I wish to inform the House that I have selected for debate the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition.
I beg to move, as an amendment to the Address, at end add—
'but regret that the Gracious Speech does not contain measures to address the major challenges the British economy now faces to ensure its competitiveness in the light of unprecedented global competition;
further regret the absence of measures to bridge the skills gap so that the UK has the right skills for tomorrow's economy;
deplore the failure to include in the Gracious Speech a credible programme for cutting the burden of regulation which stifles business and holds back entrepreneurs;
condemn the absence of measures to ensure value for taxpayers' money in order to improve public services and remove the need for further tax increases;
and further regret the absence of measures in the Gracious Speech to tackle the pensions crisis to which Government policy has contributed, or to encourage savings to help give people greater security and dignity in retirement.'.
Let me start by congratulating the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. Brown, on his new constituency, and on his reappointment as Chancellor. He is the longest serving Chancellor in recent British history, and I genuinely congratulate him on that impressive record. I know that he sees himself as Prime Minister in waiting, and I only hope that he proves better at being Prime Minister than he has been at waiting.
I welcome my right hon. Friend Sir Malcolm Rifkind back to his place. Later today he will demonstrate to new Members how to deliver a kind of maiden speech while winding up a Queen's Speech debate. It is traditional for a new Member to take us on a tour of their constituency, and I am particularly looking forward to my right hon. Friend praising the progressive thinking to be found in Notting Hill.
Last week at the CBI's annual dinner, the Chancellor called for a national consensus on the way ahead for our economy. He said that the Government should be more humble—not a word that regularly passes the lips of this Chancellor of the Exchequer. Perhaps he stumbled across it while looking up "hubris" in the dictionary.
Let us explore the Chancellor's new-found humility and put his call for a national consensus to the test. I am willing to acknowledge that the British economy has enjoyed 51 quarters of continuous growth if he is willing to acknowledge that by the time he entered office, 19 of them had already happened. I am willing to accept that giving the Bank of England independence was the right thing to do, if he is ready to accept the recent Bank of England report that says that the current period of remarkable stability began five years before Labour came to power.
I am happy to recognise the value of his golden rule, if he is happy to recognise that it is undermined because the Chancellor is his own judge and jury on that rule. Whatever happened to the panel of independent forecasters that would decide whether the golden rule had been met? The Chancellor proposed it himself 10 years ago, but when that idea appeared in our manifesto this year, he opposed it. What sort of national consensus are we going to build if he cannot even agree with his own ideas?
I will also support the Chancellor's sustainable investment rule, if he will publish more honest national accounts. A report says today that £40 billion-worth of private finance initiative and other liabilities are hidden off balance sheets. We should stop this fiddling and have an independent national statistics office. It was in the Labour manifesto in 1997, and it was in our manifesto this year. What more of a consensus is he looking for? He should get away and implement it.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and I welcome him to his new post and wish him well in the internal strife ahead. Which of these two positions does he agree with more—that of his hon. Friend Mr. Willetts, who says that concentrating on cutting red tape and tax cuts is not much of an economic policy, or that of his right hon. Friend Mr. Redwood, who says that unless the Tory party concentrates immediately on promising £12 billion in fresh tax cuts, there is no way forward? Whom does he agree with more, and will he ever be able to speak to his hon. Friend John Bercow again?
I am not sure that I got that last bit. If the hon. Gentleman is saying that cutting red tape is not a serious economic policy, he should have a word with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, because that is all that he has been talking about for the last two weeks. As for the internal strife that the hon. Gentleman alleges is in our party, does he agree with the national consensus that the Prime Minister should perhaps step down earlier in this Parliament and let the Chancellor of the Exchequer take over? Did the hon. Gentleman have a picture of the Chancellor in his election address or one of the Prime Minister, or was he hedging his bets and using both?
If we can get on with building this national consensus, let me mention the housing proposal. If the Chancellor wants to help first-time buyers, as I do, we will support the principle of shared equity—after all, we proposed it first, more than a year ago—but he has to admit that the number of first-time buyers each year has fallen by almost a third under Labour. We will wait to see the details of his proposal.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I feel that a point needs to be pressed, because I am not quite sure about it. I think that he said to the House on
If I may give some advice to the new Member, he should not take the planted questions of the Labour Whips Office. They are not very good.
