It may be helpful if I announce to the House that the proposed pattern of debate for the remaining days of the debate on the Queen's Speech will be as follows: Wednesday 24 November—foreign affairs and defence; Thursday 25 November—environment and transport, and local and devolved government affairs; Monday 29 November—home affairs; Tuesday 30 November—health and education; Wednesday 1 December—economic affairs.
I beg to move,
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, as follows:
Most Gracious Sovereign.
We, Your Majesty's most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Commons of the United Kingdom and Great Britain and Northern Ireland, in Parliament assembled, beg leave to offer our humble thanks to Your Majesty for the Gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament.
And I meant it, Mr. Speaker.
I was elected to the House in a by-election 18 years ago, almost to the day, and I am especially proud that my constituency is such a diverse and interesting place to represent. At the southern end of the constituency, in Knowsley, we have the estate of the Earl of Derby, which incorporates Knowsley safari park, which is, of course, particularly noted for its lions. On one occasion, residents living in the vicinity were asked what would happen if one of the lions escaped. "The lions will have to look after themselves, like the rest of us," they said.
The heart of the constituency is the town of Kirkby, built mainly in the 1960s to accommodate people displaced by slum clearance programmes in Liverpool. I have had a lifelong love affair with the town since I was a student at the technical college many years ago. Kirkby went through hard times in the 1980s and early 1990s, with unemployment levels as high as 60 per cent. in some parts. However, I am pleased to say that thanks to the sound economic stewardship of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer—[Interruption.] Wait for it. The town is now recovering dramatically.
I also have the eastern corner of Sefton in my constituency, which includes Maghull, Lydiate, Melling and Aintree. Aintree, of course, is the home of the grand national, and we are particularly proud that we host such a world famous event.
The House may be surprised to learn that a large part of my constituency is rural farmland. At a recent meeting in one village, I was asked what was going to happen about the problem of foxes causing a nuisance. I pointed out that, despite the Hunting Bill, in such circumstances landowners would still be able to shoot them. Another constituent then rose to his feet and said, "Well, that's fine for the foxes, but does it apply to the Jacksons?"
My constituency is not in Liverpool, but most of us who live there are of Liverpool and happily answer to the description, "scousers". As Mr. Johnson will no doubt confirm, if any Conservative Members have an issue with that, they should be warned: the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition and I have a little arrangement.
My constituency, in its various shapes and sizes, has in the past been represented by William Ewart Gladstone, between 1865 and 1868—[Interruption.] It was a long time ago. It was represented for many years by Harold Wilson, and my immediate predecessor was Robert Kilroy-Silk, who is now a Member of the European Parliament. They are all difficult acts to follow. Until I stood in the by-election following the resignation of the matinee idol, Robert Kilroy-Silk, I had blithely gone through life thinking that I bore a strong physical resemblance to Robert Redford. It came as quite a surprise to be described in one national newspaper as
"all nose, bone and moustache looking for all the world like a first world war Tommy about to go over the top at the Somme."
For a while, I consoled myself with the thought that I was just not photogenic. However, when I suggested that theory to my wife, she would not hear of it. "No, dear", she said, "you just look like that." [Laughter.]
I am afraid that I have no direct experience of Gladstone, but when I first became politically active as a teenager, our local MP was Harold Wilson. In 1966, as a reward for putting thousands of leaflets through letterboxes, I was invited to Harold's eve-of-poll public meeting, which was held in what was then called Prescot grammar school. At the end of the speech, as was his custom, Harold took questions in threes, which basically meant that if he did not like the sound of one he could answer the other two and hope that the third was forgotten. The first questioner asked, appropriately, about grammar schools. "Mr Wilson", he said, "you said in 1964 that they would abolish the grammar schools over your dead body, and now it's in your manifesto to abolish them. What have you got to say about that?" Harold duly answered the second and third questions, conveniently overlooking the first. A little later, the chairman—I never quite knew whether out of malice or myopia—called the same man again. He repeated the question, by this time purple with indignation. Harold stood up, took a long draw on his pipe and replied, "Friend, you're showing a morbid curiosity with in my corpse."
It is a particular pleasure to move this Address since so much of it is relevant to the issues that concern my constituents. Whatever divisions exist in my constituency, as elsewhere, about Iraq, we are as conscious and anxious as everybody else about the security threats that we face in the modern world. We know that one grievance that fuels terrorism is the fate of the Palestinians in the middle east. My constituents will fully support my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary in their efforts to work with other world leaders to bring about a just settlement to that corrosive problem. As a former Northern Ireland Minister, I know at first hand the focus and skill that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has at his command, and I am sure that the whole House wishes him well in his efforts to bring peace and stability to the middle east.
One of the major concerns in my constituency is law and order, and my constituents will welcome the measures in the Address to tackle crime, disorder and organised crime. As a former Home Office Minister, I know that a great deal has already been done to give the police and other law enforcement agencies the power and resources that they need, but that remains work in progress. I certainly welcome the proposed introduction of identity cards, which I strongly believe will help in the fight against crime and in combating terrorism.My constituents are impatient that those who are intent on creating havoc and misery in our communities should be either brought under control or, if that fails, removed from the community altogether. We have already lost patience with those in the courts and elsewhere who confuse human rights and civil liberties with having a licence to deal in drugs and keep hold of the profits. Such behaviour rightly causes outrage in decent, hard-working people.
Another commitment that my constituents will welcome is the further reform of the national health service to offer more information, power and choice to patients, with equal access for all, free at the point of delivery. I know that when my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster utter the words "reform" and "choice", nervous twitches break out on the Labour Benches. I would simply point out, however, that it is perfectly reasonable in the 21st century for people to have some choice and control over how services are provided. Surely it is a measure of progress that people now expect services to be delivered to suit the way that they live their lives, and it is fitting that a Government of the left should adopt such a progressive approach.
My constituents are particularly looking forward to improved public transport, including the Railways Bill, which I hope will help Merseyrail to extend the electrification of our local network. The proposed tram link between Kirkby and Liverpool city centre will also be of enormous benefit to the travelling public. My hon. Friend Derek Twigg is sitting next to me, and we are both also looking forward to the second Mersey crossing.
Many of my constituents work in hazardous occupations, and some have died or been injured as a result of inadequate health and safety in the workplace. Tragically, members of the public have also lost their lives or been injured as a result of the negligence of those responsible for their safety. For those reasons, I am very pleased that the Government are to introduce a Bill to create a new offence of corporate manslaughter.
Road safety is an important issue, and I am particularly pleased that the Road Safety Bill has been proposed in the Queen's Speech, especially as my daughter, Siân, passed her driving test this morning. I shall leave hon. Members to imagine what that could mean.
I hope that as much as possible of this ambitious programme can be put in place before the general election. For my own part, I am anxious to avoid repeating a mistake I made in a previous general election campaign. On the Saturday evening before polling day, I unwisely agreed to go on a tour of the many social clubs in my constituency, arriving at the piano bar of the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffalos club as my last port of call. I was asked by the club compere to take the stage and sing a song. Emboldened by several pints of bitter, I thought, "Why not?" Unaccountably, I decided to give a rendition of "Some Enchanted Evening". Having managed to get through it, I proudly headed to the back of the club where my agent, Mike Murphy, was standing. I approached him, poised to receive his admiring congratulations. "That," he said, "was worth a thousand votes—but not for you." On the basis of the measures in this Address, however, I confidently expect to have a better song to sing at the next general election, and I warmly commend the Queen's Speech to the House.
It is a great honour to second the Queen's Speech, although that was not the only emotion that I felt when I was asked to do it. Equal amounts of honour and trepidation came over me after I said yes, which I tend to say too readily—[Hon. Members: "Oh."] My confidence did not increase when I told my husband. After a shocked pause, he said, "But you have to be funny." With such support, how can I fail?
When I received the pager message to ring the Chief Whip, I was just about to give a speech in place of the Minister for Children, Young People and Families, who was otherwise tied up. I have advised her to keep her hands in her pockets in future.
I am very pleased to follow my hon. Friend Mr. Howarth, who has given such service to the House and to his constituents. I pay tribute to his work as a Northern Ireland Minister in pursuing the peace process. However, I most admire him for managing, despite his misfortune of living on the wrong side of the Pennines, to make something of his life.
I share one important bond with my hon. Friend: our involvement with the co-operative movement. The co-operative movement has long been important to the people of his region and mine. My noble Friend Lord Graham often jokes,
"it's not very co-operative, nor does it move a lot".
In recent years, however, it has had an upswing in its fortunes, with ideas of co-operation and mutuality enjoying a renaissance. I have been delighted to support three private Members' Bills in the House to modernise co-operatives and social enterprises, and I thank my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for International Development and my hon. Friends the Members for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mr. Lazarowicz) and for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) for their hard work in that regard.
As much as it is an honour for me and my constituents to be asked to second the Queen's Speech, the greatest privilege is to be a Member of the House, and for me, to represent the area where I grew up. I am sure that all Members will know that Sheffield, like Rome, is built on seven hills. It also has five rivers, and gets its name from the Sheaf, which forms one boundary of my constituency
I feel particularly fortunate to be the MP at a time of transformation for Heeley. Unemployment is down, school achievement is up, many children now go to new or refurbished schools, and there are more improvements to come. It is always a pleasure to meet children in the constituency and to get a glimpse of their view of the world. However, I am not always prepared for some of their questions. One year, St. Peter's Brownies troop were given the task of designing my Christmas card. After judging the drawings, and handing out the prizes, I chatted to them. Katie, aged seven, came up to me and with great seriousness asked, "Were you in the Houses of Parliament when Guy Fawkes tried to blow it up?" [Laughter.]
It has been a pleasure for me to work with local community groups, business organisations and faith groups, including churches and my local mosque. They provide support through educational opportunities and social activities. My constituents benefit from living in a thriving city, with its two universities, theatres, cinemas and modern tram system. South Yorkshire has been one of the poorest regions in the European Union, but with the support of objective 1 funding, there is substantial progress. I urge the Government to ensure that economically disadvantaged regions continue to receive extra help.
Before coming to Westminster, I had little idea of the day-to-day life of an MP. It was drilled into me that whatever else an MP does, they are expected to vote. To miss a vote is a dreadful thing. The punishment for such a heinous crime is cruel and unusual, and at the discretion of Mr. McAvoy—[Hon. Members: "Oh."] However else I organised my day, it was my responsibility to arrange things so that I got to the vote in the magical eight minutes allowed.
Various ways to fill my day poured in. I was asked several times whether I wanted to join the tap dancers. I wondered whether it was code for something interesting, so I decided to find out. Intrigued, I ventured to my first class and discovered great company, exhilarating exercise and a new way to relax. After the first lesson, I entered the shower in a relaxed frame of mind. I turned on the water and then—horror of horrors—the Division bell rang. There was a great kerfuffle as tap dancers grabbed their clothing—I was the only new member; the others seemed remarkably practised. Thinking of my right hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Rutherglen and what might happen if I missed the vote, I lunged out of the shower, grabbed a towel and discovered to my horror that my hon. Friend—
My hon. Friend Ms Taylor had grabbed my locker key and disappeared. I was left with a stark choice—my reputation for modesty and decorum or my reputation with Tommy. He lost—I followed the advice of the great Nye Bevan and decided not to go naked into the Chamber.
I persevered with the tap group, known as the "Division Belles", particularly enjoying our public offering at the annual charity event, where the professional presentation of many hon. Members present is a wonder to behold. Tap dancing does not seem to be to the detriment of a parliamentary career, with two Home Office Ministers and the chair of the parliamentary Labour party being part of the troupe. Sadly, the most talented tap dancer in the House is not a Division Belle—I wonder whether it is fear for his reputation that keeps the Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, my hon. Friend Phil Hope, away.
I am aware that one of my faults is getting involved in too many things. So far, that has led to my playing hockey, taking part in the tug of war, running, cycling and becoming a founder member of the women's parliamentary football team, which sadly still only has sufficient players for five-a-side. I seem to get selected for everything, except for the tennis team—my greatest love—where our captain, Sir Michael Spicer, has failed to pick me. I wonder whether that is because of the company that I keep at practice sessions. The most regular attendees are Mr. Mackay and Mr. Swayne. The right hon. Member for Bracknell is a forgiving gentleman—he seems to bear me no malice for casting a vote for his Labour opponent in 1983, when I briefly lived in his constituency. However, I wonder whether the Conservative party has a dress code, because on the tennis court he always has his shirt firmly tucked into his shorts—at least.
I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House will join me in expressing appreciation for the service of the hon. Member for New Forest, West in Iraq. I shall resist the temptation to move from his gallant service with the forces to discuss his service on the tennis court. I was delighted for him when he was appointed to his current post, although as one of my more unkind hon. Friends said, "It seems extraordinary that a vampire should choose a werewolf as his PPS." Personally, I have always found the right hon. Member for Bracknell and the hon. Member for New Forest, West perfectly charming.
I know that the Leader of the Opposition appears in daylight, because we met recently outside our offices during a fire alarm. He has conducted extensive research in his quest for interesting information—nay gossip—about me, even sending a young emissary into the wilds of Yorkshire this weekend. Unfortunately for him, his emissary came across a member of my staff, whom he tried to quiz. The member of my staff replied in true Yorkshire style, "You're getting nowt out of me!"
Before I arrived at the House, I was described by one commentator as
"strapping with a pleasant toothy smile".
I do not know how familiar you are, Mr. Speaker, with some of the websites that provide information on MPs, but a quick look at one profile of me reveals that
"This MP hardly ever rebels."
I think that that is what The Times meant in calling me an "arch Blairite loyalist". I am not sure about "arch", but as a Blairite loyalist I welcome the range of measures in the Queen's Speech, particularly proposals for financial support for those in education aged between 16 and 19. Sheffield has an excellent education strategy for that age group, and when it is coupled with that additional financial support, more young people than ever before will be in education or training.
I have had many letters praising the success of the fireworks legislation, and my constituents will be pleased to hear that the Government intend to legislate further on antisocial behaviour. My right hon. Friend—and fellow Sheffielder—the Home Secretary has rightly identified the importance to many of our constituents of tackling antisocial behaviour and its appalling impact on communities. Many constituents also write to me about their concerns regarding Africa and the need for trade justice for the developing world. They will be pleased to hear of the Government's commitments as Britain takes on presidency of the G8 and of the EU. Too little progress has been made internationally on the millennium development goals. Tackling poverty and HIV/AIDS in Africa needs to be a priority for the developed world.
Renewed effort on the middle east peace process will be widely welcomed. Israelis and Palestinians deserve to live free from the fear of violence and from the dreadful poverty that blights too many lives. Identifying how a two-state solution can be achieved could not be more important.
Mr. Speaker, it is with great pleasure that I second the Queen's Speech.
I begin by paying tribute to Jim Marshall, who had a distinguished record as a Member of this House for almost 30 years. His sudden death last May shocked us all. Principled and independent-minded, he voted for what he believed in, and he did so without the fanfare of publicity. Honourable in every sense of the word, he was highly respected by friends and political opponents alike. Westminster is poorer for his absence. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."]
I warmly congratulate the proposer and seconder of the Loyal Address. Mr. Howarth has many claims to fame. He was once a Home Office Minister—almost always a good sign. He is a racing man—always a good sign. Best of all, he is a keen supporter of Liverpool football club. I fought two elections in Liverpool, so between us we have fought seven and won five—a record that our football team would be pretty happy with just at the moment.
The hon. Gentleman is also an adviser to William Hill, so I hope that he can explain something that I found on its website today. Under "Political Bets" is a section headed "Peter Mandelson Specials". The bet is that Peter Mandelson will not last the full term. The odds are 4:1 and I am told that the Chancellor has filled his boots. [Laughter.] I am sure that I speak for the whole House when I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the characteristic warmth, eloquence and sincerity with which he addressed us today. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] Ms Munn spoke with the wit and humour that we have come to expect of her, despite her short time in Parliament. She demonstrates her commitment to Westminster not only with words but with action, as she reminded us this afternoon. She has not only completed a Westminster mile, run in aid of Sport Relief, but has been on the winning side in the ladies' tug of war. She has given us tantalising glimpses this afternoon of her exploits on the tennis court and elsewhere.
The hon. Lady has shown great loyalty to her party, as she pointed out. She has played her full part in Labour's big conversation and remains one of its most enthusiastic supporters. In fact, such is her commitment to the big conversation that she suggests on her website that it should now be renamed "Still talking". The hon. Lady has put her party's approach to politics in a nutshell, and I am sure that she has a very bright future.
Before I examine the Gracious Speech in detail, I shall deal with certain matters that do not fall directly within the remit of the Government's legislative programme. The next few days could determine whether devolved government is restored to Northern Ireland this side of the general election. Like the Prime Minister, I certainly hope that it will be, but we must establish some clear ground rules before political parties that have links to paramilitary organisations can take part in government. All paramilitary activity must stop. All illegal weapons must be decommissioned. All parties must give their support to the police and all sides must back the principle of consent.
The elections in Iraq, planned for January, will introduce the principle of consent in that country as well. Although they pose real challenges, we welcome them. I pay particular tribute to the courage and dedication of the many British servicemen and women serving with such great distinction in Iraq today.
Opposition Members support the principles behind some Bills in the Gracious Speech, though we will doubtless have constructive suggestions about how they can be improved. However, there are a number of omissions from the Gracious Speech. There will be a Bill to give effect to the constitutional treaty for the European Union. Apparently, it will provide for a referendum, but there is no date. The Prime Minister said that he would stand up for Britain's interests in Europe, but as his own former economic adviser has admitted, the Prime Minister's approach to the constitution has been "gutless". That adviser said of the British Government:
"First, it opposed a written constitution and then it put forward its own draft, which was treated with contempt. Then there was all that nonsense about 'tidying-up'. There was no strategic thinking."
The Prime Minister promised to give leadership in Europe, so why can he not give a lead? Why is he waiting for the rest of Europe? Why is he content simply to follow? Why can we not have a date for the referendum?
There will be a Bill to
"streamline the organisation of the national rail system".
The Government are too embarrassed to admit that that will really be a Bill to abolish the Strategic Rail Authority. No wonder—in 1999, the Prime Minister said:
"We have moved beyond the sterile debate between wholesale privatisation and old-style state control. There is a different way. A third way . . . That's what we're doing with the . . . Strategic Rail Authority."
Clearly, for the Prime Minister, the third way is not the permanent way.
I was particularly surprised not to see in the Gracious Speech a Bill for broadband Britain. After all, at his party conference just two months ago, the Prime Minister promised to
"end the digital divide by bringing broadband technology to every home in Britain that wants it" by 2008. My right hon. Friend Sir George Young wanted to know how that was going, so he wrote to the Minister for Energy and E-Commerce, who everyone knows is a stickler for the truth. The Minister wrote back to say:
"The Prime Minister's speech . . . has not been agreed as government policy".
So now it is official—even his own Ministers do not take what the Prime Minister says seriously. They know that he is all talk.
While we welcome some of the individual proposals in the Gracious Speech, the overall reaction to it—even, I suspect, on the Government side—will be, "Haven't we heard it all before?" Today the Prime Minister says that he wants security and opportunity. Yet that same Prime Minister has already promised us "the decent society", "the creative economy", "a stakeholder economy", "a new age", "a new age of achievement", "the giving age" and "the age of challenge". No doubt he will soon be telling us that this is no time for soundbites. What the country wants to know is when he will deliver. The year 1998 was the post-euphoria, pre-delivery year and 1999 supposedly the year of delivery, but that clearly did not work because 2001 became the instruction to deliver year. That was not a great success either, so 2003 was christened the poised to deliver year. So what is it this year: is it the year of delivery, the year of achievement or are we just simply poised for the achievement of delivery?
Perhaps the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry can shed some light on that issue. After all, she was the one who criticised the Government last year for their lack of delivery. That was a bit rich coming from her. She spent last year lecturing people about the need to save energy. As she says, why pay more than we need to? Yet two nights ago, her Department was lit up like a Christmas tree. When asked why, her spokesman helpfully explained by saying that the lights were either on or off. He is clearly going to go far in this Government.
The truth is that we can tell the Prime Minister's mood from the tune that he sings. In 1997 it was, "Things can only get better"; in 2001, "We've only just begun"—[Interruption.]
Today, we can all predict what the tune will be: "Give me just a little more time". If it took Winston Churchill five years to win the second world war and Clement Attlee six years to build the welfare state, surely seven and a half years is more than enough for this Prime Minister to get a grip on the problems that face Britain today.
"In a year or so we're going to have an election . . . when people will say we've 'paid a lot of taxes but what has really been achieved with all that money?' . . . Too often a lot of money has been spent. But very little seems to have been achieved".
Those are not my words, but those of Mr. Timms, the Financial Secretary to the Treasury. So now it is official: even Ministers know that the Government have not delivered. They know that it is all talk.
In my area, unemployment rose by some 20 per cent. when the right hon. and learned Gentleman was a Minister. He has told us that he will sack Ministers who do not deliver. How would he react to his Employment Ministers putting a million on to the jobless figures? Would he sack them?
What the hon. Gentleman has not taken into account and has conveniently forgotten is that unemployment started falling under the last Conservative Government in 1992. Perhaps he can explain to his constituents why 8 million people—more than in 1997—are economically inactive in the country today and why a million young people are still neither in work nor in training. I hope that he has a good explanation to give to his own constituents when he deals with those matters.
People are paying a lot more in tax and they are not getting value for money. Hard-working families are paying the equivalent of £5,000 a year more in tax, but what do they have to show for it? A million patients are still on NHS waiting lists, a million children are still playing truant from school and there are a million violent crimes. It is no wonder that hard-working families feel hard-pressed and hard done by under this Government. People are fed up with talk and want action.
In respect of the possibility that more taxes can produce disappointing results, the right hon. and learned Gentleman promised in his shadow Queen's Speech to restore the link between pensions and earnings. Does he accept that the cost of paying for that pledge would amount to an additional £38 billion in taxes by 2050—that is, twice as much as the cost of paying for pensions linked to prices? That policy would do nothing at all for low-paid workers, most of whom are women, as they would still not have a sufficient record of national insurance contributions to qualify for the basic state pension. The policy would lay an enormous burden on the economy, while widening the inequalities in our society.
I think that the right hon. Gentleman will find that pensioners are more interested in the real difficulties that they face today than in what might happen in 2050. [Interruption.]
I hope that the right hon. Gentleman has looked in detail at the reports from the committee on taxpayer value that we have published. They spell out in great detail how we will save enormous amounts of money by getting rid of bureaucracy and waste in this bloated and fat Government. The reports are all in the public domain, and people have had an opportunity to challenge them. Will he say which of those reports he criticises and why? [Interruption.]
I should have thought that the right hon. Gentleman might have done some home work before intervening in such a crass way. [Interruption.] Anybody else?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about people paying more in tax. Can he confirm the following figures from the House of Commons Library? They show that, in 1997, a married couple on average earnings with two children paid 17 per cent. in tax and national insurance contributions as a proportion of earnings. That proportion today is 12 per cent.
Most families are paying £5,000 a year more in tax than they were in 1997. That is what they know, and the hon. Gentleman ought to know it too.
It was the right thing to do then, and restoring the link is the right thing to do now. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman may not have noticed that the world has changed in the past 20 years. It has become a different place. Under this Chancellor over the past seven years, there has been a move to make pensioners more dependent on the means test and the state, and on filling in complicated forms to get the help that they need. That is why we must take measures to help pensioners as soon as we get back to government. That is what we are going to do.
Let us talk about education. [Interruption.]
Order. I call on the House to come to order.
I can understand why Labour Members do not want to be reminded of what the Prime Minister said 10 years ago. At that time, he said that it was important to stress the importance of discipline in schools, but what has happened? Today, a teacher is assaulted every seven minutes in our schools. The Education Secretary has told schools that they will have to admit unruly pupils, even if they do not want to.
Two years ago, the Government launched their flagship education policy, "The Power to Innovate". That was designed to give schools more freedom. There are 21,000 state schools in Britain, but just five have been granted that freedom.
