It is a pleasure to open the debate on this part of the Gracious Speech. The Speech and this Session of Parliament follow the most unpleasant election campaign in my memory, most of all in respect of the matters for which the Home Office is responsible, particularly violent crime, the criminal justice system, immigration and asylum, all of which are legitimate and proper matters for public debate, including in an election campaign—however, not the kind of irresponsible scare-mongering campaigning that we saw, in which some parties used dishonest statistics intended to demoralise communities—[Interruption.]—used inconsistent and economically illiterate promises, put forward impractical and inoperable policies—[Interruption.]—used inflammatory language and mobilised undercover sentiment appealing to the dark side of people's lives. [Interruption.]I believe that David Davis bears responsibility for that disgraceful campaign, which I am delighted to say the country rejected. I hope—
The right hon. Gentleman is in order. Had it been otherwise, I would have ruled him out of order.
I am grateful, Mr. Speaker. I am delighted, in the Chamber or outside, to debate with Opposition Members, including the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden, the specifics of the charges that I make. I believe that the conduct of politics is important, and it should be done in a proper way. That applies in the House, as Mr. Blunt suggests, and as you, Mr. Speaker, implied. It also applies, in my view, to the conduct of general election campaigns. That is a point that I am entitled to make.
No, not at the moment.
I hope the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden will use the occasion of today's debate to tell the House that he has turned over a new leaf and that he will debate these matters in a proper and effective way, rather than in the manner that was used in the general election campaign.
There are real issues and genuine concerns across the country on the matters that we are discussing, which need to be addressed. I identify particularly antisocial behaviour and violent crime. I also identify particularly some aspects of the operation of the criminal justice system, including sentencing. I further identify particularly some aspects of the immigration and asylum system.
My determination is that through this Parliament, on the basis of the policies that the Labour party set out in its manifesto and the pledges put forward in the Queen's Speech, the Government will eliminate those genuine grounds for concern and build a society confident in itself, so that never again will any mainstream democratic political party be able to conduct such a dishonourable and disgraceful campaign. What is needed, I argue, is proper, effective policies to deal with each of those concerns, and that is what this Queen's Speech offers.
The right hon. Gentleman used the word "dishonourable". Can he give me an example of one dishonourable incident in the election campaign that applies to me?
Let me give one or two examples. The first example is posters in every community in the country, which were based on entirely false statistics on violent crime, which were condemned by the Association of Chief Police Officers, and which gave rise to demoralisation in communities throughout the country. The second example is a direct mail letter that went out to households throughout the country, based on totally dishonest arithmetic about local government spending on immigration and asylum. "Dishonourable" is the word I use for those things, and indeed they were. Such a situation is not acceptable in a democratic society.
Can the Home Secretary answer the question that he could not answer on "Newsnight" about four weeks ago, when I said to him that the asylum system has cost £3 billion? Wherever it came from, it was the taxpayer who paid it.
First, the figure is not right. Secondly, that is not what the letter said—which was, in terms, that local authorities were being required to reduce their spending on council tax services as a result of this expenditure. That is completely false.
If my right hon. Friend's grandfather had been an illegal immigrant, and if my right hon. Friend's father had forged his naturalisation application, would he not have been a little sensitive about approaching the issue of immigration?
My right hon. Friend, with his usual accuracy, puts his finger on the issue. As the Conservative party said, it is not wrong to discuss immigration and asylum. It is not racist to discuss immigration and asylum. What is wrong is to put forward policies that simply do not stack up in any circumstance whatever, and to have no sensitivity whatever either to the history, in the way that my right hon. Friend describes, or to the current reality of many of these communities.
The Home Secretary has said that it was wholly false for my right hon. Friend David Davis to suggest that councils were owed money and as a result were having to curb other spending. As he knows, Kent was pursuing his Department for £14 million right up to the election and it had to impose an increase in its council tax as a result. Now, finally, after the election, the Government have just written to me this morning to say that £10 million of that sum will be paid. That was a legitimate subject for debate.
Not in a direct mail letter in the way that it was done. Sir Sandy Bruce-Lockhart, the leader of Kent county council, the hon. Gentleman's county, will, I think, confirm to him directly if he asks the question that he knew the position contained in that letter right at the beginning of the election campaign, because we sought to deal with it because there were real issues. The direct mail letter sought to mislead, and that was an absolutely key point.
The Home Secretary is right to complain about some of the language used on asylum and immigration, but is he not also in part to blame, because this Labour Government have upped the ante on these issues by taking away the right to appeal for failed asylum seekers, by taking away the benefits of asylum seekers, and by not allowing asylum seekers to work? They have also used language that created the climate that the Conservatives used during the election campaign.
I totally reject that charge. We had this debate during the election campaign. I do agree, as I was at pains to point out, that there are issues, which the measures in the Queen's Speech address and to which I shall come in one second, but I do not accept, as some argued, that there was some kind of bidding war between the Labour party and others on these questions. I do not accept that.
My right hon. Friend will agree that there is nothing wrong in debating immigration and asylum in the context of a general election campaign, but he will be aware, as I am, that there are constituencies in this country where the British National party came close to knocking the Opposition into third place, and it must be a very serious matter when ordinary working people feel that there is something legitimate about a fascist party agenda. Do we not all have a responsibility to take good care of our language and not to give legitimacy to the political platform of a fascist party?
Well, surprisingly perhaps, I agree with every word that my hon. Friend has just said. My hon. Friend Jon Cruddas wrote an excellent piece this week, which I saw in the papers, on just that question. The way to undermine the appeal of the people whom my hon. Friend Ms Abbott describes is to put in motion policies that ensure that the underlying concerns about antisocial behaviour, immigration and asylum, and sentencing in criminal justice, are accepted by the British people in a positive way. With that, I want to deal with what the Queen's Speech has to offer in precisely those particular regards.
There was a fourth issue that people were very concerned about and which the right hon. Gentleman has not referred to, and that was the question of gerrymandering the postal voting system. Could the right hon. Gentleman explain why the Lord Chancellor and his right hon. Friends have not accepted the recommendations of the Electoral Commission on prevention of gerrymandering the postal voting system?
On consideration, the hon. Gentleman might want to withdraw the word "gerrymandering", which did not happen. The Electoral Commission issued serious proposals on how postal voting should best be conducted, and all the main parties agreed on their implementation. We are currently examining a set of issues that arose subsequently and we will decide the best kind of legislation to introduce, but none of the issues concerns gerrymandering.
My Department and I want to address three main pillars of activity through legislation in this House—first, police, counter-terrorism and active communities; secondly, offender management and the reform of the criminal justice system; and thirdly, immigration and asylum and identity cards. The first pillar—police, counter-terrorism and active communities—involves four proposed pieces of legislation dealing with charities, racial and religious hatred, counter-terrorism and violent crime.
On charities, we are reintroducing the Bill that fell when the House was dissolved. It will modernise and reform charity law and enable charities to administer themselves more efficiently and to be more effective. I do not know whether the Bill will receive all-party support, but I know that the charity world is delighted by the legislation and that it found it difficult to understand why some parties blocked the legislation in the previous Parliament.
During the wash-up at the end of the previous Parliament, we could not obtain agreement to the second piece of legislation, which is an attempt to outlaw incitement to religious hatred by amending the current offence of incitement to racial hatred. The legislation will close the loophole whereby Jews and Sikhs are covered by the racial hatred offence, but other faith groups are not. It will curb the activities of extremist groups, which could incite hatred against members of minority faiths, and it will protect those who are subject to incited hatred on the basis of religion. I know that the measure is controversial—hon. Members on both sides of the House are worried about some aspects of the legislation, so it will be fully debated—but I strongly believe that it is important to put all faith groups on a similar footing and to deal with the incitement of hatred. The Bill is about stopping incitement to hatred, which is what we shall do, and I hope that all parties give it full consideration.
Will the Home Secretary explain why sects of devil worshippers should be put on a footing where they would be protected if somebody were to express the view that devil worshippers' opinions are hateful and that devil worshippers should be shunned?
If the Home Secretary is keen to ensure no limit on free speech in respect of criticising or ridiculing religion and wants all religions to be treated equally, will he reconsider his position on the repeal of the blasphemy law? He should at least allow Government Members a free vote on the matter, which would go some way to reassuring those of us who feel that the Government's agenda might advertently or inadvertently cause restrictions on free speech in respect of criticising religion.
That is a serious question, and I want to respond to it seriously. I have discussed the blasphemy law with a number of individuals, including representatives from various faiths, and have concluded—I think correctly—that any reform in that area must begin on a considered basis across faiths. However, I am ready to discuss the matter with all faiths and to examine how we might make progress.
The third pillar is the counter-terrorism Bill, which simply fulfils a commitment given in this House at the end of the previous Session to clarify and strengthen existing legislation and, where necessary, to introduce new offences to improve the prospects of prosecuting suspected terrorists. You presided over our impassioned debates on that subject, Mr. Speaker, and you will recall that I made a commitment to the House to examine more effective ways of prosecuting terrorists, and introducing new offences is one of the ways to do so. I also confirm that the timetable that I set out at the close of the past Session on reports and further amendments will be adhered to.
In drawing up the new legislation, will my right hon. Friend look very carefully at the recommendation that the Select Committee on Home Affairs published just before the House rose for the election, in which we stress the importance of fully involving the Muslim community in the construction of new anti-terrorism legislation? It is essential that that legislation does not appear to be "done to" the Muslim community, but is produced in full consultation with it.
My right hon. Friend and his Select Committee are entirely correct and I can give him that assurance. Throughout the debate before, during and after the election campaign, I have been at very great pains to draw a distinction between things that affect the Muslim community on the one hand, and terrorism on the other. That is a false bringing together that I hope that discussion during the passage of this legislation will address in a way that finds approval with my right hon. Friend's Committee.
The final pillar of our activity relates to violent crime reduction. We touched on that in questions just a moment ago when we talked about legislation on knives. However, we also wish to have tougher laws on replica firearms, restrictions on the sale of primers and specialist equipment for making ammunitions, tighter laws on airguns, powers to require certain pubs and clubs to search for guns and knives on entry, powers for the police to impose 24-hour bans on pubs and clubs persistently selling alcohol to under-18s, and the establishment of alcohol disorder zones. The purpose of those steps is to arrive at the situation whereby we can deal with people's real concerns about the antisocial behaviour and violent crime that exists in many communities and take active steps to deal with it.
Will the Home Secretary consider the case of Tania Moore, who was murdered in my constituency by somebody who had been stalking her for more than a year and shot her at point-blank range, having already been the prime suspect in a robbery against her? Her mother believes that that person should not have been allowed to keep the gun. Will the Home Secretary also consider very carefully the investigation by the Independent Police Complaints Commission into whether the investigation into the initial circumstances was carried out fairly? Can he reassure the mother of the victim that the sentence on the person who was convicted by the Crown court just over a week ago, and who the judge said should spend at least 30 years in jail, will not be reduced in any way?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving prior notice that he intended to raise this particular case. I agree with much of his language and concerns. There are many issues involved. As he will know, the Derbyshire constabulary felt that the standard of its officers' investigation into the robbery was below the standard expected, which is why a year or so ago it referred the matter to the IPCC.The hon. Gentleman will be aware that in summing up the judge stated that the failure to bring anyone to justice for the robbery in 2003, despite the apparent tip-offs, is a matter of serious concern. He will also know—he referred to it in his question—that as a result of the issues raised in connection with the alleged tip-offs Staffordshire police undertook an investigation that is currently under review by the IPCC. I will study such cases most closely to ensure that we learn the necessary lessons so that terrible circumstances such as those that he describes are not repeated.
Will the legislation include powers to deal with binge drinking; and will it then be possible for local authorities to work with the police to get control of pubs and clubs that open too late and cause such problems in many of our town centres?
My hon. Friend is entirely right. She has put her finger on the key question, which is the relationship between the police, the local authority and pubs and clubs in working together. I was absolutely delighted by today's statement by pub and club organisations that they are really going to try to crack down on the happy hour approach. That follows conversations that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety and others have been having with the industry, which must acknowledge that it has to bear responsibility for attacking these problems—it is not simply a matter of going through the law.
In February, two of my constituents who worked at the Black Bull pub in Fulwood were attacked by three youths who entered the pub and held knives to their throats. Fortunately, no one was injured other than by what I would call a terrorist attack and the stress involved with it. The Home Secretary mentioned sentencing earlier. I understand that it is three times more likely for a fatality to occur through stabbing than through the use of a gun. Therefore, could he ensure that the sentencing for carrying knives with intent to use them in that way will be steeper and stiffer?
The Home Secretary will be aware that there are prolific opportunities to obtain knives and replica firearms through internet purchase. I understand how difficult it is to do something to restrict that supply, but is that something on which his Department will bring forward proposals as part of the proposed legislation?
It is. We are working with other Governments throughout the world on ways to restrict some of the means by which the internet operates and bypasses individual jurisdiction, which addresses precisely the hon. Gentleman's concerns.
At the end of the last Parliament, the Home Secretary said that he was consulting on whether those who benefit from binge drinking—the vertical retail outlets—should make a financial contribution to the cost of policing. When does he expect to conclude that consultation and will he set a timetable?
We will conclude the consultation very soon, and the Bill that we will publish—the violent crime reduction Bill, to which I referred earlier—will include measures to deal with binge drinking. Consultation has taken place and there has been a lot of responses, including from the industry itself, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, and we will publish the full account of that when we discuss the Bill.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that the majority of so-called Yardie shootings in London are perpetrated with activated replica weapons. Given that there has been a 60 per cent. rise in the use of replica firearms, why can we not have a complete ban on replica weapons?
I am very sympathetic to that point; indeed, we have discussed it at great length—when I was the Minister with responsibility for the police I raised precisely that question. I hope that my hon. Friend will find that the Bill goes a long way towards what she is seeking.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that many of the problems that he has raised in this part of his speech, such as antisocial behaviour and various types of violent crime, are most closely associated with what one might call dysfunctional communities? After a general election in which one in three people did not vote—that figure must have been higher in those dysfunctional communities—does he agree that the secret to tackling many of the problems in the longer term is to get those communities to function better? That, while not necessarily requiring legislation, could be a means to an end for many of the aims that he has described.
My hon. Friend is right, and that is one reason why, at an organisational level, we have brought together the active communities area of the Home Office with the section dealing with policing and community safety to promote the positive side of being a community leader in a variety of different ways.
No, I want to make progress now.
The second tranche of legislation to which I want to refer is that dealing with offender management and reform of the criminal justice system. Three measures will be laid before the House dealing respectively with fraud, corporate manslaughter and management of offenders and sentencing.
The purpose of the fraud Bill is to create a general offence of fraud that can be committed in three ways: by false representation, by failing to disclose information and by abuse of position. The Bill will make new offences of obtaining services dishonestly and possessing equipment to commit fraud. The aim is to encompass all forms of fraudulent conduct with a law flexible enough to deal with developing technology. The Bill will extend the existing offence of fraudulent trading to non-corporate traders, and I hope that it will tighten our defences against the criminal. The second measure in this tranche is the corporate manslaughter Bill. We published it in draft form at the end of the fourth Session of the previous Parliament, and its intention is to create a new offence of corporate manslaughter. The offence would enable courts to consider a wider range of management conduct than is currently possible when prosecuting a company for manslaughter and would therefore make it easier to bring prosecutions. The House will be aware of how controversial that measure has been, but also of how important it has rightly been seen in the light of serious issues that have arisen in relation to certain tragedies, particularly in the transport system. It is very much time for the Bill to be taken through the House and for responsibility for actions to be fully laid where due in any corporation or organisation. I am aware that it is difficult legislation, but I hope that all parties will give it a fair wind and be ready to support it and carry it through.
The third piece of legislation is the management of offenders and sentencing Bill. This was first introduced in the fourth Session of the previous Parliament and there will be some changes to that legislation to ensure that we can decide how best to take forward the reforms proposed in the Carter review of correctional services. The Bill will underpin the development of the National Offender Management Service, which brings together the Prison Service and the probation service. It will introduce a new day-fine system and restore confidence in the use of the fine as a credible and effective punishment.
The Bill will extend the remit of the Sentencing Guidelines Council to include consideration of the capacity of the correctional services. It will extend the use of electronic monitoring of offenders who are serving community sentences or are on bail, and it will fulfil a long-standing Government commitment to place the ombudsman for NOMS on a statutory footing. We see the establishment of a National Offender Management Service that really will achieve fair and transparent sentencing as a very important part of restoring confidence in the operation of the criminal justice system as a whole.
A further aspect of our legislation will cover immigration, asylum and identity cards and comprises two Bills. Before the election, we set out in our five-year strategy the approach that we intended to follow to reform the immigration and asylum system. Much of that does not require legislation, but the parts that do include the need to facilitate the global roll-out of fingerprinting visa applicants; the need to allow full use of biometrically enabled travel documents; the need to allow data sharing by border agents as part of the e-borders programme; the need to provide for civil penalties of £2,000 per person for employers of illegal workers; and the need to limit appeal rights for students, workers and family visits.
The Home Secretary will recall that, before the election, he met a delegation of Members who were concerned about his proposals to restrict the right of appeal in regard to visitors' visas. Has he looked again at that issue? If he has not reached a definitive view on it, will he again meet Members who have a constituency interest in this matter, so that we can explain to him the serious consequences of restricting those rights?
I recall that meeting, and it was a valuable one. We have thought about the situation carefully, and I think that the best way to proceed would be for the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality to meet that same delegation to discuss the details. I should also be happy to meet its members, if necessary, beyond that point. The fact is that some colleagues were genuinely worried about some genuine knock-on effects of our legislation on particular families in particular communities, and it is important that that should be properly taken into account.
The final piece of legislation is the identity cards Bill.
The hon. Gentleman might say that, but he will be glad to know that 80 per cent. of the country think that it is thoroughly good—and for good reason.
The Bill was published in draft in the third Session of the previous Parliament and introduced in full in the fourth Session, when it completed its passage through the Commons and had its Second Reading in the Lords before Parliament dissolved, so it has had very full consideration over two Sessions of Parliament, including a full Committee stage in this House.
The purpose of the Bill is clear. It is to establish the legal framework for the introduction of identity cards and a national identity register. It will also provide a power, at a future date, for it to be compulsory to register and to be issued with a card. It will include enabling powers so that, in future, access to specified public services could be linked to production of a valid ID card. It will establish safeguards in regard to the data that would be held and shared. I am aware of the genuine concerns across the House on the nature of those safeguards and we will, of course, be very happy to discuss them in detail to meet the concerns that anyone might have.
The Bill will create a national identity scheme commissioner, who will have oversight of the scheme, including the provision of information from the national identity register. It will create new criminal offences relating to false identity documents, including the possession of genuine documents that have been improperly obtained, or that relate to someone else. It will also provide for better identity checks to be made on passport applicants and to allow for the cross-subsidy of passport fees.
I am aware that this is a controversial piece of legislation. Genuine worries have been expressed, as well as some not-so-genuine worries. However, for the sake of this discussion, let us accept that genuine worries have been expressed about aspects of the way in which the scheme would operate. As I said on the Bill's Second Reading in the last Session, it is critical that we tackle the issues of identity fraud. They are serious issues that need to be dealt with effectively.
What I hope—perhaps it is a vain hope, but I do not think so—is that we can have a rational discussion of the various issues involved and come to a decision in Committee and elsewhere about how we proceed. I know that some of my hon. Friends have doubts, and I say to them that we will be happy to discuss those issues with them in whatever is the most effective way. I know that the Liberal Democrats are opposed in all circumstances, and will be opposed under all circumstances, and I suspect that there is not much point in talking to them—there we go, that is life, so there is nothing new as far as the Lib Dems are concerned.
As far as the Conservatives are concerned, the state of affairs is more interesting. On Second Reading, they voted for the legislation. On Third Reading, they abstained, after a shadow Cabinet rebellion led by the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden against the Leader of the Opposition. In the House of Lords, in the final stages of the wash-up, they opposed the legislation. They have therefore been through the whole sequence. Throughout the election campaign, there was no clarity about what their position would be and I have seen the newspaper reports about what the leadership candidate, the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden, is saying on these matters. I say to him as seriously as I can that, as a potential statesman, as of course he is—a statesman is a failed politician, as I recall—I hope that he will seriously consider giving his party's support to the Bill.
The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden raised five questions, which I will go through, as I have written to him on them. The tests that he put forward were a fig leaf to cover the retreats and shifts of the Conservative party on the question. The first was that legislation must clearly define the purpose of the cards, and I can tell him that the legislation does so. His second was whether the technology was sufficiently well developed and robust, and the answer is yes. His third question was whether the Home Office is capable of delivering this major IT project, and the answer is yes. By the way, if the Opposition conclude that there is no conceivable IT scheme that the Home Office could carry through, he needs to examine some of the successful projects that the Government have carried through. If the entire basis of his proposition is that the Home Office, or any Department, is not capable of running any IT programme, he must disband just about every aspect of what Government do in all circumstances. The Home Office runs very successful IT schemes, as do other parts of Government.
We have animals that are locked up at night and kept in with barbed wire during the day. Does the Home Secretary realise that the British cattle passport scheme has lost 100,000 cattle and that the National Audit Office says that it has cost £15 million a year?
What I notice about the passport service—[Hon. Members: "Answer."] I will answer the question. Since I was first a junior Minister in the Home Office, we have established the most efficient passport service across the world. I do not hide the fact for a second that there were major issues with the passport service. The point is that they have been solved and sorted out.
My hon. Friend is right. There is no possibility that the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden would not be able to make up his mind. He is a swashbuckling leader, so I am sure that he will be able to make up his mind and carry all his colleagues with him on the measure.
The right hon. Gentleman asked two other questions: whether ID cards would be cost-effective and whether they would pose a threat to civil liberties. My point, which I make in seriousness, is that we face a serious issue in relation to identity cards and the country must decide how it will deal with it. Fig leaves of the type that he suggested simply will not work and the questions that he posed do not provide an answer. He needs to answer the question.
I know that the Home Secretary likes a bit of party political banter. The questions that my right hon. Friend and others have raised are not fig leaves, however. To return to the cost of IT, can he give an example of a major IT project in the Home Office that has come in on time and under budget?
Is it not pointless to go through the five tests presented by the Conservative party? It became clear when the Bill was in Committee—via the contribution of Mr. Curry—that in the Conservative party there are those who are opposed in principle and say so, those who are opposed in principle and say the opposite for reasons of expediency, and those who are opposed in principle and say nothing.
That will be published when the Bill is published. [Interruption.] I am sorry, but that is entirely the right way to do it. We will publish the figures so that they can be analysed.
The £1.2 billion Airwave scheme for police radios is one example of major schemes that have been delivered on time, effectively and, in fact, under budget.
I am enormously grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way on a point of such importance. I hope that he accepts that some of us are deeply uneasy about the ID card scheme. We believe that this is a question of civil rights, and it disturbs us greatly. The history of the holding of every element of information about people's lives by police forces or Governments suggests not that such information is always used responsibly, but that, in some instances, it is used by Governments for the worst possible reasons.
I appreciate that my hon. Friend and others have such concerns. When the Bill is published, I should like her to look in detail at the range of information on certain individuals that we are discussing, which is not in fact substantial, and at how it operates. I should also like her to look at the safeguards. An enormous range of information is already held in both the public sector—on police information databases, on the police national computer and in fingerprint records—and in the private sector, in relation to such matters as financial dealings. I respect her point of view, but I ask her to read the Bill carefully and balance those considerations against the benefits to society that would arise from it.
As I said at the outset, I am not prepared to embark on an election campaign in the future while deep concerns throughout society about antisocial behaviour, criminal justice and sentencing, and immigration and asylum can provide fuel for irresponsible political parties. The purpose of the whole of this Parliament, and the Queen's Speech in particular, is to lay the foundations for the elimination of the problems that exist and that are perceived to exist. That is our commitment and I hope it will be supported by Members in all parts of the House.
Before I deal with the Queen's Speech, let me say a few words about synthetic outrage.
During the campaign that we have been discussing, the Home Secretary engaged in three debates with me before, during and after the publication of the documents to which he referred. Not once did he suggest that any of the documents were dishonourable or ill meant in any way. As he said, he wrote to me earlier today, and not once in his letter was this outrage mentioned. I shall therefore treat his opening comments in the way that they deserve—as theatrical rather than real.
Let me say this to the Home Secretary: any party that publishes posters such as the two published by the Labour party before the election campaign should be very careful indeed when referring to dishonourable conduct. I will talk later about honesty of argument when we discuss the counter-terrorist legislation that the Government forced through the House in the last weeks before the election. We will talk about the honesty of the arguments advanced by the Prime Minister at that time. I will hear then what the Home Secretary has to say.
The Opposition welcome at least three proposals in what is a massive Queen's Speech. First, we agree with some of the powers to deal with terrorism. We have been calling for an offence of acts preparatory to terrorism for some time. It will fill a loophole in the country's security and may prevent the Government from creating any more of the unnecessary, ineffective and illiberal legislation that they have proposed in recent months.
Secondly, we welcome the measures that the Home Secretary mentioned to strengthen the charitable sector. That area needs serious reform, and the only reason that it was not dealt with before the election is that it needs very serious scrutiny. It is a complex matter.
Thirdly, violent crime is out of control. Its growth is clearly related to drugs and alcohol. The Home Secretary made a number of sensible suggestions, which we welcome, but they will not tackle the roots of the problem.
The Queen's Speech is heavily focused on home affairs. It is no secret why: the Government know that the British people are deeply worried about law and order. Ministers have failed and they have been found out. From immigration to street crime, from guns to drug crime, from violence to basic disorder, the Government have lost control.
In the past, the Government have adopted a Newton's law approach to law making. For every hostile headline, there has been an equal and opposite piece of gimmicky legislation. Not every social ill demands an equal and opposite law. Some need a fundamentally different approach. What matters is passing good and effective laws and taking proper and concerted action to tackle some of the deep-seated problems that we face. When the Government set out on a course to do that and stick to it, they will receive our support. It is with that principle in mind that I will look at the specific proposals and issues raised in the Queen's Speech.
I will give the hon. Gentleman the arguments on identity cards later in my speech when I deal with the issues in the letter that the Home Secretary wrote to me.
On crime, I welcome the fact that the Government have said that they will take action on issues raised during the general election campaign: violence, social disorder, drug abuse and drunkenness. The Government have committed themselves again to creating safe and secure communities as well as fostering a culture of respect. But surely it is reasonable to ask what has happened to those communities and to that culture of respect in the past eight years. Which Government have presided over the corrosion of discipline in our schools, the growth of drunken disorder on our streets and the disarray of our police forces faced with the burden of bureaucracy, targets and red tape?
Let us look at the Government's performance on their own measure. In October 2002, the then Home Secretary, the then Lord Chancellor and the Attorney- General published a document called, "Narrowing the Justice Gap". The justice gap is recorded crime less solved crime: it is a measure of unsolved crime, a measure of uncaught and unpunished criminals. That document said:
"The justice gap . . . is the key measure of the effectiveness of the criminal justice system, and a crucial indicator of success in reducing crime."
I agree. To listen to the Home Secretary, one would think that the Government cut the justice gap. Not a bit of it. It has grown by almost 1 million since the Government came to power. There are now 900,000 more crimes not being solved each year than there were in 1998. That means that, each year, the perpetrators of 5.5 million crimes are not brought to justice—that 5.5 million victims see the perpetrators of the crimes against them walking free. What is the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety's answer to that? Her answer is to dress criminals up in orange suits, an idea so irrelevant that even Downing street dropped it within 24 hours.
None the less, the Minister did manage to get the Home Secretary into trouble. The headline on the front page of yesterday's edition of The Sunday Telegraph was, "Six falsehoods in 100 seconds: how the Home Secretary misled public over 'yob crackdown'." Despite the Home Secretary's opening remarks, I have a higher opinion of him than that. I do not believe that he deliberately misled the public but rather that this situation demonstrates all too clearly the careless way in which the Government have designed their gimmicky and ineffective crime strategy.
Of course, the Government love playing with statistics. They love to claim that crime is coming down, which nobody believes, least of all those in the communities that suffer the most.
I fear that the right hon. Gentleman is going down the same route that his party went down in its newspaper advertisements during the general election campaign. He is comparing crime statistics that were compiled on different bases and comparing different reporting techniques, and attempting to show a difference. Does he welcome the intervention by the chief constable of Derbyshire police at the beginning of the general election campaign? The chief constable wrote to all the local newspapers to put the facts about the fall in crime in Derbyshire on the record, so that no politician could fall into the trap of misleading the public—as the right hon. Gentleman is doing now, and as his party's advertisements did during the general election—by not acknowledging changes in reporting techniques.
I did not see the intervention by the Derbyshire chief constable, but I did see that by the chief constable of North Wales police, which, I think, made a similar point. He said that violent crime is not growing because of the change in the basis on which such crime is measured. [Interruption.] Of course, the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety—she is muttering, and I will give way to her in a moment if she wants me to—said herself that the limit was 20 per cent. Violent crime in north Wales grew by 120 per cent., so even after that adjustment is made, there was still a 100 per cent. increase in violent crime. Across the country as a whole, the figure is 84 per cent., so even if we knock off the 20 per cent., there was still a two-thirds increase in violent crime.