Let us get on with some consensus on the state of the economy. I will accept that inflation is low, if the Chancellor accepts that it is higher than when he became Chancellor of the Exchequer. I will accept that official unemployment has fallen, if he will accept that the number of young people languishing neither in work nor in full-time education has risen to more than 1 million. I will accept the good news that he has to tell us about the economy, if he will accept that disposable incomes are down, retail sales are down, the housing market is fragile, output growth is down, corporate profits are down, manufacturing jobs are being lost and foreign investment is shrinking, and that we have a record trade deficit and a huge balance of payments problem.
We proposed at the general election a reduction in taxation of £4 billion, including an incentive to help people save for their pensions, which is part of the subject of this debate. We lost the election, although we got more votes than the hon. Gentleman's party did in England. Therefore we will review our policies, and no doubt produce policies to reduce taxes later in the Parliament.
Previous Chancellors of the Exchequer had a medium-term financial strategy. This Chancellor has a medium-term political strategy. He wants to be out of the Treasury before the chickens come home to roost. I do not mean that the business cycle will turn but that it will become increasingly clear that he does not have the answers to the long-term economic challenges facing the country. Those challenges are clear, and include the competitiveness challenge. Can Britain compete with the rest of the world so that we continue to raise the living standards of our citizens? There is a public services challenge—can Britain build modern reformed public services so that we continue to improve the quality of life in our communities? There is also a pensions challenge—can Britain solve the pensions crisis, and give millions of people security in their retirement?
Let us start with the competitiveness challenge.
I think that I had better answer that question at the end of the debate.
I was talking about the competitiveness challenge facing the country. Britain is losing ground to the rest of the world. Under this Government, Britain has fallen from fourth to 11th place in the World Economic Forum's international competitiveness league. The amount of direct foreign investment that we attract has almost halved. Our share of world trade has plummeted at a time when the share enjoyed not just by China and India but by Germany has increased. The Governor of the Bank of England said earlier this month that our
"net trade has subtracted from economic growth" for every year of the Labour Government. He said that that was
"almost unprecedented in economic history".
Why does the Chancellor not stick that record in one of his election posters?
People realise that Britain is going to struggle to compete in future for low-cost low-skilled work, but they must also accept that highly skilled jobs are under threat too, not just from China, which is producing 2 million graduates a year, or India, which has more than 1,300 engineering colleges and 270 universities, but from central and eastern European countries.
Part of the competitive economy is a well-trained and well-educated work force. Does the hon. Gentleman, as an ex-public schoolboy, stand by his party's commitment to passporting money to parents, or does he agree with John Bercow that that policy would be rejected by the electorate? One would expect most people to give up such a policy.
I suspect that that was a veiled attack on the Prime Minister and his public school education, which is true to form for the hon. Gentleman. I remind him that our education policies, which were designed for England, received the majority of the votes in England—but obviously we will review them. We do not want to compete by cutting wages and living standards. We want to compete by improving our country's productivity.
The only thing that drives sustainable economic growth and a long-term improvement in living standards is productivity growth. The Chancellor himself calls productivity
"a fundamental yardstick of economic performance".
His record, however, simply does not measure up to that yardstick. Productivity growth has fallen in each of the last eight years, and the productivity gap with the United States is widening. Why is that the case? It is not because the British people do not have the dynamism and the energy to succeed in the world, but because they are being held back by the Chancellor's obsession with meddling and interfering—his micro-management of the micro-economy. For a start, he is holding back businesses with £40 billion-worth of new regulation. He admits that there have been too many false starts on cutting red tape. He should know, because he started them. He launched and relaunched regulatory drives in 1997, 1998, 2001, 2003 and 2004—and he will probably launch another one when he speaks in this debate.
Instead of judging the Chancellor on his words, we will look at what happens on the ground, and whether life becomes easier for the small business struggling under a mountain of Government paperwork. He will not get very far lecturing the rest of Europe about the need for economic reform when his own MEPs have voted to extend the 48-hour working week to Britain. I keep reading that he is the most powerful man in the Labour party and that no one dares to sneeze in its councils and committees without his say-so, so why did he allow his MEPs to stick two fingers up to him just as he is about to take over the chairmanship of meetings of European Finance Ministers? I would be interested to learn what he has to say about his MEPs.