The same year, the Government launched earned autonomy and the Education Secretary promised that he would promote it energetically. Not a single school has got earned autonomy. When people hear the Prime Minister talking today about school freedom and choice and about discipline in the classroom, they will see it for what it is—it is all talk. Parents want action. They want action to ensure that their children can actually learn when they go to school and are not disrupted by the unruly behaviour of others. That is why we would give head teachers the final say over expulsions.
Patients want us to clean up our hospitals. The Prime Minister talks about security, but the security that patients want is the peace of mind that comes from knowing that they will not catch a new infection when they go into hospital. Three years ago, the Government promised that every patient had the right to expect that their local hospital meets the highest standards of cleanliness. We have had 21 health Bills and 22 MRSA initiatives, yet at least 5,000 people still die every year from infections picked up in hospital. Doctors and nurses still do not have the power to shut wards that they know are infected.
We will have almost a dozen Home Office Bills in this Session. After seven and a half years, with just five months to go before an election, why should people believe now that the Government are suddenly going to fix crime? The Prime Minister promised cash point fines for yobs—it never happened. He said they would dock housing benefit from antisocial tenants—it never happened. Night courts were closed after six months. As for being tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime, his Government are letting prisoners out early and have downgraded punishment for shoplifting. Is it any wonder that crime is out of control?
Crime figures are the measure of whether the Government are succeeding or failing; that is what the Prime Minister says. When he criticises our record, he always uses the recorded crime figures. He did it again last week. Recorded crime fell by 18 per cent. when I was Home Secretary. Under his Government, it has gone up by 16 per cent. On his own criterion, he has failed where I succeeded.
This weekend, we were told that drugs would be the Government's priority. We have heard that before, too. In 1999, the Prime Minister promised new action to break the link between drugs and crime. It was all talk. His Government have downgraded cannabis. According to the Met, more people are being caught with cannabis but fewer are being arrested. Perhaps that is what he meant by breaking the link between drugs and crime. What does it say about the Prime Minister's priorities that he talks about protecting children from sweets and crisps but will not keep them safe from cannabis?
Yesterday, the Metropolitan Police Federation said that, even without arrest, there is still plenty of paperwork. People do not want the police filling in forms. They want them out on streets, challenging and confronting every kind of criminal behaviour, from graffiti to drug dealing. That is why we will take action to cut police paperwork by scrapping the politically correct form that officers have to fill in every time they stop someone. We will take action on drugs. We need to offer every youngster on hard drugs the chance of residential rehab. All the evidence shows that that is what works best. That is what we will deliver.
The Prime Minister talks about our nation's security. It is one of his many priorities, just as it was 10 years ago when he said:
"Today's politics is about the search for security in a changing world."
How can we guarantee security when we do not even know who is coming into our country? There are 250,000 failed asylum seekers somewhere in Britain. So much for the Prime Minister's promise of a fairer, faster and firmer asylum system. He has had seven and a half years, but he has not even got to first base on that. How can he keep a straight face talking about security when he is going to cut our armed forces and disband historic regiments, including the Black Watch?
People can see through the talk. They are fed up with it. They want action to reinstate 24-hour security at our ports. They want action to tighten up on work permits, and to let Parliament decide how many people can come into Britain every year. The Prime Minister knows it. That is why the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster—the Minister paid £130,000 a year to write Labour's manifesto—was busy briefing The Sunday Times that:
"the Tories have won a clear advantage by promising an annual limit for the number of asylum seekers and legal immigrants. Tony Blair is 'sympathetic'".
But we know that the Labour Government will never deliver because they are all talk, all spin and no substance. They never learn and never change.
The truth is that the Government have over-hyped everything. "Over-hyped" is not my word, but that of Mr. Milburn. There is no one more addicted to over-hyping than the Home Secretary. Just last Sunday, he was talking about the measures needed to protect us from terrorism. He went through them in detail—juryless trials, wire-tap evidence, yet more police powers to pre-empt terrorists. But there is no legislation in the Gracious Speech to provide them. So we have a Government who admit that the law needs to be changed, but not yet; a Government who say that protection from terrorism is a priority, but not yet; a Government who say, "We will take action to keep you safe", but not yet. There can be no better example of the Government's pre-occupation with talk, spin and newspaper headlines. What the people of this country want is a Government who make their lives better month by month, year by year.
We will promise only what we know we can deliver. We will ensure that children can actually learn when they go to school by giving head teachers the power to expel unruly pupils. We will give patients the right to choose where they are treated and doctors the power to close wards when they are infected with a superbug. We will cut police paperwork so that the police can get out on the streets and cut crime. We will get a grip on immigration and asylum by giving priority to genuine refugees and people who have a real contribution to make to our country. And yes, we will give pensioners the security that they deserve in their old age by restoring the link between the basic state pension and average earnings. That is what this legislative programme should have been about—the people's priorities of school discipline, cleaner hospitals, more police, lower taxes and controlled immigration. Today, after seven years of this Government and five months before the general election, all that we get from them is more rhetoric, more promises and more talk. But this Government will never turn talk into action, so it is time for a Government who will.
First, may I join in the tributes to our colleague Jim Marshall. He was a well-respected Member of the House who worked tirelessly for his Leicester, South constituents. He will be missed by them and by his many friends on both sides of the House, and the thoughts of all of us are with his family at this time.
My hon. Friend Mr. Howarth made a typically warm, witty and generous speech, and I pay tribute to it. As he said, he entered the House after a by-election in 1986. He replaced Robert Kilroy-Silk, whose television career, from what I hear, was largely spent with warring families who were at each other's throats. What a relief it must have been when he left television to join the UK Independence party.
I wholeheartedly support my hon. Friend's warm tribute to Harold Wilson and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend's work as a Northern Ireland Minister. He achieved something which I know from experience is pretty rare in the politics of Northern Ireland: he was popular in all parts of the community. Along with him and all Members of the House, I hope that we can restore devolved government in Northern Ireland.
My hon. Friend is, as we all know, a kind-hearted individual, but he is also someone with a sharp sense of humour, as we have heard today. In addition to other remarks made about his personal appearance, one parliamentary sketch writer rather unkindly described him as looking like a serial killer. My hon. Friend wasted no time in dropping the journalist a note to warn him that appearances "are not always deceptive". [Laughter.] I suspect that my hon. Friend is the only Member who can claim to be the chairman—unpaid—of an ice-lolly factory, which is famous locally for its slogan, "What could be nicer than a Pendelton's Twicer". So it is clear that politics' gain has been advertising's loss.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and also, of course, to my hon. Friend Ms Munn. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East, she knows her constituency extremely well, having been born and brought up there. Her mother was a linchpin of the local health service, having first been a nurse and then helping to train hundreds of others to follow in her footsteps, and I hope and am sure that she is proud of the investment and improvements that the Government, with her daughter's support, have wrought in the national health service.
I am told—although I have no means of knowing whether it is true—that for many years, as a child, my hon. Friend went camping with my right hon. Friends the Minister for Sport and Tourism and the Home Secretary; and even that did not put her off the Labour party. I also know that her late father was not only agent for the constituency but was also lord mayor of Sheffield, so she has a very long family tradition of association in Sheffield. She tap dances, as she said; she did not say that she also speaks several languages. I am not sure whether she does both at the same time, but I congratulate her on an excellent speech and wish her many years in the House.
The Queen's Speech commits the Government to continuing the policies for economic opportunity and change in our public services. Mr. Howard asked where was the delivery, and he mentioned the Government's record. I am very happy to engage in a comparison of records, and indeed on what we have delivered. Over the past seven and a half years, Bank of England independence, prudent economic management and the new deal have delivered the lowest interest rates, lowest inflation and lowest unemployment for decades. Living standards of every section of the population are up. That is delivery after seven and a half years.
When the right hon. and learned Gentleman was a leading member of the last Conservative Government, we had two recessions. We now have sustained economic growth. We had interest rates of 10 per cent. for four years; now they stand at about 5 per cent. When he was Secretary of State for Employment, this country lost 1 million jobs; in the past seven and a half years, we have gained 2 million jobs. That is delivery. We saw pensioner poverty and child poverty increase under the last Government. Now we see 700,000 children lifted out of poverty and 2 million pensioners lifted out of acute hardship.
In the last Conservative Parliament, when the right hon. and learned Gentleman was a senior member of that Conservative Government, we saw spending per pupil in our schools cut. Since the Labour Government came to power, it has been increased by £800 per pupil in real terms. That is delivery.
When the right hon. and learned Gentleman was last in office, national health service waiting lists—under the Conservatives—rose by 400,000. Now they have fallen by 300,000. Of course there are still problems; he mentioned one—MRSA. But let us be clear: after years in which the NHS was run down, its services depleted, its training cut and its buildings unrenewed, we now have the national health service on its way back, thanks to the investment and reform under the Labour Government.
Go to any constituency. Look at the schools and see the computers, the new classrooms and new sports facilities. See the new nurseries and the Sure Start programme. Look at the hospitals and the new wings in hospitals—the biggest building programme in the NHS since it was formed.
Abroad, the Government can be proud that Britain is leading the way in debt relief, aid and help to the continent of Africa, with overseas aid to Africa set to treble by 2007–08. That is delivery, too.
I cannot, no, because I do not know the particular circumstances of the schools in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, but I bet that, if I look at the figures for those schools, they will have received substantial extra investment from the Government over the past few years. I do not know the particular circumstances of those schools, but I do know that, if we go into any constituency—I believe that mine is typical in this way—there is investment in primary schools, in secondary schools and in the numbers of teachers and classroom assistants. All of that was denied under the last Conservative Government; all of it delivered under this Labour Government. Let us never forget, indeed, that every penny piece of that investment, every economic measure, such as Bank of England independence, and every attempt at fairness, such as the minimum wage, was opposed by the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe and the Conservative party.
The Queen's Speech therefore builds on our record. Legislatively, it focuses on crime and security, but it should be taken alongside the pre-Budget report next week, which will focus on economic stability and opportunity, and the five-year programmes, not just for the NHS and schools, but for skills, child care, housing, public health, transport, pensions, art and sports. In every area, we recognise that the future is posing fresh challenges, that the traditional ways of meeting them no longer do so and that, if we want to help the British people to cope with economic globalisation, terrorism, organised crime and the pressures of modern work and family life, we have to change radically the way that public services, the welfare state and the criminal justice system work.
In respect of crime, the Queen's Speech does indeed build on earlier legislation. The right hon. and learned Gentleman suggested that all that had failed. He said that we did not want to look at recorded crime figures, but let me remind him that recorded crime doubled under the previous Government. According to the British crime survey, crime is down since 1997. It actually rose, even under the last Government, on the British crime survey figures. It is not true either that earlier legislation is effective. Antisocial behaviour legislation is now accepted in all parts of the House as one of the most successful pieces of law and order legislation that has been passed.
I do not believe that police time will be diverted into that, as the Home Secretary made clear at the weekend, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman would agree that 12,500 extra police officers—record numbers of police officers and community support officers—is something that the Government can be very proud of.
The Prime Minister has just said that antisocial behaviour legislation is accepted in all parts of the House, and it is warmly supported in this part of the House, but the people whom we represent will be quite disappointed to hear that the Government's third antisocial behaviour Bill has been announced, when we in Northern Ireland have only just got the first on the statute book, but not yet in force, and have no sight of the second. Will the Prime Minister ensure that his Government implement in Northern Ireland what they promise for the people of the rest of the United Kingdom?
I will do my very best to ensure that, since I am sure that the issue is every bit as important in Northern Ireland as elsewhere. Of course, if the hopes that he and I both have are realised, perhaps a devolved set of institutions can ensure that that happens quickly.
The measures that the Conservative party opposed are now accepted. The Queen's Speech announces the establishment of a serious organised crime agency and widens law enforcement agencies' powers to force co-operation with investigations. It takes up measures proposed by front-line law officers to tackle the menace of drugs and to compel criminals who are addicts into treatment. It gives parish councils and local Government the powers that they have asked for to tackle things such as fly-tipping, night-time noise and problem alleyways, and through the establishment of prison and probation service, allows us to target the prolific offenders, grip their behaviour after release and on bail and make it harder for them to commit crime. Through the identity cards Bill, we will pave the way for a British identity card—at first voluntary, and then in time, compulsory. That is a big change, but frankly, with terrorism, illegal immigration and organised crime operating with much greater sophistication, identity cards, in my judgment, are long overdue.
It is said that those measures are scaremongering. It is true that there are record numbers of police and it is true that overall crime is falling, but the fact is that the threats faced by this country and every other major country around the world are real. There are still far too many victims of crime and I am determined, building on the success of the antisocial behaviour legislation, to ensure that we have respect and responsibility back on the streets and in the communities of Britain.
The Scottish Executive said this morning that identity cards would not be compulsory in Scotland for gaining access to devolved services, leading to the possibility that people will not need them to go to hospital but will need them to collect a pension. Will identity cards be compulsory in Scotland or not?
The devolved services are a matter for the Scottish Executive under devolution legislation, as the hon. Gentleman knows. However, it would be our intention here to ensure that when they are compulsory—obviously, that has to go through a legislative process in the House—they are essential in order to access services.
As well as a strong domestic policy agenda, the Queen's Speech also commits us to completing the task of bringing democracy to Iraq. I pay a special tribute to the heroism, courage and commitment of British soldiers serving in Iraq. They are a huge source of pride for the country. The Queen's Speech also places at the centre of our foreign policy the reinvigoration of the middle east peace process. This is no longer just about security for the middle east. It affects Britain's security and that of the wider world.
Our G8 priorities—Africa and climate change—will form the other principal part of the Government's foreign policy and I hope, as priorities for the G8, will gain support across the House and the country. The Queen's Speech, therefore, builds on a strong economic and foreign policy record, investment in public services and the success of the antisocial behaviour legislation. Its policies are radical, but realistic and costed.
I turn now to the alternative Queen's Speech issued by the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe. It is just over a year since he became leader of the official Opposition—not a long time in most jobs, except perhaps that of the Tory leader. I thought it might help the House if we looked back at what he promised when he stood for the post.
"I will lead this party from its centre", he vowed.
"We will never place our electoral self-interest before the good of the country", he declared.
"No narrow partisan opportunism for us", he promised. He went on to pledge:
"Rigorous honesty, measured criticism, realistic alternatives."
Let us examine that in relation to the tax and spending policies that the Conservative party issued in the past few weeks. Last week, the Conservatives published their tax plans. They tantalised us with billions of pounds of options on tax cuts on everything from inheritance tax—as ever, appealing to the top 5 per cent. of the population—to the top rate of tax. That is up to £6 billion of tax cuts or more. But then we read the small print of the document and, tucked away at the end is this sentence:
"The presence of a particular option in this paper does not constitute any guarantee or promise that the particular option in question will form any part of any Conservative budget."
We are introducing a consumer credit Bill to protect people from sharp practice. I think we will have to amend it to cover Tory policy.
"The presence of a particular option does not constitute any guarantee or promise that it will form any part of any Conservative budget."
So there we have it. It is not a real tax cut; it is a fantasy tax cut and a fraud because it is sold as a reality.
Are the Conservatives any more credible on spending? One year ago, the shadow Chancellor said that if elected, he would freeze departmental budgets in cash terms except for the national health service and schools. That is £20 billion of cuts in vital spending. However, while he says that he will stop spending, the other shadows have started fantasy spending. They have promised more spending on defence, prison, rehab places, the elderly, schools, school nurses, pensions, transport, higher education and the national health service. But they have run into a bit of a problem. They have sort of promised tax cuts; they have sort of promised spending; and they have sort of realised that it does not add up. So now they promise fantasy savings.
The right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe said that no one had challenged his figures on savings. Let me start the challenge—a challenge that he is going to hear from now until election day. The Tories say that they will spend £2.9 billion more on defence than Labour, and that they will get £1.6 billion of that from defence savings. When one looks at the detail, one finds that it is £900 million from what they call logistics and procurement, but unfortunately we are already going to save £1 billion from logistics and procurement; in other words, there are no savings of £900 million for the Tories to make. The other saving that the shadow Chancellor says he will get is from the new deal. He says that if he scraps the new deal he will save money, but the new deal is cutting unemployment and saving money for us.
The fantasy does not end there. [Interruption.] No, there is more. The Tories say that they will spend £1.3 billion extra on police because they will cut investment in immigration and asylum by processing all asylum claims abroad. I have been dying to ask them this all the way through: where is this place that is going to process all the asylum claims? Where is the country that is going to say, "Yes, I'd like your failed asylum seekers"?
We start with fantasy tax cuts; we then have fantasy spending; we then have fantasy savings and now we have a fantasy country. Then, of course, we have the Tory policy on Europe. We remember the words about leading from the centre; back comes Mr. Redwood into the shadow Cabinet. The Tories have now ditched 30 years of policy on engagement with Europe in favour of renegotiation, a policy that even Margaret Thatcher would not entertain. We know that the right hon. Gentleman has boasted that the unilateral renegotiation of our membership of the European Union is "easy".
She did not get it through renegotiation. [Interruption.] Of course she did not. The financing terms of the EU had to be agreed, and she agreed the rebate as part of that. Indeed, the very reason we were able to get the rebate is that the EU had not agreed its financing terms. The right hon. and learned Gentleman has to explain how he will renegotiate things that the Government have already entered into. That is the difference. In order to renegotiate terms that the Government have already committed themselves to—on fisheries, on social policy, on the social chapter, on the common agricultural policy—and which other countries have already agreed, the right hon. and learned Gentleman would have to get the agreement of every one of the other 24 countries. Where are the other countries that are going to agree? They do not exist, so now we even have a fantasy European Union to go alongside the fantasy country.
Fantasy policies are amusing for a fantasy Government, but supposing that Government became a reality, then the fantasy becomes a fraud on the British people and is no longer amusing but dangerous. It would be back to the failed policies of the past. Think of the damage to mortgages, to jobs and to prosperity; think, and then think again before voting the Tories back in. Under the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Tories are right back to where they were. No wonder—he served as a Minister in that Government for 10 years, seven of them in the Cabinet. He introduced the poll tax. He opposed the minimum wage. He was a key economic Minister when interest rates rose, unemployment topped 3 million and negative equity took its toll. He is not the hope of a successful Tory future because he is the reincarnation of a failed Tory past. [Hon. Members: "What about the Lib Dems?"] I was going to say a word or two about the Liberal Democrats, if that is all right.
As for the Lib Dems, I suppose at least they do not pretend that they can finance their spending commitments out of thin air, but they do pretend that taking £30 billion over one Parliament from top-rate taxpayers and giving local authorities the right to tax the income of hard-working families will finance their pledges. I simply say that that will increase hugely the income tax—top and basic rate—of millions of families. The wealthiest will find a way of avoiding it; it is ordinary families that will be hardest hit. Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats will oppose the measures on crime that the same families will surely welcome.
The truth is that the policies of the Opposition parties—[Hon. Members: "Is that it?"] It is about all they deserve, but I have more if they want—[Interruption.] Since they want a bit more, I will give them a bit more. On one of my occasional forays into Lib-Dem spending commitments, I have come across the best one yet. It is about bee keeping. The Lib Dem shadow Chancellor, Dr. Cable, says:
"Benefits from bees' natural pollination activities are enormous, worth billions of pounds. There is however negligible research into damaging diseases and I have pressed the Ministry of Agriculture for a bigger research commitment."
I hope that the Chancellor is taking note. I had not realised that there were votes in bee keeping, but if the Liberal Democrats think there are, there probably are. If any bee keepers are listening, we are right on your side.
The truth is that this Government have a strong economic record; there is investment in public services and investment in extra numbers of police. Legislation on crime and security will go alongside the pre-Budget report and the five-year programmes to provide opportunity and security for all in a changing world. By contrast, the policies of the Opposition parties are either incredible or, where credible, damaging. So there is a choice: economic stability or economic danger; investment in public services or cuts; action on poverty and social justice or indifference; the future or the past. This Queen's Speech is strong on economic opportunity, strong on the nation's security and fair in helping all people whatever their background to fulfil their potential to the full. I commend it to the House.
It is my pleasant duty as well to commence by paying tribute to the first two speakers of this afternoon's debate. Mr. Howarth entertained us with comments on his illustrious predecessors from his neck of the woods—well, some of them were illustrious. The one who was not was the one whom I used to sit beside on the Liberal Democrat Front Bench not that many years ago, and I think the hon. Gentleman knows whom I am referring to.
No. I have been in the House longer than the hon. Gentleman, but not that long.
The hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East recounted Harold Wilson's ability to deal with the awkward question. My favourite in that department is the time when The Daily Express was characteristically giving the Labour Government a hard time of it and Jean Rook, the self-styled first lady of Fleet street, was sent round to No. 10 for an early-evening dram with Harold. He poured her a drink, got the pipe out and said, "In your own time, Jean." She said, "Prime Minister Wilson, is it true that whenever you are asked a tough, awkward or difficult question that puts you on the spot and you don't want to answer, you always respond by means of a question?" Wilson thought, took the pipe out of his mouth and said, "Now who told you that, Jean?"
As these exchanges will not be televised until after the watershed, I can say that we found the speech of Ms Munn a fascinating lifting of the veil over the workings of the Labour Whips Office. If that is not an incentive for many of us to aspire all the more to the trappings of office, I do not know what is.
It is a sad task to pay tribute to a colleague who, alas, is no longer with us. He was a friend and somebody I very much liked and respected—a good European and a good internationalist, the late Jim Marshall. We shall miss him a lot, not least given the debates that have been so predominant since his passing, and the many European debates that lie ahead, to which the Queen's Speech refers. In that context, I know that Jim's successor in Leicester, South is anxious to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, later this afternoon. My parliamentary colleague, my hon. Friend Mr. Gill, may hope to contribute to this debate in his maiden speech.
The other two parliamentary by-elections that have taken place since the previous Queen's Speech were thankfully not due to bereavement. Terry Davis is going to the Council of Europe, where we wish him well in his new office and responsibilities. Peter Mandelson has moved on to the EU Commission, and we wish him well also. In respect of a Queen's Speech that is dominated by Home Office concerns and law and order, both the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who has, alas, left the Chamber, and the constabulary generally would describe Peter's departure, given his weekend interviews and subsequent comments, as a classic case of "He's gone to Europe, but by God, he has not gone quietly." It does not look as though he will remain quiet on these matters either, which will keep many of us outside the Labour party entertained, even given his further distance.
The Clerks in the Table Office have advised us that an amendment that we have tabled, but which will be moved more formally next week, is in order. I shall allude to it, if I may, by way of a description for the House, since it will not appear in printed form until tomorrow. Our reasoned amendment refers to the fact—it is unusual in this respect—that the Gracious Speech
"contains no commitment to introduce legislation to clarify the responsibility of the Prime Minister to Parliament, particularly in relation to prerogative powers and the role of Parliament in matters of war and peace, and calls for a special Select Committee of the House to consider these matters."
I am not revisiting all the background and arguments that lie behind this issue, which we have been over many times before. We want the House to have an opportunity to vote, as it will next week, for a Select Committee to look at that matter.
The reason for making this somewhat unusual move and for drawing attention to it at the outset is that that vote will be a genuine opportunity to invite cross-party support in the Division Lobby next week because of the remarkable series of Parliament-orientated events arising from Iraq that have coloured our proceedings regarding the role of Prime Minister and the relationship to the House of Commons. From within the House, there have been the reports from the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, the Select Committee on Public Accounts and the National Audit Office. We have also had Hutton and Butler, and more recently, the Iraq survey group.
On Butler and his highlighting of the methods of prime ministerial and Cabinet working and the review that is now in place, to which the Prime Minister referred at the beginning the speech that he made when we debated Butler before the summer recess—it deals with working practices and how they could be improved or altered, and their role in the procedures and Committees of this House—we feel that a genuine issue arises here that Parliament would want to look at for its own good. That is the nub of the reasoned and considered view that we are putting on to the Order Paper, and I hope that it will find broad-based sympathy and can be taken further in this new Session of Parliament, however long it runs.