Gun crime has doubled, and as the Home Secretary himself recognises, there has been a massive increase in knife crime, so there is a need to act on gun and knife crime. Who is telling the truth here? Is the Home Secretary just trying to invent another scare story—is he just expressing his own view—or is this real? The increase in violent crime is real, and for reasons that I will explain in a moment.
Let me pursue this question of a reduction in crime. There are indeed some reductions. Some of the recorded crime statistics have come down, but I must point out that the Government can claim zero credit for much of that. Recorded instances of burglary are coming down. Is that because more burglars are getting caught? No, it is because detection rates for burglary under this Government have dropped by a third, so fewer burglars are getting caught. Perhaps the explanation is that burglars fear prison. Under this Government, half of all first-conviction burglars go to prison, so that is not the answer. The real reason why burglary is going down is that it has become more difficult and less lucrative—it is as simple as that. Burglar alarms, better locks and more secure doors and windows make burglary more difficult. Some 10 years ago, the burglar who stole a video recorder could sell it for £100. Today, last year's video recorder will fetch a fiver in the pub. The risks have gone up and the rewards have gone down, but the criminal has not gone away.
It may have escaped the right hon. Gentleman's attention that some of the reductions that he is talking about are a direct result of Government targets. That is a reality that cannot be challenged. When the chief superintendent responsible for the operational command unit in my constituency publishes figures showing crime reductions across the board, is he a liar?
Unlike the Home Secretary, I am not in that business, but I will say this: the Government may have too many targets, but even I do not think that they have targets for double glazing, locks on doors and burglar alarms.
Let us deal with what happens to those crimes. The crimes may decrease, but the criminals do not go away. They go into other, more lucrative crimes—anything from liquor smuggling to drug dealing—that are safer and easier, and which generate more violent crime. Nobody, not even the Home Secretary, seriously disputes today that drink and drugs are the source of violent crime. Yet the Government have presided over an explosion of drink and drug-related crime.
What have they done about it? Worse than nothing. The Government's response to the problem of binge drinking was more drinking, longer drinking, easier drinking and 24-hour drinking. Today, we hear that the drinks industry is facing up to its responsibilities. If only the Government would do the same.
At the same time, drug addicts are faced with the lowest drug prices ever. In some urban areas, the price of cocaine is falling below that of a cappuccino. Drugs are flooding our streets because we have lost control of our borders and until the Government get a grip on our borders, this will continue. No wonder people are taking hard drugs. No wonder that 70 per cent. of theft is linked to drug addiction.
While trying to sound tough on drugs, the Government took the foolish decision to reclassify cannabis against the advice of the police, doctors and their own drugs tsar. As the ex-Cabinet Minister, Chris Smith—hardly an old fuddy-duddy—pointed out:
"Within the last two years cannabis use has rocketed among young people because it's widely available and cheap, so youngsters will try it . . . Kids do not even perceive it to be illegal any more."
Whose fault is that?
I have always believed that the law on drugs should be guided by the scientific evidence. If the advice is that a drug should be classified as more or less dangerous, that is what we should presume to follow. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree?
Yes, I do. One reason why the decision to reclassify was ill founded was that the Government did not take into account some of the evidence on psychosis that the current chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs says he knew at the time. The risks of psychosis from cannabis use are serious, which is the basis of the argument. Although it grieves me to do it, I will pay a compliment to the Home Secretary who is at least reviewing the decision, but it was ludicrous in the first place.
The new Labour Government have failed to deal with the causes of violent crime—drink and drugs—and are failing to deal with criminals. A proper criminal justice system punishes the criminals and reduces crime. It does that by taking criminals out of circulation—typically, by putting them in prison—and by deterring them from committing crime, generally by the threat of prison. It does so also by rehabilitation, again usually in prison. However, the Government do not intend to create enough prison places to cope with the expected 100,000 prisoners by the end of the decade.
Instead, they will use community service and fines to punish criminals. Clearly such punishments do not take criminals out of circulation. Equally clearly, they do not deter, even with the prospect of the Minister of State's orange suits. Nor do they rehabilitate. The hardest group of offenders to deal with are drug addicts, yet the Government's flagship drug treatment and testing orders have had a dreadful outcome. Two thirds of those concerned have failed to complete the course and 90 per cent. have been reconvicted.
We need to offer kids ladders out of drug dependency. At the general election, we set out a proposal to increase tenfold the number of residential rehab places. A Conservative Government would have done that. Our approach would have offered an escape from the cycle of misery that afflicts too many youngsters today. Conservative proposals would have offered a positive and constructive solution to this most terrible of problems. At least the Government are recognising the need for action on violent crime by promoting the Bill on this matter, but they are failing miserably to deal with the root cause of that crime. As a result of that failed strategy, recorded crime is up by 750,000 in the past eight years, with violent crime up by more than 80 per cent. Even where crime rates are falling, it is the result of factors beyond the Government's control.
What the Government can control is the number of police out on the beat, yet as we saw last week from the Police Federation, more and more officers are spending more and more of their time inside police stations, not on the beat catching criminals. The Government are tying up our police forces in red tape and targets and, as a direct result, cutting their effectiveness.
The Government can also control the effectiveness of sentences, yet they are failing to enforce effective sentences and are instead wasting money on expensive gimmicks that do nothing to lead criminals away from the temptation to commit crime.
Those are the practical things that the Queen's Speech could have addressed, which we could have been debating today but which will clearly have to wait for another time and another Government.
I shall bring the hon. Gentleman something for which there is a shorter wait.
More than a year ago, we exposed the chaos and shambles that the Government had inflicted on our immigration system. From the Government, first we had denial, then we had cover-up, and then the lid came off the whole show and a Minister had to resign. At long last, the Government are now beginning to respond to the crisis in our immigration system. We welcome some of the measures planned, but the Government's proposals for e-borders will take around five years to set up fully. That will be 12 years after they did away with extra European Union embarkation controls, and this is a time of high national security threat. That is nothing short of irresponsible.
We welcome the 600 extra immigration officers announced by the Prime Minister in his speech in Dover, but let me remind the House that the number of failed asylum seekers had to exceed 200,000 before action was taken. The Government are in a state of perpetual crisis management and, I am afraid, they are still more prone to crisis than to management in this regard.
This week, the Government were trumpeting their success on asylum applications, which they have managed to get down to the level that they inherited from us. That is their success. Of course we welcome the reduction, but at the same time the number of removals has fallen for the past several quarters from 5,000 to fewer than 3,500. There is little chance that the Government will achieve their target of more failed asylum seekers being removed than arriving if that trend continues.
Astonishingly, this Government are still complacent. In the Home Secretary's introduction to his five-year plan, he stated:
"the system that we have . . . works well"— a system that has seen the cavalier disregard of the rules become the norm in the Home Office; a system that has seen immigration triple; a system that has seen the immigration and nationality budget grow from £200 million to nearly £2 billion. I hope that we never experience a system that the Home Secretary thinks is working badly.
It is not racist to talk about immigration and asylum, but the right hon. Gentleman will accept that there are racists in the electorate, and I have no doubt of his personal opposition to racism in all its forms. However, would he have been happier with racists who were worried about immigration and asylum voting Conservative, or for any other mainstream party, in the last election, or would he rather that they had voted for the British National party?
I think it was Mr. Marshall-Andrews who, when he met a racist, said to that constituent, "I hope this man does not vote for me." I would have said the same thing.
No, it is not.
On "Woman's Hour", the Prime Minister said:
"There are several hundred of them in this country who, we believe, are engaged in plotting or trying to commit terrorist acts".
Only weeks later, he was rushing through the House a poorly drafted Bill to deal with the issue—a Bill that assaulted the ancient rights of the British people and challenged the assumption of innocence, habeas corpus and the entire concept of a fair trial under British law.
What happened to the hundreds of terrorists roaming our streets? Just before the election, we fought hard in the House over control orders. How many people, in the ensuing six weeks, were placed under such an order? Outside of those released from Belmarsh and similar secure institutions, there were none. Lord Tebbit asked the question six weeks after the Bill entered into law, and the answer was "Not one." I believe that it is the case—no doubt we will hear in due course—that in the last few weeks one person has had a control order placed on them. So much for the hundreds of terrorists to whom the Prime Minister referred. Was it just convenience that they appeared and then disappeared in the run-up to an election? Terrorism is a very dangerous area in which to cry wolf. The House will be aware that, accordingly, we will hold the Government to their promise to review and replace that hasty terrorism legislation in the coming year. We will make sure of that.
It goes without saying that we welcome powers that really will combat terrorism. Introducing laws to deal with acts preparatory to terrorism will help us to deal with people planning terrorist acts; I agree with the Home Secretary on that. I have to tell him, however, that if what I read in the papers is correct, I am concerned about the offence of condoning acts of terrorism. I should like to read to the House two quotes from persons commenting on terrorism in Palestine. The first person said that
"young people feel they have got no hope but to blow themselves up".
The second said:
"If I had to live in that situation . . . I might just consider becoming one myself".
Do those quotes condone the acts of suicide bombers? Would those people have been charged under the new powers? Are we about to lock them up? The first quote is from the wife of the Prime Minister, and the second is from Jenny Tonge, when she was a Member of the House. As much as I have my differences with the individuals in question, I do not believe that we should be locking them up. [Interruption.] There may be some dispute, but I do not believe in locking them up.
We must be very clear about what the powers seek to do. New Labour has a habit of making bad law to rush in pursuit of a headline, so we will ensure that all the new powers are exposed to proper scrutiny. Vera Baird, who is sitting on the Parliamentary Private Secretaries' Bench, should take note; she should be interested in this.
As the Home Secretary knows, we fundamentally disagree on the provisions relating to religious hatred. I understand the Government's aims in trying to prevent religious hatred, but I sometimes wonder whether they understand the implication of their own proposals. This is their third attempt to introduce these powers, so I will repeat my objections from the previous two attempts. For centuries, the United Kingdom has had a tradition of religious tolerance and, at the same time, a tradition of extremely robust religious disputation. We live in a healthy society, in which religious freedom and free speech have co-existed to the advantage of all. These joint freedoms have contributed in no small measure to the intellectual vigour of our society. They spawned the creativity that fostered a wealth of talent in many areas, from science to satire. Freedom of speech is one of the great virtues and, simultaneously, one of the great strengths of British society. These powers will curb freedom of speech where such freedom is entirely appropriate. Unlike race, religion is a matter of choice: choice of belief, value, practice and behaviour. This Bill would sacrifice freedom of speech and freedom of religious belief for little or no gain, and we will oppose it.
I appreciate what the right hon. Gentleman is saying; in no circumstances should religion be exempt from criticism—far from it. Does he accept, however, that some of the arguments that he is putting forward regarding free speech were used by his predecessors 30 or 40 years ago strenuously to oppose legislation on incitement to race hatred? Then we were told that the legislation would be an attack on the freedom of speech that we had treasured for centuries. No one now on the Conservative Benches, including the right hon. Gentleman, would like to see that legislation repealed; it is now accepted. I believe that, if the legislation on incitement to religious hatred proceeds, it will not be challenged in the years ahead.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says but I disagree with him because, in addition to the reasons I have just given relating to our society and its commitment to free speech, I believe that the Bill will have the opposite effect to what the Government intend on relationships between religions.
To return to the Prevention of Terrorism Act, the whole House supports effective legislation to prevent terrorism; the problem with that ill-thought-out legislation is that, in the short term, it will bear down most heavily on our Muslim and other immigrant communities. Ill-thought-out legislation that cuts across centuries of civil liberties is more likely to create terrorists than to fight terrorism.
The hon. Lady is right. When the legislation was introduced, I argued that it would act as a recruiting sergeant for al-Qaeda. All it would take would be one popular individual—perhaps a young Muslim—to be made subject to a control order or, in an extreme case, put under house arrest under the legislation, to ensure that not only that individual but every member of their family, every friend and everyone who knew of their case became a potential recruit for radicalisation. One of the reasons why this country has survived for centuries without revolution is that we have been able to maintain our freedom and tolerance throughout that period. The countries that have adopted the most aggressive stances at the expense of civil liberties are often the ones that have suffered most.
Given what the right hon. Gentleman has just said, in a very considered tone, will he join my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary in his attempts to bring communities together in a consensus-building exercise to decide what is the right direction for this country, to ensure that everyone feels safe here, to include in the process communities that might otherwise feel excluded, and to ensure that the legislation that emerges is right for this country?
I am entirely happy to be involved in any discussions with the various communities of our country, but the legislation deals with matters that are fundamental to the freedoms of any British citizen, whatever his religion, background or creed. One of the most important aspects of the discussion of the measure was embodied in an offer that we made in the Lords, I believe, to allow the entry into law of the approach now taken by the Crown Prosecution Service when comments or acts expressing religious hatred are simply a masquerade for race hatred. As I understand it, if the CPS thinks that an individual who attacks a Muslim is really attacking that person because of their race rather than their religion, it will treat the attack as an act of racial hatred. I would be happy for such a provision to become law, because in those circumstances, religious hatred is merely a proxy for racial hatred. However, I am sorry to tell the hon. Lady that, beyond those circumstances, I cannot see how the proposed legislation can be made acceptable in the context of our long-standing traditions of both religious tolerance and religious freedom and freedom of speech.
The right hon. Gentleman is being generous in taking interventions. May I suggest that part of Britain's history is a tale of great religious intolerance, both by the state and by groups of individuals? Surely we need to do something to protect those who have no opportunity to share a faith, to hold a faith, to exercise their faith and to worship without other people inciting hatred of them solely on the basis of their faith?
Were we talking a few centuries ago, I would agree with the hon. Gentleman, but such an environment has not been prevalent for the past couple of centuries, and in those areas where there has been hatred, it has mainly been racially based. The problem is that that will not advance the case. We will see something corroded that is fundamental to the British civilisation. The shopping list of those who are upset by the proposed legislation does not consist of intolerant people or those who masquerade. It does not consist of members of the British National party. The list contains those who are concerned about the importance of—
When I responded earlier about the possibility of some compromise, I talked about putting into law the Crown Prosecution Service method. That was in mind of some extremist parties' behaviour and in dealing with them. Beyond that, I do not see a way of doing what the Government are trying to do that would preserve the rights and freedoms of British people of all creeds and cults.
In terms of things that are difficult to make judgments on, we come to ID cards. I suppose that it is a subject of importance sacrificed for little or no gain, given the proposals. We have been here before. When the Government last brought their proposals before the House, we set a number of tests. The Home Secretary seems to think that they are fig leaves. Is purpose a fig leaf? I understand that, with this Government, purpose may be a fig leaf. There is a potential cost of £10 billion or £20 billion. Is that a fig leaf? Are the fundamental rights and privacies of British citizens a fig leaf? The Home Secretary's Department has the most unmitigated record of wreckage of IT projects in modern history. Is that a fig leaf?
The Home Secretary is unlucky because, as a Public Accounts Committee Chairman, I watched the Home Office for four years, and the right hon. Gentleman is about to hear some of the lessons that I learned. Let us start with the summary points. The points of the tests were to establish the balance or imbalance between serious principles—principles that the right hon. Gentleman agreed mattered—and the competence or incompetence of the proposal before us. It seems that the Government are asking Parliament to make a decision on a scheme that they have still not yet properly worked out themselves. The scheme is so ill thought out that it is by no means clear that the technology will be foolproof or that the costs will be controllable. Furthermore, it is not clear that the Home Office could manage the scheme. We must remember that if we depend on the scheme for our security and it fails or is subverted, we are far worse off than we were without it.
I am having a recognition problem with somebody's identity.
I reiterate the point that if the proposed system is built as a centrepiece of our security and it fails, we are far worse off than we were when we started.
I have had a written intervention from the Home Secretary, which came this morning about an hour or two before business started. The right hon. Gentleman sent me a letter. Given his opening, it was quite surprising that he started "Dear David". He attempts to go through the tests:
"Legislation must clearly define the purpose of the cards."
He gives me a list, which he could have taken from my opening speech—no priority, no costing and no quantitative achievement. It is just a list.
The right hon. Gentleman then goes on with whether the technology is sufficiently well developed and robust. His opening sentence reads:
"The Identity Cards Bill is enabling legislation", which is to miss the point. That is because the Bill proposes to change the relationship between the British citizen and his or her Government. It is a massively important constitutional Bill; no one should be under any misapprehension about that. The point is that unless the technology works, frankly we do not want to touch it at all. However, the Home Secretary wants to introduce the Bill before he knows whether the technology will work. Since it will not work for eight years, one must ask, "Why the rush?"
The Home Secretary's letter goes on to talk about the biometric technology and how the chief scientist will examine it. I do not know about other hon. Members, but I have received several letters from experts in this area, especially experts on biometrics, expressing extreme doubts about the viability and reliability of the technology, and the possible levels of errors, false positives, false negatives and other problems associated with it. However, as I shall explain in a minute, even if the biometrics work perfectly, there are fundamental flaws in the proposal.
The Home Secretary's letter goes on to discuss whether the Home Office is capable of delivering such a major information technology project. He talks about how the Government use IT in all sorts of ways. The examples that he gives are informative. First, on pensions, I do not know whether many hon. Members have had problems over the past few weeks with the new card-and-chip system for pensioners, but I have. I have constituents who have not received their pension for five or six weeks as a result of the wonderful system that has been introduced—not by the Home Office on this occasion, but by a more competent Department.
The letter goes on to cite passports. I do not know whether anyone remembers the pictures of the queues round the block of people who were desperate to get their passports to go on holiday. On one occasion, I even had a member of the private office of one Home Office Minister go to get one of my constituent's passports from the heaps of boxes in Lunar house so that she could go to her own marriage in Malaysia the next week. It was one of the most unmitigated IT disasters of modern times and was run by—guess who—the Home Office.
I was pointing out from a sedentary position that on the passports saga, the plan was commissioned by the Conservative Government and sorted out by us.
As I said about the Home Secretary's comments on the immigration service working well, if that was sorting out, heaven help us from something that goes wrong.
The Home Secretary's letter also states how the Government successfully handled the fingerprint system. He has forgotten that that also broke down only three or four months ago, so police forces throughout the country could not get fingerprints identified for about two or three weeks. Such systems are intrinsically difficult to run and his Department is not very good at running them.
I shall cite one further example to the House, which was dealt with by Mr. Bichard under the Home Secretary's predecessor. We all remember Soham. The backdrop to Soham was the Home Office's inability to get an IT system working throughout the country for all our police forces. On the basis of that fact, the Home Secretary has not made a good case that the Home Office could run the ID system.
The letter says that ID cards must be the most cost-effective way of tackling the problems that they seek to address. The central point of that short paragraph is that the cost of the scheme would be recovered from charges to card applicants—so it does not matter, sir. The cost will not be on the Home Office budget because the 83 or 160 quid—whatever the cost—will be met by ordinary citizens when they pay for their passports, driving licences and other documents.
The Home Secretary makes no attempt to respond to suggestions that the scheme might cost between £10 billion and £20 billion. I would not care to guess how many border guards we could get, how many new systems to prevent welfare fraud we could introduce, or how much we could do on counter-terrorism for £10 billion or £20 billion. However, the matter certainly has not been addressed in the letter.
The letter says that ID cards must not pose a threat to civil liberties. I shall be fair to the Home Secretary, because he has at least made one attempt in that respect. We complained when it was suggested that someone outside the civil service would get a 10-year sentence for misusing the data, while someone inside the civil service would get only two years, so I think that was corrected. He has made some minor attempts to deal with the threat to civil liberties, but there is an intrinsic weakness in the proposal, which gives rise to the civil liberty problem. It came up when I was trying to reach a conclusion as to how to deal with the matter before Second Reading.
I went to see a number of senior policemen. Every one of them supported the Home Secretary's view on ID cards, so I asked them a simple question: what would they do to stop someone using one of the 20,000 access points to the database to put in a programme, commonly known as a virus? Let us say, for the sake of argument, that such a virus would make my biometrics, if they were interrogated, lead to the answer "yes" to any identity, so I could claim to be Charles Clarke, Michael Howard, Tony Blair or whoever, and the database would say yes every time. [Interruption.] There are already two David Davises.
Those were very intelligent men—heads of police forces and so on, some of the most senior policemen in the country. None of them had an answer, and I have not yet heard an answer to the question how we will stop tampering with the IT system that will be at the centre of the scheme. That is much more important than the little bit of plastic. The database at the centre is what brings about a change in the relationship between the individual and the state. The Government have no answer as to how they will protect that database. The Home Secretary's only answer to the problem was, "Other people are doing the same thing." That is a pretty weak answer on a matter of such importance.
I repeat what I said: those questions must be answered before we can approve the Bill. On an issue of such importance, which represents such a fundamental change in the relationship between citizen and state, the Government must make the case and conclusively prove the need for such a change. They have not done so, and until they do, I cannot recommend that my party support the proposals.
I have touched on some of the issues raised in the Queen's Speech. There are many hours of important debate and discussion to come, when the specific proposals will be analysed in full, but today we can focus only on the broad thrust of the proposals. Although our intentions are positive, our hopes are not high. For eight years the Government have been characterised by complacency, incompetence and failure, followed by gimmicks, posturing and soundbites.
We have seen cash point fines proposed and abandoned. We have seen night courts proposed and abandoned. We have seen child curfews proposed, introduced and abandoned. We have seen the Government supposedly determined to crack down on antisocial behaviour, then encouraging 24-hour drinking. Drug use is rampant on our streets; the Government's response is to slacken the cannabis laws.
When the Labour Government fail to deliver, they are drawn to one response above all others—the gimmick. Headline-grabbing initiatives and poorly developed policy are designed to achieve media coverage and create a spurious impression that the Government are in touch with and are tackling people's concerns. We have seen those initiatives come and go. Now the Government have been given one last chance. People have made it clear what their priorities are, and they have entrusted the Government with that job. Our job is to support them where support is due, and to hold them to account when they are going wrong. In the coming months we shall do our job to the full. After eight years, it is about time the Government did theirs.
I thank my constituents for sending me back to the House for the 10th time. My obligation to them is to carry on working on their behalf, regardless of their religion or ethnic origin, and to try to ensure that a good Labour Government work well in their favour.
My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has dealt with a number of the issues that relate to the legislation proposed in the Queen's Speech. When it comes to the issue of immigration, my constituents are grateful for the fact that the primary purpose rule was abolished. They still remember it eight years later. They are grateful for the fact that an appeal system has been introduced for visitor visas, and I hope that my right hon. Friend will maintain that.
The problem for my constituents too often is that where the policy on paper is one that they find acceptable and attractive, in implementation it does not always work as well as it ought to do, and they have asked me, during the election campaign and since, to represent to the Government that after eight years of welcome office, which my constituents have supported throughout, the Government should get a much stronger grip on the immigration and nationality directorate of the Home Office so that the policies work in the way that my constituents wish them to do.
There are two aspects to that. First, there are aspects relating to the bureaucracy preventing my constituents from obtaining what is their right. If, as I do, I have a constituent who serves in the armed forces, who has served in Afghanistan and who later this year is to serve in Iraq, it is absurd to say that because there are problems with my constituent's wife's immigration record she should go back to, of all places, Zimbabwe, to apply for readmission to this country. Where a constituent of mine has had her husband allowed, under the Government's legislation, to join her in this country and has then given birth to twins, and the husband has then violated his permission to remain in this country by leaving her and not sustaining the marriage, that constituent, who has been on the telephone to me again today, has a right to believe that that man, with no proper basis to remain in this country, should be thrown out of this country, rather than, although illegally here, obtaining legal aid to try to gain access to those babies until they are 18-years-old. I very much hope that in this Parliament we will deal with the reality of cases and not allow bureaucracy to get in the way of cases.
Again and again—I have written to my right hon. Friend about cases even during the general election campaign—constituents of mine with work permits awarded to them by the immigration and nationality directorate, who have been offered jobs by employers who wish them to take up those jobs, are being sent back to countries of origin such as Bangladesh in order to obtain the right to remain here even though they have work permits. I have several such cases now, and such absurdities should be stamped on by my right hon. Friend.
On the other hand, I strongly believe that where people are blatantly violating the immigration rules the Home Office should act on that and remove them from the country. At a recent surgery, a woman from Iran came to me with a letter from the Home Office that said, in bold and underlined, "You must now leave the country." She had no intention whatever of leaving the country and said that she had come to me to ask if her National Asylum Support Service payments could be resumed. My constituents, of whatever ethnic origin, think it unjust that people who live in accommodation provided by the National Asylum Support Service should insist on remaining here when they have no right to do so. They want such people to be thrown out of this country and immigration law to work firmly, but they also want people who have a good case for remaining in this country to be treated in a sympathetic and practical way.
My constituency is a dispersal constituency for asylum seekers. Some of those people have no right to be in this country because their applications and appeals have failed—such cases may involve people who have failed to gain access to an immigration appeal tribunal, who have failed in their appeal to that decision and who have failed the human rights appeal, too. People who have exhausted every single immigration process are remaining in this country and doing their best to live on my constituents' taxes. I say to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary that although good cases are treated well, it is about time that bad cases were dealt with firmly. The people of Gorton want people who will work and contribute to the economy to live in Gorton. At the same time, some people simply want to batten on to my tax-paying constituents, and I cannot see why my constituents should put up with it.
During the general election campaign, the Conservative party dealt with immigration in a disgusting way—when I was walking along the street, a man of African origin said to me, "They talk about me as though I cannot hear what they are saying." Those politics operate on the basis that large numbers of people who are citizens of this country or who have the right to remain in this country are somehow beyond the pale. If the Leader of the Opposition had substituted "Jews" for "immigrants", when he discussed immigration during the general election, people would have said that he was conducting an anti-Semitic campaign. Anti-Semitism is bad and racism is bad, and the Conservative party conducted the nastiest, filthiest campaign of my political life on that issue. What is more, it conducted the campaign on the advice of a Commonwealth immigrant, who contributed nothing to the economy and who, having pocketed his money from the Conservative party, is returning to the country from which he emigrated.
My constituents, of whatever ethnic origin, are not racists—they are fair and decent, and they want people to be given a chance. At the same time, when people exhaust every single process in the Government's decent legislation, are told to leave and do not do so, I expect my right hon. Friend to deal with them, including those who ignore deportation orders. Immigration policy must be fair and firm: in these years of Labour Government, I look to my right hon. Friend to make sure that the fairness continues, that the firmness is enforced and that all of my constituents, regardless of ethnic origin, have confidence in this Government's immigration policies.
It is a pleasure to take part in this debate, which got off to a slightly grumpy start with the Home Secretary's analysis of the election campaign. I do not intend to go down that route. I hope that my party generally tried to fight a positive campaign. Frankly, we would have been unable to mount such a poster campaign even if we had wanted to, as we do not have the money—that is a heart-breaker. However, we are very good value for money in terms of the number of MPs we delivered for the amount of money that we spent. I would say this about the campaign: politicians must sometimes be prepared to argue things on the doorstep knowing that they are unpopular and try to change individuals' views on the basis of their strongly held opinion instead of testing out those views in advance in market research and opinion polling and adjusting one's poster campaign and message. That is an important principle that this party will stick to when it fights election campaigns.
As for the range of measures in the Queen's Speech, Liberal Democrat Members will give our support to some; we believe that the Government's long-term intention is right on others, although the way in which they are trying to get there is wrong; and we are fundamentally opposed to the rest. The charities Bill is long overdue. We welcome it and will give it our support; it is a pity that it fell because of a lack of parliamentary time.
On religious hatred, I share many of the concerns that were articulated by the shadow Secretary of State, particularly in trying to ensure that we protect freedom of speech. There are ways around this. We certainly support what the Government intend to do, but we need to consider whether we can additionally deal with concerns to do with racial hatred. Some of the measures that were discussed in Committee need to be looked at again. The Home Secretary's response to the intervention by my hon. Friend Dr. Harris was helpful. Considering the blasphemy laws as part of the review is a constructive way forward. We will work with the Government on this, but as things stand we are very uneasy about what is being suggested.
It is welcome that, after the 40 or so hours that we sat when we debated the terrorism legislation, the Home Secretary has kept his promise to bring it back and reconsider it. I am very proud of the role that my party took in ensuring that when it came to balancing the principles of civil liberty with ensuring that this country is safe, we and our colleagues in the other Chamber fought strongly to ensure that civil liberties were protected. At no point during the passage of that legislation did I feel that Liberal Democrats were suggesting anything that would make this country less safe from a terrorist attack.
I am pleased that the Government are returning to the idea that was discussed during that debate concerning new measures on acts preparatory to terrorism. As we argued then, the best way to deal with that is to have new criminal offences and take people through the proper criminal procedure. However, I am worried by press reports suggesting the creation of other measures to do with condoning terrorism. That will be difficult to judge and gets us into the same difficult territory as religious hatred. I am nervous about that and would want to see the detail of what exactly the Home Secretary has in mind.
I am disappointed that, if the press reports are true, the Home Secretary is not looking at the question of intercept communications. We made a powerful case for considering the way in which other European countries have made phone tapping admissible in court cases, and I hope that the Home Secretary will still leave the window open for including that in the detailed measures that he brings forward in the autumn. Although I accept that intercept evidence would not have helped in the Belmarsh cases, it may be useful at some point in terms of having a proper criminal procedure.
We will want to probe the Home Secretary on the current regime of control orders because it is unacceptable that Parliament will not be given regular information about how many people are being held under them. We want to ensure that that information is given to Parliament not as and when the Home Secretary decides to announce it.
The commitment given in the debate to provide regular reports to the House on control orders—I recollect that they will be made every three months—will obviously be met exactly as was stated to the House in the last Session.
