals would have reduced transparency, and I am glad that he has dispensed with them. However, the Bill contains no proposals for returning business rates to councils, either in their current form or reformed as we propose. I am afraid that that lack has not been welcomed by people in the local government family up and down the country.
We welcome the ideas on business improvement districts. Some time ago, indeed, Lord Ashdown, our party's former leader, was one of the first to advocate such districts.
We welcome some of the muted reforms to council tax. The abolition of the council tax benefits subsidy limitation comes not before time. As my hon. Friend Norman Lamb noted in an intervention, we welcome the fact that local authorities will be given some discretion about removing the council tax discount on second homes. However, we are concerned about the retention of the mandatory 10 per cent., and we are not convinced by the Government's arguments on that.
Liberal Democrat Members would prefer much more radical reform. The council tax should be abolished and we believe that local income tax should be introduced. That tax is fair and related to a person's ability to pay. It is surprising that a Labour Government should stick with the Tory council tax, which is increasingly being shown to be one of the most regressive forms of tax imaginable. It is the next most regressive form of tax after the poll tax. Rising council tax rates place an especially damaging burden on the poor and the nearly poor in our society. I am sure that hon. Members of all parties will recognise that trend from their constituency mail bags.
The local government Bill contains some welcome measures, but they do not add up to very much. With their comprehensive performance assessment exercise, the Government are sending a clear signal to local government up and down the country that, at best, they do not care much for local government and that, at worst, they hold it in contempt. We should consider for a moment the comprehensive performance assessment process. Liberal Democrats had concerns about that from the start. A one size fits all model of inspection for councils across the country is not good enough. The costs are huge, and many of us doubt whether central Government telling local government what it should prioritise from start to finish has anything to do with local democracy.
The allegations in last week's Local Government Chronicle provided the final nail in the coffin of this discredited exercise. It suggested that Ofsted's rankings of the performance of local education authorities were better than expected. Presumably, that should have been welcomed in Downing street. One would have thought that No. 10 would be pleased about an independent inspection showing that councils were doing a good job, but no. The better than expected Ofsted rankings implied that, under the Government's comprehensive performance assessment process, more councils would be classed as excellent or good, but No. 10 did not want a positive local government story. It is alleged that pressure was brought to bear by No. 10 to alter the provisional figures of the independent Audit Commission.
There are serious allegations that No. 10 did not celebrate success in education, interfered with the work of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and bullied the Audit Commission, which is the public's independent watchdog. Those allegations must be answered. If they are not answered, the view that the Government want to rubbish local government, not set it free, will be reinforced. They want to hold on to power, not to empower local communities. Ministers should be concerned about that.
What about other promised legislation? The planning Bill may be some way off, but that is probably just as well. It would seem from the Gracious Speech that the sole aim of reforming the planning system is to speed it up. Surely there are other issues to consider. What about central Government letting go? The Deputy Prime Minister recently made the bizarre decision to turn down the proposed IKEA investment near Stockport, which the town was banking on to bring new jobs and regeneration to the area. Was that done for good planning or environmental reasons, or was it really about political manipulation from the centre yet again?
However we reform the planning system, it is vital that central Government butt out when these decisions are made. The Government's involvement in planning decisions has shown that central Government are the real block and the cause of delay in the planning system. Reducing central Government's involvement could be the best thing they could do to speed up decisions. If planning was thereby more accountable to local and regional decision makers, so much the better. We await the publication of the Bill with interest, because as always the devil will be in the detail.
As for the draft housing Bill, it is likely that it will contain much that Liberal Democrats can support. We need to change the regulatory system for houses in multiple occupation, because in many areas they are among the most unfit and dangerous properties in the private sector. When we consider the crisis in the affordable housing market, I doubt whether the Bill will be seen to contribute much.
Local government and campaigners for regional government are not enthused about the Queen's Speech. Far from marking a major new stage in the devolution agenda, it tries to set strict limits on it. That is bad news for communities up and down the country, and bad news for a vibrant, pluralist democracy.
Parliament has long provided a platform for the inadequate, the inarticulate and those who read with excellence, so I hope that I will be forgiven if I do not dwell for too long on the problems of the Liberal Democrat party.
A Queen's Speech at this important juncture in the second Session of a Parliament should give us a clear idea of where the Government intend to go and what important matters need to be discussed and proposed. Like the curate's egg, the Queen's Speech is good only in parts. It will come as no surprise to my right hon. and hon. Friends to learn that I view the proposal for foundation hospitals with unalloyed horror. I have no desire to go back 30 years. The idea is a throwback to the situation that existed in the national health service when I worked in it. That was so long ago that all the members of my family who were born subsequently are now rather superior 40-year-olds who have their own views on these matters. Foundation hospitals are unworkable, divisive and unhelpful and they will drain from all the rest of the health service elements of finance that it desperately needs to catch up and has only recently begun to acquire.
It is important to consider what is not in the Queen's Speech as well as what is. We are now so modern, of course, and many of the contents of the speech are trailed with such enthusiasm, that I assume that we may soon get to the point where Her Majesty—as she has very intelligent grandchildren—will decide not to come here in person but to text what she has to say. We will then be able to take part in an e-discussion of government. The reality—
That thought fills me with unmitigated interest.
The Queen's Speech contains some very useful measures. I think that everyone will welcome the railway safety Bill. It is long overdue. The railway system has been dealt with very haphazardly and has suffered because so many contractors have been brought in to undertake tasks, which has raised in the minds of the general public, if not of hon. Members, considerable doubts as to whether the railway safety system any longer meets the needs of the 21st century. The old railway inspectorate, which dealt with a highly integrated system under British Rail, knew how to disperse important railway safety information throughout the system rapidly, and did so in a way that ensured that people knew about any problems that had arisen anywhere in the system very early on. Once we began to bring in private companies, which all had personal interests and legal responsibilities, and which were different from the old integrated BR, that was not the case. I look forward to that Bill and I hope that it will be introduced as soon as possible.
I would have liked to see some other measures in the Queen's Speech. For example, it is a shame that we are still waiting for the aviation White Paper. Given the length of time that it takes, it would have helped to push forward major decisions on airports, runways and the expansion of aviation if that White Paper had not only been discussed in considerable detail by the general public but had had decisions taken on it. It would have been helpful to have a clear plan on aviation to help us to decide where we want to go.
In the brief time available, I will raise one or two problems and ask some questions. I understand that there is something now called a concordat between the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department for Transport, as to those who are taking responsibility for particular transport policies. I am not sure what a concordat is—it smacks slightly of a medieval carve-up, but I am sure that that is not the situation. That means that some questions will be raised in the House. Does it mean that the 11-strong Treasury team who are now deeply involved in transport decisions will in future be prepared to come before Select Committees, such as that on transport, which will want to question them on decisions that are being taken? Does that mean that when we discuss the amount of money that is available for the railway system we shall have access not only to the views of the Department for Transport, but to those of DEFRA?
One of the few advantages of the enormous Department that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister used to run was that there was an attempt to marry environmental and transport needs and to come up with some sensible answers. It seems that that will not be quite so easy in future. So what is the concordat, what does it cover, will Treasury team members be available for questioning, and is it clear that not only DEFRA but the Department for Transport and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister will be taking decisions in this field in the future?
I must touch briefly on what is now an urgent problem in the railways. The present Secretary of State took over an extremely muddled and complex situation. He has not only made considerable strides in sorting out the practical problems but has a clear idea of where he wants to go. He will forgive me, therefore, if I point out one or two of the problems that have arisen.
First, there seems to be a difficulty with the Strategic Rail Authority. We needed the SRA and it was set up with some new executives and appeared to be carrying out an interesting clean sweep of the relationships between the train operating companies and the individuals concerned at every level. Since the demise of Railtrack, however, there have been one or two signals that have not contributed much to the clarity of the situation. For example, it is not particularly helpful for Sir Richard Bowker to suggest, as he did in an article at the weekend, that what is happening in the rail industry is nationalisation by the back door. That is not the case. It is not happening and, frankly, it is not constructive to suggest that it is.
Secondly, there is a difficulty with some of the SRA's decisions. I am referring to the decisions on the west coast main line, Stagecoach and Virgin Trains. If it is true, as it appears to be, that Stagecoach and Virgin Trains have been allowed the sort of concessions that add up to a considerable amount of public money, we should have an explanation. In July, a public announcement followed an agreement with the SRA that #106 million would be given to Virgin—
Order. I am afraid that the hon. Lady's time is up. I remind the House that Mr. Speaker has placed a nine-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches.
It is always a great pleasure to follow Mrs. Dunwoody. I share one of her opinions at least—that the Queen's Speech is a strange mixture of measures. We all know what happens. There are months of negotiation between Departments to get measures into the Queen's Speech and then the day before the Queen delivers it the people in No. 10 sit down and say, XWhat on earth are we going to describe as the main message?" They say, XWell, there is one more Bill from the Home Office than from the other Departments, so this is a Queen's Speech about the criminal justice system." That is how it is spun out to the press and the media. In fact, it is a hotch-potch of different measures, as it often has been under Governments of many different complexions.
I am sorry that the Deputy Prime Minister has just left the Chamber. When I was leading the Opposition I used to tease him every year about not having any legislation in the Queen's Speech. I used to tell him that doing nothing was not an option. Actually, I preferred him when he was doing nothing to when he is promoting the measures in this Queen's Speech, which will not advance the cause of effective government.
I will make some brief general remarks and focus on reviving the rural economy, which is mentioned in the Opposition amendment. I came to the Chamber today in the nive belief that when food, rural affairs and the environment are listed on the Order Paper, senior Ministers from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs might occasionally wander in and do a passable imitation of listening to the debate. It seems, however, that they are in touch with us from a remote location, or so we must earnestly hope.
In general, the Queen's Speech will not advance the cause of delivering the Government's objectives of reforming the public services and demonstrating that they have done so over the next few years, because they are not prepared to give the people who work in the public services the independence, the accountability, the local ownership of the problems or the challenges that they need to make those services effective. The Government will increasingly continue to be impatient.
In the press, we are told that the Prime Minister is increasingly impatient for results. He will be more and more impatient as the next year goes by. The Government resemble somebody sitting in a car and pressing hard on the accelerator. They are making the fuel flow in terms of higher and higher public expenditure, but they are unable to understand why the vehicle does not go faster. The reason is that they have left the handbrake on—the control, centralisation and command approach to public servants which means that they will not deliver the desired results, nor will they have done so by the next general election.
One great problem for the Government lies in the fact that in DEFRA no one is even pressing on the accelerator—which is why I am so sorry that no DEFRA Ministers are in the Chamber. Last week, the Department was criticised by an all-party Select Committee which pointed out that the rural White Paper was not being delivered, that the rural proofing of policies was not being attended to, and that the Department is suffering from reorganisation. No doubt, DEFRA is working hard but it has been reorganised.
Once again, part of the Government machinery is suffering from the problem that people sitting in No. 10 Downing street decided that not enough was happening and the Government were not delivering enough results, so the answer was to reorganise Departments. In fact, the answer is hardly ever that Departments should be reorganised. All that happens is that brass plates move around Whitehall, people are reallocated, new titles are devised, new secretaries are appointed and the whole agenda is abandoned for another year.
The tragedy is that that has so often happened in local government, too, under Governments of all persuasions, right back to the 1960s. This might make me seem like the ultimate Conservative, but if we still had urban and rural district councils and the ridings of Yorkshire I am not sure we would be worse off than we are at present—after 30 years of local government reorganisation.
The right hon. Gentleman, who is my constituency neighbour up in the top corner, mentions rural district councils. He will know of the bitterness felt in Whitby, in my constituency, about what happened in 1974, and of the bitterness still felt throughout our county of North Yorkshire about the Banham review. How does he think such issues affect our locality?
It is nice to wave to my neighbour across the Chamber and to agree with him. Obviously, we cannot go back to the 1960s structure of local government, but if we had never embarked on those changes the country would have been much better off. The same is true of more recent local government reorganisations.
Why on earth are we contemplating yet another great reorganisation with regional assemblies on the agenda? People are already sick of elections yet they are now to be presented with another set of elections, even if one layer of authorities is to be abolished. People in North Yorkshire will be told that they can elect a set of people in Leeds, but many of them will not vote; many will regard it as a joke. We have already seen a monkey elected mayor of Hartlepool because the electorate thought it was a joke—no doubt the Deputy Prime Minister would think that all sorts of strange creatures had been elected in Hartlepool in recent years. How many new sets of elections will we devise before we realise that the number of elections, authorities and structures is the problem in governing this country?
It is no longer any good asking me about the policy of my party. I am now free to criticise anybody, abandon anything that I want to abandon and adopt the role of an embryo elder statesman.
One argument against regional government is the quality of some of the debate in the Welsh Assembly. We all accept that the referendum took place. There is an Assembly and it will remain, most of us accept that: but has there been a dramatic improvement in the quality of debate or government? I am not sure about that.
In the county of North Yorkshire, part of which I have the honour to represent, our problem is not a democratic deficit. We have local democratic institutions. We have our county and district councils. Why should we have more remote government? It already seems pretty remote. People in some of the dales in my constituency think that Northallerton is a long way away, let alone Leeds, Sheffield or Hull, which are somewhere down in the midlands as far as some of my constituents are concerned.
I will not give way again, because under the new modernised time limits I should lose the time that I have gained from the earlier two interventions. It is surprising how rapidly we get wise to such things.
I implore Ministers to think again about local government and at least to allow counties that do not want to be part of a new regional structure a vote to express that. If we in North Yorkshire vote not to be part of a Yorkshire regional assembly, we should not have to be part of it. We do not need a regional assembly. We have a regional identity in Yorkshire, but it comes from our cricket team and our attitude and we shall keep both of them. We do not need an assembly.
An assembly would also damage the prospects of the rural economy because the rural economy would not get a look-in under most of the regional assemblies that are being predicted, worked on and prepared for in the proposed legislation. I want to make some brief points about the rural economy in the time that remains.
First, the difficulty of providing rural services should be fully taken into account in the new calculations of local government finance allocations. So far, that has not been done. The rural services partnership has made some extremely good points. It is far more expensive to provide a small school in the Yorkshire dales, which may have only 20 pupils because it is miles and miles from anywhere, than to provide education in urban areas. That needs to be factored into the calculations for local government finance.
If the Government decide to move more resources away from the shire counties over the next few months, every time the Prime Minister stands at the Dispatch Box and talks about funding for this, that or the other, rural services will have been specifically and deliberately excluded and we shall point that out to people in rural areas.
Secondly, I implore Ministers to give renewed and even more urgent attention to flood prevention. That is the ultimate local issue, because it affects some people hugely but others not at all. I have seen the severe problems caused by flooding in Northallerton and Middleham in the Yorkshire dales. One of the few little bits of reorganisation that should be allowed, as a tidying-up measure, would be to clarify who was responsible for flood prevention. Currently, central Government, the district authorities and county authorities, the internal drainage board, English Nature and the Environment Agency all have a role. If that could be simplified, we could tackle flood prevention much more effectively in future.
Will Ministers give the necessary financial help? The budget was increased under the previous Government, and has been under the current one—I give them credit for that; it is needed for areas that have suffered badly from flooding during the past two years. Many of them, such as Northallerton, sadly, are in North Yorkshire.
The final thing that DEFRA Ministers must do for the rural economy is to ensure that the measures being taken to try to prevent the return of foot and mouth disease are effective and workable. The 20-day movement restriction on animals is neither. It is not merely that it is an expensive burden—it is not effective.
Last week I visited the auction mart at Hawes in Wensleydale, where I saw two sets of sheep standing next to each other, yet a farmer could take one set back to his farm but not the other. The restriction is not effective. I realise that it will be reviewed by February, but DEFRA needs to get on with that if there are to be effective domestic measures, in which people have confidence, to combat the spread of a future outbreak of foot and mouth disease.
That is what the Government should be doing for the rural economy, not implementing a hotch-potch of measures that will shut it out of consideration in large parts of our local government in future. We needed a different Queen's Speech, which is why I support the Opposition amendment.
I very much welcome the opportunity to participate in this debate and, indeed, to follow Mr. Hague. I do not agree with his thesis that rural areas will be excluded from regional considerations. Indeed, I believe that regional assemblies can provide a very good focus to show the links between rural and urban areas and to ensure that rural proofing becomes a reality, that rural concerns are fully integrated into regional approaches, and that farming, as well as rural industries generally, can benefit a great deal from the process.
The measures in the Queen's Speech, including those being debated today, will be good for my constituency and the north-east of England. I was rather amazed to hear Mr. Bercow, who is no longer in his place, describe regions as being amorphous monstrosities. I can certainly tell him that the north-east is not an amorphous monstrosity; it is a region with a very distinct identity. I believe that it will be able to make great progress because of the measures contained in the Gracious Speech.
I very much welcome the measures on housing, including those on improving housing standards and dealing with some of the problems in the private rented sector, which are considerable in my constituency. Proposals, such as those on licensing landlords, have been made strongly and convincingly by my own council in Gateshead—a very good council, which stands in stark contrast to the description of Labour councils given by David Davis.
I am pleased that measures on antisocial behaviour will enable action to be taken against the menace of airguns and air weapons, which have been a scourge of my constituency, other parts of the region and, indeed, other parts of the country. I very much welcome the initiative that the Government are taking.
I also welcome the fact that the Government are addressing the financial needs of local authorities. We in the north-east of England have suffered from the double whammy of the way in which the standard spending assessment is calculated and the operation of the Barnett formula, both of which need to be fundamentally reformed. I am glad that the Government are certainly prepared to address the issue of council finance.
XI should like to see measures of devolution introduced for all the regions of the United Kingdom that want it. In the north, that would mean a regional assembly as well as a development agency".—[Hansard, 30 June 1987; Vol. 118, c. 441.]
Hon. Members will therefore understand that I am very enthusiastic about the Government's commitment to go down precisely that route, albeit that it is overdue. I believe that, in many ways, the measures could be strengthened. None the less, we ought to pay tribute to their commitment and, indeed, to that of the Deputy Prime Minister, who has been a consistent advocate of regional government.