I am not entirely sure that that is relevant to this debate.
How are British companies supposed to compete when they have already been hit with £43 billion of new business taxes? Taxation is now the key factor for four out of five companies in determining their international investment locations. Let us look at what is happening in the rest of western Europe, let alone the rest of the world. Germany is cutting its corporation tax, and France, Denmark, Sweden and Italy—hardly bastions of neo-liberalism—have all cut their tax-GDP ratios in recent years. In Britain, however, Labour has increased taxes and will increase them further, whatever the Chancellor promised in the election.
The hon. Gentleman and I have constituencies in the same county, and he knows that Cheshire has some important businesses with strong connections to Germany. He has twice mentioned Germany in his speech. Does he really believe that the German economy is on a sounder footing than the economy here, given that Opel workers have taken a pay freeze until 2010 because of the problems and massive cuts that they have faced?
The point is that we are heading in the same direction as Germany if we continue to raise taxes and regulation. The Chancellor always compares our record with that of the countries of western Europe. He never compares our record with the other developed countries of the world—the English-speaking economies—in comparison with which we are performing much worse. My point is that while we are heading towards higher taxes, those in the rest of the world, including Germany, are reducing their taxes.
Is my hon. Friend aware that in my constituency of Aldershot, about three years ago, a German company invested a substantial amount of money in a new facility, and chose to do so in the United Kingdom? The managing director of that company told me about six months ago that if it had to make that decision again today, it would locate not in the United Kingdom but in Germany.
I will make a little progress with my speech and give way later.
At a time when the rest of the developed world are reducing taxes and burdens to compete with the emerging giants of India and China, this country is going in the wrong direction. That is the competitive challenge.
There is a public services challenge, too. The Chancellor admitted last week that low skills are what he called the "Achilles heel" of our economy. One fifth of job vacancies are unfilled because of a shortage of skills, yet colleges are warning this week that 200,000 places on adult education and training courses could be cut from September. Does Ian Lucas support that cut?
I do not support that. I invite the hon. Gentleman to take a short drive down the M56 from his constituency to Wrexham in north Wales, and to meet the managing directors of Sharp UK from Japan, and Ipsen Biopharm from France, both of which, in the past year, have decided to place their confidence and future in my constituency, reducing unemployment there to less than 2 per cent., compared with 20 per cent. when the Conservative party was in power. Is it not about time he started listening to business? He is welcome to come to Wrexham any time to meet strong British manufacturing companies.
I would be delighted to come to Wrexham, but I point out to the hon. Gentleman that foreign direct investment in this country has fallen from £20 billion a year in 1997 to £12 billion now. That is the general picture affecting the country.
The Deputy Prime Minister says that at least they are still investing, but the amount has almost halved under his Government, and I do not see how he can be proud of that. If we want to stay ahead in the world we need to keep adding value to stay at the cutting edge as technology moves on. We need the best educated and best trained people in the world. The British people have the ability to do that, but they are being let down by this Government. According to Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development figures, the UK education system under Labour has fallen from fourth to 11th place in the world for science, 7th to 11th place for reading, and eighth to 18th for maths.
No one doubts that the Chancellor is spending a great deal of money. On his current plans, he will have increased the share of the nation's income spent by the state by 5 per cent. He has always confused inputs with outputs, however. He should talk to the Minister for Pensions—formerly the Financial Secretary—who said:
"Too often a lot of money has been spent but very little seems to have been achieved".
He was spot-on when he said that. Four years ago, when the Chancellor turned on the public spending tap, he said:
"There will not be one penny more until we . . . make the reforms".
That was the moment when he could have brought about a transformation of our public services—he had the money and the majority; now both are running out. He only has himself to blame. Who in Government has opposed every minor reform that a succession of beleaguered Health and Education Secretaries have tried to push through? It has been the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the road block to reform in this Government.
The challenge of the next five years is to build modern, reformed and diverse public services. We understand that. Even the Prime Minister, in his twilight years in Downing street, is coming to understand that. The insurmountable obstacle to meeting that challenge, however, is sitting in front of us on the Treasury Bench. That is the public services challenge.