The Home Secretary is aware that we believe that if somebody is put under a control order, we should not have to wait two and a half months for that information to be known, particularly given the gravity of taking away somebody's liberty in such circumstances. We shall want to revisit our plea on the standard of the burden of proof, and to look again at the role of the judge versus the politician on non-derogation control orders.
These are difficult issues. Many of us feared that, in the run-up to the general election, there would be a Madrid-style attack in this country. We should put on record the debt that we owe to the police and the intelligence services for ensuring that such an atrocity did not take place.
We will examine the Government's new proposals on terrorism seriously, and I genuinely hope that there can be cross-party support on the issue so that we can put in place a proper mechanism. That said, this party will continue to defend civil liberties, including in relation to identity cards.
The shadow Home Secretary's speech was extraordinary. I do not know where he is now—he has probably gone to buy some creosote to paint on his fence, which must be very large for the whole Conservative party to sit on it. The Conservatives need to make up their minds where they stand on the issue. The Conservative party has put forward a set of five questions, and it is clear from any analysis of those questions that they have not been answered. During the election campaign, I went around studios speaking with Conservative MPs who made extraordinarily good speeches and arguments for rejecting ID cards. I simply cannot understand how, with the Second Reading of the Bill perhaps a couple of weeks away, Her Majesty's so-called official Opposition cannot make up their mind what to do on this key issue. If they had the courage to come off the fence and join the Liberal Democrats and, I hope, many on the Labour Back Benches who share our view, we could defeat the ID card scheme. What a prize that would be, but the official Opposition do not want to share in that. I cannot understand that.
I shall now give the reasons why we will continue to object to the scheme. We are not convinced at all on the subject of costs. I asked the Home Secretary if he could tell us what the costs will be, but he cannot. How on earth could we back a scheme with a blank cheque? We know that the costs are likely to rise as more details, time and complexities are added to the scheme.
We do not believe that the idea that a piece of plastic could save the country from a terrorist attack is a sound argument—I note with interest that the Government talk about that a lot less. I am not convinced that a serious suicide bomber would be deterred by a piece of plastic. Sadly, we know that in New York and Madrid it was not effective and did not help protect national security.
I remain doubtful about whether the biometrics can work. Studies have emerged saying that there is a 1 or 2 per cent. error rate in some of the biometrics. A 1 per cent. error rate in a population of 50 million would mean that far too many people would be affected by a mistake or an error in their biometrics. They are not effective, and the failure rate is too high. I am not convinced that the database will work effectively or convinced about the protections that could be put in place on the database.
I am also not convinced by the argument that we will start with a voluntary scheme and move to a compulsory one, and that decisions about whether someone must have an ID card will, in the first place, be linked to whether they have to renew their passport. That could lead to the ridiculous situation that some of my Liberal Democrat colleagues might have to get an ID card because their passport is renewed, but I would not until 2012 because my passport does not need renewing until then. A two-tier society would be created with some people carrying ID cards because their passport is up for renewal and some not. What purpose and use can that be for any organisation in protecting anything? Someone could turn around and say that they do not need an ID card because their passport is not up for renewal. The proposed system is neither one thing nor the other, and the Government must make up their mind.
As for the claim that the scheme will tackle benefit fraud in this country, the Home Secretary knows that the vast majority of benefit fraud is not caused by people pretending to be someone else, but by overclaiming, so the scheme would not help. Another argument put forward by the Government relates to illegal working. We all want to tackle illegal working, but systems are already in place to do so. Are the police actually carrying out those prosecutions? No. Do we believe that gangmasters and individuals who bring in illegal workers would pay a blind bit of notice to whether they have an ID card? Of course not; it is an undercover market, and ID cards would not help tackle it.
Our final objection is the kind of culture and climate that the scheme would create. If I have to collect benefits, see my doctor, go into a post office, or access health services at an accident and emergency department, do I want someone to check who I am through my biometrics, fingerprints or a facial scan? Do I want to have to go to a centre, perhaps 100 miles away, to have all that data registered? Do I want to have to go and put my eye against an iris-scanner in my GP's surgery to enable me to use the public services that I can now use any day of the week without people asking me to do such things? That is not the kind of society that I want to live in. I am therefore proud that the Liberal Democrats have made their minds up to oppose and, I hope, defeat the identity cards Bill.
I welcome the Government's proposals in the Queen's Speech on immigration, because a points scheme represents a positive step forward. At last, the Government are going to come out fighting on this issue and to make the economic case for immigration. We argued during the election campaign that we should have a quota linked to an independent economic assessment of how many jobs were needed in this country, so that we could link jobs with economic migrants. The Liberal Democrats are proud to welcome, and celebrate the role played by, economic migrants. If the Government's intention is to do the same, through the points scheme, and to make that economic case, they will have our support.
The Government will also have our support in rejecting the Conservative proposals for a quota on genuine asylum seekers. We reject that proposal; there is no way in which I—or, I hope, the Home Secretary—could ever turn away a genuine refugee from this country, saying, "I'm terribly sorry, we're full. We've used up our quota. Come back next year and we'll see if there's space for you then." No way. We will not go down that route.
The Government have proposed various measures to deal with violent crime, on which there is a compelling need for new thinking. There is no point in getting into an argument about whether the statistics are going up or down in different parts of the country. If someone has been the victim of a crime, the only statistic relevant to them is 100 per cent. They do not want to hear politicians arguing about whether crime levels are slightly up or down. We need to tackle the problem of yob culture. Anyone who saw what happened in that graveyard in Bolton at the weekend will be disgusted at the way in which the graves were smashed up. We have seen far too many such images, and we know from our own constituencies that such activity presents a real problem.
The starting point is, of course, to ensure that we have proper policing, and I welcome the Home Secretary's speech to the Police Federation in Manchester last week, in which he acknowledged that more needed to be done to ensure that our police were out on the streets rather than filling in forms. I hope that our police will also be given the technology that could revolutionise their work methods, and that they will be able to get out on the streets with that technology rather than having to spend time filling in forms.
Of course, the solution goes wider than that. I agree that we must tackle the problem of reoffending. The Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety, Hazel Blears—whom I congratulate on becoming a Privy Councillor—has been talking about that over the past few weeks. I am not going to get into a discussion about orange, red or blue clothing, but she has a point about tackling reoffending. She also has a point when she says that, when we consider alternatives to prison, the public must be able to see that proper community justice is delivered. I have sympathy with the arguments on badging, because if we can persuade the public that this is a tough, effective, alternative measure, that has to be the way forward.
Any effective antisocial behaviour measures would get our support, but we will not support the sticking-plaster approach, or measures that simply move a problem around from one estate to another, for example. I am interested in using antisocial behaviour orders as a punishment, but also in matching that with measures that effectively tackle the long-term problems. After all, it was the hon. Gentleman's Government who said that they wanted to be tough on crime—as represented by antisocial behaviour orders— and on the causes of crime. ASBOs do not necessarily address that second aspect.
On community service, I believe that we could go further in engaging communities. We have argued for the establishment of community justice panels, which would get the community involved in setting the sentences for low-order crime. That would probably be more effective than badging people, because it would ensure that members of a community felt a sense of ownership and justice in relation to what happened in their area.
We shall support the Government's suggestions on knife crime. I asked the Home Secretary earlier, during Home Office questions, whether he would consider linking the maximum sentence for a knife crime to that for a gun crime, and I was grateful to him for saying that he would look into the matter. People who commit crimes with either weapon can kill, and it should at least be possible for a court and a judge to set similar sentences for those crimes. Further steps need to be taken in that respect.
I have some concerns about issues relating to the age of 18 and legal responsibility, but that is part of a wider debate that we must have about what responsibilities kick in between 16, 17 and 18. A married couple will no longer be able to put a knife on their wedding list if they get married at 17. We need to consider such issues, but I am sympathetic to the Home Secretary's position.
We should also consider the problem of purchasing knives on the internet. My researchers did some cruising on the internet this morning—[Hon. Members: "Oh!"] They did so legally, I might add, and they are all older than 18. They found for sale a "Red Dragon" Samurai sword, a genuine Gurkha working knife, a "Rambo" survival knife and a "Tanto" hunting knife. The list goes on, and it conjures up appalling images. We need to tackle that problem.
Drinking is one of the causes of such crimes, so we obviously welcome the announcement from the Beer and Pub Association this morning that it will do away with the happy hour. That is one step in the right direction, but that concession covers only 50 per cent. of clubs and pubs. I hope that the Home Secretary will use the BPA decision as a means of leverage on some of the other operators, rather than those operators using it as an opportunity for commercial gain, because 50 per cent. of the marketplace has got rid of the happy hour. The real danger is that the less scrupulous, who are not part of the association, will see it as an opportunity to get more customers in for the happy hour. The Government need to act urgently.
I want to conclude with some personal remarks and thoughts, not party policy, about the respect agenda in this country. The Government are absolutely right to tackle the issue of respect, which is key, and which came up time and again on the doorstep. That is not a mystery to any of us, as we have known for many years that people are concerned about how we tackle it. Can politicians micro-manage the issue, however? By banning hoodies in town centres, for example, can we alter the lack of respect? I am doubtful about that, but we have a responsibility to try to do something about it.
I have two thoughts on the matter. The first is about community and the breakdown of community and of neighbourhoods. Why is there a sense of community in the village in which I live, and—thank goodness—little crime, yob culture or whatever one wants to call it? What can we do to try to recreate a sense of community in which people talk to each other and neighbours communicate with each other? We now have a climate in which neighbours put up fences of leylandii to try to avoid talking to each other. Parents do not talk to each other about how they bring up their children. We often seem to want to exclude others, and we seem very isolated.
My second thought relates to the campaign being run at the moment by the Daily Express to try to bring back some form of national volunteering. There may be something in that, and to be blunt, it is risky for politicians to talk about it. We need to explore this agenda, however. No one wants to return to national service, but should we not examine the idea of youngsters once again giving something to society and working together?
I have been thinking of this intervention for some time in view of what the hon. Gentleman has been saying. Is it not important to recognise that many thousands and millions of young people do not conform to the demonisation of them by some right hon. and hon. Members? Many thousands and millions of young people do volunteer, but do not have to be corralled into doing so by some kind of national scheme.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that the vast majority of youngsters do not deserve the "hoodie yob" tag. It is on their behalf that we must tackle those who are a problem, however. That does not mean that we should ignore or fail to address some of the issues. Many young people do volunteer, but the question is: why do others not do so? Let us be blunt: many children have an opportunity to take part in a gap year, live away from home, experience a different area, and move away from the estate or the community in which they have been brought up. We should examine ways in which we can expand that opportunity, so that every youngster, at some point in their life, after schooling, has the opportunity to get away from home, meet different youngsters and peer groups, and perhaps take part in a six-month programme of activity. Although it may be the bigger picture debate, we need to examine the respect agenda.
When the Government put forward serious suggestions to try to tackle crime in this country, they will have our support. When they put forward measures that undermine the principles of justice and civil liberty, however, I guarantee that this party—because no other party will do it—will defend those important principles.
I am most grateful to be called to give my maiden speech in today's debate.
I am only the second Member to represent the Denton and Reddish constituency, which, being only 22 years old, is still a relatively new political creation. The previous Member, Andrew Bennett, had represented both this seat and, before that, the former constituency of Stockport, North continuously since 1974. I am privileged to have known and worked alongside Andrew Bennett for a number of years, and I consider him not just my predecessor but a real friend and comrade. He was a first-class constituency Member of Parliament for both Stockport, North and Denton and Reddish, and will certainly be a hard act to follow. Indeed, it was a testament to his hard work in the constituency that at every election he fought in Denton and Reddish there was a swing away from the Conservatives towards Labour. That is some political achievement.
With Andrew Bennett, we always knew where he stood. I did not always agree with Andrew's stances, but he had—sometimes to the dismay of the Whips Office—strong views, and he stuck to them. In over 30 years, he never swayed from his beliefs. He is a real man of principle.
In Parliament, Andrew served in the 1980s as a Front-Bench Opposition spokesperson on education. More recently, he served as co-Chair of, first, the Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs, and then the Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions—a post that he happily shared with my hon. Friend Mrs. Dunwoody. Most recently, he chaired the Select Committee on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. He was extremely well versed in the rules and procedures of the House. He was a true parliamentarian. He was also—in fact, he still is—a keen rambler, and I know how proud he was that this Labour Government had finally secured key legislation granting the right to roam throughout our countryside.
I shall also briefly pay tribute to another former Member. Before 1983, much of what is now Denton and Reddish constituted the main part of the Manchester, Gorton constituency. Until 1983 the MP for that constituency was Ken Marks. Although, sadly, he is no longer with us, Ken is still held in very high esteem throughout much of Denton and Audenshaw.
Before entering Parliament in a hotly contested by-election in 1967, Ken served for many years as a local councillor for the Denton West ward on Denton urban district council. For the past nine years I too have served as a Labour councillor for the Denton West ward, on Tameside metropolitan borough council, and I am very privileged to have entered the House by following in Ken Marks's footsteps.
Let me explain to Members who are unfamiliar with the constituency that Denton and Reddish is in eastern Greater Manchester. It straddles the metropolitan boroughs of Tameside and Stockport, and contains not just the towns of Denton and Reddish but the strong communities of Audenshaw, Dukinfield, Haughton Green, Heaton Norris, Heaton Chapel and Lancashire Hill. The constituency nestles firmly between the Pennines and the bustle of the city of Manchester.
A 10-minute drive in one direction takes one to all the delights of the city centre, and another in the opposite direction leads straight into the Peak District national park. Although mine is an urban seat, we are blessed with the Tame Valley, a linear country park. It runs throughout the constituency, following the River Tame, one of the two tributaries of the River Mersey.
Denton and Stockport were once the main centres of hat manufacture in the United Kingdom. Sadly, hatting has all but died, but the beaver is still Denton's mascot, and of course we still have three pubs called the Jolly Hatter. I am not entirely certain whether it was the effect of the mercury or the beer that made them all so jolly.
Thanks to this Labour Government, the constituency that I have inherited is a far better place than it was in 1983, when my predecessor was first elected for the seat. Back then the area was blighted by poor housing, high unemployment and declining industries. Now, thanks to massive investment, that is beginning to change. Unemployment, at 1.9 per cent., is below both the national and the regional average, and the new deal has given real hope to hundreds of young people. Major new shopping developments have opened in Denton town centre, and the completion of the M60 Manchester orbital has brought massive inward investment into both Tameside and Stockport.
Unfortunately, some of the more inferior constituency profiles have failed to catch up with the dramatic changes that have taken place under Labour—so much so that my Tory opponent referred to poor housing, high unemployment and declining industries throughout his campaign. Thankfully, that was not a picture that my electorate recognised on
It is the issue of communities that we are here to debate today, and I welcome the Government's crime and disorder measures in full. However, I particularly want to focus on housing, a subject to which both Andrew Bennett and Ken Marks referred in their maiden speeches. Again, a lot has changed since Andrew Bennett raised that issue on
House prices throughout Denton and Reddish have rocketed under this Government. Indeed, Dukinfield was highlighted as a "property hot spot" in a recent Halifax survey published in The Times. Although that is good news for those with a foot on the property ladder, it is starting to have a major impact on first-time buyers. I fully welcome the proposals outlined over the weekend by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to extend shared equity. That will have a positive impact in my constituency, and I look forward to supporting the measures when they come before us.
Despite those positives, there are still some areas for concern. First, there is the increasing problem of absentee private landlords. There is an issue, particularly with older terraced property being snapped up as an investment to be rented out privately, and either tenants are unable to get in touch with their landlord to get repairs done, or neighbouring residents are unable to contact the landlord to report antisocial behaviour, which is a growing problem.
The other issue is the need to stop market failure spreading out of east Manchester. That has been a real issue over the past decade throughout much of eastern Manchester. The Government are to be congratulated on their efforts to stabilise the situation there with an injection of massive investment through the regeneration company New East Manchester. The problem for my constituency is that it falls just outside that regeneration area. The risk is that while the market is stabilised—and, I hope, the trend reversed—within east Manchester, things will start to slip on the fringes of the constituency, where similar housing exists but without the benefits extended to the regeneration areas adjacent.
Those are some of the issues that I wish to pursue in Parliament. I also wish to return to one other piece of Ken Marks's unfinished business—the issue of ground rents and chief rents. My constituency is one of only a handful of areas where chief rents are legally established. Despite the fact that people are freeholders, someone else can charge an annual fee on their land. I have to say, through my experience as a councillor, that some of the tactics employed by some of the rent charge companies leave a lot to be desired. However, thanks to Ken Marks, people can buy out their chief rents by applying to the Government office. Unfortunately, the same is not true for those subject to ground rents. They are still subject to some of the bad tactics—some would go as far as calling them scams— employed by the rent charge companies. I want the rules to be toughened up, so that those bad practices are stopped.
I said on election night that it was an honour and a privilege to represent in Parliament the area where I have always lived, where I grew up, went to school and am now bringing up my own family. I genuinely believe that, and restate my pledge to do my very best for all the communities of Denton and Reddish.
I start by paying tribute to the eloquence and enthusiasm with which Andrew Gwynne made his first address to the House. I just hope that I can in some way match those assets.
I am grateful for this opportunity to address the House for the first time, but I do so with some trepidation, because I am seeking to fill the shoes of some very eminent people who have represented Newbury in the recent past. Many Members of this House will remember Sir Michael McNair-Wilson, who was for two decades the Member of Parliament for Newbury. He was followed all too briefly by Judith Chaplin, who tragically died 11 months after entering the House.
It has taken me a long time to get here. I was first selected for the Newbury constituency 11 years ago, and one reason why it has taken me so long is my immediate predecessor, David Rendel. When he won the Newbury by-election, the information about his majority was passed to his party leader, who said, "That can't be the majority; that must be the total vote." David Rendel remained an active and committed Member of Parliament for 12 years, and it is a great privilege to follow him. I pay particular tribute to his stalwart support for the Newbury bypass, which was a massive issue in West Berkshire, as many Members will remember. He led that debate locally with great courage, and I pay tribute to him for that.
Like the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish, I consider it a great privilege to represent the constituency in which I was born, raised and educated, and where I live with my family today. It is a very beautiful part of England. It starts just to the west of Reading, goes all the way to the Wiltshire border and includes in its landscape the Berkshire downs, many beautiful villages and the Lambourn valley. Given the presence in my constituency of the Lambourn valley and the Newbury racecourse, I look forward to being an active supporter of racing and the racing industry in this House.
My constituency also includes the vibrant towns of Thatcham, Hungerford and Newbury itself. Part of the fascination of the area is that close to such beautiful landscape and long-established industries as racing and agriculture, one finds cutting-edge technology companies such as Vodafone. Some 20 years ago, Vodafone was started by a handful of employees in one office in Newbury; now, more than 5,000 employees work at its headquarters and in the immediate vicinity of Newbury. It is a model of corporate responsibility, and there is scarcely a school or voluntary body that has not received substantial funding from the Vodafone Group Foundation in recent years.
We are extremely proud of our new hospital in West Berkshire, which was opened last year. It was opened thanks to the hard work of many local people—[Hon Members: "Thanks to a Labour Government."] I am coming to that. The hospital was opened thanks also to a legacy from a generous local person. The private finance initiative process was progressed under the previous Conservative Government, the hospital was built under the Labour Government, and the credit for it was taken by the Liberal Democrats. So we all feel a sense of ownership.
West Berkshire is no stranger to protest. In 1868 there was an election in which a previous Richard Benyon was elected for the constituency, and Newbury assizes were filled for many weeks afterwards with many cases of riotous assembly. I am glad to say that elections these days are much more orderly and good natured. However, in my constituency we have the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston, and Greenham Common, both of which have excited certain protest activities in recent years.
The Atomic Weapons Establishment is close to where I live, and I do not subscribe to the hysteria with which some people regard it. It is a good, conscientious local employer. It is conscious of the safety of local employees and of local people, and it is a centre of excellence for science and engineering. I commend it on the decommissioning work that it has done throughout the world.
Greenham Common is a living, breathing example of the peace dividend. In the 1980s it was a scene of mass protests, but more people work at the base now than worked there at the height of the missile deployment. The open area has reverted to public access, and all profits from the rentals are ploughed into the local community.
The sense of security, or insecurity, that people feel stems, to a great extent, from the sort of community in which they live. Communities both large and small need to have a sense of worth. There seems to be a relentless centralisation of resources and vital facilities that sucks the lifeblood out of communities. The loss of village shops and post offices, the closure of rural schools and churches and the conversion of pubs to housing have all been debated at length, but it is not just in rural communities where that is a feature.
In my constituency, towns have lost police stations and ambulance stations. Last year we suffered the great and severe loss of a number of suburban post offices. Each time a community loses one of these entities, its sense of self-worth is diminished. Nothing is achieved by standing by and watching as this centralisation continues. We have to look forward to see the risks that will come if this scourge continues, and what we can do to prevent it.
My local magistrates bench sits just in Newbury, but many years ago it sat in Hungerford and Lambourn. Perhaps for very good reasons, it withdrew to Newbury. I am convinced that in future somebody could make a good case for centralising all magistrates services to a larger town such as Reading. I have nothing against Reading, and I am sure that my hon. Friend Mr. Wilson would have words to say if I did. However, it is absolutely crazy to persist with this intense centralisation.
We must protect individuals who will be affected. Where would such a move leave an elderly person who has been a victim of crime and has to travel many miles to give evidence in court in a city or town with which he or she is not familiar? We have to embrace technology and applaud organisations such as Thames Valley police, which recently opened a police presence in a village that lost its police station 10 years ago, thereby adding to the sense of worth of that community.
That is the point. Too often the centralisation of services is done for the convenience of organisations rather than for the communities or individuals that they serve. We forget that the concept of best value means more than financial prudence; it must encompass a human element. Enhancing the sense of a community's worth by retaining or reinforcing services and pushing services back into it is a concept that will feed into any current zeitgeist, such as the respect agenda.
I look forward to debating these issues, and to trying to protect the communities of West Berkshire, for many years to come in this House.
I start with a real tribute to Mr. Benyon and to my hon. Friend Andrew Gwynne. Making a maiden speech in the House of Commons is, as we all remember, never easy, but they accomplished it with a degree of self-confidence, and with some contentiousness, which I am glad to see is beginning to break into maiden speeches. They spoke also with a certain wry amusement, which means that they will be listened to with great attention in future. I am sure that we all wish them well.
Obviously a good deal of the Queen's Speech is positive and constructive, and David Davis had the grace to recognise that at the start of his speech. However, I found much of the rest of his speech disappointing. He concentrated, understandably, on the difficult issue of drug and alcohol-related crime and the figures, which are contentious. But he did not say that this was a problem that exists in almost all western societies and, although I understand the difficulties, he was not able to come forward with his own alternative, positive and better proposals.
The right hon. Gentleman moved on to anti-terrorism, which is another extraordinarily difficult subject, as he recognised in a speech at the end of the last Parliament. Again, however, he did not come forward with proposals on how to reconcile individual civil liberties with the overriding need to protect the state, which is the central issue.
Perhaps I can help the right hon. Gentleman. If it is just one person—as it appears to be—who is to be under a control order, that is when surveillance, which is what we talked about in the last Session, would come into its own. We do not need control orders in those circumstances.
I accept that, and shall come on to that subject.
The generality of the Queen's Speech has much in it on which we would all agree, but I find it a little piecemeal. It is rather a patch-and-mend programme over a wide area of policy, instead of possessing a commanding theme or embracing a clear vision of society. Another concern is that in the absence of such a vision, there is a complete omission of many proposals that would address some of the fundamental problem areas in society. Indeed, some of the content of the Queen's Speech might even make those areas worse.
My first point is about accountability, which I realise is contentious. It was raised at the start of the election campaign, but not pursued. It is not a dry constitutional issue, because it underpins all the other decisions that are taken across the board. We cannot go on repeating episodes such as what happened with tuition fees, foundation hospitals, genetically modified foods and control orders, on which the Government either did not consult or, having consulted, proceeded to take the decisions that they intended to take all along. We cannot again be taken to war on the basis of a vote the day before a war starts, and be denied any debate on it and its aftermath for 15 months, and then given only an Adjournment debate, without any substantive motion or a vote. All that ground is well known, and we need a new set of agreed procedures in the House to make such arrangements impossible.
I hasten to say that in this Parliament, with its much smaller majority, none of us is seeking confrontation, but that depends on a more responsive leadership. We need a new style—more collegiate and genuinely consultative. Frankly, however, that will not happen unless Parliament bestirs itself. We need a new cross-party parliamentary commission to examine every aspect of parliamentary accountability and make recommendations. Its remit should include the role and powers of Parliament in holding Ministers to account, in choosing membership of Select Committees, in appointing specialist committees of inquiry, and in tabling motions for debate and vote on the Floor of the House, as well as completing reform of the House of Lords. Those are all fundamental if Parliament is to regain its rightful place in the power structure of this country.
My second point is that if the Government are to construct, as I hope they will, a new, modern and dominant social democratic consensus as their memorial, they will have to do a great deal more about inequality. It is true that child poverty has been reduced, that pensioner benefits have been significantly increased and that working families are better off as a result of the working families tax credit. All that has been made possible by the Chancellor's sound management of the economy. However, it is also true that inequality has sharply increased. It is unacceptable that one fifth of our population is below the poverty line when hundreds at the other end of the spectrum take home several million pounds a year. In particular, the national minimum wage is set much too low, and the flagrant tax-avoidance devices of stock options, bonuses and so-called fringe benefits need to be dealt with.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that one reason why so many of our traditional white working-class voters are turning to the British National party in protest is the perception—false, in many ways—that the Government have focused on the concerns of middle England to the exclusion of the material economic concerns of the core Labour vote?
That is an important point. I am sure my hon. Friend would agree that the Government—and the Chancellor in particular—have improved the quality of life and the income of hard-working families, that there has been a substantial uplift, and that poverty has been reduced. That is certainly true, but my objection is that inequality has continued to increase because the gap between the poor—although they are fewer in number and they have a bit more—and the rich is still being increased by the enormous and soaring escalation of incomes at the top. Both problems need to be addressed. One reason why there has been a switch to the BNP is because working-class families feel that they are not getting enough, or a fair deal in society. Things have improved, but not enough.
Thirdly, there is, inevitably, a balance to be struck between protecting civil liberties and safeguarding the security of the state, which has been mentioned. However, since 9/11, that balance has been pulled in an uncomfortably authoritarian direction. Quite apart from the removal of the right to silence and restrictions on jury trials, the Government seem—I hope that I am wrong, but this is what is reported—to be returning to Algeria those acquitted after the Bourgass trial, including one person who had been granted asylum. They are almost certain to face torture, and may face death, which is reminiscent of the awful American practice of "rendition", I think it is called—or outsourcing torture.
In the case of the much-trumpeted ricin plot of January 2003, it now emerges that there was no ricin and no plot, only a convenient pretext to bang the anti-terrorist drum just before the Iraq war, and perhaps even to claim the need for ID cards. Above all, however, in the case of control orders, which the Government are obliged to reconsider, there is a much better way of reconciling individual rights with state security.
I propose that where terrorism, or at least acts preparatory to terrorism, are alleged, all the evidence relevant to the case should be made available to the suspect unless the judge is convinced—on the basis of advice from the security services or the Home Secretary, and on proper grounds of national security—that it cannot safely be made available. That compromise, for which, of course, there is already an effective precedent in the form of public interest immunity orders, would protect human rights and ought to be acceptable to the Home Office. I hope that the Government will reconsider that later in the year.
My fourth concern is how the so-called public services reform will be pursued. All too often that is a euphemism for more privatisation, deregulation and outsourcing. It is worrying that the first speech of the Secretary of State for Health emphasised strongly the transfer of 10 to 15 per cent. of operations to the private sector, when the consequences of that are so clear: it means skimming off the most lucrative procedures while leaving the more difficult and expensive cases to the national health service, and it means draining off doctors and resources from the NHS—not for a saving, which we could understand, but at greater cost.
That policy agenda is not—I repeat not—about choice when, in the case of housing policy, tenants who choose the fourth option, to stay with their own local authority, are denied that choice, and when, in the case of transport policy, the majority who want rail franchises to be transferred to the public sector are denied that choice.
Lastly, we need to learn the real lesson of Iraq: we have become far too close to the US line. We need a foreign policy bottom line driven by our fundamental British interests and by our commitment to the United Nations, and not by US interests. As proof of that, we need an early statement from the Prime Minister that under no circumstances will we give support, even indirectly, to any military attack on Iran, whatever the Americans may do. I hope that all those points will be taken.
As an ardent campaigner for decision making to remain in this House, I am delighted to address the House today. I must thank the retiring Member for Windsor for his continuous hard work over many years. It is thanks to him that the doors of the Edward VII hospital remain open; it is thanks to him that the doors of the Helena Day ward remain open. I must also thank him for his good work with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and its continued work in Belarus and Tibet.
I must also thank the members of the Windsor Conservative association, who selected and supported me more than 19 months ago. It really means something to me that they have stuck with me the whole way through the hard work of getting elected. Of course, I must thank the residents of Windsor for the warm welcome that I received on 35,000 doorsteps. I recognise that many of them will have broken with former allegiances to deliver the result that delivers me here today.