The Prime Minister referred in his opening remarks to the continuing heroic work that is being carried out by the British armed forces in Iraq. We certainly pay tribute to that. We have all expressed very grave concerns about some of the images that we have seen coming out of Falluja and about the reality behind them. Perhaps tomorrow's instalment of the Queen's Speech debate will be a more appropriate occasion for more detailed exchanges on these matters. With regard to the announcement of the 30 January scheduled elections, which is welcome, we would like to see to what extent the conduct of what happened in Falluja and the implications that flow from it will be assessed in terms of the processing and moving forward of that democratic ballot.
The Queen's Speech contains slightly odd new Labour wording referring to and introducing an important component of the speech this year. It states:
"My Government recognises that we live in a time of global uncertainty with an increased threat from international terrorism and organised crime."
It goes on to say—this is the bit that reads oddly—
"Measures to extend opportunity will be accompanied by legislation to increase security for all."
I am not sure whose opportunity the drafters of that sentence had in mind. It reads like one of those—we can all suffer from them—that has been through too many committees and has lost the je ne sais quoi that was sought at the outset. Nevertheless, as we have seen since yesterday evening's reports of the thwarted attack planned against Canary wharf, this is a serious issue that requires a serious response. We must always bear it in mind that the security services have to get it right every time, but the terrorist has only to get lucky once. That has to be weighed in the balance every time.
I do not share the scepticism that some have expressed at the coincidence of that report's coming into the public domain at the same time as today's Queen's Speech. However, it is interesting to note that, because of all that has gone before, the instinctive response of many members of the public to what the Government tell them about such matters is somewhat sceptical, to say the least. In this case, I regret that, because I do not, for a whole variety of reasons, believe that the Government orchestrated this in any way. The public response is indicative of the problem that will underlie many of the debates on such fundamental matters of life and death that will take place on the Queen's Speech and subsequently, presumably, into a general election.
The real danger is that terrorism and security measures are being conflated in the public's mind with issues of domestic crime and disorder. Indeed, there are those who for their own, rather disreputable ends would be only too eager and happy for asylum and immigration to be mixed into that elixir as well. As we know, asylum and immigration are themselves distinct issues that get conflated, but when they are poured with domestic law and order issues into the turmoil that can be created in the public's mind by those with an agenda of their own involving international insecurities, the debate can become very febrile and damaging for the fabric of society as a whole. Those of us in Parliament, as well as the political combatants if the debate plays into a general election, must to try to keep above those arguments and to resist such temptations.
I want to explain the Liberal Democrats' approach, in terms of broad principle, to the Queen's Speech, with the proviso that we will not yet see certain measures relating to matters that are still before the courts—for example, the continuing appeals concerning the Belmarsh detainees, the outcome of which will have a significant and fundamental influence on what the Home Secretary may decide into next year.
We will make the case, vigorously and on several fronts, against the introduction of identity cards. First, there is the question of cost. If asked, the public would say that they would prefer the £3 billion that has been allocated to be given to the priority of ensuring more visible policing on the streets of their communities.
Secondly, as we heard during last week's exchanges in Prime Minister's questions, terrible complexities have recently been experienced in the computerisation of the Child Support Agency. For that, in days gone by, read the Department of Health and the Inland Revenue—and so it goes on. The public have little confidence—and we do not share the Government's confidence—that a computerisation of the complexity that would be required for a national ID system could, if it bears any relation to the haphazard and hellish track record on these matters, in any sense be relied on.
Thirdly, of course, we must remember that identity cards did not prevent depraved individuals from carrying out terrorist assaults in Madrid and New York. We should not, therefore, allow the argument to develop that ID cards would be a fundamental failsafe against such an attack, particularly a suicide attack. A further issue is that, even according to the Home Secretary's own interpretation, these proposals would not kick in during this Parliament, even if it were to run for its entire five-year length.
Those are the practical and principled objections that we shall make to the introduction of identity cards on a voluntary, then a compulsory, basis. We shall work not only with our own party colleagues but, I hope, with colleagues in other political parties in this House and the House of Lords, and I still hope that we shall be able to thwart the proposed legislation.
I agree with the general tenor of the right hon. Gentleman's remarks on identity cards, but, having heard the Prime Minister earlier, does he agree that the concept that the cards would not be compulsory for devolved services, but would be compulsory in regard to reserved issues, is nonsense?
I was intrigued by that proposal as well; it was a new one on me. The Deputy First Minister in the Scottish Parliament, my party colleague, Jim Wallace, did not seem to be willing to get bogged down in this distinction between what is devolved and what is not, when he said recently in a speech:
"The truth is that ID cards will fail to combat terrorism and make little or no difference in tackling illegal working and cutting crime. The harsh reality is that the UK government's ID card scheme is nakedly opportunistic and the certainty is the huge cost of ID cards, a cost that will have to be borne by every individual."
I think Jim put that rather well. He was previously, of course, Justice Minister in that Administration, so one would assume that he knows what he is talking about.
Temptation, temptation! There are issues on which we can clearly draw a distinction between what is devolved and what is not, and that one is devolved. That was not my decision; it was a decision for the Scottish Liberal Democrats, and that is as it should be.
I have not heard Lord Steel sound off on this specific issue, I must admit. However, I find that I can always count on his moral support, as I can on that of all former leaders of the Liberal Democrats.
We continue to oppose detention without trial. In a liberal democrat society—in the non-party sense of the term—it surely cannot be acceptable. We acknowledge, however, that there is a real problem in regard to at least some of the detainees at Belmarsh. This matter is, of course, subject to the decision of the courts. It must be preferable to secure a conviction, when it is legitimate to do so, and that might involve the allowing of information obtained by phone-tapping to be given in court, if it is a relevant and essential piece of information. It is better to arrive at such a conviction than to leave someone languishing in a legal no man's land, as is happening at the moment. Depending on the detail that will be provided in due course, that proposal will have to be looked at.
The Prime Minister has also made much of a matter that we have been very straightforward about, which is that we, as a party, have had to reassess our attitude to antisocial behaviour orders. He was quite right to say that we were critical of them in the past, and that we warned him about some of their implications. We have been proved right about some of those implications, but we have to be realistic. My hon. Friend Mr. Oaten has been consulting not only the many Liberal Democrat-run local authorities that have had recourse to the orders and found them useful, but authorities of other political persuasions as well.
Where a developed view is concerned, I listened to the Leader of the House's interview on this issue on Sunday night—[Interruption.] I am sure that other listening posts within the Labour hierarchy follow very carefully what he says when he gives his later-night weekend interviews. If, after a scheme comes into operation, judgments must be formed on its practicality and changes must be made in the stance, we should be upfront about that. That is the kind of rational discussion that the public want to see. In being straightforward in saying that, I hope that there will be a degree more straightforwardness in the response from the Government in acknowledging that to be the case.
Let us consider some of the issues that we highlighted at the time. For example, if we put antisocial behaviour orders in the context of wider criminality in this country at the moment, we see that the prison population has risen by 20 per cent. since the Government came to power. Before 1997, however, the Labour party in opposition argued that prisons were already overcrowded. Perhaps that is tough on crime, but it is not tough on the causes of crime. With that increase, reoffending rates are now running at 60 per cent., and among 18 to 21-year-olds, at more than 70 per cent. "Tough on crime" is the headline, but we need to consider the facts that lie below it.
Equally, the Government are tough on the implementation of ASBOs. It must be acknowledged, however, that the ASBOs that have been administered have a 36 per cent. failure rate. What does "failure rate" mean? It means that the people made subject to ASBOs who break them—the failures—end up in detention. If we consider the detention figures, we see the effect that that has on those individuals becoming reoffenders. It would be better if we could get to those people—this is our whole argument, on which we differ from the Government—before the legal intervention takes place. Then, if something were to go wrong, we would have a better prospect of getting them back on the straight and narrow, before they reach the point of incarceration when they are much further down the track and much more difficult to reclaim as a fully paid-up, worthwhile member of society. That is a serious issue and it should be pursued.
The third context in which the issue should be placed is the need, which I mentioned, for more police and community police officers generally. It remains ridiculous that 10 per cent. of our active police on shift at any given time are acting as bureaucrats and are not out in the streets and communities. The vital need to reduce the bureaucratic imposition on the police continues.
We support the Government on their establishment of a serious organised crime agency. It must make sense to bring those functions together in a more coherent one-stop shop, as it were. We will scrutinise that, but we want to give it our broad support.
What I find most perverse, almost, about this Queen's Speech is that the Prime Minister, before he became Prime Minister, and in his earlier years in office, would often wax lyrical and with great reflection and consideration on the fact that the 20th century had been too dominated by the conservatives, and that the progressives—be they those in his party, my party or elements of the Conservative party—should try to capture the 21st century. Both the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have delivered speeches in which they have alluded to the fact that Liberal thinking has influenced and led to the enactment of big improvements in social measures and liberties by Labour Governments. However, what has happened today? Sadly, the Prime Minister's analysis is being steadily eclipsed by his Home Secretary's approach. In a short space of time, the Home Secretary has managed to do something that took the neo-conservatives in the United States 20 years, if not more. In aping them, he has managed to turn "liberal" into a derogatory term of abuse in this country's political dialogue. I am not talking about the party political term "Liberal"; I am talking about people who consider themselves liberal, whatever their party political allegiance.
That is totally out of kilter with British society today—this is reflected in the legislation that we have passed on same-sex relationships and other matters—so much of which is instinctively liberal in its attitudes and aspirations. The Home Secretary seems to have lost that plot or, indeed, seeks to undermine that welcome development.
The right hon. Gentleman's argument is important, but surely there is no inconsistency between being liberal-minded on issues such as, for example, equality in terms of race, gender or sexuality and the incorporation of the European convention on human rights into our domestic law, and at the same time saying that people who make life hell for others in their communities should not be allowed to get away with it—there is nothing illiberal about that approach, which contains a lot of common sense. I agree that we need to invest in Sure Start and in opportunities for young people, but what do we do when elderly and vulnerable people's lives are made really difficult—sometimes they are made virtually impossible—by antisocial behaviour? Surely we have to act. I do not see any inconsistency between being entirely liberal on issues to do with equality and very sure and tough on issues to do with proper behaviour.
It is refreshing to get into a philosophical debate with the Prime Minister—they should let him out more often. I rather agree with him, but the problem for the Prime Minister, others of a like mind and me is that the Home Secretary does not agree one iota with that analysis. Indeed, I shall quote the Home Secretary's interview on the Saturday before last's "Today" programme. He discussed the Liberal Democrats, which is one of his favourite themes when he appears on that programme, and in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester and me:
"I would challenge Charles Kennedy on this, we actually have got to be able to distinguish an open, liberal society from libertarianism, where everything goes and selfishness and individualism are somehow presented as liberalism."
I know what he means, but he does not make that distinction in the way in which he presents his arguments, and he picks and chooses depending on how he wants to advance his case.
I mentioned the use of the word "liberal" as a term of abuse. The Home Secretary is incorporating something else from recent American political experience—neo-con stuff from the presidential campaign—and we can see it in the presentation of his case in and around the Queen's Speech. Just as the Bush Administration established in the minds of the average American citizen that al-Qaeda and 11 September were somehow connected with Saddam's regime in Baghdad—everybody knows that they were not—the Home Secretary would like us to think that international terror, disruption and disorder are part of ASBOs and people being threatened in their communities, and that that is part of losing control of ourselves, our communities and our sense of safety. That is an insidious, invidious and dangerous line to go down, and our voices will make that case again and again in many debates because it needs to be heard.
Surely the essence of the problem with this Home Secretary is that he has adopted a raft of measures that greatly adds to the power of the state without in any meaningful way adding to the security of the citizen. I put it to the right hon. Gentleman that the truest description of this Home Secretary is that never has there been a Home Secretary who has wielded so much power, has made so little effective use of it and has been in such an indecent haste to blow his own trumpet.
This emerging triumvirate—this Polish Government in exile—is the most amazing in which I have participated since The Spectator awards of two weeks ago, when the leader of the Conservative party and Mr. Johnson flanked me as I received an award. I can assure them that I have got that photo on the bedroom wall.
I certainly agree with the approach taken by Mr. Bercow, and I commend the personal and parliamentary courage with which he has put his arguments of late on these and other issues. We in this country enjoy a relatively stable, mature, tolerant, fair-minded and open democracy and the material affluence that goes with it, and it is absolutely essential that we do not drift into—or worse still, consciously design—knee-jerk, short-term strategies that might, through a degree of popularity, buy votes in the run-up to an election, but which in the longer term would work against the interests of us all as citizens, regardless of political persuasion.
I am very grateful. May I probe a little deeper into what the right hon. Gentleman is saying? He will be aware that a school of thought exists today whereby the publicity and policy making that have accompanied the events of the past few years in reality constitute an attempt by a particular part of the political spectrum in the west to create a "new enemy" to replace the one that existed during the cold war, and that the threat of al-Qaeda has been exaggerated to promote a particular style of politics. Does he share that concern?
I do not doubt that there are some who are of that mindset, and that the absence of the old fixed certainties—which were physically embodied in the presence of the Berlin wall and in the competing values and weapons systems that lay on either side of it—has created something of a void. However, I do not subscribe to the view that that has somehow left all politics in a moral vacuum, and I doubt whether the leaders of the Conservative or Labour parties do either. No doubt there are those with a rather bizarre philosophical intent—those whose primary interest is with whom they are going to make the next weapons deal, and to which part of the world they are going to sell them and how much for, without asking too many questions about the purpose for which they are required. But there will also be those who approach this issue from the direction referred to by the hon. Gentleman.
I shall deal briefly—given that this philosophical excursion has lasted rather longer than I anticipated—with the other measures in the Queen's Speech and indicate our stance. We support the education measures for 16 to 19-year-olds, which are aimed essentially at part-time students. However, if we had had this legislative chance today, we would of course have legislated, as we have done in the Scottish Parliament, for a much fairer deal for our students—a deal that does not involve the savage amount of personal debt that will result from the imposition of student fees, and from the top-up fees that will shortly accompany them, in England and Wales.
We also welcome the establishment of a commission for equality and human rights, but in this respect there has been more than just a drafting oversight. Reference is made to the various categories that will be included in terms of sexual orientation, religious preference, race, and so on, but no reference is made to anti-age discrimination in respect of the provision of goods and services. I have no doubt that we will want to discuss that issue when the Bill comes before the House.
On road safety, I very much welcome what was said in the opening speech.
I would like to move on.
As Members of Parliament, we have all heard from our constituents of horrific instances of maimings and deaths caused by road accidents. It is amazing that although we have accident investigation bureaucracies that deal with rail, sea and air travel, no such bureaucracy exists for road travel, despite the fact that 10 people will be killed today on our roads. We read the terrible headlines about the recent appalling rail accident, yet fewer people were killed in that accident than were killed in each subsequent day on the roads.
The proposals on corporate manslaughter are a step in the right direction, although, when it comes to the detail, the Government may have to revisit whether the Company Directors Disqualification Act 1986 would provide a more appropriate route to achieve their objective.
I commented on the difficulties that can arise with computerisation. I hope that those difficulties will not arise during the integration of the Inland Revenue with Customs and Excise. However, problems that will have to be addressed include the interdiction powers of Customs and Excise, which have been seriously questioned in recent court rulings. We support the further moves that will be made on charities and the fact that the threat—the reality—of global warming features in the Queen's Speech. However, it is essential that among the many other things that the Prime Minister has to talk to the President of the United States about, he engages him positively in that agenda, not least through the presidency of the G8.
There is one old friend that never goes away. Governments come and go, but this one never goes away: Europe—and it is here today. The Bill will be introduced, and I agree with the leader of the Conservative party that it would be more helpful to be able to flesh the subject out with a bit of detail, such as when Billy Bunter's postal order—any European referendum from this Government—is going to arrive. I hope that when we begin to get into the arguments in the House, the Government will stop making the mistake that they have been making all along, which is "defending the red lines" and speaking in Eurosceptical language to justify a pro-European move.
John Major learned, to the decimation of his premiership, that the more we feed the monster, the more the monster wants, and eventually the monster will devour us. We watched that when the Conservatives were in government, week by week and month by month. This Government are not in that position yet, but they are kidding themselves if they think that they can turn public opinion around by presenting an argument about engaging with Europe in the vocabulary and the stance that people instinctively equate with the Eurosceptics, if not the downright anti-Europeans.
Apparently, the Labour party has launched a new website, called "Proud to be British". In it, the party invites people to send messages to Labour to tell it why they are proud to be British. That is all very interesting. Perhaps Peter Mandelson will launch a website called "Pleased to be European". What most of us feel about being British is that we are proud to be British. Britain is a good country; it has a sense of fair play and of tolerance and the other virtues that I referred to earlier. But in addition to that, this country recognises that life is more complex and that decisions and difficulties that arise for Governments are more complicated than the easy tabloid analysis of life.
The leader of the Conservatives said in a recent interview in The Guardian that he was "frustrated", and that
"The government stole our language."
I am glad to say that, from a Liberal Democrat standpoint, I have no such complaint about the Government. I am relieved to say that they show no temptation to steal our language or the philosophy that lies behind it. That will be the defining issue of the election in coming months. I am talking about an instinctively Liberal approach to the problems of the day at home and abroad, backed up by principles, as opposed to the instinctive reaction towards an illiberal partial solution to a much more complicated set of problems. The people of this country deserve to have that debated in a mature and rational way, and to have it put forward as a set of principles and a coherent view of Britain today and Britain's role in the world. I believe that, come the election, after the debates on the Queen's Speech and the legislation that follows, millions more of our fellow citizens will see that, instinctively and properly, that comes best and most sincerely from the Liberal Democrats.
First, I associate myself with the comments of the mover and seconder of the loyal address. My hon. Friends addressed the House with grace and wit, and created a sense of fun. Of course, we do not really come here to enjoy ourselves; anyone who wants to leave the Chamber now is free to do so, before I start boring hon. Members to death.
This Queen's Speech contains many measures and, in common with what has been said in the newspapers over the past few days, I believe that it is a Queen's Speech for an election. I am reliably informed by the Sunday papers that it is based on the themes of security and opportunity. Those are certainly fine sentiments. We have talked about being British and I believe that we are entitled to expect any British Government to ensure that we can enjoy both security and opportunity. Those will be the themes of Labour's general election manifesto.
It seems to me that not much changes. Once again, the election will be fought, won or lost on the economy and how people feel about their personal circumstances. It was interesting that the Gracious Speech opened with the sentence:
"My Government will continue to pursue policies which entrench economic stability and promote growth and prosperity."
Hon. Members will not be surprised to hear me say, as I have before, that at the heart of that economic strategy must be the continuing development of a manufacturing strategy. I believe that the Government have paid proper attention to that, but more needs to be done. I want to say sincerely, not just in passing, that the manufacturing advisory service, set up by the Government, is now working effectively across the nation. In my region of the west midlands especially, it is making an important contribution to companies and firms that wish to take on innovative processes, find new ways of doing things and share that information with the particular sector in which they are operating. There is no question but that the service has made a serious contribution to companies and I pay tribute to it.
My hon. Friend represents a black country constituency and I represent a Lancashire constituency, both of which are heavily dependent on the manufacturing sector. My hon. Friend welcomes current developments, but is it not also important for the Government to do even more for research and development, especially if we are to advance the sharp-end industries such as aerospace, pharmaceuticals and so on?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the similarities between our constituencies. We both have aerospace sectors, which indeed provide the cutting edge of research and development, that are greedy and anxious for further investment in new products, blue-sky thinking and, most importantly, innovation. Our companies must innovate and bring useful products to the marketplace, which can also help the rest of the industry. I entirely accept my hon. Friend's point; we share the same view on that matter.
I should like to make a couple of points about manufacturing. First, it has been tremendous to see the productivity gains that have been made by manufacturing industries. Many of those gains were forced by necessity as a result of difficult competitive conditions in Europe and worldwide. Despite those conditions, we have seen an annualised rate of something like 5 per cent. growth in manufacturing productivity while the economy as a whole has also improved, but only by about half that annualised rate.
Manufacturing employment, of course, has fallen by nearly 5 per cent. in 2003 alone, even though output has risen. That accounts mathematically for the improvement in productivity, but the loss of employment is keenly felt in my constituency. I cannot give the complete story, but I have to tell the House that a very important company in my constituency will make the sad announcement of its closure tomorrow. The company has manufactured in Wolverhampton for close on 100 years, but its last 150 jobs will be lost to the area tomorrow.
I share the hon. Gentleman's concern about the jobs that will be lost in his constituency. He and I are as one in our support for manufacturing. Will he state clearly that the Government can play a major role in ensuring a satisfactory and prosperous future for manufacturing industry by minimising social and additional on-costs? In addition, should not the Government ensure that, where possible, contracts are placed with UK manufacturing concerns? In this connection, I am thinking particularly about textiles and the Ministry of Defence. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that such contracts should not be placed with dubious holding companies or shell companies that place manufacturing overseas?
The hon. Gentleman describes the unacceptable face of capitalism when he talks about shell companies. It is unfortunate that some companies on the international stage feel that they can compete only by stripping out all the major costs incurred in an advanced economy like the UK's. I do not accept that the social costs of employment should be stripped out. When he uses the word "minimising", does the hon. Gentleman mean that adequate provision will be made for workers? If so, I am with him entirely. However, I do not want such provision to be cut away to the level sometimes evident in the far east or Latin America, where workers are nothing but units of production with no social or economic life of their own. That is not the way forward for us. In fact, it was a member of the Conservative party who said that Britain would be lost if it had to compete only in terms of rates of pay for workers. We cannot win by taking that approach.
On that point, does the hon. Gentleman agree that companies have a lot to gain from the motivation and loyalty of their staff? Employers, especially in the textile industry—and the Laura Ashley company has been creating uncertainty about employment in my area—must recognise that the UK is a superb employment base, where workers will render loyal service as long as they feel that they are being treated like people.
The hon. Gentleman makes a point that I would be proud to make myself. He is absolutely right. One of my big disappointments is that my colleagues in this Labour Government have found it necessary to wait on legislation from Europe before improving the condition of workers in this country. In my view, a Labour Government should have been able to achieve that improvement on their own, but the improvement is being made, in the way that has been described, and I support that.
I was talking about statistics. The fall in manufacturing employment is a serious problem, but output has risen by 5 per cent., which accounts for the improvement in productivity. Manufacturing investment continues to rise, and national surveys reveal considerable confidence in manufacturing circles. That confidence may not be as high as it was a couple of years ago, but it is still quite strong. We have lots to build on, and lots to do. I believe that the manufacturing base in this country still represents the most important engine for growth of any sector in the whole economy.
I want so speak briefly about Wolverhampton and the surrounding area. As a recent survey by the local chamber of commerce set out, the paradox is that although sales and profits are rising, there is a lack of growth in real confidence. That is mainly explained by cash-flow difficulties and falling revenues, but also by business investment itself showing some strength.
It is a mixed picture, but what is important is that the Government give as much support as they can. That means creating an environment in which companies feel able to take on new workers and to cope with the legislation that we rain down on them from time to time. In the majority of cases, I believe that we do that for perfectly good, sound, sensible reasons, but sometimes we may not give enough lead-in time before laws take effect, and that can create difficulties, particularly for smaller companies that simply cannot cope with some of the legislation that we ask them to deal with, particularly that relating to what my colleagues describe as the work-life balance.
I have told one of my right hon. Friends about a company in my constituency that employs 20 women on hand presses and one or two smaller hydraulic presses. Two youngish men are employed as setters, and they also clean up the tools a bit and make sure everyone has enough work to do. There is one woman, in the office, doing the bits and pieces, and she has a little computer to get the payroll done and one or two other things. Finally, there is the owner of the company. It just so happens that both men—nice men, married men—have wives who are having babies. I really do not see how that company, which has 20 women to keep moving on the presses, can afford to have the two setters off at the same time on paternity leave. I hope that my hon. Friends on the Front Bench will recognise that not all industry is made up of massive companies with enough resources to bring in different people at different times. In particular, the west midlands and the north-west have a plethora of smaller companies, sometimes with no more than half a dozen or 20 workers. If one person is out of that work force, it creates quite a difficulty. I hope that the Government will understand what is said by people such as me who have spent 20 or more years in industry and who try to understand the difficulties created when we introduce legislation. However laudable, sensible and honourable that legislation may seem—much of it can be embraced and worked through with a little flexibility and a little help—we must bear it in mind that it can create pretty serious difficulties.