Then we have a pensions challenge. We welcome the new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to his place. He has the task of sorting out the mess that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has created. It is a refreshing start that he makes no attempt to defend the £5 billion tax on pensions—the single most damaging thing that this Chancellor has done in office. We will also be interested to hear what the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has to say about the Chancellor's means-tested pension credit. Adair Turner said at the weekend:
"we have to stop the spread of means testing. It is a disincentive to save".
There was a time when the Chancellor would have agreed. Back in 1988, the Chancellor stood at this Dispatch Box in opposition, and condemned means-testing of pensioner benefits as the most serious Government assault so far mounted on the basic principles of Britain's welfare state. Yet what has he done in office? He has extended the means test to half of all pensioners. The previous Secretary of State for Work and Pensions called the pension credit a medium-term solution, before it turned out that he was just a short-term solution. What is the Chancellor's solution?
Then there is the issue of compulsory pension saving. We welcome Ed Balls to this place. At last he emerges from the shadows, and we have both the Chancellor and his "mini-me" in the House. During the recent campaign, the hon. Member for Normanton said at a Labour party press conference—he remembers it well—that another election would have to take place before any compulsory saving was imposed. The new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions overruled him, however, saying the new hon. Member for Normanton was speaking only
"as a parliamentary candidate not as a spokesman".
Where does that leave the Chancellor? He said during the campaign:
"I don't believe there could be legislation in this Parliament. It would have to be in a future Parliament."
I suppose that he, too, was speaking as a parliamentary candidate and not as a spokesman. Would the Chancellor or the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions like to confirm their views on the matter? Could there be legislation on compulsion in this Parliament? I will take an intervention from either of them, or both of them—I think that they are sorting out the position as we speak.
Let me quote:
"when Labour came to office we had one of the strongest pension provisions in Europe and now probably we have some of the weakest".
Those are the words of the first pensions Minister, Mr. Field—an epitaph to this Chancellor's record in office.
I am particularly interested in the hon. Gentleman's statement about what has happened since this Government came to office. What does he feel when looking back at 1997, when the basic state pension was £69 a week? Does he not realise that when we knocked on doors during the election campaign, people who had to exist on that were saying to us that the pension credit helped them out of absolute poverty? Does he not recognise that, or is he condemning his party to another era out of government?
I had better read out again what the right hon. Member for Birkenhead, the first pensions Minister in this Government, said, and the hon. Gentleman should pay attention this time:
"when Labour came to office we had one of the strongest pension provisions in Europe and now . . . we have some of the weakest".
With the greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman, I have more respect for views of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead on pension policy than for his.
I am grateful to the shadow Chancellor. Does he not understand that hundreds of thousands of people, women in particular, get to pensionable age without having acquired a full stamp and without having a full basic state pension behind them? Those are the poorest pensioners, whom this Government have done so much to help, and I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the people of Rhondda are extremely grateful to the Government for rescuing people from pensioner poverty.
I agree that there is a problem with poor female pensioners who have not built up national insurance contributions over their lifetime. In the general election the Conservative party put forward policies to help remedy that. However, I suggest that this is something that Adair Turner's commission particularly needs to look at. I point out that the commission is especially critical of the pension credit because it acts as a disincentive to saving, and one cannot solve the pensions crisis if there is a disincentive to saving.
I am disappointed at the hon. Gentleman's lowly esteem in the House, but after his last comment I can only say that we may have a mutual estimation of each other's worth.
When I knocked on pensioners' doors, they said that they were interested in looking at the Conservatives' pensions proposals, but they asked why, in the whole of the period for which they were in government, the Conservatives only once raised the earnings link with the basic state pension, and left pensioners on £69 a week. Will the right hon. Gentleman answer a simple question? Does he feel that £69 a week was a good level at which to leave the state pension?
I think that I shall have to read out for the third time the quote from the right hon. Member for Birkenhead. He said that
"when Labour came to office we had one of the strongest pension provisions in Europe and now probably we have some of the weakest".
The hon. Member for Ogmore can go on intervening on me and I will go on quoting the words of the first pensions Minister of this Government.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that during the election I met many people in west Norfolk who are members of the Albert Fisher and Dalgety pension schemes, which are now in wind-up? They have lost everything that they paid in, and will not get a pension. Does not my hon. Friend think that a disaster, and does he not also feel that what the Government are proposing is completely inadequate?