I would like to tell you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, about the wonderful constituency that I represent. It has leafy hills and dales; it has great parks and lakes. It is beautiful and attractive, as are the people. I recall one particular doorstep on which I was campaigning early one morning. I knocked on the door and a beautiful young lady answered. She seemed stunned to see me, and I was certainly stunned, but also delighted, to see her—thinking that I was her boyfriend, she had come to the door completely naked. I have lost my train of thought now.
We have some wonderful schools in the constituency. One near Slough, with which many Members will be familiar, is particularly notable. We also have wonderful historic buildings. With the award given to the Fat Duck a few weeks ago it is now accepted the world over that we have the finest dining in the entire world. We benefit from internationally renowned race courses, and we have a strong military presence, with the Household Cavalry and the Blues and Royals. We have one of the finest, grandest and most popular tourist attractions in the whole world—a symbol of our national historic heritage. I refer of course to Legoland. We also have one or two notable residents, of whom I am sure we are all aware.
We face some challenges, too. The character of our area, our community and our neighbourhoods is being ruined by insensitive high-density development. That is placing pressure on our roads, creating queues at our GPs' surgeries and causing stress to parents who cannot find a place for their children in the local schools. We have also had the blight of flooding in recent years. In areas such as Horton, Wraysbury, Old Windsor and Datchet, the risks caused by the inadequate measures on the Jubilee river still exist. In other parts of the constituency, the challenge and threat of increasing aircraft noise remain. We have a noisy neighbour in Heathrow, which not only provides employment but brings stresses and strains with the continued noise and pollution that is created. We have some challenges, and we must rise to meet them.
Like many Members, I come from a fairly ordinary background. When one comes from an ordinary background, one is determined to make something of oneself. I worked hard at school, I made it to grammar school and then on to university. I have worked hard in business for many years. I am delighted that today, the organisations that I helped to start provide incomes and livelihoods for about 300 people and their families. I will continue to work hard here in Parliament, to take action on the issues that matter to us all.
When I was being lovingly dragged up in south-east London, a thought struck me. My friends, my family and the people with whom I have worked over the years all seem to be happier when they are making decisions for themselves—when they have control of their own lives. One of the biggest causes of stress in Britain today is a feeling that one's own life is out of one's control. With my hon. Friends, I am determined that people should regain a sense of control over their lives. We have had a lot of talk today about civil liberties, and I am determined that we shall continue that push towards civil liberties, towards a country free from unnecessary interference from state and government.
Despite the sleep deprivation during the campaign and for the first couple of weeks here in Parliament, I am thrilled, delighted, excited and elated to be here, but I am also conscious of the onerous responsibility that we bear as Members. The House has my commitment that I will take action; I will not only campaign for the residents of Windsor but take action on the things that matter to us all. In the years to come, I want all of us to feel a sense of control over our lives, a sense of self-confidence in who we are and, as far as is possible in a civilised society, a sense of freedom to enjoy our lives in the way that we choose. Above all, I want all British citizens to rediscover a sense of pride in being British. I say without hesitation or hindrance that I am proud to be British. I am proud to play a small role in this debate, and I am proud that under your watchful eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I will play a small role in the future of our great nation.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to make my maiden speech today. I congratulate my hon. Friend Andrew Gwynne and the hon. Members for Newbury (Mr. Benyon) and for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) on the eloquence of their maiden speeches.
I have counted my predecessor, Syd Rapson, as one of my friends for many years, since we served together on Portsmouth city council. Syd is a classic example of a local boy made good. Prior to serving as Portsmouth, North's MP, one of his proudest achievements was serving as lord mayor of the city. He was very proud of his trade union and working class roots, and always remained loyal to the Labour party. Whenever he was asked whether he was old Labour or new Labour, he always replied, "I'm recycled Labour."
During his eight years as an MP for Portsmouth, North, Syd lived and worked among his constituents and was a champion for the hard-working families of the constituency. His experience as an aircraft fitter and a union convenor in the defence industry was invaluable in supporting the companies that maintain our ships in Portsmouth naval base. Nobody was more pleased than Syd when, in 2004, shipbuilding returned to Portsmouth after 37 years. His appointment as a Parliamentary Private Secretary to the defence team enabled him to use his experience and expertise to good effect.
Like Syd, I have spent all my life living and working in Portsmouth and I also have a background of over 20 years working in manufacturing in the aerospace and defence sector. Over the centuries, Portsmouth has been at the forefront of defending our shores. It is the historical home of the Royal Navy and the sea continues to have a huge influence over the lives of its residents, whether through the microclimate that Portsmouth enjoys as a result of its proximity to the coast or through the economic benefits of being the trading gateway to Europe via our commercial ferry port.
Syd Rapson was not the first Labour MP for Portsmouth, North: that accolade goes to Donald Bruce, who took the seat in the first Labour landslide of 1945. Another of my distinguished predecessors, Frank Judd, now Lord Judd of Portsea, served Portsmouth between 1966 and 1979 and was Navy Minister in Harold Wilson's Government, thus cementing Portsmouth's link with maritime and defence matters in government. I spoke with Lord Judd during the election campaign. He wished me well and told me that I would be very fortunate to have the people of Portsmouth, North as my constituents, as they were some of the warmest and friendliest people he had ever met. I concur with his view.
Portsmouth people share a pride in our city and in our heritage, and we delight in sharing them with visitors. This year, we have a golden opportunity to share that heritage as part of the "Sea Britain" celebrations: 2005 is the 200th anniversary of the battle of Trafalgar, and Portsmouth, as the home of HMS Victory, will be centre stage. Since the reign of Edward III, British sovereigns have reviewed their fleet off Spithead off Portsmouth, and on
The fleet review will be followed by a return visit to Portsmouth for the international festival of the sea. Visitors will be able to climb aboard fascinating vessels from around the world and listen to sailors' real-life stories about life at sea. They will be able to step back in time to the sights and sounds of 200 years ago in the historic dockyard area and take part in interactive demonstrations and exhibitions showcasing our high-technology industries.
It is those industries that will be the key to the survival of manufacturing industry in Portsmouth. Many of the technology industries and engineering companies based in my constituency support the Navy or the defence industry in some way. My constituency office will be based in the Portsmouth Technopole, an innovation centre set up to maximise the formation and development of businesses with the potential for growth. I hope that my presence there will demonstrate my commitment to fostering entrepreneurship in Portsmouth and help the creation of local jobs.
I have been elected as a representative of both the Labour party and the Co-operative party, and I cannot let this occasion pass without reference to the co-operative movement. I welcome the Labour Government's support for mutuality and the recognition that co-operative enterprises have a strong role to play in regenerating communities and the local economy. It is through economic regeneration that we will be able to achieve our goals of sustained full employment and the eradication of child and pensioner poverty. When people are working and contributing to their community and young people have goals to which they aspire and good job prospects, they are much less likely to turn to crime.
When our visitors to the international festival of the sea stroll through the historic dockyard area and watch re-enactments of life in Nelson's time, they should not forget what a lawless place Portsmouth was in the early 19th century. Theft and muggings were rife and, if any hon. Members present have seen the famous Rowlandson engraving of "Point at Old Portsmouth", they will know that it depicts prime examples of 19th-century antisocial behaviour and binge drinking. Of course, people in those days did not have the sanctions of antisocial behaviour orders; on the contrary, for young men a more unwelcome consequence of a night on the tiles might be a visit from the press gangs that roamed the streets looking for naval recruits—and choice, I regret to say, was not a word in their vocabulary.
Portsmouth has come a long way since those days. Since 1997, we have seen real reductions in crime. We have record numbers of police officers in Portsmouth and in Paulsgrove and Wymering—parts of Portsmouth, North that are some of the most deprived areas in the country—we have seen the successful implementation of a community warden scheme. The wardens have made a difference to the local community, acting as the eyes and ears of the police and providing a visible, uniformed presence that has reassured local residents and made a real impact in terms of crime reduction.
The 21st century, however, has brought different kinds of threat to local neighbourhoods. We have to be aware of the very real threat of an indiscriminate terrorist attack and we also face the new and growing phenomenon of identity theft. That is why I welcome the proposals in the Queen's Speech to introduce legislation for a biometric identity card, a view that is shared by the overwhelming majority of my constituents. Law-abiding people should have nothing to fear from an identity card, and although we must always consider the civil liberties aspects of such measures, there has to be a balance. My constituents have a right to feel that their Government are doing all in their power to protect them from modern-day threats.
My constituents also have the right to feel that their Government value their dreams and aspirations and are not prepared to write off whole communities, as happened in the '80s and early '90s, when the only future young people had to look forward to was a life on the dole. Portsmouth's young people now have a bright and vibrant future. More students than ever are going to university—no longer is it seen as something only for the wealthy. To those people who say that our 50 per cent. target is unrealistic, I reply, "It is just a start—why should we put a cap on the aspirations of our young people?" A secondary school in my constituency named after Admiral Lord Nelson has as its motto, "Dare to Dream, Aim to Achieve". Under successive Conservative Governments, most of the people in my constituency did not dare to dream, because the vast majority were bound to be disappointed. Thankfully, that has changed since 1997.
There was a man who was born in Portsmouth in 1912 just a few streets away from where I live now who did dare to dream and who was not disappointed. He became an MP for Cardiff and achieved the highest office in this country. I am, of course, talking about James Callaghan, who became Lord Callaghan of Cardiff and who was Prime Minister between 1976 and 1979.
Portsmouth is my home city and I am proud to have been elected to serve as its first woman MP. I hope that I can represent my city with the same dedication and commitment as my distinguished predecessors. I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to make my maiden speech, and I thank the hon. Members present for listening to me.
It is a great privilege and pleasure to follow Sarah McCarthy-Fry, who made an excellent speech. She obviously knows a great deal about the history of her constituency. I am a sailing man myself and know what a thrill and pleasure it is to sail out of Portsmouth harbour, passing all that history. She mentioned the Spithead review: at the risk of injecting a tiny note of controversy, I have to say that it is a pity that our fleet on that occasion will be a little smaller than it was the last time. None the less, hers was an excellent speech on which I warmly congratulate her.
I also congratulate my hon. Friend Adam Afriyie. What a great pleasure and honour it is to be the first Conservative Member of Parliament to welcome him to the House. His speech was most moving. Having said that he came from an ordinary background, he expressed his great pride in this place, in our Britishness and in the jobs and the hope that he has given to those whom he has employed in the past. He also voiced his determination to proceed along the path of empowering ordinary people. His was a wonderful speech and we are grateful to him.
We also welcome my hon. Friend Mr. Benyon. He was a candidate in that constituency for 11 years and has finally made it to this House. I pay tribute to his predecessor, David Rendel, who was a colleague on the Public Accounts Committee, a superb member of that Committee, and highly regarded in the House. Finally, thanks are due to Syd Rapson, whom the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North mentioned. He was a well-liked and thoroughly decent man, whom we will miss greatly.
From new Labour, I turn to old Labour and Mr. Meacher—if I can catch his attention. It was a pleasure to listen to his speech. He, a Labour MP, said that the Queen's Speech was piecemeal and that there was an "absence of vision"—I hope that I quote him accurately. That was to be the theme of my remarks, too. We all know that the Queen's Speech is not really the Queen's Speech, but the Government's. What is worse, however, is that this Queen's Speech does not even come from the Government themselves: it is merely an amalgam of what focus groups have told the Government would be popular. It lacks any sort of theme. I am sure that focus groups told the Government that the introduction of identity cards would be a popular measure. It was significant that the Home Secretary said that identity cards are supported by 80 per cent. of the population.
If a serious discussion took place with the members of the focus groups, and if they were led through the issues as my right hon. Friend David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary led us, and having been asked the pertinent questions, would 80 per cent. of people still support ID cards? However, that is not the point. If ID cards are wrong, we should oppose them.
I do not believe—here I pay a tribute to the Liberal party—that the Lib Dems were harmed by their opposition to ID cards. I was vociferous in my opposition to ID cards. I do not remember anyone in my constituency saying, "I'm not going to vote for you, Mr. Leigh, because you oppose ID cards." People want leadership. They want vision. They do not want government by focus groups. They are fed up with that. That is why we have so much apathy. That is why only 35 per cent. of people support the governing party. That is the lowest percentage supporting a Government party of any country in the world, or certainly in Europe.
I agree, of course, that the Conservative party did not do much better than that. We should have done much better. Perhaps we had also been listening too much to focus groups. Perhaps we should have had a bit more vision and determination and less of a managerial style. Perhaps we should have worked out what really we believe in—and we believe in the empowerment of ordinary people in choice, freedom, tradition and the nation, in all those finest Conservative values. If we have the determination and the guts to put those values forward, I believe that a much higher proportion of the population will support us.
Apart from the fact that there is no theme in the Queen's Speech, I am worried that the Government seem not to know in which direction they are heading. They realise that the public sector is not performing. For their first eight years, they gave us a blizzard of targets. They seem now to be retreating from that approach, which is that the man in Whitehall knows best. They seem also to be at the stage in which the Conservative Government were between 1992 and 1997. They are starting to talk more about the internal market. They are creating city academies, which seem similar to the proposals that we were advancing in our last term of Government. Do they know to where they are coming?
I am worried also that the Government keep on making proposals that we spend hours debating but that have little coherence and there is no determination to implement them. The prime example is control orders. Were we not in the Chamber all night, or was it two nights and two days, discussing them? As my right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary said, how many of those orders have been implemented?
We shall spend hours discussing religious hatred. I am dubious. I believe passionately that our country has been built on religious disputation on strong arguments. I do not believe that there is any call for such legislation. It is a cynical measure to try to secure votes in one section of a community. I believe that it will be rammed through the House by whipping, with little real support. Furthermore, I believe that, in the end, it will make virtually no difference to the present situation. Indeed, the legislation might cause more harm than good.
I would like some coherence in the Queen's Speech. I would like to see it based on sound principles of local action and local choice. A blizzard of Bills will come from the Home Office. I have a brief from the Law Society and I spent most of the morning trying to plough through it. I tried to understand the Bills that will be coming before us.
If we really want to get to grips with law and order, we should do what they are doing in New York. We should elect a police commissioner, a politician, and give him or her real control, free of the dictates of national Government. It is staggering what Mayor Giuliani achieved in the four years after his election in 1994. He cut the murder rate by 60 per cent. Robbery and burglary were reduced by 67 per cent. The number of police officers in New York increased from 29,000 to 40,000. That was local action. The mayor did not need Bills going through Parliament. He did not need 45 Bills in one Session. He was just a man who was put in control. That is what we need.
That is already happening in this country. There is Ray Mallon, a former police superintendent. He was elected by the good people of Middlesbrough as their mayor. He said that if he was put in charge of the police and did not cut crime by 20 per cent. in his time, he would resign. In fact, he cut crime by 27 per cent. He is now the elected mayor of Middlesbrough. He is coming forward with good old-fashioned Conservative policies.
Once, I stood as the Conservative parliamentary candidate in Middlesbrough. I lost by 13,000 votes. A Conservative has no more chance of being elected in Middlesbrough than does a Trotskyite in the Lincolnshire wolds. In Middlesbrough, however, a good conservative has been elected—that is with a small "c" because I do not know what his politics are, and that does not matter—who is coming through with good sound policies that the people want. These policies are based on zero tolerance and more police on the beat.
If we could only have the courage in the House not to bring forward year after year more and more criminal justice Bills and more and more interference but to introduce one simple measure to return real power—real empowerment—to local people, that would make the crucial difference. Indeed, that is all that we need to do.
The same applies in health and education. We must empower local people and allow them the freedom to send their children to the schools of their choice. We must allow heads to run schools and get back the school discipline and pride that we need. The same applies to the national health service. That is what the Conservative Queen's Speech would have been. Sadly, we did not have that opportunity, but the time will come. Increasingly, even the Government will realise that targeting has its limits. The man in Whitehall does not always know better. We can aim higher and achieve more, and the next Conservative Government will do precisely that.
I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to make my maiden speech this evening, so saving me from the torture that we new Members have to go through as we attempt to catch the eye of the occupant of the Chair. It is easy to recognise us wherever we sit in the Chamber, clutching our speeches and looking pale and shifty and, as the evening goes on, looking paler and shiftier.
I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) and for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry) and the hon. Members for Newbury (Mr. Benyon) and for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) on their excellent maiden speeches.
I feel both proud and humble to stand in my place today. I am proud that I can join this great debating Chamber and bring my constituency of Tooting to the attention of all hon. Members here. I feel humble to be speaking in a place that has been the home of great and famous orators down the decades and where legislation that has changed the face of Britain for the better has been passed. Much of that legislation has been passed by the Labour party, which has improved the lives of so many working people, including my own family.
I am Tooting, boy and man. I was born in the constituency and I have lived there all my life. I married a Tooting girl, Saadiya, and we are bringing up two beautiful daughters there, Anisah and Ammarah.
When I was selected as the Labour candidate for Tooting, I was able to realise an ambition of mine, which was to represent Tooting in Parliament. I am immensely proud to have been given that honour. I thank Tooting Labour party for its trust and hard work throughout the campaign. Its members will all go to socialist heaven. I hope that, over the coming weeks, months and years, I can repay the confidence that the Tooting community has shown in me.
In 1970, the year in which I was born, my predecessor, Tom Cox, came to Parliament. He represented Wandsworth, Central, which became Tooting after boundary changes. For 35 years, he was our Member of Parliament and we were all extremely proud of him and grateful for his unstinting work for the community. Of course, Tom was the only Member who represented me. We first met when I joined the Labour party as a 15-year-old. We became friends and have remained so ever since.
When I became a councillor, 11 years ago, it was always Tom whom I could talk to about how much the decisions of Parliament affected the people in my ward. I realise that many hon. Members knew Tom well. He was an assistant Government Whip from 1974 to 1977, when he was promoted to Whip and served until 1979. After his experiences, he views our majority of 66 as a luxury. I say that while looking towards the Whips.
Tom Cox served the people of Tooting with distinction in the casework that he undertook, in the Adjournment debates in which he took part, in the early-day motions that he signed, in the all-party groups of which he was a member and in much, much more.
I dug out Tom's maiden speech from July 1970. Its two main themes were education and industrial relations. For most of the first 27 years of Tom's stay in the House of Commons, his preoccupation was with education. I experienced the terrible problems to which underinvestment leads. I have vivid memories of old and tatty books, crumbling buildings, heating that did not work, which meant that we were left shivering through lessons in winter, outside toilets and teachers who were always involved in industrial action against the Government—I could go on.
I have been a governor at Fircroft primary school, which I attended, for the past 11 years, and my elder daughter started there in September. I can honestly tell the House that the changes made there since 1997 have been incredible. Gone are the outside toilets—in fact there is no school with outside toilets in Tooting—gone are the tatty and outdated books and gone are the days when the staff were in constant dispute with the Government. We have free nursery places for three and four-year-olds, and 6,200 children benefited from that in the past year alone. We also have 90 new teachers locally.
Although my secondary education at Ernest Bevin comprehensive was enjoyable, that school also had problems and there was always some sort of funding crisis. Just before Christmas 2004, it received more than £500,000 of investment, with even more improvements in the pipeline. I pay tribute to the hard-working teachers who, despite the problems to which I referred, encouraged me to go to university and become a lawyer. I hope that the hard-working teachers of today see this Government as being 100 per cent. committed on the side of state schools, all staff and all children.
The other main theme in Tom's maiden speech in 1970 was industrial relations. He talked about the need for trade unions and management to change their attitudes. Tom could have been writing a template for the sort of partnership that this Labour Government have helped to foster between businesses and trade unions and between the CBI and the TUC. As a committed trade unionist, I am terribly proud of the improvement to the work-family balance.
As hon. Members might have realised, I am immensely proud of Tooting. It is everything that is great about the new Britain in which I have been brought up. It is multi-ethnic, multi-religious and properly multicultural. Many different cultures live happily side by side and there is a true sense of tolerance. Geographically, Tooting is in south-west London but, metaphorically speaking, it is at the centre of the universe. Tooting is everything that is fantastic about our country and an excellent case study of what makes London the best city in the world.
I have visited several churches in my community over the years and the local Sikh Khalsa centre. We have four excellent mosques. We have the Hindu society on Garratt lane and a Tamil temple. We have a well-run Jewish residential home for the elderly and thriving amenity groups, mother and toddler groups and trade union activity. There are examples of Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Jews and those without faith living together, and not just being tolerant of each other's faiths and beliefs, but living in positive harmony. Community cohesion is not political jargon, but what Tooting is all about.
Three years ago, my right hon. Friend John Denham, who was then a Home Office Minister, came to Tooting to open the police contact centre at the Tooting Islamic centre. The local mosque and the police are thus working together with the community to provide a service to all. Anyone can come and receive crime prevention advice, have their property marked and meet the local police. The local community sees the police in a positive light and, just as importantly, the centre allows the police to meet the local community in a non-confrontational setting. It is a real example of a partnership and policing by consent. It also shows that the local Muslim community is not insular, but wants to give something back to the rest of the community by offering premises free of charge. That is an example, post 9/11, of the real Islam, where followers of that great faith believe in the well-being of the entire community, charity and partnership All the faiths are part of the wider community in Tooting, so each autumn and winter, the main roads around Tooting and Balham are lit up with the festival of lights celebrating the festivals of Christmas, Eid and Diwali.
It is important that all in our society feel that their Government are looking out for them. Unfortunately, an anomaly has meant that some of our community fail to get the full protection of our laws against hate crimes. Incitement to racial hatred has rightly been outlawed for some years now and it is a good thing that the courts have developed case law that protects Jews and Sikhs. Unfortunately, followers of multi-ethnic faiths, such as Muslims, Christians and Hindus, are not protected. I am afraid that the far right knows about that loophole and has been using it to incite hatred against Muslims, especially, over the past few years. I am pleased that we have a manifesto commitment—the Secretary of State referred to it earlier—to rectify that and give all our citizens equal protection. I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber will consider the measure properly and not believe the nonsense that it will endanger the freedom of speech of comedians, theologians, priests and the like.
My father came to this country 40 years ago as an immigrant from Pakistan. Sadly, he passed away recently, but he would have been proud to have one of his children elected as the Member of Parliament for Tooting and to know that we had been accepted fully as part of British society. My father taught me the sayings, or hadiths, of the Prophet Mohammed—peace be upon him. Mohammed taught that, if one sees something wrong, one has the duty to try to change it. If that is not possible, one should at least voice one's support for something that is good, or voice opposition to something that is wrong. If that is not possible, at the very least in one's heart one should know that something is wrong or right. I am proud to say that those values and that ethos are not shared only by Labour Members, because I am sure that we all share that sense of duty and service to our constituents.
I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and long may I catch the Deputy Speaker's eye. I thank the House for the courtesy that it has shown in helping me through the ordeal of making my maiden speech.
I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to make my maiden speech and trial the fashion of orange suits for community service. I congratulate Mr. Khan on his maiden speech. As he was speaking, I could hear my hon. Friend Jeremy Browne, who is also a new Member. My hon. Friend was at the same school, in the same year and in the same class as the hon. Gentleman and echoed everything that he said. I did not ask my hon. Friend whether the word "shifty" also applied.
Following the convention of the House, it is my pleasure to praise my predecessor. That is easy for me because my predecessor was Jenny Tonge, as all hon. Members know well. Jenny came to the House with a background as a doctor intending to make a career in women's health, and she certainly spoke on that matter with great frequency. In the end, given the vagaries of politics, she ended up as our spokesperson on international development. It was her work focusing on the humanitarian consequences of war and suffering, and talking about Palestine, Somalia, Sudan and Iraq, with which she made her reputation. Some people say that some of her remarks were divisive, and I did not always agree with what she said. However, I learned a lesson from Jenny that I intend to be a model for everything that I do in the House. She was not afraid to be independent or to speak her mind. I do not think that she ever understood what spin was about. In that way, even when people in my constituency disagreed with her, she earned respect. I found respect for her across all political parties in my constituency, and I see from the nods and expressions of hon. Members that she earned the same kind of respect in the House.
Jenny is of course going on to another place—she will speak for herself. I hope that she will not find it the prison that David Davis implied. He seemed to think that she might be caught up in some of the legal changes proposed on incitement to racial hatred. His words were an interesting warning that we should take to heart.
It is also my privilege to praise my constituency. Hon. Members will note the irony that Richmond Park is named after the one part of the constituency in which there are virtually no voters. However, the constituency captures both the old Richmond and part of the borough of Kingston—north Kingston, to be precise. For people in north Kingston, it is quite difficult to be part of the Richmond Park constituency. They try to understand why they have been included in the area because they have relatively little relationship with the other half. One of my tasks is thus to try to ensure that I represent both sides.
The areas have a common background due to their ties to royalty. North Kingston was the home of Saxon kings. It is also an environmental place and is the home of one of the biggest green fairs in the country. It has a growing attraction as a place for young families, especially, to live and make their futures. It has a strong history of good primary and secondary education. Richmond also has a royal connection. Queen Elizabeth I died in the old Richmond palace and King Charles II put the enclosures around Richmond park. There are royal ties to Kew gardens, which is not only one of the greatest botanical gardens in the country, but recognised globally as a world heritage site.
We are an area of villages, greens, commons and communities. The River Thames runs through the constituency. I recommend that anyone who has questions about the efficiency of government come to the Public Record Office at Kew and examine the Domesday Book, a cause of many visits to the area.
The description of Richmond Park as a leafy suburb is one that we listen to with a strained expression. Although the area includes many of significant wealth and prosperity, we also have people who live in deprived homes and neighbourhoods. We have behind some of our doors genteel poverty. It is easily overlooked, but it is extremely real to those who live there. We have many people who live on council estates and former council estates for whom wealth and prosperity are not the daily reality that they face. Because our area is so often dismissed as leafy and prosperous, their needs are often not recognised by central Government. It is to represent those people and their needs that I stand in the House today.
Like everywhere else, we have a certain amount of crime. We are two of the safest boroughs in London, but to people who are the victim of antisocial behaviour—in parts of our community that is not an infrequent experience—that matters just as much as if they were living in inner London or in a community up in the north-east. The attitude that the area is such a safe place has become an excuse that we must deal with. It means that we do not have policing that matches our needs, we have not been able to roll out the safer neighbourhood teams in the way that we need to, and we suffer particularly as people across London discover that we are an area with relatively little protection compared with our neighbours. Crime has begun to travel, as people come across the bridges into our communities because we are seen as a soft target. That must raise issues for me and other hon. Members.
There is a perennial issue for us, which Jenny mentioned in her maiden speech. Her predecessor, Jeremy Hanley, mentioned it in his maiden speech, and his predecessor, Sir Anthony Royle, also spoke about it. I refer to the blight on our community from the ever-expanding reality of Heathrow airport. A new lobby group has been formed to promote a third runway at Heathrow. On behalf of my community, I will fight that with every ounce of energy that I have. This is not a party political issue in my constituency. Every political party shares those views, and so does every level of government because we recognise the needs of our residents for a decent quality of life and their right to a decent night's sleep and to be outside in their gardens from time to time without being drowned out by the noise of aircraft. We will go on fighting that battle. It is my ambition that my successor will never have to mention it in what I hope will be her maiden speech, because we will finally have dealt with it in this Parliament.
As I draw to a close, I express my thanks to the various old hands present in the Chamber, who have had the forbearance to sit and listen to maiden speeches. For us this is a gentle beginning; for them, it must be a desperate test of their patience. We all appreciate it.
The last issue that I addressed, Heathrow, picks up on a topic that I hope to follow in the House—the need to find a way to reconcile the importance of environment and sustainability with economic development, prosperity and growth. That subject, which needs to be dealt with in a serious way in legislation and in debate, is one that I particularly want to pursue. I say that on behalf of my residents. Like many others who have spoken today, I have the great pleasure to say that I am speaking to represent my neighbours and friends, the voluntary groups that I have worked with over many years and the businesses that I hope I have assisted, and to represent everybody of every political colour in my community. I thank the House and you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to make this maiden speech.
It has been a pleasure to sit in the Chamber this afternoon and listen to the speeches of recently elected hon. Members. That has been said before, but it is worth reiterating. It was not a test of patience at all; it has been extremely enjoyable. The speeches have been quite entertaining, and I wish that all those people who said to me on the doorstep, "Oh, politics is boring" could have been here to hear them. It has been a really enjoyable experience and I thank all the hon. Members who have spoken.
To return to the business of the House this afternoon, I welcome Government plans in the Gracious Speech to introduce an electoral administration Bill. Although the robust stance adopted by the returning officer in Bradford and West Yorkshire police went some considerable way to deterring the abuse of the electoral system in the general election, there can be no doubt that the current system, particularly with regard to voting by post, does not have the public confidence that our electoral system should have.
The events witnessed in Birmingham and now in Bradford, plus the hearsay evidence in my constituency, should never be allowed to occur again. The fundamental right to vote and to vote in secrecy cannot be taken for granted. For just one person to be denied that right, or to have it taken away on demand by another, makes a mockery of the system. A balance must be struck between the need to increase voter participation and the need for a secure system. The Electoral Commission's recommendations are helpful in this regard and I hope they will be incorporated in the Bill.
That said, perhaps we ought to consider a more fundamental review. The strength of any electoral system and of our democracy is only as good as the accuracy of the electoral register. Between 2001 and 2004, the number of people registered to vote in the Bradford district, of which my constituency forms one fifth, fell by 6.5 per cent. In the constituency of my hon. Friend Mr. Singh the number fell by 11.3 per cent.