Our manufacturers are doing very well on exports. They are working damned hard. They are creating markets and going out to exploit the opportunities that arise. But we should tell the manufacturing sector how we see the future and that we know that that sector is where the real wealth of the country is produced. We should tell it that we want to give it all the help and support we possibly can.
There are many measures in the Queen's Speech, and many will be addressed later in a far more detailed way than I can even attempt today. I shall confine myself to two or three more points. I feel particularly strongly about educational opportunity and allowing all individuals to realise their full potential. I shall absolutely resist going down one particular route on that; those on the Liberal Democrat Front Bench are already smiling at me, but I will resist them, because that subject would not be helpful to what I want to say. My point is that my Front-Bench colleagues seem absolutely intent on change, change and more change, but I am not at all sure that all that change is compatible with improving opportunity or that people can continue to cope with it.
I am absolutely convinced that the way to offer the widest possible opportunity for excellence in both academic work and practical and technical work is through the comprehensive education system. Where we can bring together on one site the skills, abilities, experience and dedication of our teachers, who can offer the wide curriculum that all children deserve an opportunity to take, we avoid the falseness of the intake into grammar schools. I have two good grammar schools in Wolverhampton, one for girls and a mixed one that is now private. They do excellent work; I have no quarrel with that. I want that excellence extended right across the secondary state sector. The only practical way to do that—it remains as true now as it was in 1966—is by bringing the skills that we need on to one site and to offer the curriculum choices that will, as it says in the Queen's Speech
"allow individuals to achieve their full potential" for the benefit of this country.
The hon. Gentleman is making an extremely important speech. Some of his points about business regulation are very much on the mark. Is he aware that when the Queen's Speech refers to increasing opportunity in education for those aged 16 to 19, in reality that means substantial fee increases for those over the age of 19 taking level 3 vocational qualifications?
I am afraid that the discrimination between the university sector and the further education sector has been with us for as long as I can recall. I remember the payments that were required when I went into further education. My employer met that cost. I believe that, with increasing levels of employment, employers will take more of the burden of fees where vocational opportunities are taken up. I hope that where employers have a commitment to the education and training of their employees, they will take on that entire burden. I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. It is one that I hope that my Front-Bench team will take on board.
We are extending financial support for 16 to 19-year-olds. In my constituency that makes a great deal of sense. We were one of the pilot areas, and there is no doubt that the scheme has improved the staying-on rate, which was frankly pretty abysmal in my constituency and in the west midlands. Kids were leaving school at 16 because that was the thing that they did. We have seen some changes. In the 1980s and 1990s employment opportunities were simply not there so it seemed to make sense to stay on at school. We have now consolidated that and there is no doubt that financial support—it went as high as £40 a week for full attendance and good results—has played an important role.
I approve of the creation of the serious organised crime agency. It is right to recognise the importance of tackling serious crime, especially money laundering, which is at the root of the drugs trade and prostitution—things that worry me in my constituency. The police are working hard on it, but the problem goes underground and becomes taken as normal. I am afraid that the drugs trade, money laundering and prostitution are serious and growing problems. So I welcome the introduction of the serious organised crime agency, but I have to say that it sits pretty badly with the idea of introducing American money into casinos.
In the 1960s, Harold Wilson refused George Raft entry into the country because of his connection with gambling and organised crime. George Raft was a good square tango dancer, by the way, so we were disappointed not to see his talents, but we were not disappointed that the Government had the common sense to say, "To these shores and no further." Even only a dozen of those casinos will present opportunities for laundering the money made from drugs and prostitution. We really do not want that, so I urge caution on my Front-Bench colleagues. Of course, measures on drug abuse featured in the Queen's Speech.
I echo the words of my hon. Friend Mr. Howarth on the new offence of corporate manslaughter. I hope it does not take us as long to introduce those measures as it did to deal with fox hunting. I am sure that we will have learned some serious lessons from the way in which that debate was conducted.
I have a few words to say about Europe. Yes, we are to have a referendum, but whatever else is true, the events of the past three or four years in the middle east, especially in Iraq, have shown us—have they not?—that the power of the Americans is increasing and is likely to continue to do so unless there is a countervailing balancing force. That cannot be achieved anywhere on the planet without a strong European Union committed to peace and prosperity, and prepared to ensure that the work of the United Nations is carried out effectively, efficiently and with economy, supported across the world.
The UN may not be a perfect institution and it may need considerable improvement, but for the time being it is the best we have and we must, in everyone's interests, make it work. We shall best play our part not as a lone voice in the Security Council, but by combining with our European partners in a proper alliance. Initially, I voted against joining the then Common Market, because I honestly felt that the British Commonwealth offered a way forward in terms of trade, culture, understanding and international relations and that it was a force for real good; but when we rejected that, it seemed to me that the Commonwealth would make its own way, as it has done extremely successfully in many spheres.
We are part of Europe, but whenever a treaty comes along, we say how terrible it is and how awful it will be and that we shall never be free again, yet in the end we sign. The current treaty will be no different. We may reject it in a referendum but, ultimately, we shall sign up to the European constitutional treaty. It will happen and we will be part of it, and better sooner than later. We should get on with that as quickly as possible.
Finally, I want to speak about a constituency problem that many Members may share. I can see little reference in the Queen's Speech to local government, yet one of the major problems I hear about in my surgeries is the lack of new council housing. We have a shortage of council housing under a Labour Government. If more council houses were built in Wolverhampton, I could fill any number of them. I do not want to prejudice anything else that is being done, but we need a new approach and money for new building. Selling council houses does not particularly worry me, provided that we build more. If we adopt a policy—in the south, the midlands and the north—of ensuring a good supply of council housing, it will solve many, many of our problems.
Overall, I commend the Queen's Speech. There is much that is good. It is an election manifesto writ small—for the moment—but I am quite sure that the twin themes will emerge as our major campaigning tools and I am confident that much of what we have heard today will ultimately make its way into legislation.
It is a great pleasure to follow Mr. Purchase, particularly as he stays in my constituency from time to time, and he is very welcome when he does. I did not agree with all that he said, but I did agree with him when he talked about the difficulties faced by small businesses in his constituency, when they find that unnecessarily burdensome regulations are imposed on them. However, much of that comes from the European Union, which he seemed to extol the virtues of in the latter part of his speech.
This is a phoney Queen's Speech because its programme will be aborted by a general election, as the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East has just implied. In fact, it is more a manifesto than a plan for legislation. The theme is clear: if it moves, ban it; if it does not, tax it. According to the Queen's Speech, there is a new menu for banning. We will apparently ban certain lottery causes, as well as goods and services that do not conform to certain religious beliefs. We will promote rural heritage, but we will ban the thing that symbolises rural heritage: hunting. I do not know why the Queen's Speech does not mention of banning the smoking of cigarettes in public places because we will apparently go ahead with that as well.
Certainly, taxation and private and public borrowing will be major issues at the next general election. The Queen's Speech talks of promoting economic stability, but not for a very long time has credit been so bloated. Various economists, such as Professor Congdon, have pointed out for some time the threat that that poses to economic stability, particularly given the prospect of inflation. They are saying that we cannot live for ever on borrowed money. That is as true of our economy as, for example, the American economy, where, as the House will know, the currency is now suffering under enormous pressure.
In our economy, the effect on house prices of heavy borrowing has been sharp and immediate, not just because of recent increases in interest rates, but because the speculative bubble, blown up by credit, has now been pricked. A downward spiral has begun, as people hold back from buying property and sellers begin to feel the pinch of a much higher debt-to-asset ratio, and they in turn pull in their horns. Given the nature of the British housing market, the recessionary process can be very rapid, and the shock is greater because people have become unused to recessions in this country.
The expansion of the British economy has been almost continuous for a quarter of a century. Its roots lie in the Thatcher reforms of the 1980s, particularly in the stabilisation of industrial relations; in the taming of trade union power; in the insulation of Britain from the worst excesses of EU regulations, which were referred to in the previous speech; and in the limits imposed on excessive taxation. All that added up to a British economic miracle, which was certainly the envy of the rest of Europe, if not the world.
The attempt by the Labour Government to keep in place key Conservative policies, which they defined as new Labour, was, in retrospect, bound to fail, although the pretence was kept up for most of the last Parliament. Tax policy produced the early cracks in the foundations. The £5 billion tax on pensions was introduced as early as July 1997. That was quickly followed by new health insurances taxes and swingeing increases in stamp duty. By early 1998, a further 13 taxes had been introduced, including a cut in married couple's allowance. A steep rise in national insurance contributions came in early 1999, as did the total abolition of married couple's allowance and mortgage tax relief, together with a further 15 rises in taxes. The big increases in national insurance contributions were made in 2002, and were followed by 10 increases in taxes in 2003–04.
The total effect has been to increase the net tax and social security burden as a percentage of gross domestic product from 34.8 per cent. in 1996 to an estimated 36.5 per cent. in 2004–05, all of which has happened during a period of rapidly rising GDP. The effect on individuals, especially those in low income tax brackets, has been dramatic. The number of people who pay taxes has increased by 4.2 million—a dramatic figure—between 1996 and 2004. The number of taxpayers has risen from 25.7 million to an estimated 29.9 million this year. When taxes go up, the evidence from around the world is that the poorest off are the hardest hit.
The hon. Gentleman makes a serious speech and I respect his point of view, although I disagree with much of what he says. Does he acknowledge that the Government introduced a lower tax rate of 10p for lower earners as part of the strategy to attack poverty?
Yes, but that has not worked. Because taxes as a whole have been going up, there is a massive increase in the number of lower-paid people entering the tax bracket. That is an historical fact.
It is also true that as well as the lowest paid being proportionately hardest hit by tax, they are the most vulnerable to unemployment, which is the inevitable secondary effect of high taxation. That is why the Conservative party is right, from the point of view of good economic management alone, to place the lowering of taxes high on its agenda for its return to office. A low-taxed economy happens to be a recipe for greater fairness and economic well-being. Economic management and social fairness are, however, not the only factors that guide Conservatives to the fundamental belief in the merits of low taxation. We Conservatives believe that, above all, it is a guarantee of personal freedom.
The issue of how to cut taxes is not easy to address, particularly when the momentum towards ever-increasing taxation is as fast as it is at the moment. Certain taxes, such as the death tax, which is what the inheritance tax should be called, are theoretically easier to cut because, despite the emotion attached to them, they do not bring in much money to the Exchequer. In the case of inheritance tax, it is between £2 billion and £3 billion a year. As for the merits of the current level of inheritance tax, why should a person's home be taxed just because he has the misfortune to die in it? Why should he be able to sell it free of tax in life, but be taxed on its disposal in death?
Cutting income tax in a way that carries real benefit to the general public is more difficult because the short-term loss of revenue is large. My personal view is that the way forward is to stabilise public spending to the rate of inflation and to divert real increases in GDP to tax cuts. In that way, national wealth will grow at a faster pace and in the medium term it will allow us to improve public services with budgetary impunity. There is also, of course, much that can be done to improve efficiency within the public services, about which parties on both sides of the House have talked. The need to cut waste is clear. In that context, I chaired the Treasury Committee Sub-Committee, which recommended the amalgamation of Customs and Excise with the Inland Revenue, so I suppose I have to welcome that aspect of the Queen's Speech.
Raising taxes is not the only way in which Labour threatens to destroy the Thatcher legacy. The Government made it clear that they are once again willing to link arms with their founders and paymasters, the major trade unions, whose demands are firmly on the table. This summer, the four big unions—Unison, Amicus, the Transport and General Workers union and the GMB—began speaking clearly again with one voice.
Kevin Curran, the GMB general secretary, was quite explicit some weeks ago when he said that his union, backed by others, would insist that a re-elected Labour Government should engage in a programme of renationalisation—
The hon. Gentleman will cheer even harder at this: the union will also insist on the right of trade unions to engage in secondary action. Mr. Curran also called for a substantial rise in the minimum wage. One wonders whether reference in the Queen's speech to a law that streamlines railways is a direct response to that, in particular the call for renationalisation. Certainly, Tony Woodley, the general secretary of the T and G, wrote in the quasi-Communist Morning Star in support of Kevin Curran, and he has attacked new Labour for being "pro-business". What, in effect, those increasingly powerful trade unions are saying is that one cannot be a true member of the Labour party and support business at the same time. All that is having an effect on business confidence, and thus on this country's economic prospects.
The third great issue threatening this country—one to which the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East addressed himself at the end of his speech—is mentioned directly in the Queen's Speech: our relationship with Europe. As matters stand in the European Union, the process towards a federal state continues relentlessly, constitution or no constitution. The acquis communautaire, which is endemic in the Union treaties, ensures through the judgments of the European Court that the process moves in one direction and cannot be reversed. In the United Kingdom, the judgments of the European Court are supported by our courts under the terms of the European Communities Act 1972. That is true even when, as with the 1978 Merchant Shipping Bill, the British Parliament tries to reverse the judgments of the European Court.
The significance of the proposed constitution is that its adoption would mean that European law had primacy over our law and over member states in its own right. The primacy of European law would no longer rest on the foundation of an Act of the British Parliament which was reversible. A new system of law would be established in the UK of its own right. The only escape from that would be for the UK to leave the EU. Currently, that would be possible under article 59 of the proposed constitution, but the article itself would be amendable through qualified majority voting in order to force countries to stay in the EU against their will. Although it is arguable that, in those circumstances, force majeure would apply, there would at the very least be legal chaos in which two separate systems of law would work side by side, in competition with each other.
For those reasons, the Government's determination to adopt the new constitution needs to be resisted at every turn. For those who question the benefits of British membership of a European state, it is the single most important reason for rejecting the Government's claim in the Queen's Speech for continuing in office. Once the constitution is rejected—and with it, de facto, the acquis communautaire—it will become possible, especially taking into account the new moods in Germany and France, to renegotiate new arrangements in Europe—arrangements that will accommodate the desires not only of the British, but of those many new members of the EU, to live in harmony with their European neighbours and to retain their ultimate sovereignty, in the interests above all of democracy and the accountability of Governments to their peoples.
It was bound to be the case that a Labour Government, if left in office for too long, would destroy the legacy of the Thatcher revolution on which this country's economic recovery has been based. The case for Labour in the mid-1990s was that it would be best able to reform public services, in particular the health service. Beginning with the sacking of Mr. Field and, with him, throwing out pension reform, Labour has reverted to type. It has raised taxes and blown the proceeds, and now it is consolidating its return to its true roots by embracing trade union socialism.
I suspect that the hon. Gentleman will get his wish.
History is turning on itself. Labour is once again losing the middle ground, and with the Liberal Democrats on the left-wing fringes of the political spectrum, middle England has nowhere else to go but back to the Conservatives. The Queen's Speech merely serves to underline that fact.
Conspiracy theories abound, and we have just heard one from Sir Michael Spicer. Post-11 September, such theories are multiplying, and the politics of fear, as espoused in his speech, demonstrates that. I have no doubt that the Conservatives will continue that in the run-up to the general election, and that they will pretend that Big Brother is here. It is all too easy to lump together disparate groups. It is important that we recognise that the actions of David Omand in the Cabinet Office are vital not only to the security of this country but to its liberty. What he does in the reorganisation of the civil service and in responding to threats is vital.
We also need to understand what those threats are and what the nation truly faces. The Spanish Government failed to do that and mixed up the terrorism of ETA and of al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda is not some super-terrorist group with a centralised command. We should recognise that we are dealing no longer with individuals or entities but with networks. The way in which a networks react and operate is fundamentally different from that of individuals and entities, as any systems analyst would say. That is why I am particularly pleased that the counter-terrorism Bill will be published in draft form. There will be are a range of things in that Bill that it will be important to get right.
We must remember that the key objective of any terrorist group is to get the Government and the security services to overreact. The biggest single recruiting sergeant for the IRA in the 1970s was the introduction of internment. That turned out to be a big mistake and turned the IRA into a coherent, organised and supported organisation. Why does Hamas survive? It is because it has tacit support in the community. Terrorism thrives only where there is a political vacuum, so a counter-terrorism Bill must include proper safeguards, however frustrating introducing them might seem. The law must be not only flexible enough to respond to terrorism but robust enough to prevent miscarriages of justice. Such details need to be examined in pre-legislative scrutiny.
Animal rights extremists have support and do the things that they do only because we have not tackled as effectively as we should the problems of animal welfare and the issues on which they campaign. Now that hunting is not the focus of the House's attention, we should spend some time on the important animal welfare Bill. We need to close some of the key loopholes. I particularly welcome the new definition of cruelty, and the new powers that will be introduced, as well as the improved standards for kennels, catteries and so on.
One key issue that we all face in our constituencies is that of antisocial behaviour. I agree with Mr. Kennedy, that if we intervene early enough, we can start to tackle the problem. The whole point of antisocial behaviour orders was to enable intervention as early as possible. We need to tackle the problem of graffiti. We have already given local authorities and the police extra powers, and the Bill on clean and safe neighbourhoods will provide more powers.
A change in culture is also required, and that is not easy to achieve when the powers are distributed across the police, local authorities and magistrates. Such a change in culture is essential. We must ensure that different agencies—whether local, regional or central Government—work together. We must address cross-boundary issues, too.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the crime and disorder partnerships are helping to forge a new culture and at the same time providing for greater co-operation between local authorities and the police, which is having a positive and effective impact at local level?
I entirely agree. The partnerships play a vital role in tackling some of the issues on our estates. In my constituency, the police, landowners and the local authority came together to set up a Travellers management unit, as we were having to deal with 150 illegal encampments each week. It was costing the local authority £300,000-plus to clean up after the Travellers. A police sergeant was put in charge of the unit, and he can now use the powers of the police, landowners or the local authority—he has the choice. Therefore, instead of somebody complaining about an incident having to go to the police, then the local authority and then the landowners, they can go to one number and one person can take effective action.
The unit was also able to deal with the health and education needs of the Travellers' children. We now have no new illegal encampments each week, and the total cost of cleansing was £325 for last year. That has been a successful example of the different agencies working together to tackle an antisocial behaviour problem. The Travellers who are abiding by a code of conduct are welcome, while those who were causing the problem have gone. Most of the problems have been solved, so much so that we now get cross-border issues from neighbouring Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire, but that is a matter of dealing with those authorities. Such an approach can and does work, and my hon. Friend is right that it is a key to tackling the issues.
As a former Customs officer, I have an interest in the Bill on merging Customs and the Inland Revenue. I was around in Customs at the time when they had just brought in other Government Departments or OGDs, as they are called, and were allowing members of the civil service to work in Customs. I remember the resistance to such an approach at that time, and I urge Front-Bench colleagues not to underestimate the complexity of merging Customs and the Inland Revenue.
When mergers happen, it is important that we get the culture of the new organisation right at the beginning. If we do not do so, there will be problems. It is important that we set out what it is essential to get right straight away and what can wait for the long term. We must give people the skills to deal with constant change and recognise the dangers that are involved in the merger. We should get the computer systems right and recognise that there are things that the Revenue does differently from Customs and from the Treasury. We must also recognise that there are important issues of culture in the different organisations and that we need to get them right if there is to be a successful merger. I welcome the Bill and the work that the Select Committee on the Treasury has done on this matter, which I think will benefit us in the long run. It is not a simple process, however, and we should not underestimate it.
I also welcome the fact that the Government are introducing a railways Bill. I certainly welcome the abolition of the Strategic Rail Authority. The problem with the SRA was that it was not listening to passengers, so the new arrangement that the Government are introducing must have at its core a strengthening of the passengers' voice and a listening role, so that passengers' wishes are held to be important. That will be key in delivering for my constituency, where the SRA has simply removed a number of peak-time trains without listening to people. One of the ways in which I shall judge whether the Bill is successful is by looking at whether those trains are reinstated for both inward and outward Milton Keynes commuters. I hope that they will be.
I hoped that the SRA would deliver some stability for the railway industry. One of the issues that applies across a number of regulators is how we should reconcile an independent regulator with Government policy. I was looking for independence and long-term thinking that was away from the day-to-day management of the railway, but the SRA did not deliver that, which is why I welcomed its abolition. It did not do the key thing that it needed to do—have the voice of the passenger at its heart. That was its key failing, and I think that the new arrangement has to have that role at its core. I hope that the in-built accountability to the Secretary of State will ensure that the passenger's voice is at the core of the new arrangements.
I welcome the identity cards Bill. I have long been a supporter of the introduction of ID cards, but a letter that I received recently from a constituent encapsulates my views. He said:
"ID cards are a good idea for the right reasons, benefits and NHS services, but . . . attach the terror tag to it and all of a sudden I am turned off by the idea".
We need to reflect on whether this is the right way in which to tackle fraud or terrorism, given that if one can forge a passport, one can forge an ID card. Identity fraud has increased in every country that has introduced an ID card system. Going back to the 1970s, it took so long to catch the Baader-Meinhof gang because they had valid identities within the system, which recognised them as ordinary people, not terrorists. There is a danger of having too much data and not enough information, and certain skills are required to deal with that. Introducing ID cards as a panacea for fraud or terrorism will not work—the way forward is to do it so as to benefit people.
We may end up creating a Betamax system when there is already a VHS system in the private sector. The main problem is the cost of readers. The credit card industry is creating cards that hold a lot of information, and we should piggy-back on that technology. Creating our own ID cards, with readers capable of reading biometrics, will be expensive, and we could find ways of doing it in conjunction with the private sector instead of reinventing the wheel through an in-house system.
The largest biometric database in the world has about 500,000 records; here, we will reach 48 million in 10 years. Such a scaling-up of the technology has not yet happened, and I question whether it is possible in such a time scale. I fear that we are being overawed by the technology instead of recognising its limits.
If the hon. Gentleman thinks that identity cards are useful only in relation to benefits, the health service and the like, does he think that the system is worth the £3 billion that its implementation will cost?
That is why I said that there are already reader systems that we can use: we do not to have to spend that kind of money on reinventing them. One of the dangers of introducing the system in-house is that by the time it is up and running private sector technology will be way ahead. Taking the "one big bang" approach is problematic.
Capturing terrorists, like crime solving, is about doing the basics well—it will not be achieved by the magic panacea of an ID card. Given the growth of identity theft and the misuse of people's identities to create bank accounts or to defraud the benefits system, ID cards are a useful way of establishing identity, but they are not a solution to the problem of terrorism.
Questions arise about the data. Who owns them—the state or the individual? Who has the right to make corrections? How does one resolve problems where mistakes have occurred? No one biometric—not even iris recognition—is 100 per cent. certain. DNA identification is certain, but expensive and time-consuming. The principle of ID cards is important, but the right technology is not yet available, and we must ensure that we do not fall into the bear traps that I have identified.
The ID card is being proposed as a panacea for many problems, but if it is to work, the new systems will all have to link together. Is that a practical proposition? Does it not raise other problems of sharing data between various systems that are supposed to perform different functions?
Having written data sharing systems when I worked in the information technology industry a long time ago, I know that there are key issues that need to be resolved in that regard. That can be done, and it is important that it should be done within the provisions of the Data Protection Act 1998 and the Freedom of Information Act 2000. There are practical issues to be tackled, as I am trying to point out to the Minister, but the principle of having an ID card is one that I welcome. I already carry a lot of different proofs of identity—many of us do—but we do not have a single national identity card. There are twice as many national insurance numbers as people, and more driving licences than there are people who drive. These are real issues that need to be tackled, and a single identity card has a role to play. What we do not have is a use for all those ID cards that would make people's access to public services better, and I am arguing that we should make a case for that to happen.