In the debate last week, my hon. Friend Andrew Mackinlay referred to regional government as being part of the good governance agenda, and I very strongly agree with that view. Devolution to the national territories—Scotland and Wales—was extremely important, but I have always felt that devolution should benefit all of us in the United Kingdom, irrespective of where we live. I am willing, however, to concede that there should be a large element of public choice in whatever structures are set up. For that reason, I very much welcome the fact that referendums will be held only in those areas where a clear demand has been shown. None the less, I have always felt that the commitment to devolution in Scotland and Wales certainly required a framework to be established that allowed for similar reforms across the United Kingdom, and the Deputy Prime Minister has felt strongly about that for a very long time.
I was disappointed by some of the criticisms that have been voiced, particularly by those of the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden. He tried to make respectable the fact that he wishes to deny a choice to the people in the regions. It makes no sense to deny that choice to people in the regions, and it will be difficult to explain to them.
I do not believe that we are talking about an extra tier, which seems to be part of the wide criticism that has been made. We are talking about democratising an existing tier and giving its ownership to people in the regions. Ironically, that tier was set up to a large extent by the previous Conservative Administration. Surely, if the comments about giving people choice mean anything at all, giving people a sense of ownership of the institutions that already exist in their region makes a huge amount of sense.
The right hon. Lady says that something that already exists is being democratised, but what already exists is unelected and not welcomed by most people in those areas.
I am interested in what the hon. Gentleman says. He seems to criticise not only what his own Government set up but any chance of anyone having a democratic involvement in and ownership of those institutions. I find his comments completely incomprehensible.
I also find it rather odd that the move towards regional government is sometimes considered as something newfangled. I think that it was a Liberal Prime Minister, Gladstone, who first spoke in favour regional devolution, as well as home rule for Ireland and the other measures that are so well known from that time. At home I have a book on regional devolution that was printed before the first world war, and I know from looking at party archives in my part of the world that there has been a great deal of interest in the issue for many years. So it is not newfangled, but I am glad that, at last, it is being properly addressed.
Obviously, the new devolved institutions are still establishing themselves, particularly in Scotland and Wales, but they have encouraged new people to become part of the political process. I very much welcome the greater participation of women, particularly in the Welsh Assembly, as well as in the Scottish Parliament.
Overall, I should like to express strong support for the Government's measures on regional devolution. I am convinced that this is an exciting and long-overdue opportunity for people in regions such as mine—the north-east—and I look forward with enthusiasm and determination to campaigning for a positive vote in the referendum.
It is a pleasure to follow Joyce Quin. She and I were elected in the same year, since when she has been a consistent advocate of regional devolution. Although I have great respect for her, I will devote my remarks to trying to demolish her arguments, because we disagree on this issue.
The House may like to recall the claims for regional devolution made by the Minister for Local Government and the Regions in The House Magazine, dated
"The White Paper is fundamentally about bringing decision-making closer to the people, and making government more efficient and accountable. Having completed the devolution of power to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and brought back democratic city-wide government to London, we are now extending opportunities for devolving power throughout England."
It should not be necessary in the House to make the point that the true tests of a democracy are its accountability and transparency. If constitutional change, devolutionary or otherwise, is to be introduced, it should be obvious that it must not be conducted piecemeal, since change to the constituent parts must inevitably affect the form and functions of the whole, sometimes unpredictably. At all times, the test of whether it enhances, and does not reduce, accountability and transparency should be applied.
The right hon. Lady talks about accountability and transparency, but would she describe the Government offices for the regions, which the Tory Administration set up, as being accountable and transparent? Is not the very good reason for introducing regional government the fact that regional quangos and government offices can be made genuinely accountable to the people whom they serve?
The hon. Gentleman should not confuse administrative arrangements with quasi-political accountability. I hope that what I go on to say will convince him of the rightness of my argument.
Let us consider the Government's record with regard to these tests. It is not only my opinion that the Government introduced sweeping devolutionary change for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland with no thought for its effect on the parliamentary process, or on the constitution overall; it was the opinion of the Select Committee in its comments in July 1998. The Government followed a piecemeal approach to devolution, which, in the end, left a democratic deficit for England. In seeking—or so they say—to address that democratic deficit, they are again adopting a piecemeal approach whereby parts of the whole may opt for one structure, while others may prefer the status quo, which will be denied to them because of the decision of the others. As in national devolution, the effect of the decision of parts of the whole on the rest does not seem to concern the Government, but it should concern the House.
Let us consider whether the results of a similar process for London have passed the Minister's tests. Have the devolved arrangements for London governance, in his words, brought decision making Xcloser to the people" and made Government Xmore efficient and accountable" and—I would add—transparent? Londoners voted narrowly in favour of an executive Mayor and a Greater London Authority. It is worth reminding the House that the Act to enable those elections to take place, and other changes to be made, gave no fewer than 277 additional powers to the Secretary of State. So much for decentralisation of power. Let us allow that to pass, however, as worse is to come.
What about transparency and accountability? Londoners are now asked to vote for borough councillors, two kinds of Assembly members, the Mayor of London, Westminster Members of Parliament, and Members of the European Parliament. They must also master the functions and responsibilities of the Government office for London, the London regional development agency, the London police authority, the fire and emergency planning commission and so on. Do those individuals, bodies and structures help Londoners when they want to report, and get something done about, a hole in the road? The answer is no. That answers the hon. Gentleman's question.
Do Londoners think that London is run better as a result of having an assembly? Ask any cab driver—or anyone else—and close your ears to the language that follows. People see the increase in traffic jams, the snarl-ups on the tube, and the inexplicable street closures. What they do not see is who is to blame, as it is not clear. Not only have the twin tests of transparency and accountability not been enhanced by devolution, but because of the proliferation of politicians, bodies and quangos that have appeared in its wake, they have been further obscured.
On the small point of the normal opinion poll of London cab drivers, does she agree that London cab drivers are very much in favour of the current Administration in London because of the disgraceful hike in fares after a certain time of night, which was imposed on London by the current Mayor?
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman only travels late at night. It is true, of course, that that does bias cab drivers in the Government's favour. When daylight comes, however, and they see the snarl-ups and jams again, their opinion changes. The Government want to extend the principle to the rest of England, and that does not bode well.
I am listening carefully to the right hon. Lady. Surely the basic question is whether she accepts or rejects democracy. It is for the people to determine whether they want regional government in a referendum. Surely she must accept democracy.
My test for whether democracy is effective is whether it is transparent and accountable. I am saying to the House, and directly to the Minister, that this pattern obscures accountability and transparency, and therefore obscures democracy, too.
The Minister claimed in The House magazine of
In my region of East Anglia, it was only with the utmost difficulty that we managed to explain to the powers that be in the East of England Development Agency that the sugar beet industry accounted for some 10,000 jobs in Norfolk alone, and that any threat to its future as an important local product would have economic repercussions. The appointed EEDA chairman caused despair at an NFU meeting earlier this year when he explained that the agency's principal contribution to the prosperity of what he called Xthe sector" had been to make substantial grants for the marketing of pickled herring. The relevance of that claim to the situation of Norfolk farmers who have seen an income drop of 50 per cent. in the current year alone escaped all present.
More recently still, this summer, an important local vegetable processor was threatened with closure and the loss of thousands of jobs, with the attendant effects on producers, packagers, labellers and hauliers. Thanks to the vigorous efforts of my hon. Friend Mr. Bellingham, Norman Lamb, who is in his place, and with a little help from me, the situation was saved. Some days after the problem had been solved, we all received a letter from the East of England Development Agency, to tell us that they were on to the case. Small wonder that the agency's mere existence, where it is known, elicits a combination of disbelief and exasperation.
Locally, therefore, the development agency—where anything is known about its work—has not covered itself with glory. Perhaps it has been given an impossible task, however. What, after all, does rural Norfolk have in common with parts of suburban Hertfordshire, and how does the Essex coast identify with Luton? Indeed, by seeking to overlay the eight administrative regions of England with a political identity, the Government are making a basic error. I do not know a lot about the south-west, but I wonder whether the people of Cornwall would welcome losing their identity and being ruled from Bristol. I know of few common causes between the Isles of Scilly and Tewkesbury. What common identity could one claim for the huge and disparate south-east, which ranges from Milton Keynes to the Isle of Wight? It is simply not possible.
There are other deeper issues, however, concerning the electorate's sense of identity. The Government partly justified the establishment of a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly by praying in aid the importance of sense of identity in Scotland and Wales, but they are now, apparently, trying to use the same arguments to submerge that same sense of identity in English counties. If the Government were logical in their concerns for devolution, surely they should give the Cornish Celts their own Parliament, like the Scottish Celts and the Welsh Celts.
If someone from a rural area is asked where they are from, how do they reply? Do they say that they are from the south-west or from Devon? Do they say that they are from the north-east or from Northumberland? County identity is strong, it represents people's sense of place and tradition, and it should also have an administrative and governance role that is not purely ornamental.
No, I will not give way any more.
My next set of arguments concern the effects of piecemeal reform, which we have already seen in national devolution. It has simply not worked, and it has made more problems than it has attempted to solve. In proposing these changes, the Government will find themselves, in the end, with completely different kinds of local government across the country. Their wish to devolve power from the centre will result in confusion, heavy costs, administrative change for the sake of it, and, worst of all, obscured accountability and transparency—a denial of what democracy should be about.
I particularly wish to welcome the measures in the Queen's Speech that are designed to enhance the process of democratic accountability in this country and to devolve power to its appropriate level. My hon. Friends have already mentioned them, but I am particularly pleased to see in the Queen's Speech a Bill to prepare for regional assemblies and a local government Bill designed to give local authorities more freedoms and more flexibility.
This is not a mere academic issue. The centralisation of power in Great Britain has long been a wonder of the world. Yet a mature democracy needs to have its mode of governance at all levels working well, being held to account for the action of government at each level, and engaging the public in the process of accountability. That has spin-offs. Active healthy communities lead to better civil engagement, that leads to better government, and that leads to healthy communities. It is a real issue with real benefits. The Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill will bring that accountability to a tier of government that has long been the preserve of the quango and the ill-defined regional body. It will allow regions to speak up for themselves, and to engage in their own economic development and in the planning of how the regions work.
The local government Bill will give local authorities greater freedoms to trade and use their own resources as they feel is most appropriate for their local circumstances. It will sweep away the machinery of central second-guessing about many things, such as the shape and the nature of a local authority's capital programme.
Many of my constituents in Poole work in Southampton, and they tend to look east towards Winchester and Hampshire. However, we are in the south-west region, although many of us think that we should not be part of that. Does the hon. Gentleman have any sympathy for those of us who think that we are in the wrong region?
The hon. Gentleman's knowledge of this subject is much respected. We know that he is one of the architects behind the Government's White Paper. However, as he has already demonstrated sympathy for the view expressed by Mr. Syms, is he prepared to comment more generally on the settlement of the boundaries of regional assemblies? Does he believe that regional assemblies with their present boundaries are deliverable in the south-west?
In the fulness of time, we could engage in a debate on how the boundaries in the south-west and the south-east might be formulated if and when a referendum takes place in those areas. That is my personal belief, but my personal belief only.
The proposals will lead to real advances for local freedoms and for accountability. In the process, they redefine the relationship between the centre and the local. However, it is important that they are seen as milestones along the way, not as the end of the road.
Regional assemblies have the potential to incorporate and place within the sphere of democratic accountability a range of regional bodies that administer substantial funds on behalf of the population, affecting the lives of people in those regions to a considerable degree. However, those bodies do not possess a shred of accountability through the democratic process for what they do. Contrary to what those on the Opposition Front Bench suggest, we are not talking in the main about new funds, but about the transfer of funds from the sphere of non-accountability to the sphere of accountability in the regional assemblies.
I hope that the emergence of the regional assemblies across England will be followed by their establishment as a true repository of democratic accountability for regional decisions. The Bill paves the way for such choices to be made. Once that process is under way, a second Bill, setting out the powers and detailed arrangements for each assembly, will be necessary. I hope that the process of incorporating regional decisions into a framework of accountability is evident at that stage—sooner rather than later. I also hope that the powers acquired by those regions will be drawn down from the centre and not sucked up from the local level. We have that statement of intent in the White Paper on the regions, and my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister reiterated it today. I am sure that the intention will become a reality.
The Opposition have made much of the alleged Xsucking-up" of powers that they consider will take place if counties, even after a popular referendum has been held, are in any way changed in function or even abolished as a result of the changes. I have to confess to smiling to myself when I see shire counties suddenly reinvented as micro-level community champions, by councillors who previously did not have much time for that concept. I could understand it if the defence of counties as quasi-regional planning authorities were mounted, but that argument is, I guess, less cute and appealing. Therefore, we suddenly have counties as communities. What meretricious nonsense. A proper division between which level of government plans and which level of government provides local services would unerringly settle on districts and towns for the latter, and regions, and perhaps some counties, for the former.
I am also wryly amused by the Opposition's sudden conversion to localism. As someone who spent many years trying to make a local council function for its communities in the face of unrelenting central diktats from the then Government, I hope that I will be forgiven my wry smile. What a localism we now see. According to the Opposition, local authorities should be able to decide whether to have any, some or no new housing in their area, and everyone else can go hang. The centre will hand the money out and shut up, and there will be a string of right-wing local soviets across the country.
It is vital that we understand the proper relationship between the centre and the local. It must be one of spheres of, for example, national or regional responsibility for some framework decisions, and full trust in local government for other decisions. It must be a framework, not the mess suggested by the Opposition's plans—and the two Bills will add up to such a framework.
There is a further consequence. Sooner or later, the centre will need to look at itself as the changes kick in. Let us look at the centre from the other end of the telescope, for example. Responsibility for local government and the presence of the state at local level is dissipated among a number of ministries, one of which—the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister—has some influence, but by no means a decisive influence. Education is in the hands of the Department for Education and Skills, which also oversees the unelected bodies providing for training and lifelong learning through the local learning and skills councils. Yet the local leader of the council will speak on education, along with his or her chair of education.
Social services matters will also rank highly in the letters that the leader of a council receives. To obtain redress for the concerns raised in those letters, he or she must write not to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister but to the Department of Health. There is also the often vexed question of who collects the rubbish and what is done with it. Surely that is a very local issue, so is it not one that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister should discuss with the local authorities? No. This time the route of dialogue is with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Of course, the rubbish bins in a block of flats might have been set alight by local hooligans, who might need a form of community remedy to require them to desist from such activity, and to occupy their time more positively. Is that a matter for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister? No. This time it is a matter for the Home Office.
Local roads may need new signs to help the community to get about, and this time, it is a matter for the Department of Transport. Local people may be concerned by the way in which local elections work and how they might help community involvement and communication. The obvious port of call in such cases is the Lord Chancellor's Department. However, in the recently published consultation paper on the way in which local government should be funded—and, if the enabling and supporting role is to be made real, how communities will be supported—the appearance is that everything is the responsibility of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. However, in reality, such a document has to be negotiated between four or five Departments—even if the Treasury's keen interest in the overall shape of the outcome is to be discounted for the moment. XNegotiated" might be a kind word to use, because the position of those Departments vis-a-vis local services and communities can amount almost to a veto.
This state of affairs illustrates, as other ways of describing the situation could not, that there is an urgent need for the centre eventually to address its relationship with the local if we are to make anything like a reality of the new form of the centre-local relationships. Such a fractured system not only serves to dissipate and confuse the efforts of local communities and their elected representatives to work locally in a consistent manner, but seriously compromises the idea of anyone being seen to be accountable for what happens locally, and of communities being provided with straight answers when questions are asked. Now, it simply seems that the Department nominally responsible for local government is actually responsible for it.
The Bill will help us down the road to recovery in the tortuous relationship between the centre and the local, and will go a long way towards building trust and confidence in that relationship. However, in the words of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, there is a lot done, and a lot more to do.
I wish to speak about the rural economy, and in particular about the developing jobs crisis in the oil and fishing industries in Scotland. I am delighted that the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who is the Minister responsible for fishing, has returned to listen to my remarks from the biodiversity conference in Rio, where he has been toiling on our behalf, and at our expense.
The indifference that the Queen's Speech shows to the major issues that I wish to raise reflects the indifference of the Prime Minister to the serious jobs crisis developing in Scotland. Tens of thousands of livelihoods are now at stake.
First, however, I want to deal with the incredible speech by David Davis. For the benefit of those fortunate enough not to have listened to it, let me set out what he said. He argued that London and Scotland have high unemployment and low growth because they have an Assembly and a Parliament respectively. The same logic applies to saying, XThe cat sat on the mat, and as that animal sits on the mat, that animal must be a cat." It is, of course, total and utter nonsense.
The London Assembly and the Scottish Parliament have been in existence for three years. No economist in the world—whether Austrian school, Keynesian, left-wing, right-wing or somewhere in the middle—would attribute an impact on economic growth over three years to anything other than one of three things: fiscal policy, interest rate policy or exchange rate policy. Over a generation—or 10 years, perhaps—education, the labour market or the micro-economy might have an influence, but over three years, the factors would have to be interest rate policy, exchange rate policy or fiscal policy. Where are those three things controlled? Here. They are not controlled in the London Assembly, the Scots Parliament or the Welsh Assembly.
When the leader of the Conservative party was elected, I thought that the Conservatives had gone a long way towards reaching the bottom, certainly as far their ability to communicate was concerned. I now see that they had a lucky escape. Indeed, although the former leader of the Conservative party described himself as an elder statesman, on the evidence of other speeches, he should be the coming man—the young hopeful. He told me a few minutes ago that he was coming back; for a second I thought he meant to the Front Bench, but he meant to his seat at the back. The Conservative party is not going in the right direction if the speech by the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden is anything to go by.
As for the developing crisis in the rural economy in Scotland, the crisis in oil jobs was manufactured in Downing street. I do not know whether No. 10 or No. 11 was responsible, but the oil industry in Scotland was looking forward to a substantial period of prosperity at the start of the year, until the tax change in the Budget. Even if we did not expect a boom, we went from expecting a period of sustained expansion to the drilling of a mere 12—one dozen—exploration wells in the North sea this year. That is the lowest total on record—less than half of last year's total, which itself was not a great year. The fundamental reason for that is the change in attitude and confidence as a result of misguided tax changes in the Budget.
I did not mind the Government trying to reap some of the enormous assets that the harvesters of the North sea were themselves reaping. But if that is the strategy and the policy, there has to be a way to reward the new investors that we want to take over the assets and make the investments that the bigger established companies are not keen to make. I do not take sides with BP or Lord Browne when he argues about the Government's lack of consultation. Lord Browne's company does not consult local communities when it takes dire decisions that affect them, such as those made in my community recently and in the communities of other hon. Members.