Why is this the case? Without a doubt, some of the reduction can be attributed to migration or changing demographic patterns, but the fact that registration went up in all five parliamentary seats in the Bradford district prior to the general election suggests that the numbers of potential electors were there, but the incentive to register was not. I am sure I was not alone in being surprised, when canvassing, to find houses, and sometimes large parts of a street, that were not registered.There are, of course, many reasons for non-registration. Some people do not want to be found. Whatever an individual's personal reasons for avoiding registration, it is a flaw in our system when registration is not encouraged or seen as a priority.
I have recently seen cases of minors being included on the electoral register or, more sinister, multiple registration at a two-bedroom house. As registration is not seen as a priority, such cases tend to go unnoticed or are not acted upon. On one occasion, someone whom I knew, owing to my constituency work, to have been refused leave to enter the UK was seen voting in a council election.
To base registration and, therefore, our whole electoral process, on good faith and honesty, though diligently upheld by the vast majority of the population, is outdated and being exposed to abuse. The unscrupulous minority, knowing that scrutiny of the register is not even on the radar of priorities, is able to commit electoral fraud with ease. The means to ensure the security of the register already exist. Some people believe that the payment of council tax will automatically lead to registration. Why not? The information is available and includes those in receipt of housing benefit, who often form the bulk of people who fail to register to vote. A simple exercise—a cross-reference between the electoral register and payment of council tax—would show a number of anomalies. Perhaps the over-use of the Data Protection Act 1998 prevents us from applying common sense in these matters.
Registration, supported by dates of birth or national insurance numbers, could be a welcome development, and that gives me yet another reason to support the introduction of identity cards. Presentation of an ID card at a polling station could give definite confirmation that the elector is who they say they are. Linking electoral registration to the holding of ID cards or passports would be a positive development and encourage a package of responsibility associated with citizenship.
Ensuring that our electoral system is fair, secure and encourages a high level of participation is just part of the battle. Encouragement to register, fairly and securely, must not be overlooked. It does not take rocket science, just a determination by local authorities, backed by adequate funding and imaginative but clear legislation.
We in Shrewsbury have a bit of a record already. We have a town cryer who is 7 ft 2 in tall, and at 6 ft 8½ in I am the tallest ever Member of Parliament, so I hope that that height will enable me to catch your eye in future debates, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In addition, my surname, which is of Polish origin, is very difficult to pronounce, but you did so splendidly, Mr. Deputy Speaker. When I was in business, many of my colleagues said that I must be mad to think that I would get into the House of Commons with such a name, and that I should change it to an English name, but I refused to do that simply because I am very proud of my beloved grandfather, who is no longer alive. He was a great Polish patriot and he and many other Poles fought with the British during the war. Before he died, I promised him that I would never change my name. If I had done so, I would have sacrificed something special.
I want to pay tribute to my predecessor, the Labour Member of Parliament for Shrewsbury, then Liberal Democrat Member, then Labour, Paul Marsden. I gave a great deal of thought to what I could say about him. But I can genuinely say that I always found him to be extremely polite and friendly, and the handover of files has been done professionally. I wish him well in whatever he chooses to do next.
Shrewsbury is the county town of Shropshire. It is an extremely beautiful and historical town, with 600 listed buildings, a Norman abbey, a medieval castle and a Georgian crescent. We are also very much a town of flowers. Percy Thrower was the parks superintendent in Shrewsbury for 28 years, and he has certainly left an imprint on our town. We take the Britain in Bloom competition extremely seriously, and I pay tribute to all the members of the committee who work tirelessly to ensure that Shrewsbury puts on such a good display every year. We also have one of the most famous flower shows, the Shrewsbury flower show, which is renowned not just throughout the midlands, but throughout the country.
Shrewsbury is surrounded by some of the most beautiful countryside in England, with the Shropshire hills, and it is very agricultural. The West Mid show takes place in Shrewsbury every year and we also have the Minsterley show. We even have the Wroxeter vineyard, which produces lovely Shropshire wines, and I hope to convince the Catering Committee to stock some of them in the near future. Representing such a rural seat, farming is a key priority for me, and I shall be scrutinising the Government on their future agricultural plans.
The Royal Shrewsbury hospital is also very important to me. The League of Friends, a local charity, has written to me to highlight its concerns. It raises millions of pounds every year to buy necessary equipment for our hospital. Its volunteers work extremely hard and provide a lot for our hospital, but they are concerned about the hospital's £19 million debt. It fears that, if not addressed, that could lead to cuts in services or staff. The Government have focused greatly on the reduction of debt to third-world countries, and I applaud them for that, but I hope that they can show the same generosity to my hospital, writing off its debt so that it can progress without such a millstone round its neck.
I recently asked the chairman of the Royal Shrewsbury Hospitals NHS Trust what was the one thing that would benefit the hospital over the next four years, and he said unequivocally "Payment by results." He said that the hospital was efficient and that if the Government introduced payment by results more quickly, it would benefit by millions of pounds every year, so that is a matter that I shall raise.
The Government have given autonomy to Wales, so the Welsh Assembly, just across the border, has very different policies from those of England. Therefore the Powys health authority pays a different charge for every patient who crosses the border to use our Royal Shrewsbury hospital. That difference means a £2 million deficit for the hospital every year. We welcome Welsh patients who come across the border to use our hospital, but I shall be urging the Secretary of State for Health and others on the Treasury Bench to make the Welsh Assembly look again at its policy of paying different rates for its patients, because that adversely affects English hospitals all along the border, not just the Royal Shrewsbury hospital. Those debts have led to car parking charges, and we now have to pay each time we visit the hospital. Senior citizens who frequently visit relatives there have to pay £2 each time they leave their car there. That is something that I want to get rid of.
I am very keen on getting a direct rail link to London. Shrewsbury is the only county town in England that does not have a direct rail link to our capital city. Such a link would be extremely important to both tourism and business investment, and I shall be pressing the Secretary of State for Transport to help me to achieve that.
Shropshire is a relatively prosperous area where house prices are going through the roof, making it difficult for young people to get on to the property ladder, and that is a huge issue in Shrewsbury. The Government have set a target for my council to build 500 affordable homes in the borough in the foreseeable future. Today I spoke not to Peter Nutting, the leader of the council, because he like me is a Conservative politician, but to one of the key officers on the council to obtain an independent view. I asked him what he needed to help him to provide affordable housing, and he said that in April 2003 the Labour Government took away the local authority social housing grant. That is the single measure that has made it more and more difficult to provide affordable housing. I shall be asking why that grant has been taken away and I shall be fighting to have it reintroduced.
Shrewsbury is situated on the River Severn and so experiences terrible flooding. In 2000, the Prime Minister came to Shrewsbury and promised us lots of extra money for flood defences. I am sorry to have to inform the House that very little progress has been made on that front, so I shall be pressing the Prime Minister on that. However, I do have one ally who is a constituent and close friend of mine. I have had tea with him on a number of occasions and my wife and I have been invited to dinner soon. His name is Leo Blair, and he is the Prime Minister's father. I hope that during the next four years Leo Blair will help me to ensure that the Prime Minister always remembers Shrewsbury and helps me to do the best for our beautiful town.
I am grateful for the opportunity to make my first contribution in the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
Tony Banks is a hard act to follow. He is flamboyant, funny, quick-witted, scathing and unique. Before he entered this House, he was a prominent member of the Greater London council—he was its chairman when it was abolished. In 1983, he was elected MP for Newham, North-West, which subsequently became West Ham. He and I are both immensely proud to have inherited the seat of Keir Hardie, the first Labour MP.
During his time in Parliament, Tony was appointed Minister for Sport and the Prime Minister's envoy for the bid to host the 2006 World cup—we all know that those subjects are close to his heart. Tony is not afraid of controversy: he is warm, generous and often humorous; he is vegetarian, a republican and a Chelsea supporter; he is one of Parliament's staunchest supporters of animal rights; and he is a proponent of the anti-fox hunting and anti-vivisection movements. Tony's friends are only too aware of the problem that he faces when his cat brings something in from the garden—which furry animal should he support?
Tony has not been lost to Parliament. On
The West Ham constituency is in London's east end. It consists of Stratford, Plaistow, Canning Town, Forest Gate and Upton Park. It has good transport links and, given the imminent arrival of the channel tunnel rail link, it is a gateway to central London and the rest of Europe. During the second world war, my constituency suffered as a prime target for bombing, and, on the 60th anniversary of the end of that terrible conflict, I think it appropriate to remember the losses and contributions made by the people of the east end.
West Ham is now a wonderfully youthful, vibrant and diverse area—possibly the most diverse area on the planet. In the past 20 years, however, it has consistently been in the top five most deprived areas in England and Wales. In the short journey of six stops on the Jubilee line from here to my constituency, life expectancy for children living in those particular areas decreases by six years. Simply put, my local authority and health authority do not get sufficient funding to deal with the problems. We have inner-London problems, but we do not get inner-London money. We lose out by some £60 million a year because of an arbitrary historical boundary. It is indefensible. I have pledged to campaign hard for that money, and I will respectfully approach my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to see whether we can bring that long campaign to a successful end.
West Ham is not financially rich, but it is rich in talent and ability. It remains a place with many needs, but it presents massive opportunities. Many, I hope, are about to be realised. Before I look to the future, I want to highlight one clear regeneration success story in my constituency, which, I suggest, is due to the use of a bottom-up regeneration process rather than a top-down approach. Twenty years ago, Green street, Upton Park, was dying on its feet—the two exceptions were West Ham United, which had its best ever league season in 1986, and, sadly, the local jobcentre. Then a few local traders, who were mainly Asian and African, spotted an opportunity and took a risk. At first, the trade was in food products or fabrics that retail chains did not stock. That has gradually changed, and now the main business in the street is in high-value designer fashions and jewellery. Green street is a one-stop wedding shop, and people come from miles around to shop there. A supportive council and an aspiring, energetic community saw the potential and drove that project forward.
Partnerships with communities are essential for sustained social and economic prosperity. Stratford is about to undergo a major transformation. Stratford City, the largest urban development in the country, will create an additional 5,000 homes, thousands of retail and office jobs and new health and education facilities. It is essential that local people benefit from that huge and welcome regeneration. That is why I am grateful that a Labour Government are leading at this exciting but pivotal time. The Government have demonstrated that they both understand and are committed to a sustainable communities agenda, affordable homes for our residents, real jobs for our people, health centres, schools, parks, libraries and leisure centres for our families and children. How different from the market-first, people-last strategies of the '80s, when the wealth from regeneration was expected to trickle down—the trickle-down was too paltry to create a puddle in my area.
In order for many of my neighbours to share in the wealth created in London, we must recognise how the special circumstances in the capital militate against poorer communities. The introduction of the minimum wage by this Labour Government has been crucial, and it was an historic achievement, but given that London is one of the most expensive cities in the world, a minimum wage is not a living wage, and I would be grateful if the Low Pay Commission were to explore that issue.
I am pleased to see that the Queen's Speech contains a housing benefit Bill. A specific London factor works against my constituents who want to work and to keep a roof over their heads. With rising house prices, come higher rents, and when that factor is coupled with the housing benefit taper, which is currently set at 65 per cent., a poverty trap is created. For every extra £1 that a person earns, they lose 65p in benefit, and I respectfully request a review to explore alternatives to that very steep taper to ensure that work pays in my constituency.
I cannot make my maiden speech without referring to the Olympic and Paralympic games. I think that West Ham is already the centre of the universe, but it may be the centre of an amazing drama of extraordinary human endeavour in 2012. Our bid is like Kelly Holmes—poised on the final bend; striving; victorious; and first over the finishing line. The Olympics will bring opportunity in the form of billions of pounds of national, regional and local business over the next eight years and more. The Olympics will see the creation of thousands of new jobs in construction, IT, media, retail, health, hospitality, sport and the creative industries—real jobs. A visionary and aspirational Government made the bid for the Olympics, and the fact that the London Olympics Bill will come before the House after the decision in Singapore demonstrates their commitment to making the London 2012 Olympics the best ever games.
The transforming nature of the Olympic flame provides an historic opportunity to invigorate the UK and radically transform east London and my constituency, which I am honoured to serve. As with the regeneration of Green street, and all other Green streets up and down the land, the opportunity will be fully realised, deep-rooted and sustained only if the community is engaged and involved with the physical and social changes. Local authorities are uniquely charged with that responsibility and are uniquely positioned to discharge it. I ask Ministers to ensure that the legislation fully recognises the essential role of local government in the planning, delivery and legacy phases of the London 2012 games.
The regeneration of communities is a partnership between the different tiers of government, their agencies and the communities that they serve. The Government have consistently provided my constituents with the tools that they need to contribute to and benefit from the wealth of this nation such as the minimum wage, tax credits, neighbourhood renewal funds, the new deal for communities, Sure Start and children's centres, to name but a few. I am asking for that partnership to grow to meet the real needs of my constituents.
I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and the House for listening attentively and with such respect.
I congratulate Lyn Brown on an excellent speech in which she gave every indication that she will be a formidable Member of this House. It was a confident delivery of a very competent speech. I also congratulate the other seven Members who made their maiden speeches today; I am sure that the whole House will want to endorse their kind remarks about their predecessors. The House may want to consider making some adjustments to one of the camera settings, as if Daniel Kawczynski continues to stand underneath it, a fast swing round might give us a safety at work issue to resolve.
There was some rancour at the beginning of this afternoon's proceedings, and it was clear that Front Benchers were bringing some of the arguments that they had had during the election campaign into the Chamber. I have no objection to that—it is just that I do not have anybody left in Northern Ireland to debate with. It is perhaps worth while my putting on the record the fact that my party has now established itself as the main party in Northern Ireland at local government level, Assembly level, European level and now here in the House of Commons. Sadly, although we have nine Members in this House, we have no representation in the other place; that is an issue that the Prime Minister must resolve, especially as a lot of business commences in the House of Lords and we require scrutiny in that House as well.
As I said, there has been something of a regime change in Northern Ireland, and it is important that the Government take time not only to respect the verdict of the people of Northern Ireland but to try to understand and to reflect the views that they so clearly expressed at the ballot box.
In the Gracious Speech, Her Majesty's Government say that they are
"committed to creating safe and secure communities, and fostering a culture of respect."
I want to address that on two levels—first, in the context that has a nationwide application, and then in that which has a particular resonance in Northern Ireland.
I was first elected to this House more than 26 years ago, and I can recall from those early days the details of the problems that I was asked to resolve at my advice surgeries. I am given very different problems today. I would barely have an advice surgery now without having to deal with problems relating to neighbour disputes, gangs, low-level crime, the problems of youths causing intimidation and abusing others, and the growing problem of crime against the elderly. There has been a transformation in society, not for the better in this instance, which must be addressed. I therefore have no compunction in supporting the Government's proposals on antisocial behaviour orders, although they will need to be somewhat tweaked as experiences are gained. The Government will also find in me a supporter of the principle of the promised legislation in the Gracious Speech to tackle knives, guns and alcohol-related violence. I trust that it will be competent to deal with the problems that the Government and I would seek to have resolved.
It will be useful if the Minister is able to tell us whether the violent crime Bill and the identity cards Bill will apply in all their aspects to Northern Ireland and, if not, the extent to which they will apply. I have no difficulty with the principle of the ID cards legislation in terms of the social liberty issues with which other Members may have difficulty—my only concern is about its workability, as there are considerable doubts as to whether it will be capable of delivering the Government's intention.
All the measures in the Gracious Speech intended to protect and to safeguard communities require police on the ground and resources for them. Sadly, there have been massive reductions in the police service that looks after the people of Northern Ireland. That service has undergone very considerable change through the Patten commission report, but the downsizing is now such that it is scarcely possible to make the rapid response required to deal with many of the crimes that are taking place.
If the crimes that I have mentioned are bad in terms of the general national scale, there is a particular problem in Northern Ireland that makes them more acute—the fact that there is sometimes almost support, from some sections of our community, for criminal activity. That has blurred the edges, as people seem to think that it is all right, in certain circumstances, for certain causes, to break the law. We have found that many young people growing up in our society are equally flouting the law. I urge the Government to deal not only with the low-level crime in Northern Ireland but with the organised crime represented by paramilitary groups of all persuasions, but principally, clearly, by the Provisional IRA.
The mandate that I have in coming to this House is not a negative one—it is a mandate to make progress and to have political stability in Northern Ireland. However, that mandate can be achieved only if we build it on a stable foundation for political structures, and that cannot happen if those structures are to be built in partnership with a party that is still holding on to its weaponry, still continuing with paramilitary activity, and still heavily involved in gangsterism and criminality. Those must end. The Prime Minister, in what we now describe as the Blair necessities, indicated the standards that were required for entry into Government. It is not a question of the Democratic Unionist party attempting to put manners on the republican movement or saying that the republican movement has to be house trained. These are standards that are accepted by the Government, supported by the Government of the Irish Republic, and endorsed by the Government of the United States. I trust that the Prime Minister will not let the people of Northern Ireland down by fudging or blurring any of the edges in relation to those standards; they are essential.
Only on a firm, democratic basis, with completely peaceful politics, can Northern Ireland move forward. My party is willing to move forward on that basis. I personally experienced the republican movement's behaviour in December last year, when it and we were separately negotiating with the Government, and at the very same time it was engaged in the greatest bank heist in history. That indicates the mindset that we have to deal with, why we cannot fudge the issues, and why it is essential, before progress can be made in Northern Ireland, that the Government recognise that it can be made only with those parties that are exclusively committed to peaceful and democratic means.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me this opportunity to make my maiden speech. It is a privilege to follow Mr. Robinson and to have listened to the eight previous maiden speeches this afternoon.
It is a great honour to be elected to Parliament at all, but representing Dudley, North is particularly special for me because I represent my home town and the community in which I grew up, went to school, got married and started a family. Dudley, North contains the historic town of Dudley surrounded by a number of smaller towns and villages, such as Gornal, Sedgley and Coseley, which it was my great privilege to represent on Dudley council.
Few places can match our history, stretching from our internationally recognised geological heritage with unique prehistoric fossils found only on the Wren's Nest. The name of the town is of Saxon origin, and the town and its castle, which watches over the town to this day, are both listed in the Domesday Book. The castle was held for the king during the civil war. Parliamentary troops laid siege, and its fortifications were subsequently largely demolished by order of Parliament, but hon. Members can rest assured that local people have pretty much forgiven Parliament by now.
The first Labour MP for Dudley was Colonel George Wigg, who was elected in 1945 after a distinguished military career. He was an early advocate of measures to address the problems of lack of respect in society, which have dominated the headlines this week. Politicised in the Army, he discussed in his memoirs ways of ensuring that young people lived
"in obedience to the rules that civilised life in a community requires", which is a major theme of today's debate. He left the Commons in 1968 and Donald Williams represented Dudley for two years before Labour won the seat back in 1970. I remember as a child in the very early '70s our home being visited by his successor, now the right hon. Lord Gilbert, who came to discuss plans for the Dudley community relations council, which my Dad helped set up. It was a moment of great excitement in the Austin household, and I can still remember being warned by my parents to be on my best behaviour.
John Gilbert served the town with distinction for 27 years. He must be the only person to have held the same ministerial job 20 years apart as a Member first of the Commons then as a peer, serving as Minister of State for Defence in 1976 to 1979 and in 1997 to 1999. However, I want to pay particular tribute to my immediate predecessor, Ross Cranston. He also served in Government, as Solicitor-General, and served Parliament as a member of the Standards and Privileges Committee. Many hon. Members will know Ross, as I do, for his dedication and hard work, and for his kindness and commitment to his constituents, which won him the respect and affection of his colleagues here and of the people of Dudley. He set high standards, and I will do everything that I can to live up to them as I represent such a great town.
Dudley is the capital of the black country, the birthplace of the industrial revolution and the home of manufacturing. Dudley's success and prosperity was based on the traditional black country traits of hard work, high skills, ingenuity, enterprise and innovation. However, our community has still not fully recovered from the devastating industrial and economic upheaval of the early 1980s. Those recessions sent the traditional industries on which Dudley's prosperity had been based to the wall. Factories and foundries closed and we lost thousands of manufacturing jobs. That experience had a profound effect on me. When I left school, Dudley was a high-unemployment area. At its peak, 3,300 young people had been out of work for more than six months. Today, the figure is just 220. Unemployment is down 40 per cent. and more than 1,000 local young people are in work through the new deal.
Nowadays, most people in Britain come into contact with manufacturing only as consumers, and status is too often determined by what one owns and consumes rather than what one makes. However, a quarter of the black country's economy relies on manufacturing, and 30 per cent. of the work force works in manufacturing compared with 18 per cent. nationally. In Dudley, manufacturers such as Thomas Dudley Ltd, Federal Welder Ltd and Boss Design Ltd are investing in new technologies, developing new products, opening up new markets, winning new business around the world and creating new jobs. Our problem is that we need more such world-beating firms because we suffer from lower than average wages, and although business start-ups are in line with the national average, survival rates are lower. We also need to improve skills, which is why I want to work with local schools, colleges, the work force, trade unions, employers and business organisations to make boosting skills our No. 1 priority. We will attract the high-wage high-skill jobs on which our future prosperity depends only if we have the skills that those firms need.
Among the other challenges that we face are how to reverse the fortunes of our town centre, and the priority must again be to work with the council and the private sector to regenerate the area by bringing in new housing, new investment, businesses and jobs into the town. I recently met tenants' and residents' organisations and community groups across the constituency, particularly in the Castle and Priory and St. Thomas's wards, which are the constituency's most deprived areas. I am pressing for new community facilities and a new community pharmacy on the Priory estate. Despite additional investment, there are still housing and environmental problems in many areas, and there is a need for additional community facilities particularly for young people.
I shall touch briefly on the rules that govern children's homes. A company called Green Corns is buying up homes in the black country to open new children's homes. Everyone knows that provision must be made for such children; no one is in any doubt about that. It may be that the company's approach has worked elsewhere, but its secretive behaviour in the black country and its failure to establish good relations with its neighbours and work with the local community has caused huge local concern. Local authorities should require planning approval so that local people know what is happening and can have their voices heard, as they would with any other building being turned from a family home into a commercial venture. Can we use the current review of regulatory organisations, which I am told covers the Commission for Social Care Inspection, to bring such homes under the planning process and require companies to work properly with the local community?
My constituency is extremely well served by three campaigning newspapers, the Express and Star, its sister paper the Dudley Chronicle and the Dudley News. However, instead of working with the community, Green Corns has disgracefully put its efforts into obtaining an injunction against the Express and Star, which is merely reporting the concerns caused by its approach.
On Friday I met Chief Superintendent Green from Dudley police, and I congratulate him and his officers on the fall in crime that they have achieved through proper partnership working between the police, the local community, businesses and other organisations. In particular, I want to tell my colleagues on the Front Bench of the difference made by the extra police and new community support officers that we have on the streets, and of my hope that we will see more CSOs patrolling our streets in the future. Chief Superintendent Green told me of the tough stance that he has taken with irresponsible licensees, so I would like to take this opportunity to welcome the Queen's Speech proposals to clamp down on pubs and clubs persistently selling alcohol to under-18s.
In conclusion, I hope that I have managed to convey my great pride in the wonderful place that I represent. I commend to anybody who would like further details the local websites yampy.co.uk and sedgleylocalhistory.org.uk. Alternatively, I extend to Members an invitation to visit the town, when I will personally escort them on a tour of its most important places, including the castle and the world-renowned Black Country Living museum, where they could see the skill and enterprise that made our region great. They can watch metalworking and glasscutting and, afterwards, I will buy them a pint of black country real ale in the Bottle and Glass inn, or we could go to Woodsetton for a pint of Golden Glow, or one of the other delicious beers brewed by the award-winning Holden's brewery in my constituency.
It is an enormous privilege to be elected to Parliament, but it is also a huge responsibility. It is not one that I take lightly, and I will do everything that I can to live up to the trust that the people in Dudley, North have placed in me. I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to speak this evening, and I thank the House for listening to me.
It is a great privilege to follow Mr. Austin, who, in his maiden speech, addressed the House with a combination of skill, wit, authority and, to use his word, pride—pride in his constituency, pride in his surroundings and pride in having arrived in this House to represent his people. As it happens, I know the hon. Gentleman's immediate predecessor, Ross Cranston. He is an immensely intelligent and engaging man. The hon. Gentleman spoke movingly about his predecessor, and he will be a very good successor indeed to Ross Cranston. We look forward with interest and respect to his future contributions to proceedings.
I also congratulate a number of other Members who have made their maiden speeches today. I refer, of course, to the hon. Members for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry) and for Tooting (Mr. Khan), Lyn Brown, who seems to bear many of the admirable traits of her immediate and remarkable predecessor, and Susan Kramer, who is something of a seasoned professional in politics. This is before I even get to the bit that I treasure most, as a continuing party animal, which is to pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Newbury (Mr. Benyon), for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) and for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski).
I have had the pleasure and privilege of knowing my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury for many years. He loves his constituency, he is part of his constituency, he was determined to represent his constituency—and in the end he got here. He spoke with great warmth and sincerity about his patch and the challenges that it faces. My hon. Friend the Member for Windsor described in compelling terms the journey that he has made from what he called his humble origins to the success and status that he is fortunate enough to enjoy today.
My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham displayed a near-encyclopaedic knowledge of his constituency—very impressive in a debut performance—culminating in a witty and appropriate reference to the special relationship that he is cultivating with the Prime Minister's father. If that does the trick in securing an improvement in public performance, we shall all owe a debt of gratitude to my hon. Friend. And by the way, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if I am to have any chance of being called to speak, either in debates or at Question Time, I know that I must always resolve to sit in front of my hon. Friend and not behind him.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to participate in this debate. Mr. Oaten threw down a very legitimate gauntlet to the Conservative Opposition earlier. I cannot speak for my right hon. and hon. Friends—I gave up attempting to do so some time ago—but for my own part, I want to make it clear that I remain implacably opposed, on grounds of principle and practicality, to the introduction of identity cards. The Government's arguments on this matter have consistently shifted, and none of them is persuasive. I shall endeavour to persuade my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench to go the right way on this subject, but whether they do or not, just as I spoke and voted against the introduction of identity cards in the last Parliament, so I intend to continue to do so now.
There are good things in the Queen's Speech. In what they have set out so far, the Government are picking up on a number of important public priorities. The difficulty, of course, is that the devil is in the detail. So much will depend on the practicality, and on the extent to which the Government are sufficiently rigorous in their pursuit of their objectives and display the necessary determination to overcome the people and things that tend to get in the way.
I should like to focus on a number of the specifics in the Queen's Speech. The first point that I want to make is that immigration and asylum should not be artificially conflated and confused. They should not be regarded as synonymous—they are not. On immigration, let me make it clear that I welcome the Government's intention to introduce a points-based system for admission to this country. Yes, I believe in controlled immigration, but I also believe that it is incumbent on people of good faith in all parts of the House to be as ready to proclaim a commitment to fairness in immigration policy as they are to proclaim a commitment to firmness. A successful, free enterprise capitalist economy needs a decent level of immigration. The economic as well as the moral arguments for immigration need to be made, and I am not afraid to make them.
On asylum policy, let us be explicit in our debate. There are currently people in this country who should not be here. Equally, there are people who are not in this country but who, in a fair system, should be. I was appalled to hear recent testimony of people trying to get to this country from Darfur who were denied the chance to do so because they were told by the Government that it would be safe for them to relocate to Khartoum. That is a bogus and ignorant argument that completely underestimates the significance, power and ill intent of the state apparatus in Sudan. I want to see firmness, but I also want to see fairness. I did not make a party political issue of immigration or asylum in my constituency, and I do not seek to do so now.
The Government's proposals on incapacity benefit represent an important area of public policy, and the way in which Ministers reform it—by retitling it and dividing it into two parts—should be driven by the extent of the abuse that is being committed, rather than by an anticipation of the level of revolt that they will face for seeking to address the problem. In other words, if they do the right thing and are fair in giving support to those who need help while denying it to those who do not, the Conservatives should not play games; we should support them. If, however, the Government simply cower at the first sign of grapeshot from left-wing Labour Back Benchers, we should not support them. We have a duty as a constructive Opposition to point out the error of the Government's ways. The opportunity is theirs. I shall try to take a constructive approach and I shall not be afraid to support the Government when I believe that they are right—sometimes flying in the face of judgments made by my right hon. and hon. Friends.
My hon. Friend speaks from the Front Bench with a degree of intensity and feeling.
There is much to do on education, but I want to make one important point. Using private money to support and bolster the public sector is one thing, and I favour it. Using public money to support and bolster the private sector is quite another, which I do not favour. There are lessons to be learned by my own party in its approach to this subject as we seek a reformed and strengthened public sector capable of delivering for the interests of the majority.
On House of Lords reform, there is a difference between destructive and constructive reform. It is all very well for the Government to say that they will get rid of the remaining hereditaries. Let me make it clear that I find the hereditaries' continued presence intellectually difficult to defend, and I am not one to say that their removal cannot be justified. I believe that the Government can make a case for it. I do not believe, however, that the Government should simply get rid of something without putting something substantial, constructive and enduring in its place. If the Government can combine the removal of the hereditary principle with a constructive proposal for sustainable reform along the lines argued for by my right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Clarke, Mr. Cook and the former Member for North Cornwall, Paul Tyler, representing the Parliament First group, I say three cheers to that.