That brings me to the Bill on serious organised crime and the police. If there is one Bill that we need to get through in this Session, this is it. It is vital that we establish the serious organised crime agency—the "British FBI". The national high-tech crime unit is doing a number of things very well, but we need an organisation to merge that work with that of the Customs and Excise investigation division to tackle organised crime. It is equally important that we re-engage with the community at local level on these issues.
I would draw the Minister's attention to one further problem. If the Government successfully prosecute someone under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, they get the costs of the court case paid for, as well as getting the assets of the person who has been convicted. However, the arrangements are different for a local authority. Waltham Forest is the classic example. It took some people to court in a case involving intellectual property rights, and the judge rightly ordered the seizure of their assets under the Act. The local authority was not entitled to costs, however, because there was no money available. If the Government could extend to local authorities and the private sector the ability to cover the costs of bringing such a prosecution out of the seizure of assets, it would go a long way towards ensuring that other organisations, such as trading standards, could do their job properly. That is a loophole that needs to be dealt with.
I would also argue that we need to increase the role of special constables. Why is not every director of security in a bank also a special constable, for example? When they came across international fraud or money laundering, they would then have the power to take the appropriate action and to present their evidence to the police. Why should they have to rely on calling in the police? If they were special constables themselves, they could use those powers. That is what happens in Canada, and we should introduce such measures for our banks, internet service providers and other such organisations.
There is also a major problem of skills shortages in the justice system. There are only 240 computer forensic officers in our police forces. If we are serious about tackling organised crime, we need to get the resources into what have traditionally been regarded as the Cinderella services, and I would argue strongly that we need massively to increase the resources going into that particular area. We also need to recognise the international aspect of this problem, and to ensure that issues of jurisdiction are tackled.
Finally, I welcome the inquiries Bill. The Select Committee on Public Administration, of which I am a member, has been conducting an inquiry into inquiries recently, and has heard evidence from people such as Lord Hutton and Lord Laming, who have conducted inquiries. They have raised a number of issues that I hope that the Government will take on board from our report. They involve such matters as terms of reference, how the chair is selected, and the kind of secretarial support available. They also involve a review of recommendations, and of how an inquiry's recommendations are acted on. I would argue that there is also a greater role for Parliament in that Bill.
I hope that the Queen's Speech goes a long way towards reconnecting us with our communities. Several Bills in it benefit our constituencies. It will tackle some fears about security, and it also has an important role to play in ensuring that opportunities are taken advantage of, which the Government need to hammer on about regularly. As the Queen's Speech identifies, there are tremendous opportunities for this country, but we need the right security context.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me to make my maiden speech. I do so with great pride and honour. I owe a great debt of gratitude to the people of Leicester, who have given me the privilege of representing them. When they elected me they sent a powerful message to this country that they want to restore trust in politics and trust in our politicians. It is a challenge for me and for all hon. Members.
Leicester, South was last held by a Liberal Member of Parliament, Ronald Allen, in 1923. It is interesting to note that in the same year, the right hon. Sir Winston Churchill also stood as a Liberal in Leicester. I am therefore honoured to be elected the first Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament in my constituency for more than 80 years. I am further honoured to be the first Sikh Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament in British history, and the first Liberal Member of Parliament from a black minority ethnic community for more than 100 years. My victory in July came 112 years after the election in July 1892 of Dadabhai Naoroji, the first British Member of Parliament from a black minority ethnic community, as the Liberal Member for Finsbury, Central. He was known as the "Grand Old Man of India", and both Mahatma Ghandi and Muhammad Ali Jinnah played a key part in his election campaign. They went on to become the leaders of India and Pakistan.
I would not be here today but for the sad and untimely death of my predecessor, the hon. James Marshall MP, to whom I wish to pay tribute. I knew Jim Marshall, who was respected both by his constituents and by hon. Members. In paying tribute, I want to refer to his maiden speech of October 1974, which contains the following words of wisdom:
"Finally, I refer to that section of the Gracious Speech opposing racial discrimination at home and overseas. Those who know Leicester well probably realise that within our city we probably have one of the highest percentage immigrant populations of anywhere in the country, and I should be foolish to deny that there are real social problems. There undoubtedly are, and in the long term they can be solved only by an ample injection of central Government funds, a point which I hope my right hon. Friends will again bear in mind for future reference."—[Official Report, 29 October 1974; Vol. 880, c. 180.]
Those were his words 30 years ago. Over time, as the Home Office has resettled more and more refugees in Leicester, there has not been an adequate injection of central Government funds to help with the costs of integrating new communities and Leicester has been left short-funded by millions of pounds in real terms. Like my predecessor, I hope that my right hon. Friends will bear that in mind for future reference.
In my constituency surgeries, I am inundated with people suffering from misery and hardship as a result of immigration rules and long delays by the Home Office in processing casework. That leaves husbands and wives and mothers and children separated and traumatised. That is happening now, with a Labour Government in office, but it was equally the case when we had a Conservative Government.
I am proud to say that I was born in the constituency that I now represent, in the royal infirmary. It has a significant problem with methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. It is one of three city hospitals, and more than 5,000 people are waiting for much-needed operations. I shall fight hard to put patients first and help cut the unacceptably long waiting times. Many of those patients are older people. Leicester, South contains more than 14,000 people of pensionable age, who are a particularly vulnerable group. Not only must they suffer the indignity of poor pensions and face the long-term prospect of paying for personal care and unfair council tax, but more recently they have the added difficulty in my constituency of travelling to find a post office, following the inconsiderate closures that took place despite strong opposition from the local community and the Liberal Democrats.
My constituency also contains two large universities, De Montfort and Leicester. The city's educational strength is a major attraction, with approximately 40,000 students making up about 14 per cent. of the city's population. Students from more than 100 countries are enrolled at Leicester university, which has Britain's only five-star rated research facility in genetics. It was the birthplace of DNA fingerprinting—or profiling, as it is now known—which is an invaluable tool in the fight against serious crime. That is in sharp contrast to the proposed national identity card scheme, which relies on untested new technology and is unlikely to achieve its stated objectives. However, it will cost in excess of £3 billion, money that would be better spent on the police service, which is already warning that it may have to cut police officers due to a lack of central Government funding.
Forty years ago, the textiles industry employed 140,000 of Leicestershire's population of some 800,000. It now employs around 28,000 people, and that figure is expected to halve by 2012. The industry, in which my mother, Gurdev Kaur Gill, worked for much of her life, has declined catastrophically. De Montfort university has played an active role in helping the local economy to survive the textiles industry's decline by focusing its energies on design and technology-led niches through the innovative business development centre.
However desirable Leicester is as a place to study through its connections to the outside world, this House cannot ignore the fact that undergraduate students face a real and severe financial burden from top-up and tuition fees. Concerned young people repeatedly make that point to me, and I shall continue relentlessly to support them.
Leicester has a population of about 284,000 and is among the 10 largest cities in the country. According to the 2001 census, 40 per cent. of its population belong to ethnic communities other than white British. The city celebrates its diversity, which is reflected in the Government's award of beacon status to Leicester City council in 2002 for its promotion of racial equality and in 2003 for its work on community cohesion. I welcome the proposal to establish a commission for equality and human rights and look forward to examining the detail. In February 2001, The New York Times ran the headline, "British city defines diversity and tolerance". The article referred to Leicester and recognised it as a model for diversity not only in the UK, but throughout Europe and across the world. Leicester was the first city to be twinned with an Indian city.
Those who have settled in Leicester have come from all over the world, and it is home for religious practice for, among others, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jains, Jews, Muslims and Sikhs, and it contains the only Jain temple in Europe. That is a far cry from the early 1970s, when large Asian populations were evicted from east African countries and when the Labour council placed advertisements in Ugandan newspapers, warning:
"In your own interests and those of your family you should accept the advice of the Uganda Resettlement Board and not come to Leicester."
Labour's warnings failed. East African Asians came in large numbers and went on to contribute to Leicester's economy in a very significant way.
Most of all, credit must be given to the majority white population of Leicester, without whose help, tolerance and understanding the great social integration of so many ethnic minority communities could not have taken place. That population has proud roots. Leicester is known as the birthplace of the modern English language, which developed there from a mixture of Norse and Anglo-Saxon at the turn of the first millennium. The BBC's nationwide IQ quiz, "Test The Nation", in which 95,000 people took part online, revealed that Leicester folk were the brightest city dwellers. Given my by-election result in July, I can confirm that that is true.
The Leicester, South constituency is also the sporting capital of Britain: Leicester City football club, Leicester Tigers rugby club and Leicestershire county cricket club all have their homes there. It is also at the forefront of initiatives such as "Let's Kick Racism Out Of Football"; and in a survey by Men's Health, Leicester was described as the healthiest place in Britain for men to live.
During the by-election, many hon. Members and political activists from all parties got to know Leicester railway station. At this year's national rail awards, it was highly commended in the "station of the year" category as one of the three best in the country. I was particularly pleased at this accolade for the staff there, who, for over 30 years, included my father, Mohinder Singh Gill.
Leicester, South is a vibrant constituency, and people from the ward areas of Aylestone, Castle, Eyres Monsell, Freemen, Knighton, Stoneygate and Spinney Hills share similar concerns and desires: good education, good housing, locally available health care, a low crime rate and jobs for all. They want a better future for themselves and their children, and they want a concerted international effort to be made on environmental and climate issues. They recognise the principled stance that the Liberal Democrats took against the war in Iraq, and they want progress to be made on the middle east peace process.
My constituency was rightly hard fought for, and I intend to represent it to the fullest of my ability.
It is a great pleasure to follow the newly elected hon. Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Gill). I am pleased that in his very interesting contribution he referred to his predecessor, who was well liked in this Chamber and worked hard for ethnic and cultural diversity in Leicester.
My hon. Friend Mr. Purchase and Sir Michael Spicer said that the Queen's Speech is tantamount to an election address. If so, it certainly builds on what this Government have done for communities and for society in general, and I want to start from that position.
A number of things in the Queen's Speech cause me concern and I shall refer to them a little later, but I want to begin by concentrating on three aspects: education, crime and drugs. I shall say a little on the latter by discussing the impact of drugs in my constituency, while also pointing out the clear need for a sustainable eradication programme in Afghanistan.
The Queen's Speech refers to two Bills on education: one to streamline standards and the other to extend the education maintenance grant and assistance for 16 to 19-year-olds. Such assistance is particularly important in a constituency such as mine and in Barnsley overall. The objective of the Bill to streamline standards relates to a policy to allow more individuals to reach their full potential. One argument that I have always made on education is about the difference between individuality and individualism. I see individuality as being about enabling a person to reach their full potential. There was a setback in the form of an Act passed by Parliament during the past year, but I will not go into that; it is now history.
I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman does not want to be drawn on the history of the past 12 months, but does he accept that it appears that the measure announced in the Queen's Speech to improve educational support for 16 to 19-year-olds will involve a substantial increase in fees for those above the age of 19 doing level 3 and other qualifications? Does he welcome such a measure?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East pointed out, there has always been a fee structure in further education. Indeed, I did my O and A-levels as a student at night classes and I paid a fee for doing so. Previously, I worked for an employer who paid a fee for me to attend the local technical college for two years. There has always been a fee structure; the question is how we assimilate it in such a way that people can afford the fees. There is an absolute difference between that and the Act of last year—but I do not want to get further involved with that. I want instead to refer to the notable developments that have taken place in education in my constituency and in Barnsley overall.
We have a number of new primary schools. Previously, the primary schools were run-down; we had not had a new one for more than 25 years. Now, we have two brand-new primary schools and a number of major refurbishments, which create an environment much more conducive to learning. At the same time, there have been a number of developments in the local secondary schools. On Friday, I had the privilege of attending Elmhirst secondary school to give out achievement certificates. It is the most improved school of last year; there has been a 31 per cent. increase in attainment. The headmaster could say with great commitment that this year the improvement will be even more marked. Watch this space—but the investment that the Government have put into education has clearly done a terrific amount to help to renew Barnsley.
Education is at the heart of the renewal plans for Barnsley. Some people here may even have seen references in The Guardian to the Tuscan hill village—the concept of Will Alsop, the international architect, who was asked to come to Barnsley and help with the planning. That planning has involved the entire community looking at what Barnsley will be like in 30 years. Education is at the centre of where we expect the town to be in 30 years. We expect that, in the next decade, students will leave schools in Barnsley with the same qualifications as children anywhere else in the country. People from Barnsley will work in Manchester, Sheffield, Bradford and other cities, but they will come back to Barnsley, which has beautiful countryside. It is not always appreciated that Barnsley is a rural town with exceptionally beautiful countryside that is ideal for walking. People working in the surrounding cities will, as I said, want to live in Barnsley and return there after work.
I look forward to the day when Chianti is served in working men's clubs in Barnsley. Does my hon. Friend agree that in former mining communities such as those in my constituency, parents have high aspirations for their children? Is it not important that investment in education is supplemented by the support offered in the Queen's Speech for 16 to 19-year-olds, conferring the financial independence to meet those aspirations?
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. That support will be a great help. Although the maintenance grant attracted more people into further education, its extension will reach some of the people whom we were previously unable to reach. It will certainly be a big help.
We have had a crime reduction and disorder partnership in Barnsley since 1995, and I have had the privilege of chairing it since that time. Much of our work has been recognised and adopted by the Government. I know that the Conservative party is rather sceptical about the role of support officers, but Conservatives should reflect further on the value of providing a framework in which community support officers work with the police. Right across the borough we have created what we call LPTs or local police teams, which consist of police officers working with community support officers and estate tenants with the help of local authority professional officers. The team has a social worker, a housing officer and has access to a legal adviser. As soon as a problem arises in a particular location, it can be dealt with and resolved pretty speedily.
The LPTs have had a progressively effective impact. Comparing the last quarter with that of a year ago, Barnsley has seen a 51 per cent. reduction in crime. There has been about a 30 per cent. reduction in domestic burglary and a 20 per cent. reduction in car crime. The co-ordinated approach is clearly working well. If Conservative Members want to know how crime support officers actually work in the LPTs, I invite them to visit Barnsley to see how it is done.
I am pleased that such measures seem to be working well in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, but I have to tell him that in my constituency the burglary clear-up rate is deteriorating all the time. Does he accept that the picture that he paints of his own constituency is by no means mirrored across the country?
I would accept that it is not mirrored across the country, but statistics show that, across the country, there has indeed been a reduction in domestic burglary, as in car crime, right across the piece. Although it is not exactly the same from one constituency to another, there is certainly clear evidence of improvement. We now have between 138,000 to 140,000 police officers, the largest number ever to operate in the UK, and they are working with community support officers in the sort of framework that I have described. That shows how the improvement has been brought about and that positive results are achievable. If the same provisions in the hon. Gentleman's constituency are not working as well as they are in mine—when I talk about Barnsley, I am talking about three constituencies—it might be worth his looking further into what has happened. It provides a template that many other local authorities are actively considering. Positive developments in tackling crime are therefore evident and they are built on the back of what the Government have proposed for tackling antisocial behaviour.
Drugs are a big problem in Barnsley, as they are across the piece. In the late 1990s, we had an enormous problem with heroin. In 1997–98 the drug action team, which is part of the partnership, suggested that as many as 5,000 people regularly took heroin. Since then, we have provided a number of overlapping programmes, with some going into primary schools and some into secondary schools, and a recent report from the DAT suggests that great improvements have been made. There has been a fall in the number of people taking class A drugs and the number of young people starting to take such drugs, which shows that many of the national framework's programmes are indeed beginning to work.
This year's heroin crop in Afghanistan, estimated at 3,500 tonnes with a market value in excess of £30 billion, could undo much of the good work that has been done in our communities. We need to concentrate on what we, as the lead nation, can do in tackling opium eradication in Afghanistan. Although eradication is vital to that country's future as it is to the welfare of our communities in the UK, we need to be aware that sustainable eradication programmes take considerable time to work through. It is necessary to build viable communities and replace institutions.
Some have suggested that aerial spraying is the best way to eradicate the poppy crop and get on top of the opium problem in Afghanistan, but it would be a disaster and would undermine much of what has already been done. The provisional reconstruction teams have an opportunity to engage effectively with the community, but if we were to embark on an aerial spraying eradication programme it would undermine the good relationships that have been built up. Rather, we should put in place an income substitution programme and help to introduce new crops for farmers or to create industries in which the farmers could earn incomes other than from poppy growing. If we were to do otherwise, it undermine all that has been achieved in Afghanistan. I hope that Front Benchers are listening and taking notes, because it is crucial to get that message across to those who are proposing aerial spraying as the way forward.
The Gracious Speech's reference to corporate manslaughter is to be welcomed. The proposal is long overdue, and it shows the country that the Government are tough on the causes of death and injury at work. Any measures in that regard should be complemented by increased fines for health and safety breaches.
In conclusion, I want to say a little about my concerns. I am worried that we are in danger of eroding civil liberties under the banner of the fight against terrorism. I do not think that identity cards will help in that fight. Indeed, I suggest that false cards will be available on the market even before the real thing has been rolled out to every individual. That would undermine a project that would cost an enormous amount. I am therefore rather sceptical about identity cards.
We must move carefully and cautiously when it comes to dealing with terror. I am sceptical about judge-only trials. I agree with the Law Society that such trials represent an unacceptable erosion of citizens' rights. We must be very careful about how we take forward legislation to deal with terrorism.
In large part, the Gracious Speech builds on what has gone before. It offers a chance to build strong and progressive communities. We must weigh some of the proposals in respect of terrorism carefully if we are to retain our civil liberties. Freedom is precious, and we must not sacrifice it.
I congratulate Mr. Gill on his maiden speech, which is a great occasion for any hon. Member. I made mine on the rate-capping Bill, and I followed Sir Edward Heath, so the House was packed. Sadly, the House is seldom packed these days. As I listened to the hon. Gentleman's speech, I felt jealous when he said that he now represents the area in which he was born. I was born in West Ham, and fought that seat in 1979. If I had won then, that would have been the end of the Labour party. Although that may be a nice thought for me, I am sad to say that it did not happen.
Like many hon. Members, I visited Leicester, South during the by-election campaign. I know that the hon. Member for Leicester, South faces a number of challenges locally and I wish him well with them. He spoke with great knowledge and fluency today about his constituency, and I wish him well as a Member of this House.
A naive observer might say that today's Gracious Speech was wonderful, and that it was going to cure all the country's ills. However, not all of us are so naive. Today's Gracious Speech was not delivered after a Government election victory. We are now in the eighth year of this rotten Government. In that time, crime has become completely out of control, our hospitals are not as clean as we would want them, our immigration system is a shambles, school discipline has broken down, taxes have gone up 66 times, and people are not getting value for money.
The Prime Minister has said that he wants to make the country more secure, yet a missile was thrown at him in this very Chamber and people have run on to the Floor of the House. That never happened before, but it has happened under a Government who say that they want to make the country more secure.
The Prime Minister made his name as shadow Home Secretary by telling everyone that he would be tough on crime, yet there are a million violent crimes a year now. He said that he would save the NHS, but 5,000 people die in hospital from methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA. He did not forecast that when he was running for election in 1997.
The Prime Minister said that he would make sure that the immigration system was firm and fair, but it is an absolute shambles. He has also said that our armed forces are a vital part of Britain's standing in the world, but he wants to cut their number. I do not understand how he thinks that that will make the country more secure.
Labour said that it would be tough on crime and its causes, but police officers spend almost half their time at their desks filling in forms. They have to fill in even more forms when they actually stop someone. They spend more time filling in forms than they do fighting crime on the streets.
The Government said that they were going to control immigration and that the policy would be fairer, faster and firmer. However, only one failed asylum seeker in five is removed from the country these days.
The Prime Minister said that he would improve the NHS. However, he did not tell people that they would be in danger, while they were waiting in hospital for an operation, of contracting an illness that would kill them. That happened to 5,000 people last year.
Finally, the Prime Minister said that he wanted to make the country more secure by building up our armed forces. How on earth can he stand at the Dispatch Box, as he did earlier today, when 2,500 infantry personnel are to be cut and six warships are to be lost from the Royal Navy? In addition, the number of ready-to-go fast jet aircraft is to be cut to only 84. People should examine the Gracious Speech very closely, as it is a sham, and mere gesture politics.
The Government have let it be known that there will be an election in May, so we need not have bothered with a Queen's Speech today. The House will adjourn in April, so there will not be time to get any of the 32 Bills that have been announced on to the statute book, even if the Opposition supported them.
I have read the Gracious Speech carefully, and want to speak briefly about various points. The speech states that the Government
"will continue to reform the public services to ensure they provide more security and opportunity for all."
Nothing that the Government have done convinces me that they are capable of reforming public services in a way that will provide more security and opportunity for anyone. The speech goes on to say that the Government
"attaches the highest importance to extending educational opportunity so that all individuals can realise their full potential and the country can benefit from the talents of all its people."
Like all Conservatives, I believe that everyone should be given the opportunity to make the most of his or her God-given talents. Under this Government, parental choice has gone out of the window—parents cannot send their children to the school of their choice. How can the Government square their aim of giving opportunity to all with their introduction of tuition fees? They said that they were not going to introduce those fees, but they will be a chain around students' necks for decades to come.
We are told that the Government will introduce legislation to increase security for all, and I wish them well with that. I do not know what the answer to terrorism is. The climate today is that a person is willing to sacrifice his or her own life in order to kill others. What is the deterrent against that? Again, and in the light of what they have done since 1997, I say that I have absolutely no faith that the Government have any clue about how to deal with security.
On identity cards, I was the first Member of this House to introduce a ten-minute Bill on this matter, and I am sick to death of just talking about it. Everyone has a birth certificate and a death certificate, so why should we not have a life certificate? It is absolute nonsense to say that such cards are a threat to our human rights. The sooner identity cards are introduced, the better. We should get on with it and not just talk about it.
The Gracious Speech also says that the powers of the police and others to fight crime will be strengthened. For goodness' sake! We are to have eight Home Office Bills. When the Conservatives came to power in 1979, police morale was rock bottom, and the very first thing we did was to introduce the Edmund-Davies report, which restored morale. It is a waste of time introducing more laws that will not be enforced. The problem is one of management. Far too many excellent officers take early retirement because they are stressed or for other reasons. That leaves us a police force that simply does not have the experience it needs. It is no good all officers being young. We are all on life's journey, and we need a mix of ages, common sense and proper training for the police. Having special constables walking around in exactly the same uniforms as properly trained police officers, pretending to the general public that they are the same, is absolutely ridiculous. The management of our police force needs to be dealt with, and we need to restore morale.
The Government tell us that they are going to deal with drug abuse. Yet they are the Government who say it is all right to take cannabis. All Member of Parliament have people come to their constituency surgeries to tell them their problems, and I have at least half a dozen constituents who have been completely messed up and who suffer severe mental health problems from taking cannabis. It is absolutely ridiculous for any Member of Parliament to say that it is all right to take cannabis and that it does not damage health. It is a disgrace, and when we have a Conservative Government I hope that they will change all that.
We are told that the Government will tackle the disorder and violence that can arise from the abuse of alcohol. Yet they are the same Government who are making it so easy to have alcohol. It is served everywhere. They are the same Government who have changed the licensing laws, yet they have the brass-necked cheek, in their gesture politics, to tell us they are going to be tough on alcohol abuse.
We are told that the Government recognise the importance of clean and safe neighbourhoods. I have seen absolutely no evidence of delivery on that.
I am delighted that there will be a Bill to help to reduce further the number of those killed or injured on the roads. However, Essex Members of Parliament know that out of all the country's constabulary areas, ours has raised the most from speed cameras. It is all very well the Government legislating further, but a 19-year-old constituent of mine, Jo Martinson, was killed when driving her car. Her parents will never get over it. The person responsible for the accident had one eye and was driving a vehicle with no insurance, no MOT and faulty tyres. Because of a complete mess-up with the timing of the prosecution, by one week, the only thing that has been done to that person is the imposition of a £60 fine. I do not think that the life of a 19-year-old is worth only £60. It is all very well the Government telling us they will introduce road safety measures, but my experience in Southend, West has been somewhat disappointing.