I absolutely agree. The amount of money that the Government have set aside does not begin to meet the problem, which is why we propose using the unclaimed assets of banks to deal with it. It is interesting that the Treasury is now looking at that idea, and we will wait and see whether it uses those assets for the desperate situation that my hon. Friend has highlighted.
The Chancellor always thought that he would be out of the Treasury before any of these challenges caught up with him, but it seems that however many times the Prime Minister fools him, he never learns. There he stands in the Treasury, the packing cases ready, the removal van in the drive and his coat on—then the Prime Minister buys him an ice cream, and it is back to square one. At least the first time the Prime Minister did him over he took him to a restaurant and bought him dinner.
The Chancellor is stuck at the Treasury, and he cannot duck the economic challenges facing the country. We need to keep taxes and regulation low so that we can compete, and there he sits—the road block to reform. We need modern public services and a more skilled work force, and there he sits—the road block to reform. We need to solve the pensions crisis and encourage people to save, and there he sits—the road block to reform. It looks increasingly as if this 20th-century Chancellor is running out of answers to the challenges of the 21st century.
Let me start by saying what a pleasure it is to welcome the new shadow Chancellor. I look forward to answering every point that he made. It is always a pleasure to welcome a new shadow Chancellor. In fact, since 1997 I have had the pleasure of welcoming seven new shadow Chancellors and six new shadow Chief Secretaries. It is perhaps appropriate that I am welcoming the new shadow Chancellor when we are discussing equipping Britain for the challenges ahead.
Alongside the public sector reform Bills that have been discussed in the previous debates, I want to discuss the even more extensive economic reform that is necessary to achieve prosperity in this country, not for some but for all, and to advance this country towards full employment. Measures that I want to discuss with the House today include those to increase housing supply so that, adding to the 1 million extra home owners since 1997, we can have in total 2 million extra home owners by 2010. There is also our business Bill to deepen the enterprise culture—new help for small and medium-sized businesses which will be worth £250 million. With the welfare reform Bills and other measures, new obligations and new opportunities will be created which, building on 2 million jobs that we have already created since 1997, in this Parliament will help 1 million more people through the new deal.
Turning to the child care and parents Bills in the Queen's speech, through Sure Start and extended schools we will put in place the first national child care strategy in this country. There will be 1 million more child care places and there will be affordable child care for the parents of this country. Those Queen's Speech measures immediately honour our general election commitments to be on the side of this country's hard-working families. The whole House will also want me to outline, in advance of the EU and G7 meetings that will take place a few days from now, our detailed proposals for debt relief, trade justice and overseas aid, to reduce world poverty and meet the millennium development goals on which I hope and believe there will be an all-party consensus.
Having congratulated the new shadow Chancellor and welcomed him to his new position, let me say how much I will miss the contribution to the Treasury debates of the former shadow Chancellor. I see that he has just left the Chamber, but let me say that we all admire Mr. Letwin for his candour. [Hon. Members: "He is here!"] I am glad that he is here; I can now thank him personally because on occasion I have had reason to be grateful for his candour. The right hon. Gentleman departed the Treasury brief with the characteristic candour for which we have learned to feel affection: his statement touchingly made it clear that he was leaving to spend more time with his merchant bank.
I also welcome back to his customary place the shadow Chancellor for the Liberal Democrats. In line with their election slogan to be "relentlessly positive", they have not ditched their shadow Chancellor; they have just ditched every one of his policies. Now they have this new clean slate approach, let our constituents hear no more of these unaffordable and uncosted spending promises, especially when not one of them could be afforded if they replaced their 50 per cent. income tax and local income tax with their new idea, very suitable to the Liberals, of a flat tax.
Let me say what a pleasure it is to have so many senior Conservative Members on the Front Bench for part of this debate—so many people who will be able to tell their grandchildren in future years that they used to be the next leader of the Conservative party. Now we know precisely why the shadow Chancellor ruled himself out of the leadership race. As for the shadow Chancellor himself, it may be too early to judge, but it may be time for the Conservative party to skip yet another generation.