My final observation to the Government is that allowing sufficient time for debate on all these important measures is not a sign of weakness; it is a display of strength. If the Government really believe that they have a compelling case for their measures, they should not be shy about it. They should allow other views to be expressed, and ensure that there is time for that. They should listen to the public, who feel that the Government, for all their good intentions, are often too arrogant and too dismissive of other views. I hope that they will turn over a new leaf, and in the interests of the country, I wish them well with the legislative programme that they have outlined.
I am most grateful for the chance to address the House for the first time. It is a pleasure to follow John Bercow, who is known throughout the House for his independence of spirit, which we have seen on display again today, and which I am sure would be welcomed on these Benches. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry), for Tooting (Mr. Khan), for West Ham (Lyn Brown), and for Dudley, North (Mr. Austin) for their maiden speeches today, and to all hon. Members for their eloquent contributions.
In preparing my own speech, I looked back at the maiden speeches of my predecessors, and was struck by that of the radical reformer, Richard Cobden, who opened his account in the 1841 Queen's Speech debate. He told Members that it was not
"his desire to trespass long upon their attention"— but it is hard to deal briefly with the case against the corn laws. Cobden's speech, in its abbreviated form, stretched over 13 columns of Hansard and was estimated to have lasted at least 50 minutes. There is no record of how many Members remained in the Chamber at the end. The time limit on our speeches today means that I shall certainly not be emulating his precedent.
By custom and, more importantly, out of respect, I want to pay tribute to my immediate predecessor, Kevin Hughes, who sadly retired from the House because of illness. For 13 years, following his service as a miner, he served the people of Doncaster, North with great distinction, fighting for the place he came from and the people he grew up with. He served for four years in the Government Whips Office and, while I gather that it is hard to be a popular Whip, I know that many Members will miss his frankness, his integrity and his friendship. I thank him for the kindness that he has shown to me. In my constituency, too, there is the highest regard and warmest affection for Kevin and for his wife Linda, who so brilliantly assisted him with thousands of constituency cases. I promise my constituents and this House that I will try to live up to the standard that they set. I also pay tribute to Mick Welsh, Kevin's predecessor for 13 years, who served first in Don Valley and then in the newly created Doncaster, North.
Unlike Kevin, Mick or their predecessors, my roots do not lie in Doncaster. I am the son of two immigrants who met in London after the war, who had strong political beliefs, to which I refer because it helps to explain why I am here today. Ours was a socialist household, in which we were brought up not just to think that the injustices of society were wrong, but to believe that through political change, something could be done about them. Of course, as we grow up all of us make our own way. But it is right to recognise that it is this upbringing and that belief which brings me to this House to represent Doncaster, North.
Mine is a constituency that surprises those who visit it. Far from being an urban seat, as many assume, it is composed of a series of villages to the north of the town. It is a place with great and sweeping countryside, including Sykehouse, the longest village in England, the Thorne and Hatfield moors, renowned for their natural beauty, and Askern lake. We are also home to Saxon churches and the Norman church of St. Mary Magdalene in Campsall, where it is said that Robin Hood and Maid Marian were married. As strong believers in redistribution, people in Doncaster, North are happy to reclaim his roots.
And yet, despite our picturesque scenery, the lifeblood of my constituency was, until the 1980s, the mining industry. When Mick Welsh rose to make his maiden speech 26 years ago yesterday, four major pits dominated our landscape—Askern, Bentley, Brodsworth and Hatfield—directly supporting many thousands of families. All are now closed, although we are working for the reopening of Hatfield, which could not only provide access to half of the accessible coal reserves in England but offers the prospect of a new clean coal power station. That is an endeavour in which we hope to secure financial as well as moral support from the Government. We therefore face the challenge of massive industrial transition, with all that that entails for both the economy and the community.
Our advantage is that Doncaster, led by an elected Labour mayor, is a town—in fact, a city in all but name—on the up, experiencing the economic prosperity that is returning to the north of England. We have a new international airport, which was opened last month, one of only three UK airports with a runway large enough to accommodate the new Airbus A380. The airport is already expanding horizons, as shown by the eloquent letters that I have received from class 4 at Toll Bar primary school, which I shall visit on Friday. Our new education complex, Education City, when it opens next year, will, we are confident, become a university with several area-based campuses, including one in my constituency. We are also well served by local newspapers, although during the campaign my recognition factor suffered a bit of a setback when one campaign profile mistakenly substituted for a picture of me a photo of a brick wall.
As Doncaster revives, we in the northern villages will not necessarily share in the prosperity without the right sort of intervention by national and local government. Doncaster, North has great attributes, with pit traditions of community and fraternity, countryside, and most of all the people—honest, fair and hardworking—but at the same time the scars of the last two decades run deep. Therefore, as befits the representative of a progressive party, I come to this House not to talk about the gains that there have been, important though they are, but to say that we still have a long way to go to create the society that we seek. Despite progress in the past eight years, Britain is still a country too unequal, too divided by class and status, too distant from the goal even of equality of opportunity.
Therefore, what are our needs? Above all, we need a Government who will keep investing in our social and economic infrastructure. If my constituents are to get to the new jobs that are being created at the airport and elsewhere, we need investment in rail, road and bus services. In addition, people often ask me why, if the Mayor of London can regulate London's bus service so that it serves the people, we in Doncaster cannot do so?
To tackle disadvantage at its source, we need not just our three new Sure Start centres but such centres in every area, not just because of the services that they provide but because they represent a new focus for the community. I congratulate our secondary schools on their progress in GCSE performance, but we are still a long way behind the national average, and we need the most modern facilities not just in our new academy in Thorne but in every school. And to raise participation in higher education—still less than half the national average—we need not just the new Doncaster university, but to raise the sights of young people and to keep expanding university places.
The message that I received loud and clear in this campaign was that as we seek to revive our spirit of community, youth services must become a higher priority. What many young people on our streets told me is that there was nowhere for them to go and nothing for them to do. The young people whom I met are not yet cynical, nor are they without hope, nor are the vast majority troublemakers, but many feel that nobody really listens. They are tomorrow's voters—or, regrettably, non-voters. Respect is a two-way street. Many older people feel that young people do not show enough respect, but young people feel neglected by our society. If we can show them that we are listening and will respond to their needs, I am convinced that it will make an impact far beyond the immediate provision of youth services. That will be a priority for me as I try to serve my constituency in this House.
I want to end by referring to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Communities and Local Government, who is winding up the debate tonight. It is daunting, on such occasions, to have members of one's family watching in the Public Gallery—but worse, I feel, to have them sitting in the Chamber. As the House will know, he and I are now the only brothers in this place, although there are two sets of distinguished Labour sisters. I quickly offer this reassurance to the House: there are no more Miliband brothers to come. I am sure that hon. Members will agree that two is more than enough.
I also want to put on the record, however, how much my family owes to this country. Our father left Belgium in 1940 on the last boat to Britain, the evening before the Nazis arrived, and would have perished without the welcoming arms of a country that recognised its duty to help those fleeing from terror. I hope that I and my brother, in the service that we give in the House, can in some small way help to repay the debt that we owe to this country. In my contributions in this House, I will strive to reflect not only the voices of the constituents who put me here this month, but the humanity and solidarity shown to my family more than 60 years ago, which led my family out of the dark times of despair to a place of hope, and me to the Floor of this House today. I thank the House for listening.
As I speak for the first time in the House, I am not only humbled but aware of the great burden of trust and expectation that has been placed on me by the voters of Reading, East. I thank them for their trust, and I promise that I will not let them down. I congratulate Edward Miliband on his excellent maiden speech, made with enthusiasm for and pride in his constituency. As he could not see the Minister of Communities and Local Government on the Front Bench, may I tell him that he sat listening with a great deal of enthusiasm and pride, too?
May I pay tribute, as is customary on these occasions, to my predecessor, the former Labour MP for Reading, East, Jane Griffiths? Jane represented the constituency from 1997 to 2005, and was notable as the first woman to represent a Reading constituency. She was a skilled linguist—the only Japanese and Korean speaker in the House in the last two Parliaments—and did a great deal to give prominence to a number of unfashionable causes. Her work for sufferers of ectopic pregnancies and male cancers has been singled out for praise from across the political divide. She was also an enthusiast for rats—although sadly, it seems, she was ultimately ratted on by her local party. Despite this poor treatment she maintained the respect of her constituents, as reflected in the supportive letters sent to local newspapers.
Jane Griffiths was well known for her support for Crossrail and her determination to make the western terminus Reading. The Crossrail Bill is supported by all parties in Reading, East as a much needed enhancement for commuters. It is, however, a matter of great concern to my constituents that the plan is for the rail scheme to stop in Maidenhead. That makes absolutely no economic sense, as local business organisations have made clear, and could adversely affect the region's long-term economic development. For that reason, I am determined to continue the hard work of my predecessor in seeking to have the western terminus extended to Reading.
Some years ago, the boundary commission determined that Reading should be a town of two halves. While I know less of affairs in the western part, by a curious twist of fate, I believe that all that is best, brightest, exotic and uplifting is concentrated in the east. With a fine and highly regarded university, a regional retail centre and a major technological and industrial sector, the constituency lies at the heart of the prosperous Thames valley region. In fact, I liked the area so much that I moved there more than 20 years ago, and I am still proud to call it my home.
Geographically, my constituency includes the communities of Caversham, the bulk of Reading town centre and parts of the Wokingham district towns of Woodley and Earley. The superb biography of William Pitt the Younger, by my right hon. Friend Mr. Hague, notes that former Speaker Addington lived in Woodley, and after Pitt's resignation, went on to become Prime Minister. I assure the House that my ambitions are far more modest, and if members of my local press are watching, I am ruling out a bid for the leadership! That should make the front page in Reading.
Reading, East is a focal point for the information technology sector, and is proud to boast many of the top international IT companies such as Microsoft and Oracle. There is also a large banking and finance sector, represented by companies such as Prudential. I am grateful to all the wealth-creating companies in my constituency, large and small, which make such a great contribution to the wealth of the region. I will be their champion. Another major employer in the town is the borough council. Working in local government can often be thankless and frustrating, but I have been impressed by the professionalism and dedication of the many council staff with whom I have come into contact.
Reading, East has some excellent schools, both secondary and primary, but it faces enormous challenges, especially in the Reading borough. Reading's local education authority has been categorised by Ofsted as barely satisfactory, and about 40 per cent. of parents do not send their children to its schools. Many local parents and pupils have not been served well. I intend to support the dedicated teachers and LEA staff in turning around the parts of the system that are failing. I believe that Reading can learn much from the excellent LEA in Wokingham, and I hope that it will take the opportunity sooner rather than later to approach that LEA for advice and support, which I am sure will be given willingly.
I am a parent with a child at a local school. I was fortunate enough to be able to send my child to the local school of my choice. Dozens of local parents have not been so fortunate. Most affected are parents wishing to send children to Emmer Green primary school. It is imperative for good schools, with the support of parents, teachers and governors—as is the case at Emmer Green—to be allowed to expand, and for children to be granted places at their local schools.
I now turn to the content of the Queen's speech, and in particular to the violent crime Bill. In the past six months, Reading, East has had more than its fair share of violent crime and murder. In January there was a fatal drive-by shooting at Cemetery junction, and Members will have recently read of the brutal murder of my constituent Mary-Ann Leneghan, who was just 16 years old. I am sure that the whole House will join me in expressing sincere condolences to the family. What happened to Mary-Ann and her friend, who was shot in the head and callously left for dead, demonstrates that there are people who operate outside what we all regard as the norms of civilised society.
As Members of this House we must ensure, for the sake of our constituents and of our families, that those with the capacity to commit such gross acts of evil are given no quarter. It is crucial for the police to be given support, not just in terms of funding but by the local community. I am pleased to say that that has been the case in Reading, East, where the strength of our community has meant that people have come forward at great risk to themselves to achieve what I pray will be the end result: justice for Mary-Ann.
I am sure that the House will also join me in saluting the excellent work of the local police force. As Members may have heard, a number of arrests have been made, and we all have high hopes that those who are guilty of these terrible crimes will be punished. I cannot help feeling, however, that a sense of security on our streets will be fully restored only if the police are equipped with the necessary manpower and tools to fight and win the battle against violent crime.
Reading is well known for the three Bs: beer, bulbs and biscuits. The bulbs and biscuits have faded in significance, but beer still plays a huge role. Like so many other urban centres, Reading town centre suffers from binge drinking and yobbish behaviour. I would like to see an extension of the experience of the London borough of Richmond, where a voluntary code of conduct has been implemented banning "happy hour" promotions in bars and pubs. Even at this early stage, the initial figures show a stark drop in violent crime in Twickenham and Richmond town centres. I was delighted to hear today that hundreds of pubs have recognised that, and decided to join in a voluntary ban on happy hours.
I thank the House for its indulgence. I hope that I may be allowed to catch Mr. Speaker's eye on future occasions, so that I can again speak up for the constituents of Reading, East.
It is with great pride that I rise to make my maiden speech, following Mr. Wilson and the others who today have made their first speeches in the House. Sometimes it is more difficult to speak late in the evening, knowing the quality that one has to follow.
In the early hours of
During the first 10 days, I have been introduced to many Members who have told me what a charming man my predecessor Win Griffiths is. I have been told that when Win spoke in the Chamber, people knew that he would have something interesting to say and a new way of looking at the issues being debated. Win has a deserved reputation for integrity and probity, befitting a parliamentarian, Wesleyan lay preacher, teetotaller and resident of the village of Cefn Cribwr. The retirement to which Win has so looked forward will not involve simply tending his garden. He will continue to serve the people of Bridgend and south Wales as he takes on the chairmanship of Bro Morgannwg health trust, a task that he will undertake with his usual dedication and commitment.
When the Bridgend constituency was created in 1983, its first Member was Peter Hubbard Miles, who, like me, enjoys living in Porthcawl, the finest seaside resort in Wales. Peter tried living in Spain for a while, but was drawn back to the town which, the Bridgend county borough council website informs readers, has more hours of sunshine each year than Madrid. In following Peter and Win, I aspire to be as brave and fearless as Aileen Jones, helmsman of the Porthcawl lifeboat, who last week was awarded the Royal National Lifeboat Institution bronze medal for gallantry. She was the first woman ever to receive the medal. I can only pray that the storms in the House are less fearsome than those raging off the coast of my constituency.
To understand the Bridgend constituency, people must know that it is made up of two towns: Porthcawl, a tourist resort, and Bridgend, a business hotspot—the second fastest growing area in Wales, and the ninth fastest in the United Kingdom. We are home to Sony, the Ford engine plant, and many dynamic small and medium-sized businesses. Surrounding the two towns are several smaller communities and villages with strong personal identities. Our local people have great commitment to their communities and many make a personal difference to the quality of life of those among whom they live.
I am thinking of people like Helena Parobij, who sadly died earlier this year. Thanks to Helena, 750 children in the communities of Pyle, Cornelly, Kenfig Hill and Cefn Cribwr have access to a range of facilities including a skateboarding and BMX park, IT suite, music room and somewhere to chill out, meet and make friends, and even occasionally do homework. Just as important, they have access to adult support, guidance and role models. At a meeting in March to discuss financial problems at the centre, Inspector Paul Lewis told the meeting that, before KPC youth centre opened in 1998, the community was plagued with rowdy youngsters drinking and taking drugs on the street. Once 750 eight to 21-year-olds had access to the centre at different times, the number of complaints decreased considerably.
If we are to free our communities from nuisance and provide inspiration and opportunities for our youngsters, local councils must help by funding the groups that work with young people. I am sure that the House will join me in calling for Bridgend county borough council to restore the funds that it recently cut for organisations doing invaluable work with young people.
As Bridgend has expanded, newer communities such as Brackla, Wildmill and Broadlands have been built. Partnership working is critical to making those new communities succeed. In Brackla, Gordon Taylor and the residents association work with NCH, youth services and housing association staff, neighbourhood police and local councillors to try to meet the needs of a large development, while that invaluable facility in any community—the community hall—provides a range of activities from taekwondo to senior citizens club to Welsh classes.
In Wildmill, people such as Idris Jones, workers at the tenants and residents association and at the youthworks, and community support officers have helped many to leave behind or avoid the drugs culture that made life on that estate unbearable for its many law-abiding residents. During the election campaign, it was good to talk to youngsters on the estate, who would perhaps have inspired fear in many adults with their appearance and noise, yet they wanted to comprehend politics and were eager to understand and to learn about national issues.
The Broadlands development in Bridgend is an estate that was planned for 700 houses and now has more than 2,000 dwellings. Central to life there is Maes yr Haul primary school. Pupils at the school recently won a national animation award and learned about the lifestyle and traditions of Japan from parents of children attending the school who have come to work at the Sony factory in Bridgend.
One of the most rigorous question and answer sessions I experienced was at Llangynwydd primary, where I had been expecting to talk with the head teacher and staff. Instead, I was introduced to 300 primary school children who raised questions about helping the world's hungry, support for people with diabetes, stopping adults smoking and finding a cure for cancer, among many other issues. Those children will be watching the outcome of the forthcoming meeting of the G8 and will be pleased at the Government's proposals in the health improvement and protection Bill. In primary schools such as Trelales, Litchard and Pen-y-Bont and the integrated children's centre in Cornelly, it was good to see parents, governors and older residents volunteering time and listening to pupils as they read, taking an interest in their community school and investing in the future of local children.
Eight years ago, David Matthews, our director of education and leisure services, who has since died, introduced an award of citizenship for people who contributed to their community. Eight years on, the list is still growing.
I look forward to debating the new mental health Bill with Mental Health Matters and Mind. I know that the Shaw Trust will take an interest in the planned changes to incapacity benefit and that voluntary organisations such as Age Concern, Help the Aged and Shout will want to debate the provisions of the Government of Wales Bill. As someone who has worked with vulnerable adults, I know that the protection of vulnerable adults Bill will be an important addition to legislation.
It may have been noted that, unlike the other new Welsh Members, I was not born in Wales. My family has Scottish roots on my father's side and Irish roots on my mother's. My mother, who is 91, has developed a new addiction for the parliamentary channel on her digibox and will no doubt be watching today. My parents set me an example of community service, my mother providing nursing help and support to neighbouring families and care for my grandmother, my father an active member of the sea cadets, Fellowship of the Services and the Royal Naval Reserve. It was their example that brought me here today.
I am also here today thanks to my husband Steve, who enticed me to Wales in 1976. Our son David was 21 last week. He is our Celtic crown having been born in Wales. Set possibly a poor example by his mother, he is studying politics at university.
Steve and I moved to Wales when he was appointed the first warden of the newly designated local nature reserve at Kenfig. Perhaps hon. Members will have a chance to look at a video recently compiled by Ted Davies of Kenfig when they consider proposals in the commons Bill. Kenfig is now a European site of nature conservation, a site of unique biodiversity and tranquillity. It would have become a housing estate or a caravan park if Ted and his fellow commoners had not been willing to risk their homes to battle in the High Court to keep the dunes from commercial development. I know that Ted will be watching the progress of the marine Bill to ensure that it will help with the declaration of a marine nature reserve off Sker.
Should hon. Members wish to purchase Ted's video, profits are going towards Sandville Court self-help centre, where Sister Gwyneth Poacher and her band of volunteer helpers provide support and access to a range of alternative therapies to those with terminal and debilitating illness. Without Sandville, many carers would not have coped and many people would not have faced the end of their lives with dignity and comfort. All the services and facilities at Sandville are provided through voluntary action. It is a local and national treasure.
I thank the House for its courtesy in listening to me today. I am proud to represent Bridgend, a constituency where so many hold fast to the understanding that what makes life good are the things we share, and the glue that binds communities is the things we do for others—a constituency with so many examples of how individuals can change the quality of life for their communities, especially when given the tools and legislative support of Government.
I am privileged indeed to represent the home town of John Bright, the town where the Co-op was founded and where the Workers Educational Association started. I pay tribute to my predecessors. Like me, Lorna Fitzsimons is a fellow Rochdalian. Though we are from different political parties, we have over the years worked well together, I latterly as leader of the council, she as the Member of Parliament. She has been a feisty campaigner. Many people remember how well she marshalled troops and former troops to fight the cause earlier this year when there was a threat to the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. I know that many Lancashire Fusiliers are proud of what she did to ensure that the Royal Regiment is still here. I wish her well.
I am the third Liberal Democrat to represent Rochdale since 1970. I would like to say a few words about my predecessors. Liz Lynne represented Rochdale from 1992 to 1997. She quickly established herself as a campaigner, particularly on disability and Kashmir. It is something that I hope to take up in my time here, too. I know that, in the European Parliament, she continues to fight and speak up for freedom for Kashmir.
I pay tribute to Sir Cyril Smith, who represented Rochdale for over 20 years and who, before that, did over 40 years' service as a local councillor, alderman and mayor of Rochdale. I owe him a lot. He is the reason that I got involved in politics in 1972 when, as a 17-year-old, I took part in his famous by-election. This year, almost approaching the age of 77, he came out of retirement and fought for me. He has been a fighter all his life. The town owes him much. Many charities in the town would not be there but for his hard work. Again, I pay tribute to the work that he has done both for the town and for me.
In Sir Cyril's maiden speech, he included a reference to mill closures and the effect that yarn imports were having on jobs in Rochdale. Sadly, most of those mills have closed. Like many people in Rochdale, my father was a spinner. With typical Lancashire grit, we have pulled ourselves up and now Rochdale is beginning to motor. I was privileged earlier this year to see work start on the Kingsway industrial estate, which is the largest industrial estate in the north-west. I look forward over the next few years to that bringing improved jobs and prosperity to Rochdale.
In order for that to happen, we need support from Government. I hope that members of the Government will take heed of some of the things that we need, in particular the new bus station that was not approved this year—I hope that it will be approved next year—and the Manchester Metrolink. I have here a leaflet that was produced in 1989 by the Greater Manchester passenger transport authority. That clearly stated: "Metrolink will start running" in Rochdale "in 1992". Sixteen years later—after eight years of a Conservative Government and eight years of a Labour Government—we are still waiting. I hope that in this Session we will see progress on that. It is vital for the Oldham-Rochdale loop line—if it does not go ahead, an additional £60 million will be needed just to keep that line operational. That is a quarter of the cost of the Metrolink. The money would be much better spent on a brand-new "super-tram" system than on keeping heavy rail going.
One of the legacies of Rochdale's textile past is the Turner Brothers asbestos site in Spotland—the site of what was once the largest asbestos factory in the world. As we know, that magic mineral has since turned into a killer dust, and many Members have been involved in fighting for pension rights for some of the former employees of Turner and Newell. I want to draw attention to the importance to the town of redeveloping that site, which has been bought by developers. Residents and council members of all political parties have no problem with such redevelopment, but we are concerned that the site be redeveloped safely. I am afraid that the developer, in his dealings with the council or with residents, has sometimes been less than open. Part of the problem is that a derelict industrial site such as this falls between three agencies: the Health and Safety Executive, the local authority and the Environment Agency. The HSE has only one person in the north-west looking after dereliction issues and there is no way that she can give the site the necessary attention. The Government need to consider giving local authorities greater power to act independently to ensure that developers comply with health and safety legislation. That is vital for the Rochdale site and for sites elsewhere.
Rochdale is a vibrant, multicultural community that includes, for example, people from Ukraine, Pakistan and Poland. Our council is a beacon council for cohesion and I am pleased with the steps that it and the good people of Rochdale have taken to ensure such cohesion. We are currently participating in a housing market renewal pathfinder for Oldham and Rochdale, and later this year, we will submit a bid for wave 2 of the HMR, which will include my own ward of Milkstone and Deeplish. When Ministers receive that bid, I hope that they focus not on the bricks and mortar but on our efforts to maintain community cohesion and the natural environment. Often, what is important in maintaining viable communities is not just what one spends on bricks and mortar. Our plans require that some money be spent not just on the bricks and mortar, but on the people and the environment.
I am pleased to have been selected to speak this evening, and to have been elected to serve Rochdale. We have a tremendous reputation for having outspoken politicians who always put the town first. I am following some illustrious predecessors, and I hope to follow in the proud Rochdale tradition of representing our constituents in this House and of helping to contribute to the development of our country.
I congratulate Paul Rowen and all the other new Members who have made their maiden speeches today. It has been fascinating to hear about the diverse constituencies and backgrounds, and I am sure that they will all make a solid contribution to the work of this House and to their constituents' welfare. Susan Kramer made special mention of the jacket that she is wearing today. I do not want to make a political or a sexist point, but I congratulate her on wearing the colours of my football team.
I want briefly to address two issues. First, I welcome the Government's commitment to introducing legislation on corporate killing. I was slightly disappointed, however, in that no Government or Opposition Front Bencher took the trouble to mention that very important Bill, which is welcomed by the trade union movement generally and by workers throughout the country. Such legislation has had a long and troubled history. In the late 1980s, a string of disasters, each shocking in itself, together showed that there was something seriously wrong with our whole approach to safety in the workplace, in transport and in public places. No individual or company was punished for any of those tragedies, yet in every case the inevitable subsequent accident investigation or public inquiry showed that disaster could have been prevented had the company or organisation involved taken steps to ensure that it operated safe systems of work within a strong safety culture.
There is a common law offence of corporate manslaughter or culpable homicide in Scotland, and in England this offence can be committed by companies or individuals. [Interruption.] That "Hear, hear" was perhaps a reference to the amount of money that a certain individual may have made out of such cases. An individual commits manslaughter when it can be proved beyond reasonable doubt that they caused death through gross or wilful negligence. Under current law, there is no separate test that allows the court to consider whether a company has acted with gross negligence. It is not possible, for example, for a court to consider the various failures on the company's part and to determine whether it could be said that, in aggregation, they constituted gross negligence. Corporate guilt is entirely dependent on individual guilt. As a result, it has been virtually impossible to prosecute the larger companies.
A vivid example of this situation emerged in the past 10 days or so. The practical difficulties were illustrated in the Solway Harvester case, in which seven Scottish fishermen lost their lives after a catalogue of the most appalling negligence on the part of the company's owners. The sole director of the company that owned the vessel successfully persuaded the court that he could pass his duty of care on to an experienced skipper, who died in the tragedy.
The main purpose of legislation on corporate killing is to improve safety, to act as a disincentive to poor safety systems, and to encourage companies and others to recognise that poor safety is much more expensive in every way than good and strong safety cultures and practices. If the only result of this legislation is a queue of companies before the court that are to be punished under it, we will have failed. But I am certain that the Government will not fail, and I look forward to the Bill's introduction.We have the Bill in draft form, and although there are many observations that I would like to make, this is probably not the best time to do so, given that the consultation period has not yet finished. I am conscious that the health and safety legislation has been under review for almost as long as we have been promised this Bill. Specific provision is made in the health and safety proposals, as in the corporate killing legislation, for removing Crown immunity. However, it would be helpful if that issue were dealt with in a single Bill, rather than in two separate Bills, particularly given that such a provision ought to be introduced as soon as possible.
The second issue that I want to discuss is antisocial behaviour. I am a Scottish Member, so the legislation that I deal with is different from that proposed in the Queen's Speech and that which the Government have passed in recent years, but the circumstances are the same. It is useful to consider how we operate under such legislation either side of the border, and I want to refer to a recent experience in my constituency and to some of the practical difficulties that I have experienced.
The Beach boulevard, in my constituency, is a road that runs down to the beach, as Members may have guessed from the name. It is a very wide road that attracts a lot of antisocial behaviour. Such behaviour does not always come from juveniles and the yobs to whom reference has been made in the press and occasionally here today; sometimes, quite respectable people are involved. In fact, there has been a problem with antisocial behaviour in that area for more than 35 years. People want to go there to show off their motor vehicles, and 35 years ago it started with motor bikes and scooters. Now, people drive souped-up cars around, rev their engines and sometimes race. Recently, someone was convicted of travelling in a 30 mph zone at 104 mph, which is pretty shocking in a built-up residential area. These people want to show off their cars and to race, and they cause my constituents misery. Some 300 households in that area are affected, along with the business community. The Patio hotel has had a number of instances of people leaving the hotel because they just could not cope with the noise. The council, police and everyone else have been scratching their heads for a long time, trying to work out how to deal with the problem.
In March, using new legislation introduced by the Scottish Parliament that mirrors English legislation, my police authority got a dispersal order under the antisocial behaviour legislation. It made a dramatic improvement in the lives of my constituents. I shall make one partisan point. When that order was granted, a local MSP, Mike Rumbles—I gather he is a candidate for the leadership of the Liberal Democrats in the Scottish Parliament—described it as "verging on the illegal" and went so far as to offer his services to the defence teams of two of those who had been prosecuted under the legislation. I am not one who likes to make slogans and to vilify without evidence, but we have said for a long time that the Liberal Democrats were not serious about crime, and the statements of Mr. Rumbles give evidence of that.
We are now at a crucial point. One of the peculiarities of the legislation is that it is temporary. The order made in March lasts for three months and is due to be reviewed at the end of this month. It is there to give a local community respite and to give the authorities the opportunity to put in place a more permanent and sustainable solution to the problem. We have a difficulty, because no one has yet come forward with a solution and the police must decide whether there is evidence to justify a renewal.
Tomorrow, my local authority will consider a proposal from a Labour councillor to provide a permanent solution. The proposal is the closure of Beach boulevard, the area affected. I do not know which way the decision will go, but I have seen the report submitted by the local authority roads department, the lead department in this area. The report is totally and utterly negative. We have not yet addressed the problem that we are giving temporary powers to the police—given the gravity of the powers, they can only be temporary—but the permanent solution depends on local authorities and perhaps other agencies making decisions.