I want a coherent strategy for keeping the North sea show on the road and maintaining the tens of thousands of jobs that depend on it. If it can be argued that it is necessary to tax companies such as BP and Shell, which have grown rich on the back of North sea resources, it can also be argued that it is necessary to give the new incoming companies an opportunity to take over investments, and make the investments required to ensure the future of the North sea oil industry.
Let me mention two or three ways of doing that. The North sea acreage is held by a few companies. Unless that acreage is relinquished to companies that are prepared to invest, nothing substantial will be achieved. Companies must use it or lose it. We must make it possible for people to invest in fields that other companies want to abandon. I spoke to the company that has taken over the Argyll field, which was abandoned. It has invested in that field, which has a new lifecycle and a new name. The company told me that that was the 12th proposition it had made to a major company before any company would accept the idea. It should be part of the procedure for any company that wants to abandon a field to offer it to the marketplace three years beforehand, to see whether anyone wants to take it over.
There should be an insurance system against abandonment. The new smaller companies cannot carry the same insurance liabilities as the older companies, which are not investing. The money that we give back to companies as a royalty rebate should be attached to future investment plans. Otherwise, the Government will end up giving back money to companies that will promptly spend it in west Africa or the Gulf.
In addition, we need to get rid of the ridiculous situation that allows some North sea infrastructure assets and pipelines to be taxed at more than 70 per cent. Some are taxed at 40 per cent., and if a company takes gas to Zeebrugge in Belgium and then transports it over the interconnector, it will be taxed another 30 per cent. That is ridiculous. We need a coherent strategy, because thousands of jobs are at stake.
Her Majesty's Government have been the biggest harvester of all in the North sea. They have reaped #150 billion, which is #30,000 for every man, woman and child in Scotland. Those on the Conservative Front Bench should remember that next time they whine about Scottish public spending levels.
A crisis is enveloping my constituency and those of many other hon. Members around the coastline of Scotland. The town of Fraserburgh has a 55 per cent. employment dependency on fishing. That means not just the people who catch or process fish. It covers all the jobs in the harbours, including electricians, plumbers, joiners, and those who work in ice factories. In Annan, the dependency is more than 30 per cent. In Oban, Kirkcudbright, Banff, Newton Stewart, Skye, Ullapool, the Western isles, Campbeltown, Argyll, Keith, Buckie, Berwickshire, the Shetland isles and Peterhead, which is also in my constituency, there is a dependency of 10 per cent. or much more. All those communities around Scotland face utter devastation in a crisis that, if it was not manufactured by the European Commission, is being made a great deal worse by it.
It is extraordinary that any reputable group of scientists should propose that it is all right to take a million tonnes of sand eels out of the North sea, including a 50,000 tonne by-catch of quality fish, by fishing with a tiny mesh, while simultaneously proposing that there should be no fishing for human consumption in the same waters. I am sure the Minister will understand that, because he has often stood at the Dispatch Box to argue against industrial fishing in the North sea. The proposition is incredible. I want the Prime Minister to give priority to the fishing issue. If President Chirac faced the same crisis in the French fishing industry, he would bang the phones, making sure he mobilised European concerns.
We need the Prime Minister to give priority to the issue. He will bang the phones for George W. Bush to deal with an international crisis. We want him to do the same thing for the fishing industry in Scotland, Northern Ireland and around the coastline. He should make it a priority, so that we no longer face the indifference of the highest office in the land.
The Communications Bill is necessary. There is no doubt about that, because technology has moved on. Digital television and satellite mean that we need to change our practices, which is fine, although I am worried at the prospect of Channel 5 being purchased by, for example, Rupert Murdoch. That in itself might not seem a problem, but I am concerned about the future of ITV. Some people may say that that reflects normal competition, but I am sure that hon. Members need no reminding of the fact that ITV has to provide regional broadcasting. Channel 4 and Channel 5 do not have to do that. There is no doubt that a system in which a successful Channel 5 took revenue from ITV might cause the collapse of regional broadcasting.
The area that I represent is covered by Border Television. We have very good regional television, so I hope that, when we come to the details of the Communications Bill, we will accept the need for some safeguarding of regional television. We should either say that international companies cannot buy Channel 5, for example, or require by mandate that those companies provide regional broadcasting. I hope that that point is not lost on the Minister.
The Community Care (Delayed Discharges etc.) Bill is excellent and long overdue. I have been banging my head against a brick wall with regard to Cumbria county council for a while. I am not saying that just because a Conservative-Liberal alliance runs it, because similar problems have arisen in the past. Last week, at my local hospital, the Cumberland infirmary, there were 34 delayed discharges, the vast majority of them due to the fact that social services were not providing the resources to get people out of hospital and into nursing care or back home. That same hospital is cancelling operations because of a shortage of beds. I am sure that throughout the country social services look on someone staying in hospital for an extra fortnight as #400 a week saved. The expense goes on the NHS bill, not the social services bill. There is very little regard for the individuals who are imprisoned in hospital, but the practice saves money.
Last year, the Government made a lot more extra money available to local authorities to help to get people out of hospital, and that worked for a while. If the searchlight is turned on social services departments, they will respond, but as soon as that searchlight is moved, we are back to the bad old days. Given that nursing home owners in my constituency are telling me that they have vacancies and are in danger of going bankrupt while some of my constituents are imprisoned in hospital and others are having their operations cancelled because of the shortage of beds, something has to be done. The Government are completely right about that, and the sooner the Bill is introduced the better. I accept that more intermediate care beds might have to be provided; I do not think that that is an issue.
I see no advantage to my constituents in the proposal for foundation hospitals. Our problem in what we call north Cumbria is that, of necessity, we have two different district general hospitals. They are 40 miles apart; one is in the Copeland constituency and one is in mine. There are not adequate resources for both hospitals. We need extra money because we need those two hospitals. Foundation hospitals will do nothing for my constituents, and I will find it very difficult going through the Lobby to vote with the Government on that.
I come to the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill. I am in favour of regional assemblies; they are long overdue. I disagree with the Government about which region north Cumbria should be in. I strongly believe that we belong with the northern region. There is no argument about that; I am quite sure that that is the case. None the less, we hear comments such as, XThere's no point in debating this because the Deputy Prime Minister has said that we are in the north-west." The boundary commission is to look at local government reorganisation. Why does it not take into account the views of people in the area? Then, if it is decided that we fall into the north-west region, fine. If that route is not taken, we will still have some disagreement.
I worry about the fact that we will have to reorganise local government if regional assemblies are established. I say as a former chairman of Cumbria county council that we have been crying out for local government reorganisation regardless of regional assemblies. The two-tier system is not working any more. Representatives of senior businesses in my constituency are angry about the red tape. They tell me, XThe county council does this, but the district council does that." We need reorganisation of local government regardless of regional government, and we need a unitary authority.
It is nonsense for the Government to tell people, XVote in a referendum for regional government and we'll get rid of your county council." My hon. Friend Mr. Steinberg is present. The argument in Durham is about whether to preserve the county council, not about whether to have regional government. I hope that the Government will reconsider and decide that local government should be reorganised to form a single tier.
I agree with a great deal of what my hon. Friend is saying, but is not the argument about regional government an argument about quality? Would not north-west regional government be more palatable to the people of Carlisle if they felt that their region would be able to engage the whole of the north-west rather than being dominated by areas to the south?
My hon. Friend is wrong. I have nothing against the north-west region; my family originate from there. It just so happens, however, that the people from north Cumbria have always gone down the Tyne valley and never over Shap. Historically, that is where we should be.
I am delighted that we are to have a Bill on hunting. As long as we can amend the Bill, I see no objection to it. I know that it will be argued in my area that fell paths should be retained, but in those areas they breed foxes to hunt, so it is not a matter of pest control.
Is my hon. Friend not a little disappointed, as I am, that the Government have not had the guts to put to the House the abolition of hunting with hounds, rather than the proposed gimmick of licensing or whatever?
I understand my hon. Friend's frustration, but we should not prejudge the Government. They have not come forward with a Bill at all yet. Perhaps they will surprise us—although perhaps not.
The antisocial behaviour Bill will also be greeted with tremendous enthusiasm in my constituency. We must consider air weapons and fireworks, as both create considerable problems throughout the country. Recently, four swans were killed on the River Eden by somebody with an air weapon. The firework season now starts in September and goes well into January. Air weapons and fireworks have become far more powerful than they were when I was young. If we do not get legislation right this time and stop the antisocial behaviour of some, we will have to put the banning of fireworks and air weapons in the next Queen's Speech.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the risk of abuse of fireworks and air weapons. Does he concede that the Government should look into the sale of BB guns, as a large number of injuries have been reported recently in my constituency resulting from the misuse of such so-called toys, which are sold to very young children?
New technology has taken over from the old spud gun that I remember well.
The antisocial behaviour Bill will be excellent. My concern is that the police might not implement the law. In October, I wrote to my local police force pointing out that it is of course illegal to throw fireworks in the street. It is illegal to let them off in a public place. I accept the police's argument that the law is difficult to implement, but I want a clear law—if people misuse fireworks they should be brought to court or, even better perhaps, subject to a fixed fine. Without doubt, my elderly constituents are worried. I recently received a letter from a lady with a guide dog. She was concerned that she could not leave the house because the guide dog was terrified. I received—
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is a great privilege to speak in this debate on the Queen's Speech, particularly given the quality of the contributions.
Like Mrs. Dunwoody, I very much welcome the transport safety Bill. I commute into London from my constituency in common with many of my constituents, who travel from Leighton Buzzard station or elsewhere and will certainly welcome the Bill. Part 2 of the Bill may cover certain aspects of transport safety, but I am anxious that there is no mention at all of safety measures covering car drivers using mobile phones. I was a signatory to early-day motion 1108, which was signed by 128 Members. Our early-day motion stated that 17 deaths have been caused by drivers using mobile phones. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents says that using a mobile phone while driving is at least as dangerous as being over the limit. I therefore hope that the Government will consider including that in part 2.
May I ease the hon. Gentleman's concerns? The consultation document out at the moment points out that primary legislation is not required, as secondary legislation could cater for the problem if the consultation points to the need for action.
I am grateful to the Minister. I am sure that many hon. Members will look to the Government to make sure that that happens.
It is the Opposition's function to point out urgent problems that have not been addressed in the Queen's Speech. The Government tell us that they are pro-business, but many businesses in my constituency have been badly affected or put out of business completely by the actions of the local highways authority and the Highways Agency. There have been roadworks in North street in Leighton Buzzard and in the High street in Houghton Regis. They are currently creating a severe problem in the High street in Dunstable. So far, two businesses have been bankrupted following works by the Highways Agency and, only weeks before Christmas, members of staff, many with children, have been laid off. Other affected businesses say that their weekly takings are down by #1,800 #3,300 and #4,500 respectively. The Highways Agency told us that the roadworks would take 14 weeks, but so far they have taken 23 weeks and will extend into the Christmas period.
Like other hon. Members with similar problems in their constituencies, I am concerned that the highways authority and the Highways Agency are not liable for the loss of business in the locality. There is an inconsistency: under the Water Act 1989, compensation can be paid; under the Gas Act 1986, in which a time limit is specified for roadworks, compensation can be paid; and the same is true of the Land Compensation Act 1973. At the very least, we need an assessment of the impact on businesses of roadworks that can put traders out of business. In my constituency, for example, pubs have not been able to get deliveries of beer. Penalty clauses apply to contractors and only benefit the Highways Agency—they should also benefit affected traders. There is a good case for a reduction in business rates where an independent audit clearly shows that businesses are thousands of pounds a week down. I am sure that many hon. Members will have come across similar problems created by major roadworks in their constituencies.
I want an end to the linkage of funds for urgent non-controversial works such as road repairs and basic environmental improvements to the local area's acceptance of other transport spending which is unwelcome, unwanted or extremely controversial. That undermines local democracy—councillors may have stood for election opposing certain schemes only to be told that their area could be denied millions of pounds for desperately needed road improvements unless they accept that funding. In my constituency, for example, the Translink scheme, a light busway between Luton and Dunstable, is bitterly opposed by many people and Dunstable town council. However, we were told that if we did not vote for it locally my constituency would be denied a lot of money.
We have been told that unless we accept the Xgreen wave" works on the A5 through Dunstable, which are putting many traders in my constituency out of business, the much needed bypass to the north of Dunstable and Houghton Regis could be endangered by the Government. That shows no respect for local people—there are no grounds for that linkage of funds, and each case should be judged on its own merits.
As for planning, the removal of county structure plans will create a serious democrat deficit in regions that do not vote for regional assemblies. I listened carefully to the answer that the Deputy Prime Minister gave one of my colleagues, but I was not enlightened. The eastern region, of which my constituency is part, is the least likely in the United Kingdom to vote for a regional assembly. If the county structure plan, for which there is at least accountability through county councillors, is taken away, the regional development agency or some other body in Cambridge will assess our needs through regional spatial strategies—my constituents will not regard that at all favourably. I should be grateful for an assurance that the people of my region will not be blackmailed and told that they will be denied funds unless they vote for a regional assembly, as that would be extremely underhand.
A major review of airport capacity is taking place throughout the country. It is extremely important to acknowledge the quality of life of people who live close to airports. My constituency is much affected by aircraft traffic from Luton airport—it is the dominant issue for people in Studham, Whipsnade and Kensworth. Luton airport currently deals with 6 million passengers a year but under the proposals, that figure could be increased to 31 million—a huge expansion. I have severe doubts that our transport could cope with that, as the area is already extremely congested. The M1 is regularly blocked and the promised rail improvements have not materialised, so there are great concerns. There are also specific concerns about Luton, as it is not a designated airport, so is subject to lighter regulation, especially of night flights.
The local airport consultative committees are completely unable to influence anything that airports do. That is an affront to local people. The committee is the one body through which they can take the airport to task, yet it is not listened to. We need to give airport consultative committees considerably more teeth to do the job that local people want them to do. We need independent, unannounced audits of the environmental impact of airports if the monitoring of airport noise and nuisance is to be credible. European directive 2002/30 dealing with airport noise seems to continue the distinction between designated and non-designated airports, which is a great concern to people who live in the area around non-designated airports.
I welcome most of the measures in the Queen's Speech. I begin by drawing attention to the antisocial behaviour provisions. Earlier this year, I called on the House to toughen the legislation in that respect. It is one of the most difficult problems with which hon. Members have to deal in their constituencies, and the extra powers that the police and local authorities are to be given should be warmly welcomed.
I echo the remarks of my hon. Friend Mr. Martlew about the problem of fireworks as one aspect of antisocial behaviour. I have had more letters on that subject this year than ever before. It seems to be becoming a much bigger issue. A total ban on the sale of fireworks to the general public would cause difficulties—there is always the danger of creating a black market—but we must legislate to restrict the sale of fireworks to certain times of the year, probably to allow only designated retailers to sell them, and to stop the sale of the largest and loudest fireworks. We should also roll out the pilot scheme currently under way in four police authorities, with on-the-spot fines for the improper use of fireworks in public places.
I shall spend the rest of the short time available to me considering the proposals for local government, planning and housing. We should not overestimate the total effect of the proposed local government Bill. I welcome many aspects of it, but the idea that it will completely change the balance between central and local government is an overestimate, which does not do it credit. There are some worthwhile measures in the Bill. It is a series of small steps in the right direction.
I welcome the introduction of prudential guidelines for local authority borrowing. I and others in local government, as I used to be before I came to this place, argued for that 20 years ago. I never thought that any Government would have the courage to do that, and I am pleased that it is a Labour Government who are doing it.
I welcome the proposals to free up local authorities' ability to trade. Of course, they should not be subsidised in that trading to do down firms in the private sector, but when a local authority goes in to install central heating in five local authority homes in a block of flats, the fact that it cannot also put central heating in for an owner-occupier there who may want that service, because that would count as trading, has always been nonsense. The measure in the Bill will allow such a problem to be sorted out. I welcome the changes to council tax benefits, as a response to the Xdaylight robbery" campaign. They are good and positive proposals, as well.
I welcome the review of the overall balance of funding between what local authorities can raise for themselves and what they get from central Government. That is the key issue. We will not have true local democracy and proper local government freedom until we alter that balance substantially. The fact that local authorities can raise only 25 per cent. of what they spend from local sources is a real constraint on that freedom, and the problems of gearing are well documented and well known.
I must say to my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench that the fact that the Government have ruled out the transfer of the business rate back to local authorities puts them in a very difficult position. I am not sure what other big idea is around to significantly shift that 25 per cent. of funding controlled by local authorities up towards 50 per cent. or more. Without the transfer of the business rate, I do not know how that will be achieved, but I look forward to the outcome of the review.
During this Parliament, we will see a change to the way in which the resources that come from central Government to local government are distributed. I shall make one brief comment on that. Some of us feel that the area cost adjustment has been extremely unfair and has discriminated against our local authorities for many years. I say to the Government that we are not against the principle, and recognise that in some parts of the country local authorities must pay more for staff because of local market conditions. I am quite prepared for an element of grant to be paid to authorities in the south-east to reflect the fact that they have to pay more for certain public sector workers. That is fair enough.
What I do not accept, and what I have not heard a justification for, is the idea that that area cost adjustment should reflect pay levels in the private sector, which have nothing at all to do with local authority responsibilities or costs. The fact that chief executives in London are paid a lot more than chief executives in Sheffield—I am speaking of the private sector—is no reason for London authorities to get extra grant to reflect that, because it is not a real cost for them.
Does my hon. Friend accept that although there is a justification for an increased level of grant within certain parameters for the south-east, to reward the people of Hertfordshire with a standard spending assessment that gives them 13 or 14 per cent. more per school pupil than the people of Leicestershire, which is right at the bottom of the county league table, is probably excessive?
I well understand those problems, and we can draw similar comparisons between northern authorities. Clearly, there are particular elements of any change that I would want to examine closely, such as the area cost adjustment. Overall, a comparison must be made between the amount of grant that children in neighbouring and similar authorities get from central Government for their education. That must be seen to be fair and reasonable in order to convince the public, who do not understand the arcane intricacies of the grant system, that they are getting a fair deal in their own local authority.
I strongly agree with the hon. Gentleman's analysis. Does he accept that about 85 per cent. of the budget of the average school goes in teachers pay, that teachers pay is set nationally, and that outside London, that pay is likely to be equivalent, whether we are talking about the south-east, his area or mine in Cornwall?