The Queen's Speech reaffirms our fundamental and first priority as a Government: economic stability. Even amidst a succession of economic challenges since 1997, including the American downturn and the doubling of oil prices, and now facing the challenges, acknowledged by the shadow Chancellor, of Chinese and Asian competition, changing technology and current account imbalances, our measures, such as Bank of England independence—opposed, by the way, by Conservative Members—our symmetrical inflation target, opposed by Conservative Members, our fiscal rules, opposed by Conservative Members, and the new deal, opposed by Conservative Members, have helped achieve years of continuous growth for this country.
Our stability is for a purpose: to ensure businesses are able to invest and that home owners have a fair deal. That is because all of us—I believe that this is true of Members in all sections of the House—were struck during the election campaign by how many more young people, couples especially but also single people, now want to buy their first home but need, even with our low interest rates and the stamp duty changes that we made, further help to get on to the first rung of the housing ladder. The Deputy Prime Minister and I now propose to match the low interests and changes in stamp duty with help, implementing the next stage of the Barker review, to extend the number of home owners in this country.
English Partnerships has identified 700 sites of public sector land that are now being considered for new building, including Ministry of Defence sites, which will be released for house building, and vacant sites around railway stations in London. Including those announced today, a total of 100 national health service sites are being or have been released for future housing.
Appointments are made by the Prime Minister, and rightly so. Over time, the hon. Gentleman will find that he is discussing defence issues with a distinguished member of the Government.
The Government have been negotiating a pioneer shared equity scheme with HBOS, Nationwide and other lenders representing slightly less than half of the mortgage market. Building societies, Government and future owners will be able to make the first step in home ownership cheaper and within people's financial reach. We will publish more details of those proposals today.
The third element is cutting the cost of construction. The Deputy Prime Minister announces today the next stage of his competition for £60,000 homes. A thousand new homes will be started in January, with the first to be completed and ready for occupation during the course of next year. We shall also progress our plans to transform old housing estates across the country into mixed community estates, with home owners side by side with tenants. In the planning system, merging the regional housing and planning bodies, as recommended by Barker, will mean that regions are able to take a strategic view of meeting housing and infrastructure needs. We shall consult during the summer on requiring local authorities to prepare and release more land more quickly for new building. To speed up planning decisions, the Deputy Prime Minister will make the planning delivery grant subject to even faster progress: our target will be 60 per cent. of major applications being dealt with within 30 weeks, and minor ones in eight weeks.
Last year, 180,000 houses were built; this year, 200,000 are likely to be built—the highest rate for more than 15 years. We believe that, with the new measures being introduced over the course of this Parliament, Britain will have higher home ownership rates than the United States of America, France, Germany and other major countries.
In fact, I am going to urge the Chancellor to go further in his shared ownership scheme. To enable more people to buy their house, will he discuss with the financial institutions the possibility of amending the rules to make equity release for older people easier, so that they can both be more comfortable in their old age and consider giving money to their children, so that they, in turn, can buy at least part of the equity in their new house?
We are looking at such matters all the time, but there is another question that the hon. Gentleman and Conservative Front Benchers should address. If we are to make progress on our housing programme, not only will we need to maintain the stability of the economy—I have yet to see Conservative proposals that would achieve that—but they will have to acknowledge that public investment is necessary. Instead of simultaneously supporting our housing plans but refusing to give their support to public investment, the Conservatives must be realistic and accept that public investment has a part to play in solving this country's housing problems.
I am delighted that the Chancellor has embraced the shared ownership scheme first proposed by the Conservatives last year, although the Deputy Prime Minister rubbished it at the time. That is a matter of public record. While the Chancellor is dealing with public ownership and public housing, will he answer a plain question? Since they came to power, the Government have halved the number of social houses being built each year: in the mid-1990s, about 40,000 social houses were built each year; now, fewer than 20,000 are. Given that 100,000 people are languishing in temporary accommodation, desperate to get on the housing ladder, why have the Government done that and what will the Chancellor do about it?
At the election, the Conservatives proposed cutting the housing budget. We have said that we will double investment in social housing. A million houses have been upgraded and a further million will be. However, it makes no sense for Conservatives to assume that they can get their way on increasing housing investment without making a commitment to increase public investment. The shadow Chancellor will have to face this challenge early in his time in the role. If he wants improvement in housing, he will have to say that he will make the investment available.