I am delighted that the Government will introduce measures to deal with consumer credit. What goes on now is an absolute rip-off, given the amount of interest that the credit card companies charge. I welcome the Government's proposals and will support them in all their endeavours to deal with that unfair market.
I would have been delighted to see something in the Gracious Speech about our airlines. I was a Member of this House when we privatised British Airways under the leadership of Lord King. That was one of the finest things we ever did, but anyone who travels on British Airways now will find it an absolute joke. It is a cross between Easyjet and Ryanair. Services in British Airways, which has a monopoly, have gone down and down. I hope the Government will address that.
We are told that the Government will introduce a Bill to improve standards of animal welfare and increase the penalties for abuse. I have a consistent record of supporting animal welfare legislation, and I certainly support the Government's endeavours in that regard. No doubt as we rush towards the general election we will be able to get all-party agreement. I will be introducing a 10-minute Bill, inspired by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, to amend the Fireworks Act 2003, because the noise from fireworks this year was frankly out of control and resulted in the deaths of any number of animals.
I am disappointed that the Gracious Speech contained nothing to do with mobile telephones, given that all Members make speeches about them and say that the current policy on masts is shocking. I introduced a 10-minute Bill, the Telecommunications Masts (Need and Safety) Bill, which would have put the onus on operators to prove that there was no danger to health and a need for a mast to be put in place. I was given the impression that the Government would legislate on that, but there was absolutely nothing in the Queen's Speech.
While we are talking about mobile phones, and gesture politics, I should say that it is a criminal offence to use a mobile phone while driving. Yet, right now, thousands and thousands of cars will contain people on their mobile phones. Nothing at all is done to enforce that law.
We are told that health is a priority for the Government, but unless I missed it, there is not one health Bill in the Queen's Speech. Following the Government's White Paper, the very least we expected was a public health Bill. The report of the Select Committee on Health on obesity was excellent, but treating that is not a short-term project. We are into that for 20 years. It will be all very well messing about with the Olympic bid for 2012, when everyone will be running, jumping and hopping, and there will be more physical activity. People do not die if they do not engage in physical recreation, but they do die if they do not eat and drink. We must tackle the fat, sugar and salt put into what we eat and drink.
There will be legislation concerning lotteries. Wow! That is excellent news in Southend, West. I was one of those who very much supported the Conservative Government who introduced the national lottery. Yet in the last 10 years, my constituency has received a total of £1,480,442, which puts us third from bottom among the 659 parliamentary constituencies. We certainly are not the third wealthiest constituency in the country. When I raise the point, I am told that there are not enough bids and the quality is not what it should be. I do not believe that for a moment.
I note from the Gracious Speech that the Government will reduce bureaucracy. That is laughable. The Deputy Prime Minister stood at that Dispatch Box last week, with no grace at all, to talk about the referendum that had been held. Some 80 per cent. voted no, and 20 per cent. voted yes. That referendum cost the British people £10 million. Did the Deputy Prime Minister say he would stop all that nonsense? He did not. The East of England regional assembly was awarded £2,974,000 so that that absolute nonsense can continue.
I also note that the Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise will be joined together. I hope to goodness that the Government do not intend to affect the jobs of people working at Portcullis house in Southend. That is the biggest employer in the town, and the people do an absolutely magnificent job. Under no circumstances do I want any jobs cut there.
I will do everything I can to secure the election of a Conservative Government, a Government who will restore decency to this country, a Government who will put this country back together, and a Government who will make Britain great again.
Mr. Amess said some peculiar things. He said that everyone had a death certificate. No living person has a death certificate. If he wants to establish the point, perhaps he will show me his death certificate. He then said that he supported privatisation of the airlines, but criticised British Airways and said that it was a mix between Easyjet and Ryanair. What are Easyjet and Ryanair but the cutting edge of the cheap end of the private market? His examples told against his own argument.
I wish to say a few words about the maiden speech of Mr. Gill. My hon. Friend Mr. Clapham and I were impressed by the comments that he made about Jim Marshall. Although the Chamber is not well attended, these things get around and his comments are liable to be reported in the Leicester press. Our respected former colleague meant a great deal to people on both sides of the Chamber.
The hon. Member for Leicester, South quoted at length from a speech by Jim and said a great deal about ethnic groups and cultural links within his constituency. Such links are telling for a person such as me. The constituency that I represent has one of the smallest ethnic minority populations in England—it is in the bottom 10. When people who have picked stuff up from the Daily Mail or other sources and would push rather racist arguments, I say to them, "The problem is that you do not know what areas are like. Go to places such as Leicester and see what the communities are like and interlink. You will see that many of the perceived problems do not exist or can be overcome if people work together."
I canvassed in Leicester, South—unsuccessfully. It was very interesting. I canvassed in areas called Chesterfield road, Staveley road and Dronfield road in my constituency. I also represent part of Staveley. I used to visit Leicester, South a great deal. There was once a firm there called Blackfriars Press, which was associated with the Labour movement. I was on the board of Blackfriars Press. It was the only occasion when I have been on the capitalist wing of things rather than on the workers' side. It was interesting to be in that area, which had differences and distinctions from the area that I reside in and that I now represent.
I travel by train from Chesterfield to London. The last time that I passed through Leicester, the Sunderland-Leicester match was about to begin. I am a Sunderland supporter, and unfortunately I missed the match; it was one of the few occasions when we have won against Leicester. The only times I have been to Leicester, we have always been beaten by Leicester City.
I was pleased to be in the Chamber for the maiden speech of the hon. Member for Leicester, South. I do not know how people will judge him. When I made my maiden speech, Dale Campbell-Savours, now Lord Campbell-Savours, was asked by my hon. Friend Mr. Skinner what he thought, and my hon. Friend said, "He is a late-night kamikaze pilot." I did not know what a late-night kamikaze pilot was. The House used to sit late in those days, sometimes through the night, which we do not now, and a handful of people could keep the whole thing going and cause all sorts of problems for the Government of the day. Dale Campbell-Savours knew before I did that I was a late-night kamikaze pilot. Perhaps some of us have ideas about the contributions that the hon. Gentleman will make in the future.
If there is a general election in May next year, this is the last contribution that I will make to a Queen's Speech debate. I hope that hon. Members will not mind if I am a little self-indulgent. I will attempt always to be in order and will refer throughout to items contained in the Queen's Speech, but I may do so in a rather personal way.
The Queen's Speech talks about streamlining
"the organisation of the national rail system to improve performance."
That is a matter of considerable interest to me. I started my working life as a railway clerk. Even when I engaged in my national service, I was working as a rail transport official in Basra with the Iraqi state railway. The privatisation of the railways here was the most doctrinaire piece of privatisation that the Conservative Government entered into. They had no understanding of the nature of railways. Even in the 19th century, people such as Alfred Marshall, who was not a socialist economist, said that railways were natural monopolies. They said that we had to recognise that they developed as monopolies and therefore we had to regulate and control them. To try to work a system in which someone controlled the rail track and different companies ran over the same lines was nonsense. Until we invent some "Beam me down, Scottie" system and we do not need railways, the notion that we can apply such extreme privatisation and competitive principles to the operation of a system such as the railways is nonsense.
There may be some problems with European law and I could suggest avenues for seeking to come to terms with them. It strikes me that, whatever the local difficulties with European law, the answer for the railways is that we should have a decent public ownership system. That is the policy of the Labour party conference. When the matter is brought before the House, it will be discovered that some of us will try to push the Government further. We will seek to tackle the matter that the hon. Gentleman has just raised.
I mentioned that part of my railway clerk experience was as a member of the forces. I was in the RAF in Basra in a movements unit that used to move troops and goods from the port and Basra up to Baghdad to be taken up to the camp in Habbaniya. The Queen's Speech says that the
"Government will continue to support the Government of Iraq to provide stability and security and ensure that elections can be held in January."
I am one of those who opposed the invasion, but I realise that once the invasion had taken place, new sets of circumstances began to be created. I would have preferred to give assistance and encouragement to the considerable forces of opposition in Iraq at different stages who wanted to get rid of Saddam Hussein and change the system. When people struggle within their own system, they develop organisations and arrangements that are part of the transformation and have the potential to build a democratic society. That was not done. Such organisations—clandestine bodies—existed, but the invasion still took place.
We must now look to the development of a democratic Iraq, with civic provisions in a new framework. We must argue against unacceptable military action and try to prevent its worst excesses, but we must realise that terrorism cannot be allowed to rule the roost; it must be contained and people must be defended in order to build democratic provisions and arrangements. There are considerable forces in Iraq that look towards those things—women's organisations, youth organisations, ex-prisoners organisations, community groups, trade unions and bodies such as the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions, which has 200,000 members in 14 organisations—in a setting of 50 per cent. unemployment, massive problems and difficulties about which forms of privatisation will take place. Will it be a rip-off, as it was when the regime changed in the Soviet Union? There are worries about those issues, but there are forces for a better Iraq.
Democracy is not just about voting in a ballot; it is about civil liberties, organisations and people's rights and freedoms to press their corner and get involved. I am joint president, with my hon. Friend Ann Clwyd, of Labour Friends of Iraq, and I am keen that other political parties should establish similar groups. Our joint presidency is symbolic, as my hon. Friend supported what she would call a liberation, but which I call an invasion, while I opposed it, so it shows that people can come together on specific items and work in current circumstances to try to determine a way forward and whom they should assist.
I said that I would be self-indulgent. The next item I want to refer to is educational opportunity. The Gracious Speech referred to "the highest importance" of
"extending educational opportunity so that all individuals can realise their full potential".
I was an adult student. Some people need second opportunities in education, but I was a late developer. I was lucky enough to go to Ruskin college with no formal qualifications and, after a two-year course, to gain a diploma. It was through that avenue that I was able to go to university. Much is being done to extend lifetime education in various fields, often with associated modules and certification that enable people to move into other sectors. To some extent, that has squeezed the old, liberal adult education tradition in places such as Northern college, near Barnsley, and Ruskin college. We should realise that that element still exists.
People change their interests in life and there is much more information in the media to grab people's interest and help them to develop their potential without having to qualify for certificates and modular recognition at an early stage, so an open form of education and the time to study in institutions such as those I mentioned is worth while.
I taught access courses at Sheffield university. People with no formal qualifications who studied those courses did better at university or college than those who had not had the opportunity to go down that avenue. I hope that the Government consider such forms of education as an important element that can add to the valuable work that is being done elsewhere.
The next item I want to refer to is the legislation to be introduced
"to combat discrimination in the provision of goods and services on the grounds of religion, as well as race, sex and disability".
Mr. Kennedy suggested that age should be added to those categories. I am worried about those matters—[Interruption.]—not just about age. To discriminate or attack people on grounds of race, sex, disability or age is entirely unacceptable and we should have the strongest legislation against that. However, if someone attacks another person on the ground of religion, we must be careful about where we draw the boundaries. If a person is abusive or derogatory about another person's religion, that is an extreme form of attack and action is justified to protect people. However, discussion and argument about religious matters is of considerable importance.
I hope that, like every Member, and more widely, my hon. Friend accepts that it is quite possible not to share someone else's religious beliefs and to argue that vigorously from a sense of commitment, without insulting them or their religion. Will my hon. Friend take that point on board?
My hon. Friend has set out the position that I wanted to express much better than I could. It should be possible to have the strongest dialectical debate and sometimes heated argument, because if people feel strongly they will get into that position, but arguments should be carried on in a way that does not attack individuals and their most fundamental and sacred feelings. People's ideas are important to them, whatever their religion and whether their views are humanist or perhaps even anti-religion, but debate should take place.
At Hull university, I studied philosophy—including the philosophy of religion—ethics and politics. It is precisely on those topics that there should be full and fearless debate. In the Chamber, we can have full and fearless debate on political and moral issues. We are kept in order by the Speaker and Deputy Speakers and there are rules so that we do not go beyond what is reasonable. Such debate is to be encouraged and we need to be careful about the extent of legislation.
Some people say that religion and politics should never be discussed. Well, in that case I would have to shut up, because I think that they are the only two things worth arguing about—apart perhaps from football, opera and various other things. In terms of where we stand on particular issues and how our views change and shift over time, politics and religion are key matters. I hope that care will be taken when measures relating to religion are brought before us.
I want to say something about identity cards. My hon. Friend Brian White said that there were certain points in favour of identity cards, but he did not think that they would do much to tackle terrorism and that other things, such as social provisions, could be important in that regard. I feel that if we could switch the agenda somewhat, there is a lot in what he said.
The problem of electoral registration in this country has interested me for a considerable period. I became interested in it when the Conservatives introduced the poll tax, as I knew that it would squeeze certain people off electoral registers and stop new voters registering. When I looked into it a little more, I discovered that the problem did not just relate to the poll tax—it certainly did—but that it went wider. We have a mobile society—people move from bedsitter land to different areas—so there were problems with registration, particularly in black communities and deprived areas. About 2 million people were missing from electoral registers. That was tackled to some extent by the current Government in the Representation of the People Act 2000, which introduced a version of rolling registers, but that still has not tackled the problem properly. I would recommend my own attempt at a private Member's Bill. When I was lucky in the ballot in 1993, I proposed a host of arrangements that tied in with making rolling registration effective, and we still need to move in that direction.
Would not identity cards be of great value in securing electoral registration? If we gave votes to people at the age of 16 and ensured, through the schools system, that registration for identity cards started as people were reaching that age, that could be used to track them for electoral registration purposes, wherever they move in the United Kingdom, to achieve their rights. A democracy should have as its first building blocks the vote and the ballot. I argued earlier that voting was not enough in Iraq, but it is the starter and it must be universal. We should do all that we can to establish universal provision, so I shall try to persuade the Home Secretary to switch more to that agenda. He says that he is sympathetic, but we must ensure that that agenda is delivered.
I introduced a further private Member's Bill on civil rights for disabled people when I drew lucky in the ballot a couple of years later. Alf Morris, now Lord Morris, had introduced a similar measure in 1992, and my hon. Friend Mr. Berry had introduced a dramatic version on the Floor of the House in 1994. In 1995, the then Conservative Government opposed my Bill because they had introduced the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 in conflict with it. At that time, the views on how far we should go with civil rights for disabled people were solidly divided into two camps.
This Government have extended the interpretation of the 1995 Act and introduced legislation to establish the Disability Rights Commission. In fact, that was done with the support of those on the Conservative Front Bench. Things have moved considerably in that period. The next stage is that we now need to get nearer to achieving civil rights for disabled people, and we need to stop the people who discriminate. Like the arguments of race, gender and age, people should not be able to use the argument of disability to discriminate against other individuals. No one should be able to discriminate by perceived, actual, past and possible future disability. The notion that people should discriminate on the ground of disability is very peculiar because we could all be disabled in the future—I am much more disabled than I used to be—so it is like people discriminating against themselves or their possible future selves. That could not happen with other forms of discrimination. We can understand, without agreeing, why people discriminate in other areas.
Finally, I want to deal with the points about the European Union made in the Queen's Speech. Ever since the days of Harold Wilson when the vote was lost and we argued "No", pointing to the undemocratic, bureaucratic and essentially capitalist nature of the EU, my position on the EU has not changed, but there is no use arguing against a two thirds vote against us in the hope that things will alter very considerably. We must get in and seek to change things.
Seeking change has always involved my arguing for a federal, democratic and social Europe—federal in the proper sense, not in the sense that is often used to pretend that the creeping centralisation and bureaucracy that often take place represent federalism, as though federalism involves centralised control. We need federalism in which there are divisions of power and power is pushed much more to the states. The bodies that make the decisions should not be Councils of Ministers or Commissions; the lead should be taken by Parliaments. Those Parliaments will be operated and run by leaderships, but they will be open and people will be able to check everything that is going on. To that extent, I have a similar agenda to that of the Liberal Democrats on that matter, but not on many others, although I do not know how far they go on the social provisions and changing the EU's economic arrangements.
I might get a chance to push some of those things a bit further during this Session of Parliament, but if not, I have put out a few markers in the hope that people pick up issues, such as electoral registration, run with them and pass on the baton.
I thank you for calling me to speak, Madam Deputy Speaker. I apologise to the House for not being present for most of the debate through no fault of my own, for I was enclosed in the talks that are going on about Northern Ireland between the Government and some of our parties. I came from those talks directly to the House, and I appreciate you calling me to speak in the debate.
In the Gracious Speech, Her Majesty said that her Government
"will work to bring about the conditions necessary for the restoration of the political institutions in Northern Ireland."
Of course, that is why the talks have taken place and why my party has taken part in those talks. The Prime Minister made it clear what the basis and aims of the talks are. I refer the House to a statement that he made in the city of Belfast on 17 October 2002, in which he said:
"Another inch by inch negotiation won't work. Symbolic gestures, important in their time, no longer build trust. It is time for acts of completion. Republicans to make the commitment to exclusively peaceful means, real, total and permanent. For all of us, an end to tolerance of paramilitary activity in any form. A decision that from here on in, a criminal act is a criminal act. One law for all, applied equally to all."
It was on that basis that my party joined in those talks.
On 27 November 2002, I asked whether the Prime Minister was
"aware that in the past two days my party has met the Minister with responsibility for security in Northern Ireland and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. We put one question to both: what is an act of completion? Does it consist of IRA-Sinn Fein repudiating and ceasing violence and being disbanded, or does it simply mean that they make a statement that they will give up violence? Can the Prime Minister tell us what he believes it means?"
The Prime Minister replied:
"I can. It is not merely a statement, a declaration or words. It means giving up violence completely in a way that satisfies everyone and gives them confidence that the IRA has ceased its campaign, and enables us to move the democratic process forward, with every party that wants to be in government abiding by the same democratic rules."—[Official Report, 27 November 2002; Vol. 395, c. 309.]
Those statements are crystal clear and on that basis my party joined the talks. It has spent considerable time and energy in them because we hoped that at very long last we were coming to a time when democracy would conquer and intolerance, paramilitary activities, murders and terrorism would come to a complete and total end.
Running with that is that we need not only full decommissioning but an end to the criminal activities of IRA-Sinn Fein. The Prime Minister made it clear that he also believed that they must cease. Then I read in a newspaper this week that a leading member of Sinn Fein in the south of Ireland is spying on senior Fianna Fail and Fine Gael politicians, and there is a hue and a cry from IRA-Sinn Fein that the Dublin courts do not provide justice and that that man should not be condemned. So the IRA is busily engaged in those activities.
Some people say to me, "But Ian, is it not a fact that things are now different?" People should not be deceived. We do not have a normal situation in Northern Ireland. I have the last report made to the Northern Ireland Policing Board by the Chief Constable. He gave the figures for what happened last year, and this year as far as they go. The number of persons charged with terrorist offences was 56 in April to September 2003, and 41 in April to September 2004. That is not a big reduction or normalisation. The number of deaths occurring as a result of the security situation was four in April to September 2003, and three in April to September 2004. The number of shooting incidents was 103 in April to September 2003, and 103 in April to September 2004. The number of bombing incidents was 26 in April to September 2003, and 37 in April to September 2004. The number of casualties arising from paramilitary-style attacks was 149 in April to September 2003, and 116 in April to September 2004.
The situation is not normal. It is essential not only that IRA-Sinn Fein put away all their guns and that those are seen to be put out of use for ever, but that we see what happens to their massive criminal activity. Something like £500,000 of cigarettes were recently stolen from the Gallaher's factory. All those things are piling up, as well as the bombings, killings, targeting, recruiting and so on. The Government have to face up to the problem. Yet in the midst of that we are told that, because of normalisation, certain things are to take place and the Royal Irish Regiment is to be cut. In fact, steps have been taken eventually to disband that regiment altogether.
We need to keep those things in mind when great pressure is put on Northern Ireland's politicians to make a settlement. If there is to be real peace in Northern Ireland, IRA-Sinn Fein must give up all their weapons in such a way that the ordinary man in the street knows that it has been done. It must be clear and open, and there must be a ceasing of their criminal activities and those activities that continually put a black spot on our Province. The soldiers of the RIR deserve honest treatment. They need honesty, clarity and certainty about what is happening to their regiment.
Is my hon. Friend aware of the statement issued tonight by Mr. Trimble, in which he claims to have negotiated the retention of the Royal Irish Regiment last year? Is he also aware that soldiers are being briefed across the Province that their regiment or the home service battalions are to be disbanded within the next 18 months? Will he therefore comment on what the right hon. Gentleman said?
The right hon. Gentleman has said many things. He told us about decommissioning. It did not happen. He told us that we were lying to the people when we said that it did not happen. I asked the civil servants at the talks at Leeds castle, "What was the decommissioning?" One of them said, "Don't cause my face to get red." How many guns were put away? Possibly two the first time, possibly four the second time, and possibly 12 the third time. Yet politicians tell us that if we only knew how many IRA-Sinn Fein gave away, we would be amazed.
I am not a youngster. I am getting on and have been in Northern Ireland politics not because I wanted to be but because the people put me there. I want the matter settled in such a way that I can think of tomorrow and the children and grandchildren of tomorrow knowing that they are going to live in part of the United Kingdom where there is proper peace and where the enemies of our Province, whether they call themselves loyalists, IRA men or anything else, cannot break the law and be armed to break the law.
As my hon. Friend Mr. Donaldson said, the regiment members know that the guillotine is upon them. I have facts on that which I shall give to the Secretary of State for Defence when I meet him tomorrow. The soldiers who served and bore the burden in the heat of the day deserve help from the House to be rehabilitated into the civilian population. They deserve to be treated as honourable people who gave their lives in the service of freedom. I appeal to the House to see that that is done.
The other matter that I am concerned about is the fact that tomorrow I have to meet the Prime Minister of the south of Ireland and our Prime Minister, and I regret that tonight I do not have, and have never got from either of them, an assurance that the IRA are going properly to decommission their weapons. They argue now that decommissioning has to be done in a corner and that we cannot have photographs of it. If there are to be photographs, they will take them. They claim the right to keep them, and any royalties for printing them in a newspaper will be paid to the IRA. That is what they are at now. All I can say to the House is that I believe that both Governments must put to an end to that by standing up and saying, "Do what the Prime Minister said. Let us have completion. Let us come to an end. Finish this once and for all, and give to the people of Northern Ireland the liberties and rights that they deserve."
I have dedicated myself to that task. My party has dedicated itself to that task. We are not going to run away from the table and we are not going to be pressurised. We are going to stick to the issue as it was presented to us. Were we brought into the talks under false pretences, or are the Government going to keep their word? That is the issue. I trust that we will see the Government keeping their word. I trust that soon the people of Northern Ireland will know that the IRA are finished once and for all, the other terrorists are finished once and for all and we will have peace on the basis of democracy—all men equal under the law, and all men subject to that law. That is what it has to be.
I trust that the House will understand what the Unionist population have suffered and what the Roman Catholic population have suffered from IRA-Sinn Fein. Many thousands of Roman Catholics vote for me. Anyone who does not believe that should go and watch the results coming out of the ballot boxes in some areas—they will get a big surprise. I remember standing with John Hume and saying, "What about those votes, John? Why are those people voting for me?" He said, "Well, Ian, I don't know." I said, "I'll tell you. It's because I have tried as best as I can to do right by all the parties I represent."
I say to the House that now is the time for it to exercise its power with the Government, and see that this sad chapter is closed and that opportunities will be given for all people, no matter what their religion or their political convictions, who want to live in peace to do so. We must use the system of democracy to help their families and to help the future. That is what I wish.
I am glad that I followed Mr. Barnes because he has always taken an interest in Northern Ireland. We do not see things the same, but he has always been in his place, and I regret the fact that he is not coming back after the general election. Maybe after this debate he will be persuaded that he should come back and finish the job that he feels he should do.
Following the speech of Rev. Ian Paisley, I can say that the wishes of everyone in the House are that the talks in which he is to take part will yield positive progress. There is a universal desire among the citizens of this country—in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales—to see the troubles of the past generation or two finally laid to rest and the peace that the hon. Gentleman describes brought to Northern Ireland. He and all those involved in the talks have the good wishes of the House and we hope that they can make progress in the discussions that lie ahead.