What I see in my authority is everything operating in boxes. The people who have written the report for the meeting tomorrow have addressed it as a roads issue and not as a social issue, and there seems to be no overall policy. The Government need to take a lead in this area and to work across Departments to translate that into a system with which local government can work. At Question Time today I heard a number of people criticising local authorities for their failure to act, but until we have a unified and co-ordinated approach, people will continue to have problems.
In every other respect, I welcome the Queen's Speech and I repeat my welcome for the proposed corporate killing legislation, which is extremely important for workers in this country.
I am delighted to follow Mr. Doran, and particularly the reference to his football team. I am sure that we will both be able to support the same team in the Scottish cup final on Saturday. I am sure Mr. McGovern will be backing the same local team.
I was particularly taken by the comments of Paul Rowen about the Manchester metrolink and I was impressed that a Liberal Democrat managed to find an issue where he could equally blame the Labour and Conservative parties. I was impressed with his maiden speech.
It is with a great sense of honour that I make my maiden speech in this House today, and with a deep sense of gratitude to the electors of Dundee, East, who have given me to the opportunity to serve them in this Parliament for as long as it lasts. I wish to pay tribute to my two predecessors in the seat; there are two because of boundary changes. The first is the Labour candidate Ian Luke, who, for the last four years, served two thirds of the new Dundee, East constituency. The second is my hon. Friend the newly returned Member for Angus (Mr. Weir), who, in the last Parliament, served the electors of Carnoustie, Monifieth and Panbride, which are now in my constituency. Both men ably represented the constituents of the new Dundee, East seat and I thank them both for their work.
The new constituency created by the boundaries is in many ways a microcosm of much of the east coast of Scotland. From the tiny village of Panbride in the north, the constituency runs down the North sea coast, through Carnoustie, with its world famous championship golf course, the seaside town of Monifieth and the prosperous borough of Broughty Ferry, down the coast of the firth of the Tay, through the docks, harbours and industry to the new housing development on the old quays, past the retail centres and into Dundee city centre. From there, the western boundary heads towards the county town of Forfar. Before reaching there, at Finlarig hill, it sweeps eastward to take in the rich farmland and the many small villages of Sidlaw, east and, from there, back to the coast.
This constituency provides a first-class environment and, for many, a very high quality of life. I am concerned that all of my constituents should have the opportunity to share in that high quality of life. Within this boundary lives a generous and industrious people. The constituency contains the gentle beauty of much of the east coast of Scotland and, within the city, the vibrancy that one would expect from a two-university town.
Hon. Members may be aware that Dundee and Abertay universities recruit their students from furth of the city, of Scotland and of the UK. In considering the proposed legislation on immigration and asylum, I am concerned that no decisions be taken here that weaken the ability of Dundee to retain many of the highly skilled graduates that the city creates and who are required to strengthen Dundee's economy and to stop the decline in the city's population.
I have said that the constituency offers a high quality of life for many. Unfortunately, it has others who suffer from too many of the problems faced by many of our towns and cities. Many of the 45 Bills to be considered in this Session will have an impact on the lives of the people in the city and throughout the constituency. In Dundee, East, male unemployment, at 10 per cent., remains stubbornly high. In a number of wards, large numbers of people remain wholly dependent on benefit and in parts of the city—some of the wards in my constituency—one in three children lives in a household in which no one has a job.
In considering the proposed housing benefit and incapacity benefit legislation, I hope that the measures proposed to allow mobility and to help people back into work are sensitive and offer genuine support for my constituents to get into work. I know that there are many real barriers to people leaving benefit and getting into work, not least the fear of additional debt in the early weeks and months after coming off benefit. I hope that the planned legislation properly addresses the concerns and needs of those seeking to leave benefit and return to work.
I also hope that in making changes in the company law Bill, which is designed to make the creation of a company easier, the Government understand that for ambitious people who are trying to create businesses, it is not the mechanics of starting the firm that are the difficulty, but the lack of access to capital. Indeed, for many ambitious and talented people who have ideas and vision in my constituency, access to capital to start and grow businesses remains almost wholly elusive.
Within the boundaries of Dundee, East, the Black Watch statue stands proudly on Powrie brae as a permanent memorial to the courage and sacrifice of the many men who gave their lives in that old and proud single-battalion regiment. There was great consternation at the time of the announcement of the merger of the Scottish regiments. I am sure that the issue will be raised again, because there remains deep concern at the merger of all Scottish regiments and the treatment of the Black Watch in particular.
The constituency of Dundee, East holds a dear place in the hearts of the Scottish National party. In the Scottish Parliament, the seat is held by Shona Robison, MSP, the SNP shadow Health Minister, who is also my wife. For the 13 years between 1974 and 1987, it was held by Dr. Gordon Wilson, a previous national chairman of the Scottish National party. I have a great deal to live up to.
In his maiden speech on
Dr. Wilson's second suggestion was support for the Hardman report, which called for the dispersal of civil service jobs from the centre. As of June last year, Dundee had only 1 per cent. of the core civil service jobs in Scotland. We remain wholly committed to the dispersal of civil service jobs from the centre. Even though it has been 31 years since we last won a seat from Labour in a general election, the campaign remains as live and valid as it did on
Right hon. and hon. Members may be aware that the Dundee, East constituency takes in communities from two local authority areas—Dundee City council and Angus council. I said in my acceptance speech that I intend to serve the constituents of each equally, irrespective of who they voted for, of where they live or of any boundaries. I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for your time and the House for its consideration. I hope that my contributions in the Chamber and my work in the constituency will allow me to honour that commitment.
I warmly congratulate Stewart Hosie on his speech. He clearly did his homework. We heard enough to demonstrate that he will be an asset to his party and the Chamber. I also congratulate all other hon. Members who made their maiden contributions.
However, I want to single out one speech that I heard in the course of the five hours or so that I have been listening to the debate. I happen to disagree with almost everything that Mr. Leigh had to say, but he said it superbly well and demonstrated what a pro he is. He made it clear that this Chamber is the venue for political argument and debate, not the TV studios or the newspapers. He did us all a service by making that contribution.
I welcome the Government's approach to law and order. We have been tough-minded and have ducked none of the difficult decisions. We do not have to take any lessons from the Conservatives on law and order. When they were last in power, the reality was that crime doubled. When their current leader was Home Secretary, he ducked the difficult issues. He blamed his prison chief when things went wrong and dumped on his ministerial colleague when he should have been man enough to stand up and accept the blame. My honest judgment is that the shadow Home Secretary demonstrated today that he is not tough enough to display the leadership skills that are required if he hopes to be Prime Minister or Home Secretary. He has to get off the fence. It is quite simple.
Now, by contrast, our Home Secretary is a consensual politician. He is a man of the utmost integrity and one whom I have been proud to work with. I can say to him clearly and bluntly that whenever he has to take tough decisions, I will back him and support him, even if those decisions are unpopular, because one has to do the right thing when it is required. Saying that, I hope that my ministerial colleagues will recognise that some criticisms that I will make later in my contribution are well intentioned. I make them because I think that they should be heard; they are intended to be constructive.
I want to make a simple observation about the general election: we won the arguments in the general election. It is pure fantasy for a party that gained fewer seats than Michael Foot did in Labour's disastrous 1983 election to claim a partial victory. It is a figment of the Leader of the Opposition's imagination. The scriptwriters for "Doctor Who" could not come up with a better storyline; it is complete and utter nonsense. I have to say—I am angry about it—that the fact that the right hon. and learned Gentleman had the cheek to call our Prime Minister a liar during the election was a disgrace, and it damages the politics of this country. The Leader of the Opposition's whole election campaign was based on spin and fantasy, and the British people rejected it. He should come to terms with that.
I turn now to some key points in the Queen's Speech. I believe that ID cards are right, and the Government will have my total support when the Bill is reintroduced. It is ridiculous that the major Opposition party can attempt to abdicate responsibility on an issue of this importance; it beggars belief. It is absurd for the Liberal Democrats to take an as yet unidentified sum based on a charging system that they are opposed to and pretend that they would then use it for a different purpose. That is complete and utter nonsense, and you will not be able to get away with it. You said during the election—
I would not dream of doing that, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I apologise.
The Liberal Democrats said during the election that they would use for other policing purposes the money that would, under the current proposals, be spent on the charging base for ID cards. That is a fantasy, and they should not be allowed to get away with it.
The Government should, however, revisit the question of charges and costs for ID cards. There is something fundamentally wrong with a system in which, under the present structure, asylum seekers are virtually being given ID cards, but we are saying that honest, law-abiding British citizens, who will co-operate with a system that the Government say is a good idea, should end up having to pay for it out of their own pockets. That is not right, and I do not think that the British public will tolerate it. I hope that it is not too late to revisit that matter.
On youth crime and community punishment, I have a lot of sympathy with the view of Lord Stevens, the former Metropolitan Police Commissioner, but I do not want people punished for a fashion trend. That is ridiculous, but where commercial premises ban or exclude particular types of behaviour because they realise that those are bad for business and for honest, paying customers, they should get our unequivocal support. We should not have any doubts about whose side we are on. If someone wears an item of clothing that is deliberately designed to conceal his identity while he is planning to commit an offence, the courts should take that into account. There should be an additional element of sentencing when someone is guilty of that. We should not duck that issue.
I do not want to see chain gangs of youngsters in orange jumpsuits up and down the country. We have seen enough of people in orange smocks being degraded by their torturers, their jailers and, sometimes, their murderers. We want to get away from that.
What my constituents and I want is good, honest community punishment orders. I want to read in the newspaper the precise details of such orders, just like league tables. I want to know what a person did, what the punishment was and what sort of useful work in the community that person will be doing as restitution for their crime. I want to know why, in God's name, the number of CPOs issued in this country decreased by 4 per cent. between 2002 and 2003. I want to know why only 5.5 per cent. of people convicted of an indictable offence in the west midlands are given a CPO. I want to know why the figure for the west midlands is lower than for the rest of the country. I want to know why, across the country, only 8 per cent. of males and 3 per cent. of females get CPOs for criminal damage offences—the very type of offence that one would expect to attract a CPO. What happens to the third of people who breach a CPO? Why on earth are magistrates allowed to deal with breaches by means of a fine in 46 per cent. of cases, or a further CPO in 28 per cent. of cases? Such people should go to jail, but currently only 12 per cent. do. It is a disgrace. They are laughing at us and we should not tolerate it. Why do we not have league tables for parenting orders and child curfew orders? That is what the public want.
I welcome the comments about guns that I heard today, but it is not good enough to say, as the former Home Secretary said in the foreword to the review:
"We . . . believe that licensing of imitation firearms would be unenforceable."
He is wrong: licensing works in Canada and Australia. If civil servants read the review, they will find that on pages 26 and 27 it describes what has been done in places such as Malta, the Netherlands, California and Connecticut. When someone is pointing a replica gun in one's face, it is not good enough to be told that the civil servants think the problem is too hard to deal with. If we are to tackle such issues, we have to get on with that agenda.
It is a pleasure to follow such an impassioned speaker, although as this is my maiden speech, it might be slightly more temperate. To echo what was said of my hon. Friend Mr. Leigh, I liked the passion, but not many of the sentiments.
It is a humbling experience to stand before the House to make one's maiden speech. Contrary to what hon. Members might have read in The Times, I am not a well preserved septuagenarian, born in 1928. My predecessor, Kerry Pollard, was extremely well known in the constituency, where he served for many years as a magistrate and as a councillor. He was an assiduous attendee at local functions. I shall support as many local functions as I can, but I shall work hard to bring my constituents' concerns to the House. I know that, as a loyal supporter of St. Albans for many years, Mr. Pollard truly was aware of its constituents' many concerns. I look forward to articulating those concerns and to speaking out strongly on behalf of St. Albans.
St. Albans has a rich culture and heritage and, with your indulgence, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall gallop quickly through its history. We learn from history and the history of St. Albans has much to teach us. That history began when the Celts settled in the area: without much regard for the planning regulations of the day, they quickly chucked up a wooden town. The Romans—quick to spot an up-and-coming area—took over and subdued the natives, and Verulamium was born. Queen Boudicca took exception, perhaps because the town had sprung up without planning permission, and she razed it to the ground. However, as they are today, previously developed or brownfield sites were in high demand, and the Romans decided to throw the whole town back up again at greater densities.
Centuries passed and, perhaps as a result of town cramming and the traffic congestion of the day, Roman civilisation declined. People started heading for the countryside. Luckily, there was plenty of countryside in those days for them to head to.
After the Romans, the Saxons invaded. That was about the sixth century. They arrived in Hertfordshire. They took over the site and seventh century Saxons were then converted to Christianity. By the 10th century the abbot, without consulting any locals in the town of St. Albans, decided that it should be enlarged—it is always perilous to decide to enlarge any town without consulting its residents. In a move designed to superheat the area the abbot encouraged new settlers to come, tempting them with material, money and jobs. This unbalanced economic investment in one area led to the inevitable decline of neighbouring Kingsbury, a smaller settlement that did not benefit from the same drive to build and invest by the Government of the day.
The sad decline of Kingsbury led to the town being levelled. Its inhabitants headed off to St. Albans. This was a path-finding initiative of its day. As a result, the old character buildings were razed to the ground and new ones were quickly built in St. Albans for all to fill.
By modern standards, the St. Albans of the day was a rather small settlement. However, what people lacked in numbers they made up for in energy and spirit. The abbot and his agents ruled supreme, often imposing unfair stealth taxes, interfering in the lives of the citizens and, what is worse, micro-managing business and stifling competition. That was outrageous behaviour in its day and it caused much unhappiness. There was bitter quarrelling between the residents. St. Albans had a tetchy time of it during the middle ages.
By 1539, Henry VIII decided that the situation could no longer continue. The power base of the abbey was closed and razed. The townspeople became independent and power was once again returned to a local level. This made the inhabitants extremely happy. St. Albans had its first charter in 1553. Less interference from above meant that the city thrived.
If we jump a few hundred years to the 18th century, St. Albans was well established and a prosperous market town. The Government of the day had appreciated the need to develop a truly sustainable community, and much money had been invested in roads and infrastructure. The London road was built. Travel links to London were good and there were several inns and ale houses. Residents then, unlike residents today, did not seem to be troubled with 24-hour licensing. It seems to have been a pleasant place to live.
The proximity to London and other centres of commerce meant that St. Albans was an attractive place in which to do business, and many industries sprang up locally. In 1836, the first proper police force was formed. Unlike today's police force, it appears that the force was not whisked off to other duties in neighbouring areas. It was on duty, full time, in its neighbourhood, and performed a truly high-visibility local function.
In 1887, St. Albans was made a city. The greatest change came in the 19th century when the railways arrived. There were good links to London, which led to the rapid rise in population and the decline of the stagecoach. The age of the commuter had begun. It took until 1909 for the first buses to arrive. In some areas, the people of St. Albans would say that they still have not arrived. Local villages such as Smallford still find themselves without a decent bus service. Often, residents find themselves experiencing long delays while trying to get from A to B. That is something that we hope will improve.
St. Albans is now a vibrant city with a growing commuter population of more than 18,000. It boasts an international organ festival, a bustling twice-weekly market, numerous historical, archaeological and heritage societies and a spectacular abbey, to name but a few examples of its charms. It is welcoming to many ethnic minority communities, which have positively contributed to the lively and attractive lifestyle that many Albanians enjoy. However, we do not lose sight of the fact that some people are still struggling to find prosperity. House prices are high and there are areas of relative deprivation and poverty.
The city is battling to preserve the best of the old while welcoming the best of the new. Its citizens do not want their city to be preserved in aspic but they do not wish it to be swamped and turned into a faceless commuter suburb of London, devoid of green belt and quality of life.
St. Albans' residents need hospitals and school places. They need the Thameslink 2000 to get started or, more to the point, completed. They need funding. They do not want a £13 million deficit for their local hospital threatening the A and E in Hemel Hempstead to which they have to go. They want to be able to get to the school of their choice and for good schools to be allowed to expand.
Albanians value their villages and their green fields. That is why I welcome in the Queen's Speech Her Majesty's Government's commitment to achieving sustainable development. I hope that it is truly sustainable development. There is support for rural communities—hopefully that does not mean railroading those communities into accepting houses that they do not want—and protection for the natural environment. There is value for the fact that we have beautiful areas surrounding St. Albans. We have natural resources that are in scant supply such as the water resource—the River Ver is in danger of drying up as a result of all the houses that may have to be imposed on the area.
I share the aspirations of Albanians that they will have a beautiful and prosperous environment that is welcoming, with affordable housing and a truly sustainable community. I look forward to holding the Government to account if they do not deliver that sustainability, which has been promised through the Queen's Speech. I look forward also to providing a strong voice for the people of St. Albans and to defending the quality of life that they value. In addition, I look forward to moving the city towards the 21st century while keeping the best of the old and improving the new for the new residents who wish to come and settle in the area, without swamping the established residents who value its heritage.
It is an honour and privilege to follow the impassioned and excellent maiden speech made by Anne Main. She mentioned Queen Boudicca, and I must say that I can see a lot of similarities. I wish her a long and happy time in the House.
My first wish in this new Parliament is to thank the voters of Hartlepool for returning me as their Member of Parliament for a second time. I congratulate not only the hon. Member for St. Albans, but all hon. Members who have delivered their maiden speeches both today and in the previous few days. It is just a few short months since I made my maiden speech from this very spot in the Chamber. At the time I was overwhelmed by the kindness shown by hon. Members on both sides of the House, staff and officials. I only hope that I am able to show the same sort of consideration that was shown to me now that I am a parliamentary veteran of some considerable weeks standing.
I have been in the Chamber for all today's debate and most of Thursday's, and several things have struck me: first, how young all the new Members look; and secondly, the high quality of maiden speeches made. The intake of 2005 will be seen as having a major impact on the affairs of the House and the country, as did the intakes of 1945, 1983 and 1997. I wish all new Members well.
The focus of the Queen's Speech on safer communities and continuing to cut crime, antisocial behaviour and the fear of crime is welcome. There is a good story to tell in my constituency. Crime in Hartlepool has gone down by some 22 per cent. in the past 11 months, which is one of the sharpest falls anywhere in the country. Burglary has gone down by a half in little over 12 months. In 1997, burglaries were at an alarming level—something like 270 a month—but the number of burglaries is now down to fewer than 50 a month. The disruption to the supply of class A drugs has increased by some 30 per cent. The fall in crime by more than a fifth equates to 2,900 fewer victims of crime in my town.
Despite all that good news, fear of crime remains. People's perceptions of how safe our streets are have not kept pace with the official statistics. It must be said that that is largely down to kids hanging around on street corners or in shopping precincts. People going about their business who have to walk past those gangs feel extremely intimidated. The risk of actual violence or criminal activity is low, but it is likely that a person might get a bit of lip or some swearing directed at them. Younger people who walk past such gangs face a greater threat of violence than others.
I am not suggesting that there was a golden age of youth when the rain was always warm, the sun shone constantly in summer holidays and adolescents were fully respectful of adults and authority. For example, for relaxation during the election campaign I watched "Quadrophenia", a film by The Who about mods and their battle with rockers in the early 1960s—well before I was born. It is a good film that demonstrates that youth violence has been with us for decades. I remember reading in history classes about punks, and was especially taken by the headline in the Daily Mirror at the time about the Sex Pistols: "The Filth and the Fury". Similarly, I was 18 in 1990, when apparently civilisation was about to end with the rise of dance culture and groups such as the Stone Roses and the Happy Mondays. It is a natural sign of youth that adolescents will rebel against authority to a degree.
The difference now seems to be that there is a small hard core of youths who have grown up without any apparent acknowledgement of the rules of society—and, yes, with a lack of respect. These kids are 11, 12 or even older, and are taking the mick out of the rest of us. In many cases they are the consequences of generations of unemployment and benefits, and a lack of responsibility. They have not had appropriate parenting and are left to run amok. These kids are not stupid, but refuse to participate in the educational opportunities available to them, and that sort of attitude becomes the acceptable or fashionable stance in the rest of their peer group.
I have seen that myself in my constituency casework—cases in which a kid of 10 is making the lives of an entire street or estate a misery. This kid is not daft. He can manipulate the criminal justice system as astutely as any Philadelphia lawyer, but I can see his life bleakly mapped out now, if his behaviour is not dealt with—breaking windows and setting fire to wheelie bins at 10, petty crime and burglary by 14, a drug habit by the age of 17, more serious crimes and a lifetime of custodial sentences by the time he is 20.
I sincerely hope that this cycle of thuggishness can be halted by the pieces of Home Office legislation outlined in the Queen's Speech. I believe that the legislation will play a part, and I am confident that the three principles to reduce antisocial behaviour and the fear of crime—the three P's: parenting, policing and punishment—will play a major part in the detail of the proposed legislation. I shall consider each of these principles in turn.
As I mentioned, effective parenting is the foundation stone of being a decent citizen, yet for a variety of reasons, in many communities, parenting skills are not embraced or have been eradicated. Some parents do not know the basics, such as how to prepare a nutritious meal. That is why initiatives such as Sure Start, which we as a party do not shout about loudly enough, are so vital. The proposed child care Bill, which will extend children's centres to every community by 2010, is much needed. That will give assistance to parents and provide all children up to the age of 14 with the prospect of safe accommodation in which to learn and play. The work and families Bill will increase scope for parents to stay at home with their children, and that also should be welcomed.
But parenting is much wider than the immediate family unit. Society and its associated organisations also play a role. In the north-east, Cleveland fire brigade has initiated a young firefighters scheme, which takes kids who appear to be heading towards a life of crime and antisocial behaviour and uses the fire service as a role model for discipline, teamwork and social skills. The results are astonishing, with offending and reoffending dramatically reduced. I would like to see such an initiative widened.
We need to be ever bolder and more radical. Ninety-five per cent., if not more, of kids are decent, but may be drawn into gangs and related antisocial behaviour through boredom. I have heard countless times that there is nothing for kids to do and nowhere for them to meet where they feel safe. I urge the Government to be bold in their third term and provide free sports and social facilities for young people. The benefits in terms of reduced antisocial behaviour, less fear in our communities and healthier children would far outweigh the costs. I would welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate following the publication of the Green Paper on youth provision later in this Parliament.
This is a non-confrontational, supportive question. When I was up in Hartlepool, for obvious reasons, last year, one of the big pressures from the youngsters was for a skateboard park near the middle of town so they would not have to be round the war memorial and elsewhere. Can that idea make progress? If the hon. Gentleman needs help, he has only to ask.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. There is a skateboard park in the centre of town, next to the football ground—Hartlepool United is in the play-off finals this Sunday—but it is not used because people do not feel safe there. That is a key issue, on which I am grateful for cross-party support.
The next principle that I mentioned was policing. In this, the Government are heading in the right direction. My constituents want to see the emphasis on neighbourhood and community policing. Neighbourhoods wish to recognise and be able to contact quickly a local police officer who knows the area and the local troublemakers and criminals well, and who is able to police the community effectively. That is already happening in Hartlepool to some extent, with greater numbers of constables and community support officers having a positive effect on people's feelings of reassurance and safety.
However, policing cannot be truly effective unless an appropriate punishment system is in place. People need to see that justice is being done and criminals are being appropriately punished. In many cases, the sentence should be served in the community. I fully agree with moves by the Government to link crimes such as graffiti and damage to the local environment with sentences specifically designed to rectify that crime. Some sort of consistency across the country when sentences are handed out is equally vital. Measures in the Queen's Speech such as the violent crime reduction Bill and the management of offenders and sentencing Bill will help to develop that.
Custodial sentences play a vital role in the justice system, and I was disturbed to read in my briefing pack that with regard to the management of offenders and sentencing Bill, the Sentencing Guidelines Council will take capacity into account when sentencing. That seems to suggest that if the prisons are full, an offender whose crime warrants imprisonment will not go to jail. I hope that I have misinterpreted that passage, which seems to fly in the face of other Government measures, and that my concerns will be dealt with by those on the Treasury Bench.
In general, I support the home affairs measures in the Queen's Speech. They continue to push the criminal justice system towards supporting the victim, and I look forward to debating them in greater detail in the weeks and months to come.
I compliment Mr. Wright on his witty and thought-provoking contribution to this debate, and the hon. Members who have spoken for the first time today. I am pleased to be called so early in this Parliament to make my maiden speech as Member of Parliament for Clwyd, West.
My predecessor, Gareth Thomas, who won the seat in 1997, was well regarded in the constituency as a conscientious and hard-working Member. He and I are both lawyers and we are on excellent personal terms, despite the result on
Clwyd, West is possibly one of the most diverse constituencies in the country, certainly in Wales. It is situated in the very north of Wales, and consists essentially of two parts. The northern, coastal portion is a virtually continuous conurbation stretching from Kinmel bay to Rhos-on-Sea, and there the most predominantly spoken language is English, often infused with the rich vowel sounds of Yorkshire and Lancashire.
The southern part of the constituency is very different in character. Agriculture is still the most important industry, and the language of most of its inhabitants is Welsh. At the heart of this southern area lies the beautiful and historic town of Ruthin. It was there in 1400 that Owain Glyndwr raised his standard, starting a civil war that spread throughout Wales and lasted for the best part of a decade. Glyndwr set fire to Ruthin and only two buildings survived, one of which, Nantclwyd house, is being restored by Denbighshire county council.
Another famous Ruthin building is Sir John Trevor house in Castle street, named after a former Speaker of this House, who in 1695 was accused of accepting a bribe from the City of London and was expelled from Parliament, although remarkably enough he retained his office as Master of the Rolls until his death in 1717, thus demonstrating that in those days at least, higher standards were expected of politicians than of the judiciary.
Ruthin is surrounded by the glorious Vale of Clwyd, dotted with villages, whose very names—Llanynys, Llanychan, Llanarmon yn Iâl, Clawddnewydd, Clocaenog and Cyffylliog—speak to the inherent poetry of the ancient Welsh language. But lest it be thought that I represent some sort of latter-day Arcadia, I should add that my constituency has experienced some difficulties over recent years.
The foot and mouth episode caused devastation to the agricultural and tourist industries, and recovery has been slow. Farmers still wrestle with difficult rules on the disposal of fallen stock, which are impossible to administer in practice, and the six-day movement restriction is causing severe hardship. Those are matters that will have to be addressed by the House. There are also local worries over proposals to close rural schools. The schools in Prion and Rhewl in particular are under threat. I propose to do everything that I can to ensure that those schools survive and thrive.
The largest town in the northern portion of my constituency is Colwyn Bay, which grew up in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a retirement and holiday resort for people primarily from the north-west of England. Colwyn Bay has fallen on hard times recently, although there are some signs of regeneration. Antisocial behaviour is particularly prevalent, and during the recent general election campaign that matter was constantly raised by residents, with many saying that they were concerned about going out after dark.
I consider it outrageous that people do not feel safe on the streets of their own towns, and something needs to be done urgently. The Gracious Speech carries proposals to clamp down on the possession of knives, but I note that we already have a plethora of legislation on the carrying of offensive weapons. It would be more appropriate proactively to enforce the current legislation through high-visibility policing and more police.
Colwyn Bay also has a significant drug problem, which has increased in recent years. The local newspaper recently reported that a white van has been seen cruising about the town selling drugs, much in the manner of an ice cream van. Not unreasonably, that report has caused severe concern to parents of children in the town. Many of my constituents and I believe that downgrading cannabis from class B to class C was ill advised. The Government are examining that decision, and I hope that they have the courage to admit that they were wrong and reverse the measure.
I also note that the Gracious Speech contains a commitment by the Government to
"creating safe and secure communities, and fostering a culture of respect", about which we have heard so much this afternoon and this evening. That is all well and good, but respect is a process that should move in several directions—most particularly, it should move down from the top. Any Government should show respect to those whom they govern.
I have already mentioned that my constituency is diverse. It is not, perhaps, racially diverse, but it is certainly diverse in terms of culture, language, aspiration and lifestyle. Teenage tearaways who make life unbearable for other people clearly deserve condemnation, but most young people are decent people, and they deserve our respect. We could start showing them respect by recording crimes committed against those under the age of 16 in the British crime survey, because young people are most likely to be the victims of crime at the hands of street thugs.
Older people, perhaps more than any other section of our community, also deserve respect. Council tax rebanding in Wales has caused many of my constituents, who now dread their annual council tax bill, severe financial hardship. More and more pensioners are being forced to resort to means tests, which they find demeaning, and more could be done to make means tests more respectful of those whom they serve.
People in the rural parts of my constituency have recently suffered not only as a result of the foot and mouth episode, which I have mentioned, but at the Government's hands through the ban on fox hunting. Their lives are far removed from those of the Hampstead thinkers who regard fox hunting as anathema. The Burns report was commissioned and then ignored, which also showed a lack of respect. It is time that the Government recognised that the lifestyles of those in rural areas are different, and that the countryside is a place in which people work and live, not simply a place of recreation for city dwellers.
Those who face large-scale developments such as the two wind farms planned for my constituency should also be shown respect. One of those wind farms, the Gwynt-y-Mor wind farm, would be one of the largest offshore wind farms in the world, while the construction of the other might well result in the felling of up to one fifth of Clocaenog forest, where it would be located. The planning regime in this country is such that local residents' representations are largely irrelevant, and a respectful Government would take into account the views of those people whose lives would be fundamentally touched by such developments.