I understand that issue very well. I come back to the point that any grant to reflect the extra amounts that particular authorities have to pay should be based on the realities of the situation, not on some general and philosophical formula that does not relate to the real costs that local authorities face.
On the planning proposals, I welcome many aspects of the planning Green Paper and the Government's response to the Select Committee's investigation. We need more resources to speed up the planning process. The fact that local authorities are dealing with the same number of applications as they were five or 10 years ago with fewer staff is a credit to them. They need more resources, and the Government will provide them. As well as quicker planning decisions, we need better planning decisions. I therefore welcome the proposals to improve pre-application consultation and to issue proper guidelines for consultation. The days when notices were stuck 30 ft up a telegraph pole should be at an end.
I welcome the proposal that the length of time for which a planning permission is valid should be cut from five years to three years, in general. I also agree that planning consents should not automatically be renewed, so that when planning guidance is changed, extant planning permissions do not undermine its effect for years to come.
My one worry is still the local development framework, and whether it will really be clearer and simpler to understand and allow quicker decisions than the unitary development plan system. The development plan system has been implemented far too slowly. Government could have insisted that it be speeded up. My worry is that if we replace a plan—a physical document indicating what development will be allowed on what sites in a particular area—with numerous written criteria and with some plans for development areas, some for conservation areas, some for greenbelt areas and some for proposed housing schemes, and that lot must be put together, I am not sure that the lack of an overall, written, laid down plan which the public and developers can see will lead to any greater certainty. In fact, it might lead to more confusion.
I know that the Government have said that under the new local development framework arrangements, authorities will be able to draw up a whole plan for their area, but they will not be compelled to do so. The certainty of having a plan is better for developers and for communities, who can see what sites in their area might be used for in the future. I am sure that we will return to the matter when we discuss the proposal in more detail.
Finally, on housing, I welcome the proposals for the draft Bills. For years, some of us have argued strongly for an end to the squalor and appalling conditions of many people living in houses in multiple occupation. It is right that we should have a proper system of control. I look forward to those proposals, and also to the proposals to license landlords in the private sector in areas of housing need, where there are real housing problems.
Let me raise a matter mentioned by the Deputy Prime Minister. I welcome the Government's commitment to decent homes standards in council housing, but they must find resources to ensure that those standards are met irrespective of whether tenants vote for stock transfer. Tenants in Sheffield are bitterly opposed to it, and the proposed scheme did not meet the Government's requirements and did not add up financially anyway; but we must find resources enabling tenants who want their homes to remain in council ownership to have the same rights as those who vote for stock transfer. That is very important to my constituents.
I look forward to the hunting Bill, although I am sorry to learn that the Government may introduce a licensing system. I will not vote to license hunts so that every time a fox is torn apart by a pack of hounds, that happens with the approval of Members of Parliament. I have always voted for a complete ban, and I look forward to doing so again in the near future. I trust that the will of the House will prevail.
It is an honour to follow the many illustrious Members who have spoken. Although I cannot manage without notes I will not be reading my speech, because my writing, like that of many members of my profession, is not particularly legible.
I could not attend the health day debate because, along with other Members, I was visiting the north of England, so I shall devote some of my precious time to health issues. First, however—at the risk of sounding a fearfully discordant note on both sides of the House—I want to say a word about hunting. My constituency, which is split between a rural area and several urban areas, contains three groups: those who are ardently in favour of hunting, those who are ardently against it, and what I consider to be the large majority who wonder what the fuss is all about. I cannot summarise that better than by quoting a columnist who recently described the hunting Bill, in one of the broadsheets, as
Xan illiberal interference with other people's weird pleasures that will waste political energy".
I think everyone will welcome the establishment of the railway accident investigation branch, but my constituents will want more. They will want measures to improve railway services. When I travel down to London, it is very common for one or other train to be delayed, and the excuses given are farcical—congestion, for instance, on a line that is lucky to carry two trains a day. Surely the Government could do something about at least one cause of delay. It is inexcusable not to provide a spare guard or driver in order to prevent trains from being delayed owing to the lack of a crew member: that should be illegal.
Few people in my part of north-west Worcestershire support the development of regional governance. I remind the Government of what was said by Lord Falkland, a loyal royalist who tried to moderate Charles I—obviously without much success—and whom I consider to have originated the saying XIf it ain't broke don't fix it". What he actually said was
XWhen it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change."
Raising the subject of local government allows me to turn to that of health. I feel that only one part of the system is being blamed for the imposition of charges on social services departments for delayed discharges. The national health service may be at fault, and indeed is at fault on many occasions. I know of an 81-year-old lady who went into hospital. Although her treatment finished after five days, she was in hospital for three weeks and two days because no effort was made to engage in discharge planning. I could also give examples of inappropriate admissions that could have been avoided. Patients themselves have wondered why they have been kept in hospital. The situation has not been helped by inappropriate hospital reconfigurations, and I think that the failure to develop intermediate care services is the fault of the NHS rather than that of social services departments. The charges drive a wedge between social services and health departments, which are bound to compete in passing charges from one side to the other. We should be aiming for closer partnerships.
Let me make two general points about the NHS. First, like most people, I support the Government's extra funding coupled with reforms, but I do not think it profitable for the Government to dwell on the official Opposition's failure to support extra health spending. That, in my view, has devalued questions to the Prime Minister and other Ministers. Secondly, the public know that vast sums are being poured into the NHS and are tremendously pleased about it, but they expect instant improvement. Last week, the Secretary of State himself said
Xalthough there is progress, there is a long way to go."—[Hansard, 14 November 2002; Vol. 394, c. 167.]
I wish, in a way, that he had been even more open, admitted to the huge deficit mentioned in the Wanless report, and conceded that initially extra money would be devoted to paying existing debts.
My local primary care trust is battling to manage debts and elements of inflation—in particular, a 15 per cent. rise in prescribing costs. By the end of the current financial year, the three primary care trusts in my county will have a deficit of some #8 million. That is a relatively small proportion of their total budget, but when primary care trusts—as health authorities were—are already being violently squeezed by economies, it is impossible for them to produce the improvements that people expect. I would have liked the Government to explain that money is being spent, that the backlog is being attacked, but that there will not be improvements just yet.
The nationwide debt arouses several suspicions. There is, for instance, the suspicion that extra sums that should have been earmarked for such purposes as the cancer plan are simply being swallowed up by debt. There is the suspicion that emphases on national service framework are penalising conditions to which no such framework applies. There is the suspicion that drugs and treatments approved by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence are leading to a reduction in resources for other well-established, standard treatments.
I will not mention all the aspects of foundation hospitals that worry Members who fear that they will turn the NHS into a two-tier system, because they have been emphasised enough already. It is too early to be over-critical of the proposals, because we are waiting for a detailed prospectus. I welcomed devolution to primary care trusts, so in principle I welcome the devolution of powers to local people, allowing them to own and manage their hospitals; but a criticism of which we have not heard much so far is that foundation hospitals could well drive a wedge between primary and secondary care.
My criticism of primary care trusts is that there is relatively little consultant input; my criticism of foundation hospitals is that there is likely to be very little GP input. I would have liked to think that hospitals and primary care could be welded together somehow, as that would enable more treatments to take place in primary care and fewer in hospitals.
Another fear about foundation hospitals that has not been properly addressed concerns emergency care. It will be easy for foundation hospitals to cope with elective work. Will they also be able to cope—
I welcome much of what is in the Queen's Speech, in particular the opportunity that it gives us finally to decide on hunting with dogs. That issue has dragged on for far too long. Many Labour Members at least will welcome that opportunity.
I want to address my remarks to regional government and local government and the Bills on those. I particularly welcome the opportunity that people throughout the country will have to vote on regional government. Our country is diverse: it has many different cultures, needs and resources. One needs to consider only one aspect, housing, and compare the north-west with the south-east to see how diverse the cultures and needs of two regions can be. Far too much of the governing of this country is centrally controlled, with Whitehall, which in effect means civil servants, taking decisions that should be taken at a much more local level.
Opposition Members who oppose that have tried to portray the issue as being about local identity. That is nonsense. It is not about local identity—the people of Scotland and the people of Wales had clear identities long before they had their Parliament and Assembly. It is about a constitutional settlement and about bringing the governing and governance of our country much closer to people in their particular regions.
Government offices were set up by the Conservative party when it was in power. I went to the Government office for the north-east when I was on the Public Administration Committee. The offices do an excellent job but see themselves as representing the Government in the regions, not as the region's voice in Government. They see themselves as being answerable to Whitehall and central Government, not to the people in the regions whom they are meant to serve.
The offices are not accountable to those regional bodies. They make decisions about resources and where they will go in the regions, yet the people in the regions cannot hold them to account; the democratic ability to achieve accountability is not there. Regional government is important.
When England play football, my constituents cheer them and I am sure the hon. Gentleman's constituents do, because we are English; there is a bond there—rather more of a bond than most of my constituents feel for the south-west or, I suspect, some of his constituents feel for the north-west.
I am not sure what that means. We do not have a north-west football team or a south-west football team, but when Lancashire plays Yorkshire in rugby league the people of Lancashire and the north-west support the red jerseys of Lancashire, as opposed to the white jerseys of Yorkshire. There is that regional identity in rugby league. Of course, Lancashire always wins, which is even better.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned that civil servants were not the region's voice in Government, but what does he think Members of Parliament are elected to be; and does he not think that civil servants are accountable—they are accountable to their Ministers and then Ministers are accountable to the House?
The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point. I remember having to go to speak to the Minister for Transport about an important issue in my constituency: a sub-regional road that I said should be built. I had to explain to him in great detail what that was all about. That kind of detail would not have had to be explained if the person responsible were a member of a regional assembly, because he would be aware of what was happening in the region and able to make those decisions by consulting not a Whitehall civil servant but a north-west civil servant.
That is what we are talking about when we talk about regional government. It is about ensuring that the democratic accountability of the civil service is much closer to the people and the decisions that are necessary for communities in the regions. It is important that we understand that what we are talking about here is not a new level of democracy and a new tier of government but replacing the counties with government in the regions and making the existing bureaucracy accountable through the democratic process. Whitehall is inflexible. Being hidebound, it has difficulty meeting the needs of local and regional communities. That is why it is important that we have regional government.
I am sure that the referendums will be successful in the north-west, as they will be in the north-east, with possibly Yorkshire and the west midlands following shortly after, but I am a little concerned about some of the phrasing that I have heard: that we will get the Bill Xwhen parliamentary time allows". It is essential that the two follow one another very quickly: that after Ministers have passed the Act to set up the referendums, it will be followed very quickly by the Act to set up the regional assemblies.
I was pleased that the Deputy Prime Minister made it clear that what we are talking about is ensuring that there is a transfer of powers from central Government to regional government, not a transfer up from local government. That is an essential part of the proposals. It is about devolved powers from the centre to the regions and ensuring that accountability is at the lowest possible local level.
I turn to the second Bill. Criticisms have, rightly, been made that its proposals are timid. That needs to be addressed. I hope that the Bill will include provision for a statutory instrument to transfer further powers down. I understand why the Government are a little wary of passing too many powers straight away. They want to ensure that regional government is successful, properly accountable, effective and efficient, but once regional government has proven that it is, I hope that some form a statutory instrument will allow further powers to be passed down, where appropriate—in tertiary education, strategic health, regional transport and so on—without further primary legislation.
I welcome the powers that will be extended to local government by the Local Government Bill. Revaluation was promised; it is important that we have that. If local government is to be successful, it must have a buoyant tax base. I suggest that having a 10-year revaluation would not be not appropriate. I ask the Government to consider having an interim five-year regional percentage increase in the tax bands, and a proper revaluation every 10 years, so that we can iron out the anomalies.
One of the problems is that a millionaire living in a mansion will pay only three times more council tax than someone living in a #30,000 terraced house. That is ridiculous.
Would the hon. Gentleman reach the conclusion that council tax should be abolished and replaced by a local income tax, which is a progressive tax based on the ability to pay, such as applies nationally?
If I went down that road, a whole new debate would open up, so I say merely that I do not agree that an income tax for local government should be introduced. It may be an interesting issue for regional government but not for local government.
As my hon. Friend Mr. Love said from a sedentary position earlier, we should widen tax bands much more greatly. One of the other things that we need to examine closely is the weighting that is attached to each of the individual bands. As I have said, there is only three times the difference between the lowest and the highest council tax, which cannot be right.
One of the criticisms that was rightly made about the rateable value system was that it was grossly unfair. If we do not take the opportunity of examining both widening the bands and changing the weighting within those bands, the council tax system will be seen as being more and more unfair.
When the Government look at the local government Bill, I hope that they will take the opportunity to ensure that they do not merely revalue the existing bands, but that they widen them and tackle the weighting problem. If they can do that, along with giving local government wider powers and a greater ability to trade and to raise charges, it will be the better for it. I welcome those proposals, along with those relating to regional government. If we can implement them, we will have a better overall system of government.
This is a welcome opportunity to talk about some of the issues that have arisen from the Gracious Speech, and some which are missing. I am sorry that a Minister from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is not here this evening, because the Gracious Speech does include environmental legislation such as the water Bill and the waste emissions trading Bill. The water Bill has been a long time coming. Its aim—to manage the abstraction of water—is very welcome. Some 152 wildlife sites of national importance in England could be damaged by water abstraction, and we need to recognise the importance of our wetland heritage.
The proposals could have gone much further, however. On this occasion, I agree with Mr. Hague that nothing has been included to address flood management and prevention. A Bill that included such measures—along with marine habitats legislation, which was lost at the end of the previous Session—could have provided a comprehensive approach to water management and river basin management. Responsibility could have been allocated, so that we could tighten up our handling of this important problem.
There is nothing wrong with the concept of the waste and emissions trading Bill, but the Government rushed it through the Lords last week, even though we are expecting an imminent announcement on waste from the strategy unit. It would be much better to examine that legislation in the context of the strategy unit's comments, rather than picking off a single aspect of waste management. We need to understand what is happening.
I welcome, however, the proposals on waste trading that deal with the question of biodegradable municipal waste that is sent to landfills. As recently as last week, when efforts were made in Guildford to separate garden waste at source for recycling, rather than sending it to landfill, Conservatives said, XNo, we don't want this scheme." They would not even allow us to discuss how it might be funded. Disgracefully, they got Labour support because, for some curious reason, the Conservatives said, XWe don't want the Liberal Democrats to add that to their recycling figures." Next, they will criticise us for our recycling figures. That is the way it goes.
We also need a clear definition of what recycling rates really mean. Do they mean what we collect for recycling, or what is actually sent for recycling? So often, householders complain to us, XI fear that, in the end, what I put in my green box will be sent for landfill." We need clear standards and definitions. I hope that the Government will take the opportunity to examine the European Committee for Standardisation's draft definition of recycling, so that we can compare how we perform not only within this country, but across Europe, according to internationally agreed standards. We can go a lot further in this regard.
I turn to the problems associated with living in the south-east. Those of us who represent constituencies in the south-east often wonder why the Government have it in for us. The concept exists that we must all be fearfully rich because we live in the south-east, but that is not true of teachers, policemen, or those who work in administrative jobs in the region. Yet underpinning the proposals for Government funding in the south-east is the assumption that, for some reason, teachers do not have live in the expensive houses that we have in the region. Such an assumption would explain why we do not get decent allowances for teachers living in the south-east. Every child in the region knows what it is like to have a good teacher who moves away once they have acquired two or three years' experience. Year on year, there is a 25 per cent. churn of teachers leaving Surrey for jobs outside the county. The situation is similar with the police: officers are leaving either for cheaper areas, or for London. Yet the figures for local government funding, and for national funding for the police, ignore the fact that ours is an expensive area. The attitude is, XYou are doing badly now, but by the time we have finished with you, you'll be doing even worse." We in Surrey expect the police to be able to look after us, yet the funding will reduce policing to an unacceptable level.
On social services, as I have said before, I have never been given a satisfactory answer as to why funding for older people in Surrey is much lower than elsewhere, even though people live longer in counties such as ours. Just because people live longer, it does not mean that they are sprightly to the end of their days. They have their needs, yet funding for them is penalised. Where do the Government think that social services are going to put older people? There is constant underfunding, and the threat of fines. Social services can pay only #480 a week for a place in nursing home accommodation, yet the likely charge in Surrey will be #840 a week. There are precious few places for people. We do not want to incarcerate people in acute wards; we want them to receive appropriate care. However, the Government have done nothing to generate the care home and nursing home places that we need.
I turn to the scandal of the 49 delayed discharges at the Royal Surrey County hospital. Of those 49 delayed discharges, 17 were awaiting funding. Eleven were funded, but there was no place for them to go to. Fines will not help that situation, but a realistic approach from the Government might.
I am listening carefully to what the hon. Lady is saying. Does she accept that the guaranteed 6 per cent. real-terms increase in social services funding over the next three years will do something to address the problems that she highlights?
In fact, that 6 per cent. real-terms increase will come off the other end—through the money that goes to the county council—so we will not see all of that increase. We have been working hard within the NHS, and with social services, to invest wisely the additional Government funding that we have received: in the provision of care places, and in training people to provide care of home. With respect, that 6 per cent. will have to go a long way before it deals with the problems that I am outlining. Too much of my surgery time is taken up in dealing with these issues. It is not a question of social services failing, as has been suggested in respect of some areas; they are being run ragged trying to secure those places. They are working with the NHS, but they are not succeeding.
The Gracious Speech makes no reference to one of the saddest issues that I have to deal with. In that sense, the Speech offers no cause for hope. Last month, I had the honour of attending the official opening of Christopher's, a hospice for life-limited children from counties surrounding Guildford, and from south-west London. If it were not for the shortage of time, I could talk at length about the wonderful work that it does looking after children—and their families—at this particularly difficult, final stage, and even afterwards. The things that it achieves are truly breathtaking. Christopher's was built with lottery money and funds raised privately; it certainly was not built with any NHS money. It has to pay for services that it receives from the local primary care trust. It has a wide catchment area, and there is only a small number of children in each of the PCTs, so it does not figure at all in budget lines. When I raised that point with the then Minister earlier this year, I was told that the cause of children's hospices would be picked up by the national service framework for children. Even so, the cause of life-limited children is simply tacked on to that of children with disabilities. Their numbers are small, and they do not figure sufficiently.