As I listened to the Queen's Speech, I was struck by two things. The first was that this Queen's Speech is a clear indicator that the Government are increasingly out of touch. That is perhaps inevitable when one has been in office for several years, had one's diary organised every day, made ministerial visits in which one is met by welcoming parties and been told what one wants to hear by all around. The second was that, wrapped in all the Bill titles and messages in the Gracious Speech is the Government's obsession with spin. This Queen's Speech is about fighting a general election campaign. It is a public relations exercise, which is the wrong strategy for the country. The Bills mentioned will not make the difference claimed by the Government. I look forward, over the next few months, to taking messages from our side of the House to the country, to explain precisely why the Government's strategy is wrong, will not work and cannot work.
Put simply, the Government seem to believe that new laws mean action. If that were true, we would not this year have a Queen's Speech full of Bills from the Home Office—another series of Bills designed to tackle crime and disorder. Over the past seven years, we have had endless Bills on crime and disorder—more than 20—including the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, the Criminal Justice (Terrorism and Conspiracy) Act 1998, the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999, the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000, the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001, the Police Reform Act 2002 and another Criminal Justice Act in 2003. Yet crime is becoming more and more of a problem for more and more people in our society, despite the Government's claims. Out there, our constituents, including those of Ministers, find that crime, antisocial behaviour and the threat of violence on our streets are getting worse and worse, year by year.
What is the Government's response to all that? A propensity to establish new offences where none is needed. I can think of two obvious recent examples. The Government, to create a headline, introduced legislation on the use of mobile phones while driving, but the existing offence of careless driving was perfectly adequate to do the job. We voted recently in this place on smacking, but there exists an offence, assault, which is perfectly adequate for dealing with genuine violence against children. Too often the Government introduce Bills and create new offences, not because that will make a difference in the fight against crime but because they want to create the impression that they are trying to do something in that fight.
What we need is proper enforcement of existing laws. The police do not say that they need more offences to deal with people. When one goes out on a Saturday night with one's local police force, as I suspect Members on both sides of the House do, one does not hear those officers asking for additional penalties to levy on offenders. They say, "I wish we just had a few more officers on the beat. We wish we were not one of only two cars on patrol in a wide area." We need more police officers on the streets and less bureaucracy.
The Minister says that we have them. I can tell him that I recently talked to a chief superintendent in my area, who said that the truth is that we have far fewer police on the streets today than we did 10 years ago, not because they are fewer in number, but because the police are now committed to doing so much stuff behind the scenes on behalf of the Government: collecting data, filling in forms and dealing with a raft of bureaucracies that simply did not exist a generation ago. That means that, out on the streets, the thin blue line is thinner than it has ever been. If the Minister does not accept that, he is simply reinforcing my point that the Government are increasingly out of touch.
What is the experience on the ground? Let me share some experiences with the Minister, since he does not believe me. Earlier this year, I did an exchange with Mrs. Ellman. I went and spent some time in some of the rougher areas in her constituency, where I talked to people who are suffering from antisocial behaviour. I remember talking to one young family in particular. They live in a run-down block, and every night a gang of youths comes into the stairwell outside the flat, takes drugs, causes trouble and vandalises the place extensively. One has to ask: where are the police? When someone is in that position, being traumatised, night after night, is it really beyond the wit and wisdom of our society to deliver policing to tackle those problems? That experience is shared by people across the country. When they seek and need the police, the police are not there. That is not because officers are not committed. We have some fine police officers in this country, but there are not enough of them on the streets and in patrol cars to do the job when needed.
In my constituency, which is in many respects a great contrast to that of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside, the lack of police presence is all too common. We had a terrible case recently. A young man walking across a recreation ground late at night was tackled by a gang of young people. He was assaulted, viciously attacked, had a number of his teeth kicked out and was left unconscious. The police took 45 minutes to arrive. The ambulance got there first, and the ambulance staff were assaulted by the gang of yobs. It is simply not good enough that the police took 45 minutes to arrive.
The police try to do something about antisocial behaviour. To give another example from my constituency, a local beat officer faced a problem of over-18s buying alcohol for under-18s. He wanted to point a closed-circuit television camera at a specific off licence to enable him to identify those buying alcohol for under-age groups. He said that it took days of paperwork to enable him to do so—endless form-filling and process just to tackle one problem. That is madness and it should not be happening.
The hon. Gentleman is painting a very bleak picture of what some of our emergency services have to deal with, and to a certain extent I agree with him. I know only too well of instances of ambulances arriving at a public house where there has been an incident and of ambulance officers being attacked by people on the licensed premises. There seems to have been a breakdown in society. Can the hon. Gentleman point to a time when he believes that that breakdown began? Has it occurred in the past two or three years, or over the past 10, 15 or 20 years?
I know what the hon. Gentleman is encouraging me to say. I could pick 1997 as an obvious time when the decline started. He would no doubt try to claim that it began in 1979. I think that it has been a trend over the past 40 or 50 years, and it is accelerating. The level of respect in our society is decreasing and the likelihood of people stepping outside conventional, legal, law-abiding behaviour is increasing as time goes by, and we must address that.
Hon. Members who have talked about the need for a broad range of solutions and for different agencies to work together to bring different ideas to bear on the problem are all absolutely right. There is no single solution, but if we do not deliver proper policing and stop people in their tracks when they commit illegal acts, acts of disorder and antisocial behaviour, they will realise that there is no sanction and they will offend and reoffend. That must stop.
Let us take the example of Manchester. The hon. Gentleman may be aware that there has been much coverage about the lack of officers available in Manchester city centre on a Saturday night. There are perhaps a dozen trying to control all the pubs and clubs in central Manchester, and that cannot be right. We must get more officers on the streets, tackling the issues up front. We must be tougher and not let people get away with such behaviour.
The hon. Gentleman makes a point about lack of police officers, but does he not believe that there is a duty on licensees to do something about the activities on their premises? I am not about to condemn young people en masse, but I hope that he and other hon. Members agree that in today's society young people go out with the sole intention—perhaps this should not come from a Scot—of drinking until they fall down. What enjoyment there is in that I do not know, but that is the society in which we are living and, as today's Queen's Speech says, something must be done.
The hon. Gentleman is right. As I said a moment ago, the problem does not have a single solution. Active and proactive participation from all those involved is required; licensees clearly have a role to play in reducing antisocial behaviour. None the less, where there is trouble, illegality and disorder, the police are too often unable to do anything about it. A couple of years ago, there was a large illegal rave involving 2,000 or 3,000 people just outside my constituency. As the event started to build, 12 officers were available in the local station in Kingston. They said that there was nothing that they could do, so the event built up and became a major public order problem. We simply do not have enough officers to deal with problems when they arise.
None of these problems will be solved by a raft of new legislation or increased bureaucracy—by Metropolitan police officers having to fill in forms every time they stop someone on the streets. I wait patiently, but probably fruitlessly, for the Government to realise that we will reduce crime only if we put the police back into pole position—if we give them real power again, trust them with the job and get them out of police stations and back on to the streets to do the job that we need them to do: fair but tough policing of such problems.
If ever there were a symbol of a Government whose transport policy has been in chaos, continues to be in chaos and will be in chaos until we can finally get rid of them, it is the railways Bill. To hear all the noises that the Government have made in recent months, one would think that the Strategic Rail Authority was a Tory creation. It was the Government's great answer to the problems of the railways. "The terrible Tories", they said, "have privatised the railways and caused chaos. Our Strategic Rail Authority will solve the problem." Three or four years later, the Government have discovered that it does not work. Sadly, I have no confidence that the alternative announced today will do any better. We are seeing the creeping renationalisation of the railways. Many responsibilities for the management of the network are being passed to Network Rail, which is a creature of Government. The remainder are being passed back to the Department for Transport. Step by step, the Government are taking back control of the railways.
Sadly, all of that misses the point. What is wrong with our rail network is that it is over-congested. There are more passengers on our railways today than before the Beeching cuts were made to a much larger rail network. I travel into Waterloo in the mornings, and it would not matter who owned or controlled the railways, because there are too many trains chasing too few slots, too few platforms and too little space at key junctions. It is not about ownership or control, but about measures to alleviate congestion.
One tragedy of the past few years was that the SRA produced a clear strategy to address some of the pinch points on the network, including on the routes through my constituency, but within a few months of those ideas being put forward the Government shelved them all. All around the country there are opportunities to ease congestion that this Government have passed by. That is a great loss. When Labour loses office, people will look back on transport policy as one of its great failings.
The references to education in the Gracious Speech had a heavy element of double-speak:
"The Government will continue to legislate to allow local authorities to provide innovative and safe school transport", which really means that the Government will continue to make progress on passing a law that will end the provision of free school transport. The Gracious Speech also said:
"A Bill will be introduced to extend financial support for 16 to 19 year olds engaged in training and education."
That really means that the Government will charge substantially higher fees to those in our colleges who study at level 3 and above and who are over the age of 19. That is top-up fees mark II. If one reads the documentation behind the proposed measure, one sees great commonality between what the Government said about top-up fees and what they are now saying about the new proposal. They are saying that people who get higher qualifications earn a premium in their professional and working lives, so they should contribute more to the education that they receive. Mr. Barnes, who is no longer in his place, talked about his experience of coming to qualifications slightly later in life than many people. Somebody who leaves school at 16 having failed in their exams, goes back to college immediately to try again and works their way through level 1 and level 2 qualifications will probably be 19 before they set about obtaining a level 3 qualification. Such a person will now be charged a 50 per cent. higher fee.
Across the further education sector, there will be examples of people who are trying to broaden their skills and to move themselves to the next stage professionally, but who will lose out significantly. Such people may be deterred by the measure, which is not about deferred fee payments in further education; it is about money up front, paid by the students, many of whom will turn away from education and training as a result. For all the Government's great words about commitment to broadening educational access to all, the measure is a retrograde step that they will come to regret.
That measure features in a Queen's Speech that is disappointing, will not make a difference but useful for the Government in generating headlines. Good government is actually about doing the right things, and not just about public relations spin to try to win elections. What is lacking in this Government is substance and action that deliver real results and change. I hope that, when we come to vote next year, the people of this country will understand that and vote for the change that they really need—a change of Government.
I remind the House of the business interests recorded in the register.
The Government are very keen on warnings. There are new health warnings on cigarettes, and there are to be wealth warnings on credit card statements. I think that there should be a label displaying a clear warning at the bottom of Queen's Speeches. Today's speech was something of a deception. By my reckoning, at least two thirds of the Bills will never become Acts. Worse, there are phrases in the Queen's Speech that are a sham:
"My Government will continue to take forward . . . the constitutional legislation introduced last year."
Let us be clear about that. The constitutional legislation introduced last year is not going on to the statute book this year, and I very much doubt that it will do so in any year. Even more disgracefully, we were told:
"Measures to reform the law on mental health will continue to undergo pre-legislative scrutiny."
Those measures are updating legislation that is now 20 years old. More than four years ago, the then Secretary of State for Health promised me that it was a Government priority, but it is still at the stage of pre-legislative scrutiny. That is simply not good enough for a Government who were committed to introducing them.
There is always something to welcome in any Queen's Speech. I particularly welcome the measures on animal welfare and against animal welfare extremism, which are very important. I also welcome the Bill to merge the Inland Revenue and Customs. I do so on behalf of the Select Committee on the Treasury, which recommended such action almost five years ago. I have to tell the House that the Government then turned down our recommendation, and it is only now, some four and half years later and after the O'Donnell review, that it has finally been accepted.
The Treasury Committee reported on the O'Donnell review as well, and I hope that the Bill that is introduced to complete the merger takes account of our two major concerns. First, we were concerned that merging two very large organisations with very different cultures should not put at risk the collection of the revenue and the service that individual and business taxpayers deserve to receive. Secondly, confidentiality should be protected and indeed enhanced in statute. That is all the more important because the two departments and their policy-making arms are now being moved into the Treasury building itself, and the arm's length relationship that should exist between Treasury Ministers and Revenue officials may become all the more suspect when they are sharing the same corridor, building or cafeteria. I hope that those two reservations or concerns will be taken into account when the Bill is introduced.
I also notice—it is possible that the Deputy Leader of the House can help me on this—no reference anywhere in the Queen's Speech to legislation to reform statistics. The way in which this Government have treated statistics is nothing short of disgraceful. First, they promised a statutory framework to make statistics truly independent of Government. Having spent four years producing the code of practice, they have welched on that responsibility and not introduced the necessary legislation. That is all the more important when national statistics and the national statistician are being dragged into the political arena because the Government have set themselves all these different targets and have then expected statistics to be thrown up to measure their achievement or otherwise.
It is all the more important that we put the Office for National Statistics on a basis that is truly independent of Government. At the moment, its staffing and resourcing, as well as, indeed, the staffing and resourcing of the body that supervises national statistics, the Statistics Commission, depend on the Treasury budget. The national statistician and the ONS are still responsible to a Treasury Minister. That is not good enough in a modern democracy, and we should legislate soon to give ourselves the independent department of statistics and independent office of the national statistician that other modern democracies have.
As some of my hon. Friends have said, the Government are still flailing around improving security and public behaviour. We spend weeks in this building debating banning smacking, smoking and hunting, and suddenly the Government wake up and realise that, with an election coming, they have to deal properly with terrorism and yob culture. If these terrorism Bills are now so necessary, why has it taken the Government three years after September 2001 to tighten our security? Was it that the original Bills were so badly drafted that new offences have suddenly proved necessary? Why, three years after that dreadful act, are the Government still flailing around trying to come up with the right legislative response? On antisocial behaviour, why is this now their third attempt to improve the legislation to give the police and local authorities the powers that they really need to crack down on such behaviour? I do not think that that is good enough.
My priorities for this Queen's Speech would have been very different indeed. If the Government really wanted to help communities such as the villages in Sevenoaks, I can tell the Deputy Leader of the House exactly what he should have been proposing. He should have been doing something about the planning rules that Travellers continually ride roughshod over in my villages—in West Kingsdown, Halstead, Crockenhill and Hextable. All we are promised is yet another review. Instead of another review, there should be action.
First, there should be a presumption against retrospective planning in the green belt or areas of outstanding natural beauty. Why should Travellers or those who act on their behalf for very distinct commercial purposes be allowed to apply for retrospective planning permission that they know should not be granted?
In a moment.
Secondly, I would like to see much tougher enforcement powers. The Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 has just gone through the House, and the Government missed the opportunity to give local authorities the powers that they need to enforce the planning rules. Thirdly, I suggest to the Government that we need a stricter definition of just who these Travellers are. On investigation, far too many of them turn out not to be wandering itinerant people, but to have had or have homes or assets in this country; quite often, they have considerable wealth in this country that enables them to purchase fields to carry out significant and substantial infrastructure works to build up sites for what are clearly commercial purposes. I apologise to David Taylor for keeping him waiting.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way at this point. When I surveyed parish councils in North-West Leicestershire about their main concerns regarding antisocial behaviour, although the issue of Travellers was at the top of the pile, they asked not necessarily for planning, better enforcement or improved definition—although it was clear that those could play a part—but for the police to use the powers they already have, for the Environment Agency to be required to instigate prosecutions where necessary and for better co-ordination, at a local government level, of action against illegal encampments on public land.
The hon. Gentleman was courteous enough to accept my three points, and I will accept his, but those are all matters that we could put right in this House through legislation. We could give the Environment Agency greater powers and help local authorities. I hope that he agrees, for example, that it is unfair to expect parish councils constantly to pick up the tab for the legal costs of enforcement and for clearing up sites when it has been successful. The Government could do much to help communities in that respect, and I regret that there is no such proposal in the Queen's Speech.
The Government could be helping patients. I do not understand why the Government continue to spend money on setting up more health bureaucracies when, seven and a half years after they promised to get rid of them, we still have the indignity of mixed-sex wards in the Kent and Sussex hospital, which serves my constituency. After repeated promises to phase them out, they are still there despite all the additional health expenditure and all the new health bureaucrats.
The Government could be helping teachers and parents. I share the concern expressed by my hon. Friend Chris Grayling about charging for school transport. How much more refreshing it would have been had the Government proposed a Bill that ensured that the home-to-school contract gave schools the powers they need to get the co-operation of parents in ensuring that children are delivered to school on time ready to be taught, and was made enforceable by the school's refusal to take pupils whose parents did not comply with it. And how refreshing it would have been had the Government announced that they would stop interfering in the admissions arrangements of our schools and local authorities through the adjudicator.
For commuters, instead of yet another reorganisation of the rail bureaucracies, why cannot we have a commitment to cleaner, more punctual trains, on which so many of our constituents depend? My constituents do not write to me saying that they want another reorganisation of Network Rail, another look at the way in which the Strategic Rail Authority is set up or a different relationship between the regulator and the Minister—what they want are clean, punctual and reliable trains.
Does the hon. Gentleman recall whether his constituents, if he had any at the time, wrote to him urging that the rail industry be privatised?
I think that I can honestly say to the hon. Gentleman that I did not have constituents at that point in this country's economic development. Rail use increased as a result of privatisation, yet despite all the money allocated under the 10-year transport plan our constituents still do not see the basic results that they need—cleaner, reliable and punctual trains to get them to work on time.
For individual taxpayers, it would have been refreshing had the Government announced that they were going to look again at their horrendous tax credits system, under which people are paid too late, then overpaid and asked to refund the money, and find that the helpline does not work, that the staff whom they deal with are constantly changed and that complaints are lost. That system does not help those of our constituents who need the most help. It is exactly the same with the Child Support Agency, as was proved by the resignation of its chief executive. There are the same computer faults, the same poor customer service, and the same helpline inadequacies. Why are our surgeries and advice bureaux full of constituents complaining about their tax credit award, the overpayment that is demanded to be repaid, or the negligence of the Child Support Agency? Why do they come to us to sort out such problems when the Government are running bureaucracies that should be eliminating them?
For business, the Queen's Speech does not reflect the Secretary of State's last-minute U-turn and her sudden, new-found interest in deregulation and simplification, as I could find no specific measures on those topics. Last year, the Treasury Sub-Committee reported on the administrative cost of tax compliance, pointing to factors such as the company car scheme and statutory sick pay, which impose an unnecessarily complicated burden on business that Government could easily eradicate. They could easily exempt smaller businesses from all this new legislation until it is properly proven. They could confine the various tax changes to a single day in the tax calendar, thus helping small firms, in particular, to budget better for the year ahead. I appreciate that the Department for Work and Pensions is trying to confine the implementation date for legislation to two points in the financial year, but other Departments across Whitehall have not followed suit, and it remains true that several such changes are introduced at different points.
I hope that the Government will reconsider capital gains tax. We all welcome the lower rate, but it is not yet accompanied by the necessary simplicity that businesses need.
This is a fag-end Queen's Speech that does very little for my constituents in Sevenoaks and reminds them of just how deeply this Government have so far failed to tackle the real issues.
The legislative programme put before us today contains some very interesting Bills, including some that we might support should they ever be put to a vote.
At the centre of the Queen's Speech is the law and order and terrorism agenda. It is a shame that the Government came to power claiming to restore hope but now cling to office by turning to the politics of fear. This Queen's Speech is clearly a prelude to a general election campaign in which fear and terror will be placed at the heart of the Government's proposals. It is probable that leaflets accusing those who have the temerity not to agree wholeheartedly with ID cards of being soft on crime are already winging their way to the printers and will soon be coming through a door near us. In 1997, Labour told us, "Things can only get better". That now has a hollow ring, but perhaps its 2001 anthem, "Lifted", will take on a new meaning should many of these measures go through.
At the heart of the Government's agenda is the Bill on identity cards, but that has already descended into utter confusion with Ministers all over the place on what ID cards are and what they are meant to achieve. I heard one Minister on the radio at lunchtime describing ID cards as a means of dealing with identity fraud, asylum, crime, fraud in public services and terrorism, as well as offering gold-plated proof of identity. That is a lot for one little card to manage to do. Other Ministers have told us that they are no different from a store card or a driving licence. Well, frankly, they cannot be both. Either they are an aid to fighting terrorism or they are no different from a store card.
We were presented with a vision by one Minister who said, "When people are stopped in their car and they don't have their driving licence with them, they can hand it in to the police later on. That's all right; there's no problem with that." However, it strikes me that, if an identity card is meant to deter terrorism, it would fail in that objective if the police were to stop a suspected terrorist and say, "We suspect you of terrorism. Where is your identity card?", and, on being told, "I don't have it", asked the person to hand it in to the police within 72 hours, 14 days, or whatever. That would rather defeat the purpose.
So, what is the identity card for? That is the crux of the proposal, and of the muddled thinking behind it. It is even worse when we consider the situation in Scotland. The Scottish Executive have—quite rightly, in my view—said that they will not make identity cards compulsory for services delivered under the devolved Administration. However, in an earlier exchange with my hon. Friend Mr. Salmond, the Prime Minister confirmed that, as far as the Westminster Government were concerned, identity cards would be compulsory for services delivered from Westminster Departments. So we now face the ridiculous situation in which, if someone wanted to go to a doctor or hospital in Scotland, they would not need to present an identity card, but if they wanted to pick up their pension or their benefit, they would have to do so. That is a recipe for utter confusion, if ever there was one. It gets worse, however. We are told that identity cards are essential in protecting those services. I have many elderly constituents who are already struggling with Post Office card accounts and bank cards, and the PIN numbers that go with them. They will now also have to struggle with an identity card when they try to collect their pension. That, too, is a recipe for utter confusion.
We are told that the cards will not be compulsory. The Prime Minister suggested that they would be voluntary to start with, moving towards compulsion. As I understand it, however, anyone who applies for a passport will also have to apply for an identity card at the same time, and pay an increased fee to get it. A Minister said on the radio today that that would involve 80 per cent. of the population. That sounds pretty compulsory to me. The difference between identity cards and driving licences, store cards or any other cards is that people have a choice whether to apply for one of those cards, but they would not have a choice in regard to an identity card, as they will become compulsory.
The logic behind the system is that the card will become compulsory anyway, but its application will have to become stricter if it is to have any chance of dealing with the many things that people claim that it will tackle. It will become compulsory, whether we like it or not. It will become compulsory in Scotland by stealth for the same reason, and that is something that the Executive need to deal with. If the Government want to make it compulsory, they should debate the issue on those terms, rather than in the wishy-washy way in which they are doing at the moment, saying, "Oh, it's not really compulsory. You'll get used to it. It's all voluntary." That is simply not true. It will become compulsory because that is the logic of the system that they are introducing.
Worse than that is the fact that the identity card scheme is unlikely to produce the desired result. Let us take the example of the fight against terrorism. We all agree that terrorism is a problem that we need to fight against, but the argument should be about the best way of doing that. I suggest that identity cards will not offer effective protection against terrorism. In the most high-profile al-Qaeda attacks, terrorists either moved across borders using tourist visas—as they did in the 11 September attacks—or were already domiciled in the country concerned and equipped with legitimate identity cards, as in the case of the Madrid bombings. There is no evidence that identity cards would have any impact on dealing with the terrorist threat.
Also, fraud will be committed in any system. Many of those who take part in organised crime and terrorism will already have several passports and identity cards from other areas. In the United States, they might perhaps have driving licences from several states. That is already an established way of getting round identity checks, and one new card from the UK is not going to make any difference. However, Ministers have said that there will be a significant difference because of the biometric data that will be stored on the card. We are told that that will involve cutting-edge technology, and that that will be the answer to the problem.
However, the technology is unproven and has never been used on a large scale. I think that Brian White said earlier that the biggest existing biometric database held information on only some 2,000 individuals, but we are talking about a UK-wide system that would be required to cover millions of individuals, and whose technology would have to work. I—and, I suspect, most other hon. Members—have a filing cabinet full of cases involving constituents whose lives have been blighted by the failures of the computer system at the Child Support Agency. The Government have an appalling record on computer systems, not just at the CSA. Other hon. Members have mentioned the Passport Agency, the immigration service, and even the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency. The stark reality is that the Government, whose record on computer systems is shocking, are proposing to introduce a system to deal with something as important as identity cards, using unproven technology.