The legislative programme outlined in the Gracious Speech is extensive, and it affects Wales, and therefore my constituency, perhaps more than any other part of the United Kingdom. Indeed, the Secretary of State for Wales announced with some delight that Wales had an unprecedented number of Bills in this Session, and I am sure that the people of Wales are delighted at the superabundance of legislation that is about to be bestowed upon them. That programme must receive support where it deserves it; it must be challenged, where appropriate; and it must always be carefully and closely scrutinised. I consider it a great privilege to be entrusted with those tasks by the electors of Clwyd, West.
I pay tribute to the excellent speech by Mr. Jones, who was a passionate advocate for his constituency. I knew his predecessor, to whom he paid a gracious tribute, well. The hon. Gentleman spoke on several issues that relate to his constituency but have national implications. I have no doubt that he has a distinguished future in this House.
Listening to him—indeed, listening to every one of today's maiden speeches—prompted me to think how deeply rooted Members become, often very rapidly, in their constituencies. That led me on to a further thought—that those who would dabble with the method by which people are elected to this House should consider the implications carefully, and perhaps read this debate, which exemplifies the importance of the constituency link. This House can take great pride in the strength of that deeply rooted link between the individual Member and his or her constituency. It has been exemplified by all those who today spoke for the first time in this House and I pay tribute to every one of them.
A second thought occurred to me as I listened to the debate, prompted by, among others, my hon. Friend Edward Miliband, who is my neighbour. I knew his father well in the 1970s, and it makes me feel old to remember my hon. Friend and his brother as much younger than they are now. I was reminded of the extent to which Members of this House come from a diversity of backgrounds. My mother's family came to this country from pogroms against Russian Jews. Many Members have similar backgrounds. The father of my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, North graced the intellectual life of this country—he was a prominent European intellectual and a great man—and his sons will grace the House in representing their constituencies. That made me think how foolish was the policy to have a numerical cap on the number of people who should be allowed into this country, which would have been implemented had the Conservatives had their way. Many of the people who went on to enter this House, or whose children and grandchildren did so, might well have been prevented from coming here.
I want to make a few points about the Queen's Speech, but will try to curtail them in view of the fact that there are still Members wishing to speak. The first relates to incapacity benefit, which affects many households in my constituency. In Streethouse, for example, more than 60 per cent. of households have somebody, often the prime earner, on long-term sickness or incapacity benefit, often as a result of working in the mining industry. I am pleased that the Government have agreed the massive compensation package that has been debated in this House many times. About £70 million has been paid to people who have long-term illnesses as a result, frankly, of the negligence of the National Coal Board. It is a fabulous and welcome programme. Many of those men have been on incapacity benefit for 20 years, since the pits closed, and some for longer than that.
I do not believe that the villages that I represent will regenerate fully until larger numbers of people earn an income. If we can persuade people off incapacity benefit, that will be a good step towards helping to bring about regeneration. I hope that we shall do that through enticement rather than coercion. I received private assurances from the previous Secretary of State that the Government would want to continue in that way. On that basis, I believe that a consensus can be achieved with people such as me.
Let us briefly consider the health service. In most hon. Members' constituencies, the local hospital plays an important role and is a valued asset to the people whom we represent. In my constituency, there are two hospitals, Pinderfields and Pontefract, both of which are receiving much needed investment from the Labour Government. They are also undergoing massive change, some of which will inevitably impose some strains. Doubtless, the doctors, nurses, technicians and administrators will do their best to ensure that there are centres of excellence in both parts of the constituency. However, I am slightly worried about the announcement only hours after the election that we will now put 1.7 million operations into the private sector.
If that initiative is about increasing overall capacity, I have no problem with it because it means that some of my constituents will receive operations earlier, but if, as I fear, the effect is somehow to cream off capacity from the national health service—mathematically, it is hard to understand how else it can happen—that is an entirely different matter. Any sign of a reduction in NHS capacity either at Pontefract or Pinderfields as a result of a decision to outsource to what the Government choose to call the independent sector would be most regrettable and meet resistance from my constituents. I would feel that they were justified in resisting such proposals. I shall therefore examine carefully the precise way in which the policy rolls out.
I want briefly to mention city academies. In a place such as London, where millions of people live cheek by jowl, and high schools are close together—perhaps only a mile or a mile and a half apart—a choice agenda may well be an appropriate way in which to structure public services. However, in an area such as mine, which has 24 separate villages with only four secondary schools, the choice agenda is meaningless, especially when there is little co-ownership and poor public transport and highways infrastructure. The capacity of parents and young people for exercising choice is limited simply through geography and the dispersed nature of the communities that I represent. It is therefore hard to understand how a programme that effectively means the construction of 200 schools at £5 billion can be offered as a panacea for the whole country.
One could almost use the term "bog-standard". A bog-standard regime—I use the term advisedly—will be implemented throughout the country, irrespective of the heterogeneity of the various communities that comprise it. The initiative needs to be examined in the greatest detail if the Government are to demonstrate that it is not an ideological imposition from above. They must produce some evidence, which does not currently exist, to show that the policy will work across the broad range of communities that make up this country.
I know that other hon. Members wish to speak, so although I had more to say, I shall conclude my remarks.
As possibly the last speaker this evening to make a maiden speech, I pay tribute to all hon. Members who have made their maiden speeches today. They have been interesting, principled and often humorous. I should also like to extend my sympathies to those who still wait.
I am grateful for the opportunity to make my maiden speech on the day that we discuss home affairs and communities because I believe that campaigning on local issues that are dear to the hearts of Solihull people has got me here today. Indeed, I am immensely grateful for being here at all, having overturned a majority of more than 9,400 votes and won by the slender majority of only 279. I am the first ever Liberal Democrat to have the honour of representing the people of Solihull, and the first ever woman Liberal Democrat to be elected to the House from the west midlands. That is a great honour, and a responsibility that I do not take lightly.
While I am personally very grateful to be here, I am also mindful of the fact that the majority of the constituents of Solihull did not vote for me. Indeed, as a proportion of the electorate, even fewer electors voted for this Government. In the interests of fairness and the desire for every voter to feel that their vote counts, I am disappointed that no time in this parliamentary Session has been allocated to discuss the issue of fair votes.
It is appropriate on this occasion for me to mention my predecessor, Mr. John Taylor, who served the people of Solihull in this place for 22 years. Before that, he was a Member of the European Parliament, and prior to that he was a local councillor. That is a fantastic record of service to his community and I am sure that all Members will join me in wishing Mr. Taylor a happy and healthy retirement in his beloved Solihull. Indeed, only three Members have served the people of Solihull in Parliament since the borough was created in 1945, serving an average of 20 years each. I hope that I can also look forward to a long term of service, although 20 years could, in all probability, qualify me for the exalted position of Mother of the House.
Home affairs and communities are hugely important to the people of Solihull. Our motto is "Urbs in Rure", which, for the non-classically trained such as myself, means "town in the country". Solihull sits on the south-east boundary between Birmingham and the Warwickshire countryside. Some people, particularly in the west midlands, have an image of Solihull as a place where posh people live. It is a much sought-after place to live, but I can tell the House that there is a lot more to Solihull than being posh. Within the constituency, there are the strong communities of Shirley, to the west, and Olton, Lyndon and Elmdon to the north. At its heart is Silhill—Solihull's people as a whole are sometimes referred to as Silhillians—and St. Alphege, which was named after a local nobleman who refused to allow a ransom to be paid after he was kidnapped. He was beaten to death with mutton bones by his kidnappers.
So, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you can see that the people of Solihull do not like to be messed with. They also care passionately about their environment. I have mentioned our motto, "Urbs in Rure". A key issue in Solihull—and, I am sure, elsewhere—is the continuing urbanisation of our increasingly few green spaces. In a nutshell, there is too much urbs and not enough rure. Parkland throughout the borough is being sold off for development to fund capital projects and regeneration. What right has a local authority to sell off our children's green heritage? When that green space has gone, it has gone for ever. That is not all. Our lovely old, sometimes historic, buildings are also falling into the hands of developers who seem to capitalise on every inch to erect blocks of luxury flats, which are destroying the very character of our communities, and the very quality that makes people proud to be Silhillians.
Faced with these developers, our local council is hamstrung by central Government's planning guidance rules, which do little to provide the starter homes in Solihull that would enable our children to stay in our community when they grow up. If our local council turns a developer's application down, it runs the risk of being taken to court and not only having the decision reversed but having to pay the developer's costs as well as its own, which simply adds insult to injury. People feel powerless, and they are. Successive Conservative and Labour Governments have stripped local authorities of many of their powers to make decisions for their communities. We want communities to have as much power as possible to make decisions for themselves.
If I can achieve one thing for the people of Solihull, it will be to help to restore the balance and give local people more of a say, particularly in the planning decisions that shape their environment and ultimately their lives.
By my calculation, we have had 15 maiden speeches this evening, to most of which I have had the privilege of listening. It would take up most of my allocated time were I to comment on all of them, and in order not to show too much favouritism towards one Member or another, I shall not do so. I want to compliment all of you, however, on the confidence with which you have spoken, and the speed with which you have taken to the task. I have checked with one of my hon. Friends and calculated that when we entered Parliament we did not manage to make our maiden speeches until at least July. I commend you all highly. I congratulate particularly my new neighbour, Lorely Burt, on making her maiden speech this evening, and thank her for paying tribute to my colleague, John Taylor. I am sure that when he reads Hansard he will appreciate the reference to his 22-year record in this place.
I also pay tribute to the tone with which you have made your maiden speeches. It was rather better—
Order. I have given the hon. Lady a little leeway, but she has been using the second person when she should be using the third person in referring to other hon. Members.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
I was just about to say that the tone of new hon. Members' speeches was rather better than the intemperate tone adopted by the Home Secretary in his outburst at the start of this debate, which showed little evidence of the respect which the Prime Minister has commended to all of us as parliamentarians.
Let me start by congratulating the Minister of Communities and Local Government, Mr. Miliband, on his promotion to the Cabinet. I wonder whether there could be two of us shadowing the Deputy Prime Minister now. I had to seek a little clarification of the roles of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister of Communities and Local Government, and fortuitously, this evening, I have received a letter from the Prime Minister containing a press notice explaining the Deputy Prime Minister's new roles. Apparently, he will have a diplomatic role representing the UK abroad and a formal role promoting the interests of the north across Government. That press notice, however, is dated
I wish the Minister well, particularly in breaking down the silo mentality of Departments, which hinders regeneration. He could begin by simplifying the 48 different funding streams available for regeneration. He will have our support if he can encourage a more flexible approach.
Why, after eight years in power, have the Government suddenly decided to appoint a Minister of Communities? Could it be that after four weeks of real engagement with communities, the Government have discovered that communities feel ignored, dictated to and trampled on by their zeal for centralisation? In fairness, the word "communities" did come up in the previous Parliament, mostly in relation to the so-called sustainable communities plan. The sense of being dictated to, however, was nowhere more apparent than in that grand house-building scheme. I remember visiting the Essex village of Roydon, which is faced with a threefold increase in size as a result of a decision of the unelected East of England regional assembly, against the wishes of the villagers and their local representatives. This sense of disempowerment is undermining community spirit. The word "sustainable" has been tacked on to "communities", and it could not be further from the truth for a community that is certainly not being offered a threefold increase in its infrastructure to go with the imposition of new homes.
The mismatch between house building and the environment's capacity to cope with it is the main reason why the Conservative party opposed the sustainable communities plan. The one exception is the Thames Gateway project, most of which involves building on brownfield land. The Government's plans to concrete over the south-east of England are unsustainable, as the Environmental Audit Committee has made clear. I implore the Government, rather than simply imposing more and more housing demands on a part of the country that is already suffering in terms of both infrastructure and environment, to take a more holistic look at why we have migration to the south and east, and why we are not achieving more balanced economic growth across the country.
I speak, of course, as a midlands MP. Areas throughout the midlands and the north would embrace an opportunity for growth. Have we learned nothing from the 1960s demolition process that gave birth to concrete tower blocks? The Government plan to demolish no fewer than 400,000 Victorian terraces to combat crime.
It is not just the strategy that undermines communities, it is the use of regionalisation as a means of delivering it that is so damaging. The Deputy Prime Minister's obsession with regionalisation is deeply at odds with the needs of the community. Taking power away from local government and giving it to regional bodies further removed from the locality is deeply unpopular. Even after the resounding rejection of a north-east regional assembly last autumn, the Deputy Prime Minister said stubbornly that he was not giving up on the regional dimension, and he clearly meant it. Since November, we have seen more powers removed from local government and given to regional bodies. The matters over which they have control range from the critical, such as the soon-to-be-announced regional fire control rooms, to the bureaucratic, in the form of regional tobacco strategies. In addition we have regional waste incineration strategies, regional house-building targets, regional planning, regional housing boards and regional transport boards.
Bypassing local government means bypassing local people and local communities. Communities are strong when they feel empowered and safer when they feel stronger. The signs of the weakening of community safety are all around us. Graffiti, swearing in the street and vandalism are all symptomatic of a lack of consideration for others, but such actions often go well beyond lack of consideration. Late-night drunken behaviour has gone beyond being merely embarrassing. It is now sinister, intimidating and often violent, and it is commonplace. Bit by bit, we are surrendering our town centres to the yobs when night falls, and allowing them to become a social wasteland. I have a 14-year-old daughter, and the prospect of letting her go into the centre of Birmingham at night would fill me with trepidation.
The philosopher Thomas Hobbes articulated a vision of society in which life was
"solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short".
A glance through some of the late-night CCTV footage in many of our town centres conjures up images not far short of that. For the first time there are now 1 million violent crimes a year, and half of them are alcohol-related. The financial cost is put at £12 billion a year; the social cost is almost incalculable.
My worry is that the Government have accelerated that trend with the rush to introduce late-night licences in existing pubs and bars, and the obstructions that they have created for communities seeking to oppose applications for new licences. I understand that a number of arguments can be advanced in favour of more flexibility on licensing hours, but the Government's approach involves an in-built presumption in favour of extended-licence applications and new applications. Not only is that unfair to the communities affected, but it defies the practical realities of how communities can serve the needs of 24-hour opening.
In London, for example, I am not convinced that we have the necessary public transport capacity to convey people safely to and from clubs and bars at all hours of the night. That is an issue especially for women. However, not all crime is alcohol derived. More and more is drug fuelled and many acts of yobbery are a symptom of boredom, a lack of social opportunity and a lack of self-respect. Often, that manifests itself on our housing estates and around urban shops.
There are myriad ways in which the construction of communities themselves can be instrumental in reducing crime. Much research has been undertaken to see how crime can be designed out of new housing estates, but the depressing truth is that the design of 21st century estates seems to have ignored the lessons of 1960s architecture, where rat runs and concealed areas create havens for crime. The research shows how simple things, ranging from the construction of cul-de-sacs to limit-escape routes to the provision of parking spaces outside people's homes so that owners can keep an eye on their cars, are all effective in developing safer communities.
The fact that the Queen's Speech puts the accent on safer communities is an admission that people do not feel safe in their homes and when they leave their homes. The Prime Minister acknowledged that and said that we need more visible uniformed individuals on the street, but he stopped short of saying police. Is that because the Government have run out of money to provide the real McCoy—beat bobbies with the power of arrest? As the deputy chief constable of north Wales put it:
"Community Support Officers offer 10% of the powers for about 90% of the cost".
Hon. Members may like to know that, if all the increase in the police precept had been used for police since 1997, there would be 15,000 more police on the streets by now.
May I say how popular the police community support officers are in my constituency? Indeed, members of the Glebe Court residents association are so thrilled with the improvement in their quality of life because of their PCSOs that they have suggested to other residents and tenants associations that they campaign for them, too. I urge the hon. Lady, therefore, not to suggest that they are not a great benefit to local people, because they certainly are in Mitcham and Morden.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention, but the point that I am making is the important one made by the police professionals: it costs virtually the same to put police community support officers on the street as police officers, but they do not have the power of police officers. Perhaps we should reflect on the short-term approach that the Government have adopted to the problem of safer communities.
Rather than bestowing more power on police community support officers or even trying to get more of them, why do we not give more power to police specials? In Bournemouth, for example, only one third of the specials quota has been met, yet all the police community support officers to whom I have spoken would be delighted to get rid of their uniform and become special constables were they to be given a salary. If we give those people a salary, we will have people who are trained and have the power of arrest, unlike police community support officers, which is policing on the cheap. [Interruption.]
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. Labour Members should not mock the role of the specials. It should not be forgotten that the specials work voluntarily.
I wanted to make a point about community safety and the danger of taking a short-term view. Central Government funding for four out of five community safety warden schemes ran out on
As the legislative programme unfolds, the country will be watching with interest to see what measures the Government will put in place to address the growing crisis in housing affordability. So soon after you urged Ministers to make their announcements in Parliament rather than through the media, Mr. Speaker, the drip-feed news over the weekend of the Government's shared equity proposals plainly ignored this advice. Why did they not use the occasion of the Queen's Speech to announce their shared equity proposals tonight? In any event, the announcement will pre-empt their consultation period on the homebuy scheme, which is due to run until the end of September.
There is also a serious omission from the Queen's Speech: the lack of measures to tackle the shameful rise in homelessness. I look forward to hearing what action the Government will take on homelessness and on creating communities that are safe, sustainable and socially cohesive.
It is a privilege to wind up today's debate and I thank Mrs. Spelman for her kind words and for the tenor of her contribution. Members will know that the Government's general election manifesto promised opportunities more equal and communities more secure. Those aspirations are at the heart of the Queen's Speech, and I am pleased to say that they were at the heart of today's debate.
My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary set out how the Government plan to build on the successes of police, courts and local councils in tackling crime and antisocial behaviour, as well as to take forward proposals on asylum and immigration. Debate on some aspects of the proposals will no doubt be fierce, but today's debate has shown that there is room for more unity across parties and—dare I say it?—within parties as well.
In respect of affordable housing, efficient planning, tackling poverty and improving local services and local democracy, the ministerial team in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister will be working, under the leadership of the Deputy Prime Minister, to extend the opportunity on which strong communities depend. I shall set out our agenda of action tonight, but I am first able to congratulate new Members on their maiden speeches. In fact, I counted 16 such speeches, rather than the 15 that the hon. Member for Meriden mentioned. You will be pleased to hear, Mr. Speaker, that those speeches have been delivered with great modesty when the content required no modesty at all, and with great respect for the traditions of the House, notably in the generous tributes paid by all such Members to their predecessors.
Two themes have dominated today's debate: civic pride, and pride in roots. We have learned a lot about our country today: about the hat industry in Denton and Reddish; about the racing industry in Newbury; about the marine heritage of Portsmouth; about the lifeboats of Bridgend; about the manufacturing industry of Dudley, North; about the biscuits of Reading; about the Olympics that are coming to West Ham; about tourism in Colwyn bay; about the universities of Dundee—Stewart Hosie is in his place—and about the history of Albanians. The whole House will doubtless know that the story of Albanians is of course the story of St. Albans. We have also learned that castles for the masses are available in Windsor at the Legoland factory—I am sorry that Adam Afriyie is not in place—and about the posh, and not so posh, parts of Solihull. I congratulate all those Members.
As I said, there has been a second theme in today's debate, following the outstanding speech of my right hon. Friend Sir Gerald Kaufman. Daniel Kawczynski explained that although his predecessor changed parties—quite often—the hon. Gentleman will not be changing his Polish name and I congratulate him on that. My hon. Friend Mr. Khan spoke of his pride in his immigrant roots, and the hon. Members for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer) and for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) spoke about the diversity of their constituencies. I hope that I can also mention that in a House of Commons tour de force, John Bercow not only remembered each of the maiden speeches that had come before; he also reminded his party that firmness without fairness is no basis for immigration policy. The Conservative Front Bench's loss is the House's gain.
I hope that the House will not mind if I say that I paid special attention to the maiden speech of my hon. Friend Edward Miliband. I am grateful to Mr. Wilson for noting the special pride that I felt on hearing the words of my hon. Friend. His speech carried the passion and insight that I would expect of my younger brother, and it confirmed very clearly that after the birth of a first child, parents should not be discouraged. It is wise to proceed on the maxim that if at first you don't succeed, try again.
I hope that Mr. Oaten will not mind if I say that we were disappointed that we were not able today to hear from Sarah Teather. We look forward to her debut on the Front Bench and we all wish her well in her attempt to disentangle her leader from the local income tax.
David Davis has been a Member of this House for 18 years, but his speech was also a maiden in one respect; his first on the campaign trail for the Conservative leadership.
There is certainly a place for my hon. Friend in my speech-writing team.
Having survived decapitation by the Liberal Democrats, the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden must feel ready for the decapitation strategy launched by the leader of his own party. However, I have to say that, this time, Brian Sedgemore will not be there to save the day for him.
Having changed parties, Mr. Sedgemore may still be ready to ride to the rescue.
I know that, in recent months, the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden has got used to the gentle style, good manners and straight talking of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. I suggest, in a spirit of comradeship, that the right hon. Gentleman be more wary when he goes into battle with Dr. Fox, who we understand from the newspapers has been in America taking lessons on negative campaigning in primary contests. I urge the right hon. Gentleman to be careful.
The hon. Gentleman says he is terrified. His card has been marked by the hon. Member for Woodspring; I do not think that he is a supporter.
Without opportunity, security and democracy, there is no community; the hon. Member for Meriden and I would agree on that. In the last eight years, the Government have worked to put those foundations of community in place. The opportunity to work has been extended to more than 2 million people; the opportunity of home ownership has been extended to more than 1 million; the opportunity to make up for failed education has been extended to 750,000 people without basic skills. The security that comes from a local police team has been extended by 13,000 extra police officers. The security of decent housing has been extended to 1 million social housing tenants. The security of effective local services has been extended by investment and reform of local public services.
Will the right hon. Gentleman explain why, in eight years of Labour government, fewer than 3,000 council houses have been built, whereas in the first eight years of the Thatcher Government, 350,000 council houses were built?
I would be happy to go into the situation in detail with the hon. Gentleman, but my understanding of the situation is that the receipts from council house sales have been put into upgrading existing properties, which in large part explains why house building has not been as high as the hon. Gentleman might expect. However, house building levels this year are higher than at any stage since 1991. I hope that we can find common cause at least on that issue. The fact that the social housing budget is doubling to £2 billion is something on which the hon. Gentleman should congratulate the Government, rather than condemn us.
The democracy that comes from clear leadership of local government, and from locally elected mayors and the cabinet system, about which we heard today, and the democracy that is enhanced—here I agree with the hon. Member for Meriden—by the devolution of power from town hall to neighbourhoods, as well as from Government to the town hall; all of this is happening around out country.
Several hon. Members mentioned housing. The needs are indeed diverse. Rough sleeping is down by 70 per cent. and interest rates have been halved from the levels of the 1980s, and house building numbers in 2004 are higher than at any stage since 1991. But we recognise the challenges, too; notably for first-time buyers trying to get into the housing market and for council tenants wanting home improvements. I believe that there is room for serious discussion in this House about how to help these diverse groups.
But I say in all candour to Opposition Members that they cannot complain about the lack of affordable housing while denouncing plans for new building as the end of civilisation as we know it. The hon. Member for Meriden said that she opposed house building in the south-east but the Tory election manifesto for London says that they will continue to support the Thames gateway elements of the sustainable communities plan. [Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Meriden will contain her enthusiasm, I will explain why I raised this point.
The hon. Lady also said that she wanted to shift the burden of house building to the midlands, where she is a representative. However, her election leaflet has four cases of when she will oppose house building in her constituency. I urge her to practise consistency on these issues.
I made it clear that we support the Thames Gateway project because 80 per cent. of it is on brownfield sites. I made the case in my election leaflet for brownfield redevelopment, of which there is plenty in the midlands to be going along with.
Perhaps I can drag the right hon. Gentleman away from the spat with the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman, fun though it is.
The Minister mentioned various aspects of tackling the housing crisis, but when will the Government introduce the secondary legislation promised in the Housing Act 2004 to deal with the problem of empty homes? There are an estimated 700,000 such properties. They are a blight on our communities, and we are trying to deal with regeneration. Not only that, however, they are a scandal when so many people, who are desperate to be housed, are languishing on council lists in complete misery.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that and congratulate her on getting into the debate even though she did not get the chance to make a full speech. She mentions the importance of the council housing stock in respect of empty homes. I think she will agree that 550,000 of the 700,000 empty homes are not in the council sector, but in the private sector. The problem involves complex issues. I am happy to take them up with her, but it is not as simple as saying that 700,000 council homes are empty.
I hope we can agree that we need to increase the supply of housing as well as help those who are trying to get on the housing ladder. The recommendations of the Barker review laid out a clear economic and social agenda in respect of housing supply. We will respond to that report in the course of the year.
The plans for four growth areas are in full swing, and I am pleased if we have the support of the Opposition Front-Bench team on that. The programme to release public sector land for housing is under way. Planning reform is delivering faster decisions. We are determined to move the housing debate forward, not just on the supply side, but on the demand side, too.
For first-time buyers, for key workers in our public services and for those on modest incomes renting from a council or the housing association sector, we believe that it is right to make home ownership more affordable. That is why in January my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister set out in his five-year plan for housing the benefit of shared equity schemes. In April, we published a major consultation paper "HomeBuy—expanding the opportunity to own", which set out detailed proposals to extend the scheme. It also outlined the outcome of discussions with the Council of Mortgage Lenders on exciting proposals for those private mortgage lenders to extend equity loans to first-time buyers buying on the open market. We want to explore with the CML extending the scheme to new build homes, which would allow us to help more people into home ownership. I would have thought that that would have support on both sides of the House.
On regeneration, Labour believes that good housing and social regeneration must go together. It is people, not houses, who make communities. That is why the Government are committed, in every part of the country, to extend the drive to tackle anti-social behaviour—[Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden is welcome to intervene. Measures include neighbourhood policing teams, closed circuit television, neighbourhood wardens, which are making an outstanding contribution to safety in our communities, the determination to close crack houses and to crack down on drug dealing, and clear powers for local authorities in respect of neighbourly behaviour. We should be looking for Conservative support for licensing legislation and the powers that it will give local councils to take account of local views on such issues. However, as several hon. Members said, there is another side of the coin. The commitment to high-quality youth services, the commitment to sports, leisure and arts facilities, the after-school clubs and voluntary sports leagues, and the employment measures to tackle worklessness are essential to make a difference to young and sometimes aimless lives.
In 88 of the most disadvantaged local authority districts, the Government have a specific programme to send a clear message. We will extend rights through investment, but we want to promote responsibility, too. Eight years ago, social exclusion was not recognised on the Floor of the House. Now, employment rates and educational standards are rising faster in those 88 neighbourhood renewal areas than the national averages. Eight years on, I hope that the whole House can commit fully to ensure that we never again have a minority of the country that is cut off from the mainstream, with disadvantages in housing, employment, education and income piled on top of each other, creating misery from one generation to the next.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I do not know whether he is raising a London-specific issue, but the creation of high-quality sports facilities—"sports" being broadly defined—is essential. [Hon. Members: "Hartlepool."] Simon Hughes was raising a specific point to which I was responding. I visited my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool in his constituency to help to campaign for him. As a local councillor he did an awful lot to promote high-quality, affordable sporting facilities, and I glad to back him in that drive.
All these aspirations, from housing to antisocial behaviour and youth services, require a strong partnership between central and local government. The best of local government can teach central Government and the private sector a thing or two about how to meet complex demands, and it is vital that the best practice is spread across the whole of local government. On Friday, I met the council leaders and chief executives of England's eight biggest cities outside London. Incidentally, all three political parties were represented, and there was an independent. I found common ground about the challenges—a tough global economy, rising demands on public services and citizens wanting more say. Yet I found, too, common ground on the solutions—the importance of education, including higher education, the need to tackle crime and antisocial behaviour, the key role of public-private partnership and the importance of transport links.
Eight years ago, my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister talked about his vision of urban renaissance. Around the country that renaissance is evident today. The Conservative party may not have many MPs in our big cities, but I suggest that its members pay them a visit. Central Government have an important role to play, promoting local leadership at local level, providing the right incentives for service improvement, supporting new models for the devolution of power to neighbourhoods and backing strategic projects, from the Bristol harbourside to the Sage in Gateshead, which breathe confidence into towns and cities. This we are determined to do.
Central Government also have an important partnership with local government in respect of local government finance. We share responsibility with local government for raising public money. I am pleased, as, I hope, is the whole House, about the 33 per cent. increase in grants to local government since the election of this Government in 1997. We share responsibility, too, for driving over £6 billion of efficiency savings through the system as part of the Gershon agenda—another area in which there is room for cross-party co-operation. We also share responsibility for ensuring a disciplined and effective approach to council tax. We look forward to the report of the Lyons review in December to help shape a national debate about the best method of raising local government finance.
We have had an excellent debate today on the themes of equal opportunities and strong communities. The Government believe that there is such a thing as society, and it finds tangible form in our diverse communities, from quiet villages to busy cities. Across Britain, the Queen's Speech has made clear, there is a renewal of civil pride, as the silent majority of citizens who want to live well together stand up for their vision of a thriving village, town or city. Those communities are made by people, not Government, but we are determined to do all that we can to help, and in the months and years ahead that is what we will do. I commend the Gracious Speech to the House.
Debate adjourned.—[Mr. Heppell.]
Debate to be resumed tomorrow.