Children's hospices do not expect the NHS to pick up the bill—that is the nature of the hospice movement, and children's hospices are no different. However, the cost of the necessary medical care at Chistopher's—the nurses and doctors—is about #300,000 a year. It should not be paid for by fundraising. Medical staff should be paid for through the NHS. It is a simple problem to solve and capping could be put in place. We need more Government support.
Does not the hon. Lady think that she is a little too quick to dismiss the national service framework for children when it has not yet been published? Would not it be more advisable to communicate her concerns about the issue to Professor Aynsley-Green who is preparing the framework?
I am disappointed to hear that intervention. This issue has been rumbling around for some years and has been raised by the all-party group on hospices and the Chase Children's Hospice Movement. Hospices need to plan their finances and they need to be able to budget. Despite going to see the Minister and visits with Government representatives, I am sorry to say that we have seen nothing. We thought that we might see something from the cancer cash, but fortunately, owing to improvements in cancer treatment for children, only 8 per cent. of childhood deaths are from cancer, so that will not be a source of money. The subject needs serious consideration and I look forward to the national service framework, because we need to see a commitment to the treatment and care of children in hospices.
I welcome Her Majesty's most Gracious Speech. As we have heard, its emphasis is very much on crime and antisocial behaviour. I welcome that, because every week constituents from some of the poorest parts of my constituency attend my surgery to complain about antisocial behaviour. I am particularly pleased that there will be measures to control airguns. I recognise that there are many other important measures in the speech, not least those on devolution, on which I wish to concentrate in my speech.
The Gracious Speech refers to a new Bill for health services in Wales. The Bill is significant because the Welsh Assembly proposed it. It has been debated in this House in pre-legislative form, but the ideas came from Cardiff, and that is important in constitutional terms.
The Gracious Speech promises legislation for referendums in English regions where there is deemed to be a demand for devolution. I welcome those measures because my interest in devolution goes back many years. I remember the alternative regional strategy, which was proposed in 1982 by Mr. Prescott. In the 1990s, I remember Bruce Millan, a former Secretary of State for Scotland and European Commissioner, coming up with ideas through the Labour party's regional policy commission. I recognise that the recent White Paper and the reference in the Queen's Speech is the culmination of many years' work.
As well as the debate that has been taking place in England and on a United Kingdom basis, we have also seen the fruition of debates in London, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. If devolution is good enough for Scotland and Wales, it should be good enough for the English regions. I say that because I do not believe that devolution is about nationalism; I believe that it is about democracy. Speaking as a Welsh Member, I believe that the Welsh Assembly has been a success. Some people might say that there were one or two hiccups at the beginning, but very few people now doubt the value of its existence. It has become the focal point of Welsh politics and is being seen increasingly as an example of good practice for other parts of the United Kingdom to emulate.
It is notable that both Wales and Scotland have unitary systems of local government. That seems to be the natural way forward when there are regional tiers of government. That is a logical proposal that was aired in the White Paper. We should also recognise that some hon. Members have expressed concern that devolution to the English regions might mean a loss of powers for local authorities. We should look at the evidence. That has not happened in Wales. In fact, we have seen a strong and constructive partnership between the Welsh Assembly and local authorities; they work well together.
As I have said, the rationale for devolution is democracy, but I believe that a further strong argument in favour of devolution is the economic imperative. Over the past 20 years, we have seen widening disparities between different regions of the United Kingdom. Labour Members recognise that there is a need for a strong regional policy. We do not want the type of regional policy that we have had in the past, with winning companies being picked out or benevolent civil servants deciding in London what is best for the regions. We want a regional policy that is rooted in the regions and is developed according to specific needs and specific circumstances.
We should take note of what has happened in many European regions over the past 20 years. It is no accident that some of the most prosperous and dynamic European regions have strong, proactive regional administrations.
Will the hon. Gentleman concede that sub-state legislatures across Europe and Governments tend, universally, to have more powers than either the Welsh Assembly or the Scottish Parliament? If he concedes that, will he mention one power that the Welsh Assembly or the Scottish Parliament has to end the relative economic decline of Wales and Scotland, compared to other parts of the UK?
Across Europe some legislatures have more powers and others do not. It is difficult to come up with a mechanistic formula and say that it is simply cause and effect. What we see in many European regions is a focus for their identity. We see a lever at regional level that provides a focus for the effective development of new partnerships.
The hon. Gentleman referred to European regionalisation. I am sure that he will have noticed that appendix E of the White Paper provides a number of examples, all of which demonstrate variable geography and variable geometry? He mentioned identity. To what extent does he believe that the standardised government regions properly reflect regional identities?
They do to a large extent, but it is not perfect.
The White Paper suggests that the issue will be looked at and that there will be consultation. As I understand it, nothing is cast in stone. We need a constructive debate, but at this stage it is important to establish the principle, which is absolutely sound.
France has traditionally been one of the most centralised countries in Europe, but Prime Minister Raffarin is proposing the devolution of power to the regions. Many parts of the UK draw successfully on European structural funds. The White Paper recognises that there is a need for regional intervention at European level so as to articulate the needs of specific regions. There is also a reference to the single programme document, which is an important strategic document that draws up the plans for the use of the funds in a particular area. I remind hon. Members that, since the last European election, Members of the European Parliament have been elected on a regional basis. We will therefore see greater co-ordination and a partnership between MEPs and regional authorities.
Some hon. Members may still claim that the assemblies will have few powers. I beg to disagree. My reading of the White Paper is that the new assemblies will have significant strategic powers for sustainable development, planning, transport, housing, culture and, of course and crucially, economic development strategies. The proposed assemblies might even have greater financial powers than the Welsh Assembly. It is suggested in the White Paper that regional assemblies might have the power to borrow to fund capital expenditure and for cash management purposes. The Welsh Assembly does not have those powers, so people should not dismiss the powers that the English regional assemblies may have.
Regional devolution will provide the opportunity for greater democracy and more dynamic regional economic policies and will reinforce the unity of the United Kingdom while at the same time celebrating its diversity. I hope that the Queen's Speech will receive the full support of the House, especially its proposals for regional government, which should be warmly received.
Two aspects of the Queen's Speech cause me major concern, one of which affects the whole nation and the other Northern Ireland specifically. The most depressed economic sector of our society is the farming community. I am old-fashioned: I call people farmers, not sectors of the rural economy. The farming community is going through a worse crisis, economically and personally, than any other sector of our society.
Twenty or 30 years before the price support structure of the European Union was put in place, some sectors of farming would always be doing well while others were doing badly: pigs, barley and beef would be good, but dairy would be bad. Under a more fixed farming system, fortunes went up and down. As a Member from Northern Ireland, I support the present price support system because our farming community needs it, but it is not right and it is not working. Unless the Government face up to what appears to be a continuation of the system of production-led price support cobbled together by the French and Germans, we will never have a highly profitable and successful farming industry.
It is disappointing that the Queen's Speech proposes no help for the farming industry, especially when the Government can find time for a vicious little Bill to repress a minority sporting interest—a countryside pursuit called hunting with dogs. I do not hunt, but I fish and shoot and I understand the strong personal views on hunting with hounds. The House should not consider wasting its time acting as an elected dictatorship to force through legislation to repress a minority interest. The countryside and the farming community have much more pressing needs.
The hon. Gentleman obviously knows very little about the countryside. I assume that he wishes to protect the foxes, but if the House pushes through the Bill on foxhunting, more foxes will be shot, wounded and killed by the farming community, so his objective will not be achieved.
The second aspect concerns the government of regions. I suppose that Northern Ireland is a region, although we traditionally call ourselves a province. It is disappointing that the Queen's Speech refers to the further implementation of the Belfast agreement. We do not have regional government in Northern Ireland. The powers of the 26 councils are minuscule and we do not have a form of devolution at Stormont for one reason: the Government are not prepared to introduce legislation to expel terrorist-led political parties from the executive government of Northern Ireland. The democrats are being punished. We cannot have devolution because Sinn Fein-IRA is not prepared to give up its two-pronged approach to politics—democracy during the day and terrorism and criminality at night. We all suffer. We do not have accountable local government. I hope that the regions of England will get accountable, strong local government, not some super-tier of regional government that means nothing.
The Government have, however, found time for legislation on the further reform of policing. We have had reform of policing—we had the Patten report—and sometimes reform is not reform. The Royal Ulster Constabulary, a highly respected, strong police force that dealt with terrorism and crime, was ripped apart, demoralised and reorganised for political reasons, not for sound policing reasons. Crime has increased and the threat of terrorism continues, but the Government promise us more police reform in this Session.
I hope that the elected dictatorship in this House will realise that the Unionist, law-abiding, pro-democratic parties in Northern Ireland—although we have only a small minority voice here—will not go along with reforms that bring terrorists on to the district police partnerships in the Province. If that is what the Government plan, it will be a rough Session, because the Unionists and the democratic parties in Northern Ireland will not participate in the other institutions of the agreement that still exist. If the Government can find time only for more concessions to republicanism, it says little for their respect for those of us who are trying to be democrats in Northern Ireland and who want widespread cross-community consensus with our Catholic and nationalist neighbours in an institution at Stormont that works. At present, we feel marginalised because the only people who get concessions from the Government are those who use the threat of force.
I hope that the Government will give some time to the farming community. It is not big in numbers or votes. Perhaps it does not fit in to the focus groups of new Labour, but it is an essential part of our society.
My hon. Friend mentions the farming community, but he will be aware of the serious risk to the fishing industry in Northern Ireland as a result of the severe limitations on cod fishing. Our colleagues in Scotland share our concern. Will he join me in urging the Government properly to protect the interests of the British fishing industry, especially in Scotland and Northern Ireland?
My hon. Friend is right. The white fish industry in the Irish sea catches cod and similar fish. It will be destroyed if the scientific report is implemented, as will the communities of Kilkeel, Portavogie and Ardglass, and the great fishing industry in Scotland. It is time for the Government to stand up for the national interest, as decommissioning can go only so far in our fishing industry. After that, there would be nothing left—no ships, and no people working in the ports. I agree completely with my hon. Friend.
We want accountable government in Northern Ireland. The Government should give priority to working with the democrats in Northern Ireland to achieve something that is workable and accountable. I hope that the English regions also get accountable and powerful local government, and not some quango super-tier of nothingness.
I do not know enough to get involved in an argument about Northern Ireland with David Burnside, but I believe that most people there want a peaceful future. It is the responsibility of the House to support all those who want a peaceful future in Northern Ireland, and all those who want to achieve it through democratic means. I disagree with many of the points that the hon. Member for South Antrim made, although I know that he feels strongly about them. However, I hope that we can achieve peace in the Province—or the region, as the hon. Gentleman called it.
The hon. Member for South Antrim mentioned the Bill to ban hunting with dogs, about which I strongly disagree with him. The Government should bring forward a simple Bill, as the people of this country believe that it is time to reach a decision. The more quickly we take that decision, the better.
I support the Government in introducing further controls on fireworks. The season gets longer and longer, and fireworks intended only for display purposes now get into the wrong hands. They are a growing nuisance for many people and animals, and many consider that it could soon be time to allow fireworks to be sold for display purposes only. That might be regrettable in some ways, but we must consider the option carefully if we cannot control or remove the nuisance in any other way.
Antisocial behaviour is another issue on which I shall support any measures that the Government may introduce. Such behaviour has become a common and growing problem throughout the country, and it is right that we should take steps to ensure that a minority are not allowed to destroy the lives of the majority. Regrettably, that is what is happening at the moment.
I have long been a supporter of regional government. Introducing it is the right thing to do, and I have seen what the regional development agency in my area has achieved. Just over a year ago we had the bad news about Michelin, but the RDA has acquired the site and taken matters forward. An elected and accountable regional assembly would be able to do even more to deal with issues of strategic importance, such as transport, investment and employment, and I strongly support the proposal.
I am glad to say that Burnley borough council also strongly supports a regional assembly, and there has been a meeting of all local authority leaders in the area. The leader of the county council and the chief executives of the two unitary authorities attended, and they backed the proposal that Preston should be the main town in the north-west region. I advocated that 10 years ago, so I am glad that some people agree that Manchester or Liverpool should not be the automatic options. Putting the assembly in Preston, which has good communications, would prevent us from having to choose between those two big cities.
My hon. Friend Mr. Martlew said that we should not isolate local government reform from the question of the regions. I agree; I believe that unitary authorities represent the best way forward. The Conservative Government failed to deal with the local government problem, and the Banham commission and local authorities, too, failed to seize the opportunity to tackle it. It is important that we tackle it now.
In Lancashire, there are many opinions about how the county council has handled the future of old people's homes. Another difficulty in the area involves secondary high schools. Some parents have set up what they call a do-it-yourself school in Burnley, because they do not consider that the places provided for their children are acceptable. There are no easy solutions to such problems, but a unitary authority would be much closer to the people. That is why I strongly support the proposition.
Local government finance is another issue that the Government must deal with this year. In a letter to the Burnley Express last week, a constituent called R.M. Carruthers asked why Burnley did not get a fairer grant. The letter recounted how, before the 1997 election, I had spoken about the inequality of the local government grant allocation, and about what a Labour Government would do about it. Mr. Carruthers asked why nothing had been done—but I believe that action on the matter will not be long delayed.
A recent report from Burnley borough council stated:
XWhen the present Government was elected in 1997, it undertook to review the grant distribution system."
The report then refers to the Green Paper published in 2000, and says that Burnley borough council is getting less in grant, 11 years later, than it was when the present local grant system was first introduced. Taking into account inflation of about 25 per cent., that means that we are considerably worse off now. Changes need to be made, and I hope that a fairer system can be devised. People do not understand how, although a district authority collects the council tax, some 80 per cent. of it goes to the county.
My final point concerns housing problems in Burnley, about which I receive letters every day. I received two letters today alone, and the first described how the writer lived in fear every day and night that her house was going to be vandalised and set on fire. That is a real problem. There are 4,500 empty houses in the area, more than 10 per cent. of the housing stock. The writer says:
XPerhaps if you was in my position you could comprehend my dilemma, it dominates my life."
The writer said that the problem was also affecting the lives of the other people in her family. Another correspondent wrote to tell me that a copy of the document XYour Housing Update" had arrived, but that his area was not covered in the next group action scheme. The writer said that he would have to sell his house, at 25 per cent. of its value.
That is typical of the problems that so many people encounter. There are many empty houses, and many people whose houses have lost their value. I get two or three letters on the subject every day, and people come to my advice surgeries every week with similar stories. People are living in a nightmare of fear because the council is unable to tackle the problem.
XI visited East Lancashire on
Burnley is one of the pathfinder project areas for housing renewal. We received #2.66 million, but we need hundreds of millions of pounds—#670 million in east Lancashire—if the problem is to be solved. We need a commitment over 10 years, and I believe that we are getting very near to that. I have no doubt that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister will announce good news for Burnley and east Lancashire in January.
However, because of the time needed for appropriate preparations, the news announced in January will come some months before any programme can be implemented, so I urge the Government to accept that they have a responsibility to the people of Burnley and east Lancashire to do something now, before it is too late. People are desperate, and cannot wait any longer for Government action.
I am pleased to follow Mr. Pike. He spoke with great passion about the problem of empty homes in his constituency and housing issues in general. I would not have believed that part of his speech had I not, four or five months ago, walked around Manchester and seen street after street in which two thirds of the homes were boarded up. I come from Devon nice parts, so that was a shock. The hon. Gentleman spoke with great power and passion, and I hope that his right hon. and hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench are listening.
Although the hon. Gentleman represents Burnley and I represent Plymouth and part of Devon, we are in the same region: it is a region that I call England. We do not need England to be carved up into artificial regions to help us run our affairs. With the increasing use of technology, it should be easier to run things with the systems available. We should not create artificial divisions.
I am pleased to take part in the debate on the Queen's Speech. We welcome many of the proposals in the Gracious Speech, especially some of the criminal justice measures. There is no doubt in my mind that tackling crime is one of the most important issues. I also welcomed the Home Secretary's statement today.
Once upon a time, the Prime Minister talked about the causes of crime. Unless Parliament and the Government start to tackle some of the causes of crime and go upstream and intervene at that juncture, no matter how many Bills we pass, how many new gimmicks we introduce and how many more policemen we put on the beat, we will not solve the crime and antisocial behaviour problems facing the nation.
Two upstream issues are vital. First, it is essential that when heroin addicts or crack cocaine users make the brave decision to kick the habit, they should have immediate access to treatment. Three months later, six months later—or, as in some parts of the country, two years later—is not soon enough. They will change their minds, and continue to fund their habit through crime. They are caught up in their misery, and their families—and all of us—suffer. I was disappointed that there was nothing in the Queen's Speech about access to treatment for drug addicts, and I hope that the Government will take note of my comments.
Even further upstream is the issue of what goes on in some homes. Over the 10 years that I have been a Member of Parliament, I have spoken to many primary school teachers. When four or five-year-olds come into their schools, the teachers know who will fall through the fingers of the system, who is likely to underachieve, who has not received the parenting, love, support, encouragement and discipline that they require, and who is already out of control. We need better systems of early intervention to bring to bear on youngsters at that early, upstream stage if we are to tackle crime further downstream.
The Government partly created the problem that they now seek to solve by bringing into force referendums for regional government. In creating regional development agencies with no accountability, they introduced this unnecessary problem, which they now propose to tackle with an unwanted solution. It will mean government further away from the people. There is one obstacle to regional government that I cannot get over. If the Government have their way, it is likely that in a few years some parts of the country will have regional government and others will not—and that may be a long-term settlement. Can anyone in the Chamber name any other country in the world with such a dyslexic system of government that there is regional government in some parts of it and not in others? It will become a Trivial Pursuit question in America to name the country that has regional government in some parts and not in others. It will become a question for German students of politics and geography. An exam question for students in the future will be, XDoes the United Kingdom have regional government?" and no one will be able to answer it.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that there is asymmetric devolution in Spain? Some parts of that nation have devolved institutions and other parts do not.
The hon. Gentleman gives Spain as an example. Is that the country on which we should model our constitution? Is that what the Government are offering the people of the United Kingdom? I wish they would make that clear in their statements.