How are we to collect this biometric data, if the system is to be semi-voluntary? Will people be obliged to give an iris print, a blood sample or a fingerprint? How would that be consistent with traditional civil liberties in the UK? Are we going to be given the opportunity to say that we do not want this? No, we are not, because eventually we shall need the card to make a hospital visit, to collect benefits and pensions, and to do everything else. Identity cards are a very bad idea. I am sure that we shall all be accused of being soft on crime if we press ahead and oppose them, but we are going to oppose them, because we are not convinced that they will go any way towards doing what is claimed.
We have heard about the Bill to set up a British FBI, as it is already colloquially called. There might be some merit behind that proposal, provided that proper care is taken with Scots law. Again, however, we need to know more details. Much has been made of the railways Bill, which we will probably support, as something definitely needs to be done to tackle the state of the railways. But, as always, the devil is in the detail. We are told that responsibility for the railways will be devolved to the Scottish Parliament, and possibly the Welsh Assembly. However, we have not been told what funding from the old Strategic Rail Authority and its schemes would go with that devolution of responsibility, but that would be important.
We are also not sure about the status of some of the main cross-border lines. That has been a matter of contention with the SRA, which considered that the line as far north as Edinburgh was a strategic line, but that nothing north of there was strategic, and that although much of the system was proposed to be devolved, that line was not, because of its strategic nature. These measures must be set out in much greater detail before we can decide whether to support them, provided, of course, that they even reach the Floor of the House before the general election, which we are reliably informed—or not so reliably, depending on one's point of view—will almost certainly be in May. It is no coincidence that, although identity cards have been talked about for years, it is only in the dying days of this Parliament that they are being brought before us for debate. The cynics among us might suspect that that is because the Government know perfectly well that the proposals will get a rough ride here and there is no chance of their getting on to the statute book before the election, but that they will provide some wonderful ammunition in the election campaign.
We have heard about the proposed disability discrimination Bill. I have a personal interest in that subject, and I await with interest the detail of the provisions. It has been suggested, in the press at least, that the Bill will attach certain duties to local authorities. Again, if more such duties are to be introduced, we shall want to know whether any funds will be made available to follow them. Government after Government have placed more and more duties on local authorities, but the funding does not necessarily follow. This makes it more and more difficult for the authorities to carry out those duties and puts an even greater burden on the council tax payer. That is true in England, as it is in Scotland.
Mention has also been made of the consumer credit Bill. In principle, I would be keen to support that, as the terms of some consumer credit agreements are scandalous. Massive interest rates can be charged on those agreements, not only by so-called loan sharks but by supposedly respectable high street banks and stores, whose interest rates can be very high. In the Meadows case, for example, relatively small amounts ended up over the years as a massive debt. Such cases should not be allowed to continue. Perhaps we should go further, however, and consider capping interest charges.
The Queen's Speech is missing certain measures that should be included. Mr. Fallon referred to the Child Support Agency, and the chaos in which it finds itself following the resignation of its director. Many of my constituents, both parents with care and parents without care, are at their wit's end in their dealings with the CSA. Many of those cases have been dragging on for years without end. Many women are owed huge arrears, which are not being chased up, and they are being fobbed off with excuse after excuse. I have taken up many cases on their behalf—we have been successful in some, whereas in others, we are still banging our head against a brick wall with the agency.
In an increasing number of cases, the agency is paying out for its maladministration, because it is simply unable to do the job that it is supposed to do. Problems with the computer system lie at the bottom of that. The Government introduced a new system of calculation, which has experienced problems, again because the computer system has not worked. Because people have not been moved on to the new system, two people working side by side, with exactly the same circumstances, can pay two vastly different rates, which is leading to a great deal of anger and concern about the agency.
What is missing from the Queen's Speech as regards the agency is some idea as to how to tackle the inherent problems, how to get the system working, and how to make sure that money is paid over quickly. Prior to being elected to this House, I was a practising solicitor, and dealt with many family law cases. A simple system operated of going to the courts to get an interim payment quickly and efficiently, until the rest was dealt with. When the agency was set up, we were told that the courts were inefficient, but it was possible to get an interim payment through the courts in weeks, rather than the months taken by the agency. I respectfully suggest to the Government that they consider seriously at least reintroducing an interim payment that can be obtained through the courts, to speed the matter up.
The Queen's Speech contains nothing relating to the state pension. Other Members have talked about the tax credit system and its complexity. A great deal of anger is boiling up among our pensioners about that system. The Scottish National party proposes a citizen's pension as a way to tackle that, and I appeal again to the Government to consider seriously those issues. We cannot go on as we are doing, with more and more pensioners having to apply for means-tested benefit, and with the Government's estimate that some 75 per cent. of pensioners may be eligible for some form of pension credit in the near future. That is scandalous—we should aim for a citizen's pension of a reasonable amount, which will take pensioners out of poverty. Interestingly, when the Prime Minister spoke about pensioners earlier, he made a distinction between poverty among children and hardship among pensioners. There is poverty among pensioners too, and it is getting worse because of the tax credit system and rising fuel prices that will hit many this winter. Nothing in the Queen's Speech deals with those issues.
On energy, we would have looked for the Government finally to tackle the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets on the question of transmission charges relating to renewable resources in north Scotland, which are likely to strangle many of those projects at birth unless action is taken. That issue is being allowed to drift on with no end in sight. If the Government do not take firm action to make sure that Ofgem introduces a suitable and fair system of transmission charges, there is no chance of reaching any of the renewable targets set by the Government or any other renewable targets. The issue of transmission charges and the sunset clauses will ensure that many projects never proceed in the first place.
We heard mention in the Queen's Speech of a referendum on the EU, with reference to a Bill being introduced to give effect to the constitutional treaty for the EU, subject to a referendum. We heard much about that in this debate. A shiver ran up my spine when Mr. Purchase spoke about the counter-balancing force of the European Union against the United States. Such talk will increase yet further the vote against the European constitution. My party is generally pro-European, but we do not want to see a federal Europe, to which reference has been made, and we will not support the constitution in its current form. In my area of Scotland, we have seen the effect of the common fisheries policy on fishing communities. Indeed, it has devastated many traditional communities in the north and east of Scotland. The constitution as currently drafted will make that situation worse. Very many people in Scotland will take the same view, and if a referendum were held today, the constitution would be booted well and truly out of the park. If the Government are serious about putting the issue to a referendum, they need to tackle the inequities of the common fisheries policy in particular.
Mention was also made—obliquely perhaps—of the situation in Iraq and the need to help the Iraqi Government establish democracy through elections in January. That is all fair and well, but the Government must also consider how the situation in Iraq will be stabilised. I urge the Government to consider again securing greater UN involvement and replacing American and British troops, who, rightly or wrongly, are seen as the troops who fought the war and, as a result, are considered by many Iraqis in a different way from troops sent specifically as peacemakers. We should consider replacing many of the troops currently there with troops under a UN command, preferably drawn from Muslim nations, who would have a greater connection with many Iraqis.
The Black Watch is currently deployed in Iraq, but the Queen's Speech tells us nothing about the Government's intentions towards regiments in Scotland and parts of England. At the same time as the Black Watch is fighting in Iraq, the Government intend to amalgamate the regiment and get rid of the Black Watch tradition back home in Scotland. That is totally unacceptable to my party and to the vast majority of the people of Scotland. The Government must come clean—if they expect our troops to take part in such deployments in Iraq, they must keep faith with the troops. There is nothing worse than for troops to be sent overseas to take part in a war, whether or not one agrees with that war, and to seek at the same time the end of their regiment back home. The regiments mean a great deal to the troops who belong to them. As civilians, we often fail to recognise the family feeling within regiments. I have become aware of the family feeling within the Scottish regiments and the determination within Scotland that those regiments should not be amalgamated into one super-regiment or even into a fantasy brigade, an idea which was floated the other week.
Those issues should have been covered in the Queen's Speech, but they were not even mentioned. However, none of us expects many parts of the Queen's Speech to get anywhere near the statute book, so perhaps the loss is not great, and we can return to those issues during the coming election campaign.
I think that I am right in saying that my constituency has one of the highest age profiles among parliamentary divisions, with a high proportion of retired people. Those people react with a number of emotions to the failure of the Government's policy on crime and disorder. That has been the case after previous Queen's Speeches, and I fear that it will also be the case as a result of the measures foreshadowed in this Queen's Speech.
My constituents' emotions are typically anger, outrage and, principally, bewilderment. By and large, those people have worked hard, not only in their professional lives, but in what they have contributed to civic society. They are disproportionately the people who collect for the Royal British Legion or the Red Cross. They are involved in all sorts of civic groups; they keep voluntary organisations going; and, typically, they are on the parochial church council. One tends to see the same faces in all those voluntary groups, whether it be the carer group, the stroke group or whatever. Those people put so much in. When they were younger, they afforded proper respect to their elders. Now, when they come to my surgeries, they are outraged and, as I have said, principally bewildered that younger people do not show them the respect that they properly think they deserve and, more importantly, which they gave as a matter of course to their elders when they were younger.
The low-level disorder that now affects many parts of constituency—I am sure that it is not untypical—stretches credulity to its limits. Some 10 days ago in the village of Hordle in the New Forest, the parish council found itself barricaded in the village hall and unable to get out as a consequence of the activities of a baying mob of youths outside, and the police had to be called to release them. The problems in Hordle are not entirely new, but they are shocking.
Communities used to police themselves. Antisocial behaviour is nothing new, and rowdy children and problem families have always existed. However, if parents were unable or unprepared to deal with such a problem in the past, it would have been dealt with by relatives, neighbours or informally by the local policeman. If any of those people were to take effective measures now, they would quickly find that it is they who would be up in front of the beak, so we increasingly rely on the police.
There are far too few police, who also lack proper power to deal with the problem. All sorts of new measures have been introduced, some of which have their place and are effective in some ways. However, the principal measure that has been introduced to deal with antisocial behaviour, the ASBO, is, in my view, far too long in coming. The evidence that must be collected and taken to court some weeks later leaves the problem festering for far too long.
It is in the nature of antisocial behaviour and low-level disorder that it must be dealt with quickly—even instantly—because people's lives are made a misery for months. I want to see all sorts of measures of a much shorter order that can be introduced more quickly. The Government have dipped their toe in the water with the introduction of on-the-spot fines, on which I am inclined to go further.
The Government indicated that they would take action, which, I believe, would have been effective. The Prime Minister told us that the Government would use housing benefit as a means of enforcing proper social control, which I would have welcomed. It is unfortunately the case that a disproportionate number of those whose antisocial behaviour presents problems are in receipt of one benefit or another. Indeed, an increasing proportion of our population is in receipt of benefits, and we therefore have a proper and potentially very useful means of social control. To receive benefits should be part of a contract that involves behaving according to certain standards. I ask Ministers to listen to what Mr. Field has to say in that respect, because the Queen's Speech should have had rather more to say, and I am disappointed that it did not.
Given the nature of the disorder that we now face—admittedly it is low level, but it disrupts and makes many people's lives a misery—and the need to deal with it quickly and effectively, I suggest that the police need the summary powers that parents used to exercise. Unfortunately, that is no longer the case. A curfew order—an order to remove yourself from the streets, go home and stay at home—is a power that the police should instantly enjoy to quell problems on the streets, rather than having to seek that power months or weeks later in the courts.
Let the boot be on the other foot. Let those people who think that they have been aggrieved or unfairly treated go to the magistrates and argue the case that an order has been improperly placed upon them. Let them make their cases in front of the common sense of the justices, rather than the community having to wait, collect evidence and go to the justices to get such situations remedied. Put the boot on the other foot.
I was glad that my hon. Friend Mr. Fallon dealt so effectively with the problem of Travellers. I was going to say a good deal about Travellers, but he has saved me that trouble, and if hon. Members did not hear his speech, I urge them to read the Official Report. It is undoubtedly the case that the creative power available to judges as a consequence of the Human Rights Act 1998 has allowed them to remove from our constituents the proper protection of statute law and planning rules. That protection was never enough, but now it has been removed. A serious remedy is required, and it should have been in this Queen's Speech.
Is my hon. Friend aware that not only does a remedy not exist to that problem in the Queen's Speech, but that the Government do not recognise that the problem exists? Indeed, Ministers in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister have said on the record that the 1998 Act plays no part in the problems with Travellers that are currently being experienced up and down the country.
My hon. Friend is right that the 1998 Act plays a significant role. Even before the 1998 Act, a significant problem existed that needed to be addressed. The fact that the Government are not addressing it is lamentable, particularly when the Prime Minister, at Prime Minister's questions only a few days ago, indicated that the Government were reviewing possible remedies. Here was the opportunity to provide that remedy—in the Queen's Speech. Where is it?
Mr. Clapham expressed concern that the measures in the Queen's Speech, particularly those relating to identity cards, are a threat to liberty, and he expressed fundamental reservations about his Government's policy in this respect. In fact, I share his prejudice. I do not like the idea that the subject be accountable to the state—the state is our servant, not our master. Of course, we are told that terrorists are determined to destroy our liberty and everything that we stand for, but I caution the Government against destroying those liberties first, before the terrorists can even get to them, through the remedies that we propose.
I acknowledge that if I were to go down the principal community thoroughfare in my constituency—Station road in New Milton—I would probably discover that a significant majority of my constituents are in favour of an identity card system. They might not feel entirely comfortable with the possibility of a policeman demanding to see their papers, or of their having to account for themselves, but fundamentally, if it comes to a trade-off they would be prepared to trade their liberty for greater order. I respect that position, but my concern is that when the Bill in question comes before us, the Government will persuade us that it will indeed deliver greater order and address the problems that it allegedly addresses.
Of the problems for which ID cards are described as the panacea, let us consider immigration and asylum. The difficulties and chaos that attend our immigration and asylum system arise from a number of failures of Government policy, each of which could be addressed individually. I am deeply sceptical that those problems can be addressed by ID cards, but my mind remains open and I will listen to that argument. I will not say that I am opposed in principle to ID cards, although I do have deep reservations about them. If I can be persuaded that they will deliver what they are alleged to deliver, I will of course be prepared to consider that equation.
In seconding the motion before us—
"That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty"—
Ms Munn graciously referred to the fact that it was my service in Iraq that prevented me from attending the previous Queen's Speech. With that in mind, I want to draw to Treasury Ministers' attention what I regard as a failure in the vital regard of prosecuting the war against terrorism. About this time last year, we had three principal enemies in Iraq: organised criminal gangs who regarded a stable Iraq as a threat to their operations; former regime loyalists, of whom there were actually very few, although they were well funded and well armed; and foreign fighters. In essence, that was it.
My fear is that in the intervening year we have acquired a fourth and very much more dangerous enemy in Iraq: a huge number of disaffected Iraqis. I regard that as a failure of policy on our part. By September last year, we had conducted democratic elections in the four provinces under British control in southern Iraq, and provided a local government structure. The United Nations told us that there was no electoral register, but every household had a ration card, so we were able to conduct elections on the basis of a household franchise. That worked very effectively. Those elections were conducted by a number of political parties, all of which were enthusiastic about trying out democracy and gaining power.
Once that local government structure was created, the problem was that the regime in Baghdad—the coalition provisional authority—would not allow sufficient genuine power and responsibility to be handed to those locally accountable and elected authorities. An enormous amount of frustration built up, and as a result people moved to support the hotheads and militants for whom there had been no support before.
Another factor leading to this fundamental growth in the number of disaffected Iraqis is the way in which operations have been conducted. There is an etiquette that British troops exercise when, for example, searching an Iraqi property. The man of the household is brought outside and briefed on what is to happen. He is then allowed to go back inside and brief his women-folk. One may call it an illusion. Nevertheless, the etiquette is maintained whereby the man remains in charge and is not humiliated in front of his women-folk. The operation is discharged on that basis. I do not believe that our American allies operate in that way and according to that etiquette. As a result, there is huge and growing discontent, and irritation with those who are increasingly regarded as "the occupiers".
We have the expertise in these matters: we have 30 years' experience in conducting such peace support operations. Our failure of policy was in failing to bring the benefits of that expertise and experience to our principal ally. If one behaves like a poodle, one gets treated like a poodle. I do not believe that we ever had in Baghdad someone of sufficient authority—with the Prime Minister's ear—to call the shots and make clear our feelings to our American allies. Perhaps Peter Mandelson might properly have done that job, particularly given his experience in Northern Ireland. That was a policy failure on our part.
A principal failing of the Queen's Speech is the determination to proceed with reducing the number of Army battalions by two. Such a reduction begs an important question: why does a medium-sized operation of low intensity require the mobilisation of so many reservists? I have no resentment at having been mobilised, but how does supposedly being able to do with fewer regular infantry square with the need to call up reservists more often? I do not believe that the public will understand that at all.
The Ministry of Defence has been entirely infected with the most strange contagion. When one talks to MOD people about the problem of Army, Air Force and Navy numbers, they are full of jargon. They employ a kind of "newspeak". They refer to "network-enabled capability" and "effects-based warfare". The basic theory is that through technology, we have abolished attritional warfare. Our weapons systems will be so "smart" that they will knock out our enemies' capability before they even realise that the conflict has started. As a consequence, we will need fewer platforms. Of course, there is a fault in that logic. What if they hit us first and get the few platforms that we possess?
Let us assume that the MOD is right in its fundamental assumption. Let us assume that the investment that the Government are undertaking, allegedly, in high-tech warfare is of such a calibre that they have abolished attritional warfare and we will hit the enemy so hard first that we knock out his capability. The flaw in the logic is this: how often do we go to war in that way? How many conflicts that we participate in require that sort of capability? It is nice to have—indeed, it is vital to have—but in reality 90 per cent. of what the British Army does is what we are now doing in Iraq: low-intensity peacekeeping operations, which require huge numbers of men on the ground. The principal difficulty that we have faced in prosecuting the war in Iraq is that we have far too few troops on the ground, as have the Americans. That in itself points to an enormous failure of planning for the whole Iraqi operation. There was a plan to fight a high-intensity war and very little planning for the post-war reconstruction.
With all his experience of matters in Iraq, does my hon. Friend agree that it makes no sense to reduce the number of infantry battalions in the Regular Army when even the United States army—the most powerful army in the world—calls for a British infantry battalion to go and help it when it is in trouble?
My hon. Friend is right. The reality is that we need more troops, not fewer. That is the problem, but the Queen's Speech did not address it, which was remiss of it.
It is a pleasure to contribute to the debate on the Queen's Speech. We heard two very fine opening speeches. The first was from Mr. Howarth, who amused the House with his easy manner and some funny anecdotes from his time as a Member of Parliament. That speech was followed by an equally fine one from Ms Munn, who told us about some wonderful experiences that she had had as, among other things, a parliamentary tap dancer. She described how some odd things had happened to her once when she dashed out of the shower for a Division. She also paid tribute to my hon. Friend Mr. Swayne and his military service in Iraq. I would like to amplify everything that she said and to pay tribute to the time that he spent in the service of his country. I shall seek to follow some of the apposite remarks that he made about our armed forces, and in particular the future of our infantry battalions.
I am concerned about the effect of the Queen's Speech on my constituents and the fact that, in many regards, it does not address a number of the problems that they experience in their day-to-day lives. Many problems that we face in my constituency relate in one way or another to the pressures of over-development. My constituency has four secondary schools, all of which are good, but all of which are now full. As more and more houses are constructed in the constituency, it is difficult to see where the children of secondary school age will be able to go to school.
Also on the subject of over-development, it is very difficult to register with an NHS doctor in Rayleigh, and practically impossible to register with an NHS dentist. Essex now faces the prospect of 131,000 houses being imposed on the county by 2021. There is no realistic way in which we can satisfactorily accommodate house building on that scale. The Government's policy of national housing targets, which the Queen's Speech gave no indication of revoking, is leading to that incessant pressure. That is further amplified by the figures being endorsed by regional bodies—in this case, the East of England regional assembly.
There has been a debate about the legitimacy of regional government. After the recent referendum in the north-east of England, in which—even in that area, which traditionally is supposed to have been in favour of the concept—the proposition was debated and defeated by 78 per cent. to 22 per cent., I contend that regional government is stone dead. It has no moral or political legitimacy whatever in the other areas of England. People who sit in regional chambers can make any declarations they wish, but there is no real connection with the electorate, whom they claim to represent, to give any authority to those decisions. I, for one, will now campaign vigorously against any attempts by an unelected quango in the form of the East of England regional assembly to impose 131,000 houses on the county of Essex, including on my constituents.
Flooding is an emotive issue for us in Essex, given how we suffered in the so-called great flood of 1953. Some 300 people died in Britain that night, about 100 of them in Essex, principally when the sea defences burst on Canvey Island. The sea came in and many people lost their lives in tragic circumstances. For historical reasons, we take the issue of flooding particularly seriously in my part of the world.
That being the case, we were very disappointed when the Government decided to abolish the Essex local flood defence committee and to merge it with a regional flood defence committee which, it is proposed, will include both Norfolk and Suffolk. Our view in Essex is that we had a perfectly good flood defence committee, which was not broke, so we did not require anybody to come and fix it. Unfortunately, because of the fixation with regionalism and regional bodies, the Government still appear determined to press on with that decision, which may be popular with them but is very unpopular in Essex, and especially southern Essex.
Recently at Question Time I have pressed Ministers from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to reverse that decision, and I hoped that there might be some suggestion in the Queen's Speech that the Government had reflected and decided to change their view—but having heard the Gracious Speech today, I regret to say that there appears to have been no such reflection. We in Essex will continue to campaign and try to persuade the Government to change their mind on this important matter before the changes happen next April.
I now want to touch briefly on the subject of policing, and to pay tribute to Chief Superintendent John Mauger, the divisional commander in Rayleigh. We have heard much about antisocial behaviour in the past few months, and Rayleigh division has recently established an antisocial behaviour squad of hard-nosed officers, led by an ex-Royal Marine. Its specific mission is to take on gangs of youths who have been causing antisocial disruption across the division, to target the ringleaders of gangs and to take them out of circulation, not least as a deterrent to others who might be tempted to fall foul of the law in future. I wholeheartedly welcome that initiative, and I praise the division for taking it on. I hope that it will be a success. Initial indications are encouraging, and I hope that the squad will continue to do good service on behalf of my constituents and bring antisocial youths to book.
I said that I would follow on from some of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West, and I want to amplify what he said about defence, not least as I understand that such matters are still the subject of some discussion within Government circles.
The Government made a lot of security in the Queen's Speech, but it seems to me that emphasising the importance of security, while seeking to reduce the number of regular infantry battalions in the British Army makes no sense whatever. As I pointed out earlier to my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West, there is little logic in seeking increasingly to intervene in trouble spots around the world, while at the same time reducing the number of troops who are best trained and prepared to undertake such interventions.
I very much hope that the Government will reconsider that matter and decide that there is no need to abolish the battalions that are first to be called for by other countries around the world when peacekeeping troops are required. I repeat the point that if the Americans called for a British infantry battalion when they have the most powerful Army in the world, it is a lesson that should not be lost on Defence Ministers.
I conclude with a particular plea for the Scottish regiments, and I do so as an English Member of Parliament. Some of the Scottish regiments have tremendous traditions, which are not just a matter of history but stand as a record of the good service that they have given to date and that they will—we hope—give to the country in the future. It would be a travesty if the Black Watch, after its brave service in Iraq in what I believe remains a good cause, were to be recalled to the UK at the end of its tour of duty only to be told to prepare for a disbandment parade. That would be necessary if they were amalgamated, and their cap badge would be lost. I believe that the Black Watch has given very good service and that the House should take proper notice of it. I would like to hear a definitive announcement that the Black Watch, and indeed the other Scottish regiments, are to be saved. That would benefit all Members, all parties and all the people of this country who owe those regiments such a tremendous debt.
Debate adjourned.—[Ms Bridget Prentice.]
Debate to be resumed tomorrow.