The Queen's Speech was a lost opportunity in relation to housing. I know that the Government's heart is in the right place, and that they care about standards in housing and the provision of sufficient affordable housing for those who require it. However, the point that they continue to miss is that the current housing crisis is not just a continuation of the need to provide good quality social housing. A new crisis has broken out in recent years. There is a lack of affordable housing to buy in many areas. People face that problem not only in London and the south-east but in many other parts of the country. It affects key workers, such as nurses, firefighters, local government officers and the police, who do not want to live in rented accommodation all their lives. The Government continually fail to understand that. Key workers want affordable housing to buy, and at the moment they cannot access it. They are part of the 85 per cent. of the population who want to own their own home.
In rural parts of the country, such as my area, local people living in towns and villages cannot afford to stay, to buy and to live locally, because they have been priced out of the housing market. Some of those villages have existed since the 15th century and are now under threat of falling apart, because the old balance of rich and poor has changed. People from all backgrounds used to live cheek by jowl in the successful model for living called village life. That is under threat because local people cannot afford to buy.
I had hoped that the Government would try to tackle that problem in the Queen's Speech, but they have not done so.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the best way to address an increase in demand for housing such as he has described in his constituency is by an increase in the supply? Does he think that Members who say, XNot in my backyard," are creating the problem in his area?
I am grateful for that intervention. There is an issue of supply, but other factors are at work. In South Hams in my constituency, second homes are a real contributor to the upsurge in house prices. Twelve per cent. of homes in South Hams are second homes. I agree with the provision in the Queen's Speech that the 50 per cent. council tax discount should be removed, and I very much hope and expect that South Hams council will surge to imposing a 100 per cent. council tax on such homes. That will not provide more houses, but I think that it will raise #1 million for the council to spend—on housing need, perhaps.
More and more people now work in London and live, not in the suburbs or even in the counties immediately around London, but well out in other parts of the country. With their London salaries, they are inflating house prices all over the country.
I call upon the Government to do three things in the next 12 months and I hope that these measures will be in the local government Bill, when we finally see it. First, they should recognise that the problem of affordable housing to buy is not just a London or a south-east issue; it is an issue in many rural parts of the country, especially the south-west. Challenge funding of #200 million, modest amount though that is, certainly needs to be open to other parts of the country, not just the south-east.
Secondly, I call upon the Government to undergo a paradigm shift—which is not as painful as it sounds. Whenever anyone raises the subject of affordable housing with this Government, they think of social housing to rent. It should be recognised that the current crisis is in affordable housing to buy. That is the Xnow" issue. The Government must not fight the last war, and we need new ideas to help us to get to grips with that problem.
My third point—this is my contribution to the debate—is that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister needs to do some blue-skies thinking to create a new form of legal tenure that will help us to tackle the problem. My suggestion is that we should create a new form, which I would call Xlocalhold", whereby a developer who builds a housing estate in any area with high housing prices and relatively low wages has to ensure that one tenth of the properties are available for local people who have been resident for three years to purchase. Those people would own the house outright, but they would be able to sell only to someone else who has been resident in the district for three years, or to someone who moves from a similar type of property. There should be tax incentives for developers to make such provision, and even more incentives if they provide more than the allotted 10 per cent. The constraint on the ability to purchase a house of that type should ensure that the affordability element is passed on to future purchasers. One problem with all the existing schemes is that the affordability element is not available to purchasers down the line.
I want the Government to recognise that there is a crisis in affordable housing to buy. They should be engaging in blue-skies thinking and coming up with workable solutions to solve that problem, and I am disappointed that the Queen's Speech remains strangely silent on the issue.
I am pleased to be able to make a short contribution on two of the topics scheduled for debate—transport, focusing on aviation, and the environment.
It is a great disappointment to me, as a member of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, that the Gracious Speech made no reference to any Government plans to give greater protection to the hundreds of communities throughout the country whose quality of life is so seriously affected by the impact of nearby airports. That is particularly important to my constituency, as it contains East Midlands airport, which although an economic asset to the region, already causes significant local problems especially because of the scale and nature of its night freight flights. Any major increase in flying activities could produce totally unacceptable consequences for many people who live in the vicinity, which includes tens of thousands of people in the constituencies of North-West Leicestershire, South Derbyshire, Loughborough and Rushcliffe.
Xdoing nothing is not an option."—[Hansard, 23 July 2002; Vol. 389, c. 847.]
As I said in the House that same day, if he meant that it was not an option to do nothing to give airport communities a decent environmental framework to protect them
Xin particular from the corrosive and damaging effects of night noise"—[Hansard, 23 July 2002; Vol. 389, c. 860], he was right.
The national options for airport expansion have been hugely controversial and have been triggered by the enormous growth in air travel in recent decades. In 1970, UK air passengers totalled 32 million. By 1980, that figure had grown to 58 million. By 1990, it was 102 million and by 2000, it was 180 million. Discounting all environmental constraints on growth and extrapolating in a way that would make any half-decent statistician blush, the Government are forecasting passenger numbers soaring through the stratosphere to 275 million by 2010, 400 million by 2020 and more than 500 million by 2030.
For the aviation industry to urge our nation to predict and provide for growth on that scale is absolutely unsustainable. For the industry to promote it without a proper evaluation of the impact and the alternatives is simply irresponsible. If the Government are to ensure that the future of the aviation industry is to be a sustainable one, some management of demand has to be undertaken.
Three types of action commend themselves: fiscal measures to end the unfair tax breaks; higher rail investment; and tighter environmental limits. First, the huge anomaly of tax-free aviation fuel must end, although that will require international agreement. In the meantime, the Government can consider a noise or a fuel tax for internal flights, or ending aviation's zero VAT rating status. By 2030, this Al Capone of the travel industry will be avoiding tax to the tune of #30 billion per year.
A second option is to extend transport choice by greater investment in rail, which would allow a better use of existing airport space for long-haul flights. The report XFrom Planes to Trains" shows that almost half of all flights in Europe are less than 300 miles and have great potential for transfer to rail.
Finally, management of demand can be achieved by giving the aviation industry clear operating standards aimed at developing new technology to reduce its impact. Tight national limits need to be spelt out and central control of the London airports, achieved by a designation under the Civil Aviation Act 1982, must be extended to the larger regional airports.
Doing nothing is not an option, especially for people near regional airports who would pay the real costs of unrestrained growth—the huge tracts of unspoilt countryside bulldozed to make way for concrete and tarmac; the thousands of acres of ugly commercial sprawl; the loss of wildlife habitats; and the massive traffic congestion. Local villages, such as Diseworth in my constituency, would be changed out of recognition, while the ancient and beautiful churches in villages such as Breedon would be at risk because their Saxon builders forgot to ensure that they were nowhere near a flight path.
Worst of all are the air pollution and intolerable noise and disturbance from night flights. A few days ago, I received the following email:
XGood morning Mr Taylor,
Well it's 04.31 on the 15th November and again I have been disturbed by night flights from EMA. Several have powered over the house in Thringstone..and again I can't sleep because just as I doze off another one goes over..as I have a health problem that makes sleep somewhat of a precious commodity..it looks like it might be a case of having to medicate in order to get some at all. A wonderful state of affairs, having to use drugs to be able to sleep because someone is disturbing the Peace, though if I disturbed the slumber of the EMA chairman I'd get arrested."
Nocturnal noise is a growing problem at British airports. It can affect quality of sleep and thus performance at school and work and, ultimately, it can affect health. The Queen's Speech would have been more welcome if it had taken steps to combat the sources and levels of unnecessary noise in our country. A consistent approach to environmental regulation at all our airports is fundamental. We can achieve that only if the national aviation policy, which will emerge next spring in the Government's aviation White Paper, has a common comprehensive framework for noise control. There must be equity and fairness between individual airports as to the environmental regulation required—a level runway, as it were.
Airport communities throughout the land are closely following the appeal by the Government against the decision of the European Court of Human Rights that Heathrow is violating human rights by depriving people of a night's sleep without sufficient justification. Villages near East Midlands airport certainly hope that the ECHR verdict will be upheld, as that large regional airport is unique in having no limit on night flights.
Unsurprisingly, there has been a wave of local protest from a wide range of organisations about the Department of Transport's midlands aviation consultation paper. On Saturday, it will culminate in a large peaceful protest against a second runway. I wholly support the action group Wings in its campaign objectives of no new runway, no expansion outside the existing airport boundaries and no further increase in airport capacity without the most stringent environmental constraints.
I commend and support the work of other local community organisations, such as PAIN—People Against Intrusive Noise—and parish council groups such as AARPC—the Association of Airport-Related Parish Councils—in their fight for a better quality of life for their members in the face of a powerful aviation lobby. Throughout the land, similar groups are engaged in that uneven struggle.
We must all challenge the flawed basis of the consultation process—the forecasts for air travel and freight flights until 2030 and the questionnaires specially written by highly paid civil servants to set communities from each airport area against one another. We must show that it would be highly irresponsible not to consider demand management; otherwise, irreversible environmental damage will result. The Queen's Speech should have flagged up an intention to act on aviation.
The growth in aviation is out of control only because it is exempt from many of the controls that have applied to other industries for many years. Why should the polluter not pay? Why should there not be an end to public subsidy to aviation? Why should not land use planning law require all proposed airport developments to detail their full environmental impacts?
Aviation has economic and social benefits, although they are not as substantial as the ubiquitous lobbyists would have us believe. Its down sides, although widely documented, are not fully understood by politicians and decision makers. Is it not time to listen to the airport communities and to hear their counter-arguments to the excessively grandiose self-promotion of the aviation industry?
Many of the options in the aviation consultation papers are environmentally disastrous and socially unacceptable. The Government really are flying into trouble.
I start by drawing the House's attention to my interests, which are declared in the Register of Members' Interests, and by congratulating Mr. Foulkes and Ms King on the excellence with which they proposed and seconded the Loyal Address. I take some pleasure in mentioning that because it is exactly 10 years since I seconded a Loyal Address, when I was unwise enough to refer to Kenneth, now Lord, Baker as a genial old codger on the way out and myself, somewhat remissly, as an oily young man on the make. So I know just what a terrifying experience it was for the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow.
I should comfort the hon. Lady by saying that, almost immediately I had had that experience, I was made a Minister, and so excellent was her speech that I very much hope that that will be her fate as well. However, I should also warn her that all five of those who seconded the Loyal Address between 1992 and 1997 lost their seats at the subsequent general election. I do not know quite how high Bethnal Green and Bow is on the list of seats that we Conservatives hope to win, but I am sure that she should beware on that count.
XI had great hopes of Labour in 1997, but now I think they have gone totally raving mad; totally dotty."
Hon. Members may think that a reasonable precis of our amendment, but all I can say is that, if luvvies and lawyers are now deserting the Labour party, it cannot be much longer before all the rest do likewise.
I should like to dodge in and out of the amendment that was so ably moved by my right hon. Friend David Davis. I start by addressing the Government's failures, to which the amendment draws attention, in so far as they relate to business. I have previously made a point of praising the Chancellor of Exchequer for some of the things that he has done. Indeed, a disgruntled Conservative Whip approached me to point out the place in Hansard where I referred to him as an excellent Chancellor—it is very good to know that other people apart from ourselves read our speeches in Hansard—but the truth is that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has done many very wise things.
We in this country have had 10 years of unparalleled economic prosperity—five under Labour and five under the Conservatives. It would be good if the Chancellor would pay tribute to my right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Clarke and Lord Lamont for laying the foundations of that prosperity, but it is clearly true that the Government's chickens are coming home to roost. The effects of tax increases of #47 billion, to which the CBI drew attention last week, and the enormous increase in red tape are now evident in our economy, and I greatly fear what will happen to unemployment levels during the next 18 months.
All business surveys show that business confidence is in decline. We all warned—it is clearly on the record in Hansard—that the absurdly over-optimistic growth forecasts that the Chancellor of the Exchequer espoused earlier this year would prove to be totally fallacious. As always with Labour Governments, he will end up with fixed spending plans and the necessity to borrow or increase taxation. In the Chancellor's case, as hubris moves to nemesis, he will see what will happen to the economy.
We in this country have already had a massive tax increase, but where are the improvements in services? The amendment refers to the health service and education, and I want to make a point about both. There has been a limited effect on waiting lists, but the truth is that those waiting lists mask the fact that thousands of families—not a week goes by in Sutton Coldfield when I do not see one of them—are forced to go private. Those families club together to ensure that, say, an elderly relative can receive treatment more quickly than is possible in the health service.
Targets have been skewed not on clinical need, but on the Government's political needs. The position on health has not improved anything like as radically as we were promised and, into the bargain, I am very concerned about the Government's treatment of Good Hope hospital, which is in my constituency, in the past six months, and I shall return to that point on another occasion.
The same failure to deliver is true in education. At a speech day that I attended in my constituency last Friday, the excellent headmistress urged me in her speech to tell the Government—I do so with pleasure tonight—that there must be
Xno more change; let us now enhance and improve what we have in place."
I joined a meeting of secondary heads in my constituency last Friday, and also recently visited St. Joseph's Catholic primary school in Sutton Coldfield. Teachers and heads alike complain of the 79 different funding streams that they are seeking to access, and of the very uncertain ongoing levels of education funding in Sutton Coldfield, which makes planning extremely difficult. They point out that, since the Government came to power, 17 pages of regulations have been issued for every school day. They also point out that one need only look at the advertising in newspapers, especially in The Times Higher Education Supplement, to see the grave recruiting difficulties in our schools at this time.
Of course. The hon. Gentleman heard me refer to the 79 funding streams, all of which represent extra money available for schools. If he listens carefully to what I am saying, however, he will realise that I am pointing out the difficulties inherent in the way that the Government have looked after education.
I shall pass over the A-levels fiasco of this summer to mention briefly the issue of top-up fees. I believe that top-up fees are a truly appalling proposition. I went along with the Conservative Government over student loans with a certain heaviness of heart. I can tell my party's Front Bench, however, that there are no circumstances in which people like me will support top-up fees. At the last election, we had an excellent policy of endowment funds, which perhaps will not be possible next time. Another way must be found, however—I look forward to returning to the matter in the future—instead of seeking to charge students top-up fees, which is absolutely outrageous.
As has been made clear, the public services are central to political debate, but they are the rock on which the Government will founder. The Prime Minister is very fond of saying that he understands the problem and is getting on with the remedy. Nearly six years have passed, however, with precious little effect and precious little reform. The Government are discovering the hard way that top-down reform will simply not work. The truth is that we have had massive tax increases, but we wait in vain for the improvement.
I should have thought that one of the problems that preoccupies this Government more than most is pensions. In 1997, when the Conservative Government left power, pension provision in this country was the envy of Europe, but as the highly respected Pensions Institute said this week:
XIt is certainly the case that within a few short years what was the envy of Europe, namely a good well funded private pensions system sitting on top of an admittedly poor-in-comparison-with-the-rest-of-Europe basic state pension system appears on the verge of possible disintegration".
In the face of these difficulties, the Government appear to be caught like a rabbit in headlights.
The hon. Gentleman refers to the Xadmittedly poor" state pension system. Can he recall whether the decoupling of the state pension from pay in the economy took place under a Conservative Government? And was it not the Government led by the noble Baroness Thatcher, as she now is?
I have already pointed out that in 1997, when the Conservative Government left office, we had a pension system that was the envy of the rest of Europe. It is now deteriorating daily, and all that we are promised is a Green Paper. The Opposition have been trying to contribute on this important subject—we have suggested a lifetime savings account—while all the work of Mr. Field is summarily dismissed by the Government. Everyone knows that we must save more and that the debate about compulsion verges on the silly—we must have compulsion. All that we get from the Government, though, is the promise of a Green Paper and the implicit threat that they will do something about abolishing tax relief. The Select Committee is doing its bit: we have set in train some work on what should happen to our pensions system. It is now absolutely clear, however, that what we need is action from the Government, with a clear understanding of the role for employers, employees and the state.
I shall speak briefly on the issue of regional assemblies to which I, and most of my constituents in Sutton Coldfield, are implacably opposed. It is absolutely astonishing that, on top of all the other layers of elected government, we intend to have yet more elected politicians. If the answer to the question is we need to elect more politicians, it must have been a pretty daft question. The Government are a compulsive meddler in our constitution. I accept that it is a minority view, but the unwise reforms to the House of Lords have not been matched with reforms to this place. We all know that there are far too many Members in the House of Commons. We now have more Members than we had when this country governed an empire that stretched around the world. Yet we hear nothing from the Government about the importance of doing something about that.
No, because I do not have the time.
We have a good and respected Prime Minister leading a rotten Government, who are all hype and no delivery. They have produced an inconsequential Queen's Speech that will do little to address the fundamental and far-reaching problems in Britain today. I hope that the House will reject it in the amendment tonight.
In welcoming the Queen's Speech, I wish to mention a couple of Bills that I shall support. I shall most definitely support the Bill on hunting with dogs and the Bill that will lead to the creation of regional assemblies. I want a complete ban on hunting and complete regional assemblies.
I am delighted by the inclusion in the Queen's Speech of the Bill on criminal justice and sentencing reform and, for the first time ever, of a Bill to deal with antisocial behaviour. They both place crime at the centre of the scene, and people in my constituency and nationally want there to be a fight on crime. We are delighted that that is one of the Government's central pledges.
I have no doubt that the public have, to some extent, lost faith with the criminal justice system. They have seen it weakened over the years by what they perceive to be inadequate sentencing and soft penalties. The plans to combat antisocial behaviour with tougher measures will win widespread support. I am more than pleased to see that in the framework of the Queen's Speech.
My constituents have already referred to the fact that in his speech on the Loyal Address my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister mentioned two forms of antisocial behaviour relating to fireworks and airguns. Such activities are second to none in the subjects that are raised in the letters in my postbag. Firework misuse has provoked people in my constituency to say that they feel as though they are under siege from September to January, and particularly in late October and early November. They want effective action to be taken so that access to such products is seriously restricted.
Likewise, no one in my constituency would argue against the banning of—or, at least, the imposition of serious restrictions on—the purchase and use of airguns. I shall argue that licensing with a defined purpose of use should shape the legislative framework that controls the sale of airguns.One death has already occurred in my constituency. Children were having fun, but it was not fun when an airgun was fired and killed a 14-year-old. One death is one too many. A review of the lethal potential of these weapons is long overdue.
My major contribution to this debate on achieving effective laws that will reduce crime and that will revive the spirit of community and social cohesion rests on the belief that the use of illegal hard drugs, particularly heroin, must be controlled. Action must be taken significantly to reduce the number of addicts that live in our communities. I would like to persuade the House that that requires an understanding not just of the numbers of drug-related crimes committed or the numbers of addicts involved. If we are to make an impact, we must understand the root cause of the problem. We need to understand what makes people take drugs in the first place. We know the numbers involved and use them for social policy purposes, but we do not know the people, who are young, vulnerable and poverty stricken. They feel discarded and isolated. It is time that we asked them what is going on in their lives that makes them so controlled by such substances.
It is not that the numbers are not compelling. There are more than 250,000 addicts, which is probably an underestimate. We know that the illegal drugs market has a value of #4.5 billion in this country alone. The problem causes social and economic havoc in many areas. The police in Cleveland estimate that chaotic and problematic users of heroin are finding upwards of #230 a week to spend on buying that drug. To get that money, they steal between #600 and #700 worth of goods every week. We can all imagine how much havoc they wreak on estates in my constituency, and my constituency is not an exception. If we are serious about a Bill to deal with antisocial behaviour and serious in our intent to reduce crime, we should acknowledge that although in relative terms there are only a small number heroin addicts, they commit the majority of crime. We must understand how they destroy our established communities.
I do not wish to criticise in any shape or form the existing excellent drug enforcement strategies. The police have excellent intelligence. I received a report from Cleveland police force that says that it is pursuing a dealer-a-day strategy, which to date has led to the sentencing of 151 dealers in 160 community-based operations. The intelligence is available and enforcement is working. We have drug education and drug action teams and have increased the number of opportunities for drug treatment, but the facts remain stark. The number of addicts is growing year on year. They are getting younger and crime is increasing exponentially with them.
The chief constable of Cleveland said that crime has increased in Cleveland by the astounding figure of 11.9 per cent. He stated:
Xthis reflects the growth of drug addiction in our community".
If the Bill means what it says and antisocial behaviour is defined, controlled and reduced, we must take on board why young people are compulsively controlled by illegal substances. I ask myself what we are doing wrong. Hon. Members on both sides of the House find the issue compelling. Are we ignoring the evidence before us? Are we underestimating the reasons why young people take drugs?
Research makes it clear that people's propensity to use drugs is due to five major causes. One problem is the accessibility and availability of drugs. We have all heard young people say that dealers are everywhere. They are like crows on addicts shoulders. Young people cannot turn around without being offered two for the price of one or drugs at half price. They are even told that they can pay later. Those young people on drugs are alienated. They are outside the good life. They feel a deep sense of loss. They have low self-esteem, no job and, often, no family. They live and sleep under bridges or wherever. There is an absence of alternatives. No one works with them to say that things could be better and different.
I am passionate about the problem. Those young folks have been excluded somewhere along the line by politicians and social policy, and they think that no one shouts for them. They believe that they have no future and no prospects.
The hon. Lady and I have discussed the problems of hard drugs before in the Chamber. Does she agree with my hon. Friend Mr. Streeter that we need more facilities for the treatment of hard drug addicts? She has not mentioned that. Does she think that that should be provided by compulsion if people are convicted of hard drug offences?
That was an excellent intervention. I am probably rattling through my speech so quickly that the hon. Gentleman did not hear me say that the total number of drug treatments has increased since 1997 by more than a third. I would be wary of using compulsion. The police in Lancashire have a programme whereby, with the health authority, they are embracing young drug addicts. They are saying to them, XYou come in and receive treatment and we will do all we can to keep you off drugs. We are not interested in sentencing or compulsion. We know that you have to want to come off the drug." I am told that, to date, of the 36 youngsters given that opportunity, 35 are proving that they can stay off heroin. That is an important statement. I would love to introduce compulsion, but I think that we realise that we can want all we like; the youngsters have to want to come off drugs. I am therefore not convinced on the compulsion argument.
I am convinced of other arguments. We must have a flexible system of support. There is no one size fits all solution. There are individual needs and we must approach the problem by recognising that. Universal acceptance that the state should provide prescriptions of heroin—obviously to a minority group, with great care and to achieve one thing: to cut out the dealers and get young people into a support service—is long overdue.
Like many of my colleagues, I intend to dwell a little on regional government. In common with many MPs, nobody from my constituency has written to me to say that they want a regional tier of government. The Government are making a great mistake by pursuing the policy. People have to feel a loyalty towards an area. They feel a loyalty to their town, village or county—or indeed to being British or being English. If we have to have an unnecessary tier of government, I might be able to persuade my constituents of the benefits of an English Parliament—
That is one argument.
People regard being English as very important but they feel no loyalty to the south-west, which is an artificial region that has no separate identity. The Cornish have very different problems from those of us in Dorset. Many of my constituents commute to Southampton, Winchester, Basingstoke and London, and tend to look eastwards rather than westwards, mainly because the road system is so awful that nobody in their right mind would go west of Bournemouth or Poole. The investment has not been made in the south-west.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the case for regional devolution is a case for economic equity together with democratic accountability on the part of the existing unelected regional tier of government?
I do not accept that. The Government have been silent on how they would reallocate resources. The issue of Scottish funding and the aspirations of the north of England came up earlier. If the Government are honest, they will publish a paper on inequalities between areas of the UK. When people set out on the journey of regional government, it is perfectly reasonable that they know what financial settlement they would get.
My basic fear is that we will end up with unwanted regional government: a tier of politicians drawing salaries and building new offices. Most of my constituents would rather that that money be spent on social services, education, roads and other important things in their locality. I believe that there is no great appetite for regional government.
The issue of regional boundaries has been raised in the debate. There might be more logic to boundaries in the north of England, but there is certainly not in the south-east, the east or the south-west. The Conservative Government devolved the regional offices to places such as Bristol in order to create jobs there. It was never intended that the offices be a political unit, and I do not believe that they will ever be.
As a schoolboy, I grew up in Bristol. The then Conservative Government created Avon county council, cutting bits off Somerset and Gloucester and changing the status of the city and county of Bristol. There may have been a logic to that—indeed, there may be a logic to the creation of Humberside and other areas—but there was no emotional attachment. Campaigns began immediately, but after 20 or 30 years, the situation has changed. If one does not take into account local ties and concerns, one is storing up difficulties for the future.
I shall focus a little bit on Poole borough council, but before doing so, I should like to agree with my right hon. Friend Mr. Hague about the problems of flood defence and the various tiers of government that interfere with a solution. An opportunity has been missed in the Queen's Speech to deal with that.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware from UK media coverage that my constituency was hit over the weekend by devastating floods. Does he agree that the Government have missed an opportunity as they are not seeking to co-ordinate social security offices, the Inland Revenue and the financial services industry to deal swiftly and effectively with the many hundreds of people in my constituency who are now homeless and the many businesses set to go out of business in the near future?
I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman, who has made his point extremely eloquently. The problem will become much bigger. We will have many more floods in future and it would be better to have a clearer, more comprehensive way of dealing with them.
As for the Government's planned local government legislation, we have heard their buzz phrases about freedom and so on, but I am suspicious of their reaction to local government, especially their proposed reform of the grant system. For many years, many of my colleagues and I have campaigned for a fairer grant system for Dorset, which has suffered as a result of the area cost adjustment. It is a great concern that schools in Poole, Bournemouth and out in sticks in Dorset have received #200 less per head than schools up the road in Hampshire and Ringwood. I am disappointed that the Government's reform proposals will make the situation worse. They are taking money from poorly funded authorities to give to better funded authorities, many of which have a political loyalty different from ours in the south of England, which is a pity.
Looking at the various options, it is highly likely that Poole will lose money. It is not an extravagant authority, and may need to impose a heavy council tax rise just to stand still. Changing the grant formula has a great impact not only on local government but on the police. Dorset police authority estimates that it could lose #1.4 million to #4.8 million—a substantial part of an #89 million budget—which could mean the loss of 300 police officers. There is therefore genuine concern about the changes, which could have a great impact.
I welcome the opportunity for local authorities to get rid of the 25 per cent. council tax discount on second homes if they wish. My main concern is what happens to the money once that decision is made. The Deputy Prime Minister said that most of that money would stay with local authorities—the figure of #65 million was mentioned. However, many empty homes are eligible for a discount, and the #160 million that could be garnered from them may well be recycled back to the Treasury. I hope that the Minister will make it clear that that taxation will not be increased and recycled back to the Government, rather than to people at the sharp end.
Dorset has a serious problem with funding. Social services are under great strain, and the south and south-west have problems providing children's social services, which means that the provision of services for the elderly and the disabled are not what they should be. The proposal in the Queen's Speech to fine social services for bed blocking is not wise as those services are short of money. As Dr. Taylor said, the fault may not be with social services—it may well be with the NHS itself. I hope that the Government will consider that proposal carefully.
My main concerns are the impact on my constituency of changes to local government and to the local planning system. By and large, our planning system has worked well at district council and county council level. I have concerns, however, about major infrastructure projects—it cannot be wise to spend #80 million on the terminal 5 inquiry at Heathrow when our competitors at Schipol and Charles de Gaulle airport can add two runways and compete with us. Faster progress needs to be made on major projects.
The balance that we strike, with local people being able to have their say through their local authorities, works pretty well. To move towards a regional agenda for our planning, with more decisions perhaps being devolved to planning officers, would be counterproductive. That is a cause of great concern among my constituents. We have a system in Poole whereby, if a matter has to go before a planning committee, it is green-carded. It happens a lot, because people want to see matters debated and dealt with on the floor of their local authority. If we move away from that, we will rue the day.
Earlier, the Government were patting themselves on the back for their achievements in respect of density and brownfield sites, but in Poole that means that many 1930s properties which have rather large gardens are being put under pressure to be pulled down and replaced with multiple housing. That is changing the character of many of our areas, which is a great pity. I would prefer much more power over planning decisions to remain with local people, so that they retain ownership of it. If the Government change the planning laws and get it wrong, they will rue the day.
I have concerns about regional government, the funding changes that the Government are proposing for Poole, and the planning system, which the Government must be very careful about changing. 9.11 pm
This has been an important Queen's Speech, heralding some tremendous reforms and a huge amount of work over the next parliamentary year. I shall concentrate on an element of housing—park homes—and regional government, which are of great significance to the people of Lancaster and Wyre.
Park homes are often described as caravans, and the legislation covering them consists of various Caravan Acts and the Mobile Homes Act 1983. Unfortunately, that Act is full of holes and leaves people—often elderly people—living in rural areas extremely vulnerable to the attentions of rogue landlords. The draft housing Bill provides an opportunity to introduce a new chapter on park homes, which comes about because, over the past four years, the Government have wisely engaged in a complex review process, in partnership with the responsible elements of what should be an excellent industry and representatives of the three national park homes organisations.
I do not have time to deal with all the difficulties posed by park homes, but if we use the opportunities that the draft housing Bill gives us and the knowledge gained from that complex and subtle review process over the past few years, we have a tremendous chance to reform the law and to introduce fit-person criteria for the people who own and run residential parks.
We have the opportunity to introduce sellers packs into transactions that often do not even involve solicitors. We have the opportunity for local authorities to enforce the improvement of standards, better registration and inspection, to ensure that residents are protected and empowered. The important element of affordable housing which is adaptable, light and modern can grow further and become a more important part of housing provision, particularly in rural areas. Residents on parks will be protected and responsible park owners as part of a responsible industry will be allowed to flourish. We are talking about people who, if they are not already seriously depressed by criminal and rogue elements in the park homes industry, now live in fear of some rogue's taking over the running of their park, and of losing any right that they have to live in peace and comfort—often in the last home that they intend to inhabit. Dealing with the problem should be a priority for a Government who I believe are committed to traditional values in a modern setting.
I want to talk about regional assemblies and, in particular, about the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill. I have been amazed at some of the rhetoric I have heard this evening. My constituency has benefited enormously from the influence of the North West development agency. It contains Lancaster university, a world-class university and a centre for high-tech research, management skills and applied sciences. Thanks to investment from the Government, from Europe but also from the development agency, over the next 20 months or so the city will have an opportunity to build a world-class business centre based on high-tech research and the skills provided by the university.
The constituency also contains a large rural area, and the development agency is making huge efforts to help rural regeneration. We are seeing the development of a XMade in Lancashire" label. We are seeing proposals for investment in and redevelopment of market towns. We are seeing a whole agenda relating to Don Curry's report and his commission on food and farming, the Government's investment in farming, diversification, rural areas, and opportunities for parish councils to develop transport programmes and engage in major planning—huge opportunities, indeed, for rural areas, through education, diversification and co-operation, to reconstruct their economies. It is essential for local people to have a democratic say in the way things operate at regional level.
We need a certain sort of regional government. Various spectres have been unleashed on us tonight, but what we need is regional government that is lean and fit and uses all modern means of communication. We need regional government that is rooted in the history of the areas that it governs. Members have referred to county councils that have existed in the same form since 1974. The historic city of Lancaster, the ancient county town of the old county of Lancashire which stretched from Barrow to Manchester and from Manchester to Liverpool, has real historic resonance. We need a regional assembly that will engage with major stakeholders, and will identify—and enable people to identify—with the whole region. We need regional government that relates to rural areas, urban areas and the vast range of people who live in the north-west. Above all, we need regional government because we need democratic control of the enormous powers that now exist at regional level. Anyone who denies that has given up.
Such a measure will give us the opportunity to reform local government. I do not want the reform to extend just to unitary authorities, although I want to see an end to county councils, which have served their purpose. I want the flexibilities that this Government have introduced through health, social care and education legislation to work to the benefit of people. I want the development of trusts and I want local government to be at the heart of effective partnerships to improve the lives of people in the Lancaster and Wyre constituency.
In the year and a half or so since I came to this place, the issue of housing has probably made up the biggest part of my postbag. There is a particular problem with second homes in North Norfolk. Some 10 per cent. of housing stock there is second homes. That has a considerable effect, particularly on some of the coastal communities. About 50 per cent. of the core of some villages is made up of second homes. Elsewhere, they make up less of the village, but the impact that they have on the viability of schools, on local transport, on shops and on post offices is considerable.
The 50 per cent. discount on council tax for second homes should never have been part of the council tax regime. The fact that it has remained for so long is a scandal. Since the council tax was introduced, about #10 million to #15 million has been lost to North Norfolk as a result of that discount. A regressive tax that is regarded by many people as unfair seems even worse when they look at what they are getting for their services and see people who predominantly have higher incomes paying only 50 per cent. of the rate because they own a second home. There is massive resentment there.
I welcome the Government's announcement that councils will be able to charge a lower discount on the council tax, but I strongly take the view that it should have been abolished in its entirety, or at least that councils should have had the ability to charge the full council tax. The notes to editors on the Deputy Prime Minister's press release say:
XThe Government has decided that a minimum 10 per cent discount is necessary so that second home owners will have an incentive to tell their local authority that this is a second home."
The rest of us do not get an incentive to comply with our legal liabilities in terms of council tax or any other tax that we have to pay, so why is it that second home owners need that incentive to comply with the law? The Government should have abolished the discount in its entirety, so that more money could be raised for affordable housing and other local services. If it were abolished completely, North Norfolk would get an extra #1.5 million. We will lose #300,000 of that extra sum because of the 10 per cent. minimum discount. That seems a great wasted opportunity.
I welcome the fact that the Government have made it clear that the money will be available locally for local councils to spend as they see fit. That is good news, but my concern is that it comes at the same time as the Government are reviewing the way in which they allocate central Government money to local authorities. The great fear is that local authorities will gain the extra money from the reduced discount in second homes, but then lose out on a reallocation of resources away from rural areas to cities. So we have to watch carefully that that is real extra money. It is desperately needed, particularly for the provision of more affordable homes in North Norfolk.
I add one point on a planning issue. There is a case for at least considering requiring people in these hot spots, in the villages where about 50 per cent. of the houses are second homes, to apply for planning permission to change the use of a property from a permanent home to a second home. Providing some local democratic control over what happens to those villages should at least be considered.
I support the right to buy, which has done considerable good in terms of creating mixed-tenure communities and avoiding the development of ghettoes of entirely owner-occupied, or entirely council-owned, properties. I have a personal concern about the size of the discount, particularly in high-value areas, where individuals can gain an absolute bonanza through, in effect, the transfer to them of public money.
The biggest concern of all relates to the failure over many years to replace lost stock. The Conservative proposal to extend the right to buy to housing associations will simply exacerbate the problem. The Thatcher Government did not countenance it, yet now the Conservatives are proposing it. There are Conservatives up and down the land involved in housing policy who realise the stupidity of this plan, and its likely effect on an already developing crisis, but what have the Government done about the right to buy?
In September, the Deputy Prime Minister said at the Labour party conference that the Government will act. He recognised that, in some areas, the right to buy is denuding local stock, and that there simply are not enough homes for local people. However, his statement—it has yet to be backed up by action—resulted in people across the country getting in their applications, so that they can buy their property before it is too late. In other words, it has actually exacerbated the problem. I have checked the situation in Norfolk. In one district, there have been more applications in the seven months of this financial year than in the whole of last year. In another, there were 158 applications last year, but 226 this year. That is fine—
The Conservative spokesman says Xwonderful", but the effect is that an ever-decreasing number of houses are available to rent for people who desperately need them.
The hon. Gentleman mentions the Conservative right-to-buy policy. He is doubtless aware that all the proceeds from houses purchased from housing associations will be reapplied to build more houses, thus providing more stock for people who want to enter the affordable housing sector. What is important is not the number of houses, but their availability. It is those extra houses that will be afforded as a result of proceeds from the right to buy.
That sounds all well and good, but it simply will not be possible to deliver on that. To start with, where will the money come from? It will not be possible to get one for one, quite apart from the impact on the finances of housing associations, which are having to borrow on the money market on the assumption that they will keep those properties for rent.
At the same time as we are losing housing stock to the right to buy, waiting list applications continue to grow. Between 1998 and 2002, the numbers in North Norfolk have more than doubled, and homeless applications are up by nearly 50 per cent. in two years. Overall, there are fewer homes, more people needing homes, and a lower turnover of homes, so the situation continues to get worse.
The planning system is failing to provide sufficient new affordable homes. North Norfolk has a local plan. Only for developments of more than 25 properties is a developer required to provide a mix of affordable homes. That quota was introduced by the inspector, following a public inquiry; the local authority wanted to establish a figure of 12 properties in respect of such developments. We are stuck with that quota because it takes so long to review the local plan. On top of that, developers manipulate the system to delay the building of affordable homes for as long as possible. The planning system must be capable of responding more quickly to changing circumstances. It takes years to review the local plan. We are stuck with a system in a rural area where there are very few developments of 25 properties or more, so very few affordable homes are being built.
The exceptions policy was designed to allow affordable homes to be built outside the normal development envelope of a village. In all the years it has been available in north Norfolk, it has been used only twice. About 15 properties have been built as a result of that policy. It is a bureaucratic system that does not work.
On housing, there has been a real sense of inertia from the Government. So far, they have been unwilling and unable to meet the scale of the crisis that is developing in many communities across the country.
It is a pleasure to contribute to this debate. I commend my hon. Friend Ms Taylor for her sensitive speech about the drug problem in her constituency. Such problems are echoed in many other constituencies.
Mr. Hague mentioned flood management, which is a problem in my constituency. There is a need for a new strategy and perhaps legislation to deal with the alleviation of flood risk. We need more investment and a change in the priorities and the powers given to the Environment Agency rather than leaving local authorities to deal with flood alleviation.
I am pleased that the issue of hunting with dogs is to be resolved. Monmouthshire has a longstanding tradition of hunting, and I am conscious that there is support for hunting within the farming community. Essentially, that support is for the role that hunting plays in helping to control foxes, which are a threat to livestock, and the role of the hunt in removing fallen stock. That support is based on the principle of utility, which my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment has introduced into the debate. The representations that I have received from constituents in urban and rural areas have overwhelmingly supported the view that the hunting of foxes and other mammals with dogs for the purpose of sport is morally wrong. I have voted in accordance with that view and will do so again when the new measure is debated.
I acknowledge the need to control foxes, which are a threat to livestock. We also need to provide an alternative method of disposing of fallen stock when hunting has been abolished. I have supported amendments in previous legislation that will call for state support for a livestock disposal service. I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends to consider that when drawing up the forthcoming legislation.
I welcome the proposals to reform the court system. I recently visited Gwent court service in Cwmbran to hear of the proposals to rationalise the court structure. Although that will involve the closure of certain existing courts, a major new court facility in Abergavenny will be developed, combining the civil courts and the magistrates courts. It will be well equipped with new technology and the use of television evidence will be possible.
I welcome the proposed draft housing Bill to improve the process of buying and selling properties. The buying and selling of a home is one of the most stressful events undertaken by most people. Proposals that require the provision of seller's packs should ease the pressure. Other housing measures include the proposal to improve the housing environment in low-demand areas. The licensing of houses in multiple occupation is especially welcome because it aims to improve standards for people in some of the worst housing conditions. It will require the local authorities and fire services to visit properties to check on their condition. It follows the provisions in the private Member's Bill of my hon. Friend Dr. Turner, which had to be withdrawn at the end of the previous Session. I hope that the Government will consider the home energy provisions that were in that Bill and include them in the new legislation.
I welcome the announcement on antisocial behaviour orders, which will now be available to housing associations. In my constituency I have dealt with a number of cases of antisocial behaviour on housing association estates. I have noticed the frustration of the police and the housing associations at the fact that only the local authority can instigate such orders. It is a welcome announcement that should increase the number of antisocial behaviour orders and address one of the most distressing and unpleasant aspects of life on certain estates.
I welcome the opportunity for people to vote in referendums on regional assemblies in England. Wales and Scotland have shown that there are advantages to democratic devolutions. In Wales, we have seen a renewed confidence about our nation, with better representation for the more deprived areas, as a result of the introduction of the National Assembly for Wales. We have also had a fairer voting system through the additional member system in the Welsh Assembly. We have had better representation of women and the appointment of a Cabinet that has more women than men. What other Parliament or Assembly in a democratic country has that?
Devolution in Wales has also meant Welsh solutions for Welsh problems. We have had a distinct approach—in education more than in other policy areas—with the reintroduction of student maintenance grants for higher education—a measure that I sincerely hope will be followed in England. We have also seen the abolition of SATs in primary schools and the emphasis on true comprehensive schools rather than specialist schools. The Queen's Speech also included the National Health Service (Wales) Bill, which will retain the community health councils that will be replaced in England.
We also have planning policies that will retain the structure—
Order. I have just arrived in the Chair and I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not reading a speech into the record. This is a debating Chamber and it is not for the hon. Gentleman to read a speech.
I accept the point that you make, Mr. Speaker. I was conscious that it was difficult to concentrate, given the amount of noise in the Chamber this evening.
I hope that one important measure will be introduced, as part of the Railways and Transport Safety Bill, to reduce overcrowding on buses. That will also require amendments to the Education Act 1944, which allows the three-for-two rule that contributes to considerable overcrowding on buses taking pupils to school. That is an especial problem in my constituency. Many hon. Members would be disturbed to realise that a 48-seater bus can take an additional 24 passengers sitting as well as another 20 passengers standing, which leads to considerable overcrowding.
We have had an interesting Queen's Speech debate and I am pleased to have contributed to it. I hope that the Government are able to proceed with their policies for improving public services and to continue to improve their economic and social policies as a result.
There are a couple of measures in the Queen's Speech that we can welcome. We obviously welcome the legislation to set up a rail accident investigatory branch. Indeed, it is hardly surprising that we welcome that legislation, because as long ago as 1999 my hon. Friend Mr. Jenkin, as shadow transport Minister, called for precisely that measure. While we will study the detail of the Bill, I assure the Secretary of State that the official Opposition will not seek to cause him needless difficulty on it.
My constituency, in common with those of hon. Members on both sides of the House, will undoubtedly benefit from the Government's decision—in response to cross-party lobbying from several hon. Members—to allow local authorities in England to have the same discretion that local authorities in Wales already enjoy to decide for themselves whether to retain the 50 per cent. discount on council tax. However, I would press the Secretary of State to reply to the point raised by my hon. Friend Mr. Syms about whether the Government will guarantee not to reduce the grant provided to local authorities availing themselves of that new right, so that they end up better off. He also asked whether the Government's undertaking to allow local authorities to spend the full receipts received from imposing the 50 per cent. or higher rate on second homes also applies to any revenue coming in from the application of that tax to empty homes. If the Secretary of State is not able to respond to those points—even though they were originally made some hours ago by my hon. Friend—I hope that he will ask the Deputy Prime Minister to write to my hon. Friend and me, and other interested Members, on that point.
The Deputy Prime Minister was unable to respond to the point raised by my right hon. Friend David Davis about whether the Government were as concerned as they should be about the lack of social housing. He said that the reduction in the amount of new social housing built since the Government took office in 1997 has meant that there are 35,000 fewer social houses than there would have been had they maintained the status quo that they inherited. The Deputy Prime Minister could say only that that was a very good point. However, he had no answer, and he did not say what he would do to resolve the problem.
In response to an intervention from my hon. Friend Mr. Osborne, the Deputy Prime Minister made it clear that regional government would end up being what shire county residents have always feared, and that voters in cities would have the right to override the wishes of voters in shire counties. The Government have the nerve to call that a democratic exercise.
Mr. Davey, the Liberal Democrat spokesman, made it clear that his party wants more regional government. He said that Liberal Democrats for many years had been strong advocates of regional government.
Mr. Foster says that that is right, but only some Liberal Democrats are in favour of regional government. I assure the hon. Gentleman that, in my constituency, the Liberal Democrats are vociferous opponents of regional government. I do not want to impede the general love-in between the Government and Liberal Democrat Members, but the Conservative-Liberal coalition in Cumbria, which expelled a Labour council, has made it clear that it opposes regional government.
I am very happy to comment on the fact that the incoming administration, which decided with Liberal Democrat support to expel the Labour party, inherited a massive black hole of #3 million in Cumbria county council's accounts. That problem was made worse by DEFRA's failure to pay up on all the bills incurred during the foot and mouth outbreak.
Mrs. Dunwoody asked a very important question, to which I hope the Secretary of State will be able to respond. She asked for clarification of the concordat between DEFRA, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Department of Transport. She wanted to know what it was, what it covered and what it related to. I think that that is a very important matter, and I hope that the Secretary of State will respond.
In a characteristically powerful speech, my right hon. Friend Mr. Hague pointed out that regional government would shut out the interests of rural areas. He also made it clear that there is strong unhappiness in rural areas about the Government's 20-day livestock restriction rule. Many Conservative Members share that sentiment, and we hope that the Government will reconsider the matter urgently.
I pay genuine tribute to the courage of Joyce Quin, who was a Minister with the former Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in very difficult times during the foot and mouth crisis. She came to the county of Cumbria before any other MAFF Minister, and answered a number of questions that were put to her. She had a difficult case to make at that time, and she did so with courage. She was equally courageous today, and I may even alarm you, Mr. Speaker, when I note that she said that she thought that the Barnett formula should be reviewed. Not many Scottish Members of Parliament were present, but her remark is worth putting on record.
My right hon. Friend Mrs. Shephard was right to address the central issue of the democratic deficit that the Government propose. I hope that I can put the problem in very clear terms. Scotland is a nation and has a Parliament. Wales is a nation and has an Assembly. England is more than a collection of 10 artificial Euro regions. England is a nation too, and has a right to have its voice represented properly.
I am trying to follow the hon. Gentleman's logic. Scotland is a nation and has a Parliament; Wales is a nation and has an Assembly; and England is a great nation so it should have its own Parliament. Is that not the logic?
The logic is that we should have the excellent policy that my party has proposed of English votes on English laws in this Parliament. The hon. Gentleman was vociferous in his condemnation of my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden for daring to criticise the activities of the Scottish Parliament. We would perhaps take the hon. Gentleman's enthusiasm for the Scottish Parliament a little more seriously if, when it came to choosing between there and here, he had not chosen here rather than there.
The hon. Member for Carlisle rightly paid tribute to the value of Border Television, and I join him in that. My hon. Friend Andrew Selous made a serious allegation, to which I hope the Secretary of State will respond. My hon. Friend alleged that his constituents have been told that they will lose Government cash or new transport projects unless they publicly support the Government's actions. I hope that the Secretary of State will investigate that serious allegation, and have done with it if necessary.
We have heard excellent speeches about bureaucracy from hon. Members on both sides of the House. One of the big differences between Labour and Conservative Members is that, like the majority of people in this country, we do not believe that the answer to the problem of bureaucracy is to have more bureaucrats, more politicians, more assemblies, more headquarters buildings and all the rest of it. We think that this country is already over-governed, not under-governed.
Time and again the Government have made promises on these issues but have not been so good at keeping them. The Deputy Prime Minister said that after five years he would have cut road traffic: promise made, promise broken. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions said that our air is not for sale: promise made, promise broken. In 1999, MAFF set a target and said that it would avoid any major livestock disease outbreak: promise made, promise broken. The Prime Minister said that the Government had no plans to increase tax: promise made, promise broken. Labour told people in regional and rural communities up and down the land that things could only get better: promise made, promise broken. The Government have failed, failed and failed again. That is why the House should vote with enthusiasm for the Opposition amendment.
The debate covered a wide range of subjects, but it is incredible that the shadow spokesman on transport made a speech but said barely a word about that subject. This is a man who, when he spoke to his party conference, said that he would shortly make proposals on transport—yet he said not a word about them. That sounds to me like a promise made and a promise broken. He has failed to deliver.
Inevitably, many Members spoke about matters covered by the Deputy Prime Minister and by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I shall say one or two words about that as a matter of courtesy to those hon. Members. Clearly, there is a lot of feeling about regional and local government. My right hon. Friend Joyce Quin and my hon. Friends the Members for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead), for Wigan (Mr. Turner), for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) and for Caerphilly (Mr. David) referred to that subject. I have been in the House for 15 years, and it is surprising to hear Conservative Members' new-found devotion to local government. I spent the first 10 years of my time here listening to them attacking local government time after time, and talking about the abolition of councils, and the people's views did not seem to matter then.
A number of Members spoke about housing. My hon. Friend Mr. Pike has often raised in the House, and with Ministers, the problems that his constituents face. Today, the Minister for Local Government and the Regions made a written statement on second homes. The answers to many of the questions raised by Opposition Members and others are in that statement; on those that are not, hon. Members will have the opportunity to put their points in the House in the usual way.
The rural economy was another subject that was raised, although strangely not in the opening speech of David Davis. It was raised by the former leader of the Conservative party, Mr. Hague—clearly a man who is enjoying having shaken off the responsibility of being Leader of the Opposition. He made an extremely witty speech. If I too had shaken off my responsibilities, I might agree with one or two things that he said.
As for the rural economy and agriculture—that subject was raised by David Burnside, but he is not in his place now—this is not just a question of legislation. The Government are doing many things to help people who live in rural areas, and to try to help farmers to deal with very difficult circumstances—not only the aftermath of foot and mouth, but the long-term structural changes in agriculture.
Other matters, too, were raised. My hon. Friend Mr. Martlew mentioned the Communications Bill, and I am sure that there will be many occasions when the House can return to that subject and debate it.
As we approach the first of two Divisions on this Queen's Speech, it is strange that no Conservative Member has mentioned the economy today. Without a strong economy, there is no money to fund the public services—[Hon. Members: XThat was on Monday."] The economy is just on Monday, is it? It is on every day of the week, every week of the year. Only an Opposition who lost power because they had lost control of the economy could honestly believe that we only discuss the economy on Mondays.
What is also astonishing is that although in every debate on the Queen's Speech that I have heard for the past 15 years the Opposition have always divided the House on the economy, this year we have had no such Division. Do they agree with us? Have they no difficulties with the economy? Do they agree with our approach to it? It is astonishing that that should be the approach of the Conservative party.
Mr. Collins, who speaks for the Opposition on transport—at least, some of the time—said at the Conservative party conference:
Xpolitics should be about passion, excitement . . . and above all about optimism."
He also said:
XIt's time for Conservatives to put some fire in our bellies, to get up off our knees", but not on the economy—except on Mondays. He continued:
XThis country needs, deserves and is crying out for"— wait for it—
Xa strong opposition".
What a limit to the man's ambition. The Conservatives no longer aspire to be the party of government; they aspire to be the party of opposition. Perhaps that is why they discuss the economy only on Mondays and not on any other day of the week.
Without a strong economy, without the money necessary to finance our public services, we will not have the strong public services that most people want. The reason why we can invest in our public services is that we have a strong economy—the lowest inflation and the lowest long-term interest rates for 40 years and the lowest unemployment for 25 years, which shows that it is possible to have low inflation and high employment. We have rising levels of public investment year on year. That is why we have been able to recruit more police, more nurses, more teachers and more school support staff, and to put more money into transport. Those are all possible because of the deliberate decisions that we have taken both in relation to the economy and to invest in public services. And, as the Queen's Speech makes clear, that is all accompanied by measures to modernise and reform our public services—both are absolutely essential.
We have a clear purpose—a clear sense of direction. When we consider the Opposition amendment, on which we shall shortly vote, it is as well to remind ourselves of what was happening 10 years ago this year—15 per cent. interest rates, high unemployment, increasing poverty, increasing inequality, lack of opportunity, and a failing economy. Furthermore, 10 years ago this very year, the Tories were setting out on a monumentally expensive and botched rail privatisation. Unlike today, when the shadow Transport Secretary had precious little to say about transport, a few weeks ago he had something to say about Railtrack. He said at the Conservative party conference
XBut nor can we pretend that every aspect of rail privatisation was a success, that Railtrack worked remotely as we had hoped, or that ... our 1990s changes have won popular support."
I suppose that is the nearest we shall get to an apology from the hon. Gentleman: the transformation from the nasty party to the nice party. Then he promised that he would come up with new policies before the year was out. Well, the year has only six or seven weeks to go, and we cannot wait to hear the Conservative policy.
Critical to the continued success of our economy is the need to continue to improve our transport system. More people are in work. We are one of the largest economies in the world. People need and want to travel more and they can afford to do so. That means that we need to put more investment into our public transport, in rail and road, and we also need to ensure that we have an air transport system fit for the future. In the past, the promises of successive Governments were undermined when they either could not or would not find the money. That is why, for example, the west coast main line has not been upgraded since the 1960s or early 1970s. That is why there are problems right across the piece, in the railways and on the roads.
We now have a long-term investment plan over the next 10 years. We are getting to grips with the work that needs to be done. It will take a long time but improvements are beginning to come through.
As the Secretary of State is saying that the answer to the nation's transport problems is public investment, and as he has just referred to the 10-year transport plan, will he explain to the House why at the end of that 10-year plan—15 years into a Labour Government—[Interruption.]—he will be spending substantially less as a proportion of GDP on rail transport—[Interruption.]—
Now I see why the hon. Gentleman said that he wanted to be a strong Opposition—apparently, there are 10 more years of it to come.
As far as I could hear the hon. Gentleman, I think that he was asking whether investment was the only thing. No, it is not. It is necessary to make changes, as we have done: the SRA is providing strategic direction and we are ensuring that Network Rail takes over from the mess left by Railtrack. It is also important to reform the franchising system. All those things are being done.
My hon. Friend Mrs. Dunwoody asked about what Richard Bowker said. I think that he would be the first to agree that he was not saying that the Government had renationalised the railways. Patently, we have not. Richard Bowker's view was that the railway system needed strategic direction—something that it never had under the botched privatisation that the Tories left us. Performance is improving, although there is a long way to go. Much improvement still needs to be made in the railway industry and elsewhere.
I am glad that the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale welcomed the railway and transport safety Bill, which the House will have more time to debate in the future. It will make a big difference, and I hope that it will shorten the time that it takes to ascertain what has happened when anything occurs on the railways. The system has worked well for air and marine accidents, and it is the right way to ensure that we deal satisfactorily with rail safety.
Astonishingly, the hon. Gentleman did not mention roads. However, my point is the same. We need more investment and we need to ensure that we bear down on the problems of congestion. We need to improve road safety and make access easier for people and for goods. The Government are determined to do that, and we shall make further announcements in the not too distant future.
This year the Queen's Speech concentrates on two principal issues—crime and criminal justice, which will be debated tomorrow—but in the five years that the Govt have been in power, we have put in place the basics. We have built a strong economy. We have got more people back into work. We have driven up standards in education. We have devolved power to the regions and nations of this country. We have reformed welfare and health. We are improving the criminal justice. We are tackling the health and social care problems that we were left, and we are reforming public services. From the Opposition tonight, we had no vision, no sense of direction, just an ambition to try to be an Opposition, but the Government are showing a clear lead, and I commend the Queen's Speech to the House.