I want to make some progress. I shall give way again later.
Our housing measures are possible only because of the stability that we have achieved. Even when America, Japan, Germany and France have been in recession, we have delivered an unprecedented period of stability in this country. Even this year, with north America, Britain is the area that has the fastest-growing economy in the G7 countries. Growth since 1997 has been twice that of Germany and Japan.
Perhaps the Chancellor will confirm something for me—that since 1997 Britain has not advanced from fourth place in the international competitiveness rankings, but slipped back to 11th?
It so happens that I have the rankings drawn up by many different organisations right here. The latest KPMG review found we have one of the best competition policies in the world. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman must learn to be patient, or he will not get all the facts that will be of use to him when he challenges the shadow Chancellor for a change in Conservative economic policy. The latest Global Competition Review ranked the UK joint third. Independent international surveys show that the UK is one of the best places in the world to start and run a business. The OECD rated the UK as having the lowest barriers to entrepreneurship of any major economy. The OECD economic survey of the UK stated that competitive pressures appeared to be relatively strong in the UK. Finally, in the United States, the Heritage Foundation—a most right-wing body familiar to the Conservatives—classifies the UK's economy as far more liberal now than it was before 1997, when the Conservatives were in power.
We are not going to take lectures from the Conservative party on how to run an economy when, under the Labour Government, inflation has been half the average inflation of the Conservative years, interest rates have been half those of the Conservative years and mortgage rates have been half those of the Conservative years. Under the present Government, interest rates have risen five times: at their present rate of 4.75 per cent., they are lower than in any month of Conservative Government from 1979 to 1997.
The shadow Chancellor questions our ability to meet our fiscal rules. Let me sum up the position—it might help the shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who is to wind up the debate for the Opposition. He was a Cabinet Minister in the Conservative Government, and I warmly welcome him back to the House of Commons. The shadow Chancellor made great play of the fact that our golden rule is in danger of not being met: in fact, on the radio on Friday, he said that it would be met, but today he says it will not. Let me tell him by how much the Conservative Government missed the golden rule. Was it by £5 billion, or £10 billion, or £20 billion? No. In their first economic cycle, they missed it by £145 billion. In their second economic cycle—it is the one with which the shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions was most associated—they managed to achieve a deficit of £235 billion. When I say that we have the lowest deficits of the major industrial countries—lower than those of America, Japan, France and Germany—we also have lower debts. We see in the economy not weakness but resilience. We shall take no lectures, either on manufacturing or on tax, or on public borrowing, from the Conservative party.
The IMF praised the management of the British economy. It said that its management—[Interruption.] I had an interesting discussion with the IMF when I pointed out to it not only that its figures were out of date but that I disagreed with its view.
The Conservative party—the shadow Chancellor, with the benefit of the advice of the former shadow Chancellor, will have to clarify the issue—may believe in a balanced Budget. That is what the former shadow Chancellor was trying to arrive at. That happens to be the view of the IMF, but it is not the view of the Government. How many Conservative Members were calling for more roads and more bridges to be built in their constituencies? We believe that it is right for transport investment and for education investment that we borrow to invest as long as we have a sustainable level of debt. As the former Chancellor will acknowledge, the level of debt fell from 44 per cent. of GDP under his chancellorship to just over 30 per cent. during Labour's chancellorship. That is why it is right for this country to be able to borrow for investment so that we can meet urgent needs that are essential if we are to have the skills, the transport and the infrastructure to compete with China and India in future.
I have given way on several occasions.
We have measures in the Queen's Speech not only for housing but to improve the balance between work and family life. The Queen's Speech sets out the importance to our economic strategy of child care. I believe that during the recent general election families welcomed the measures that we put forward: paid maternity leave to be increased to nine months, leave transferable, extending the right to request flexible working, extending nursery education to 15 hours, and the typical constituency to have an average of half a dozen Sure Start children's centres by the time this Parliament finishes. There will be pre-school and after-school child care in extended schools. Governments in the past never even mentioned in Queen's Speeches the needs of parents of under-fives. We are able through the Queen's Speech to legislate for what effectively will be a new frontier for our welfare state to help families in bringing up their children, and particularly to meet the education and health needs of the under-fives.
That proves that just as we are the Government of home owners, we are the Government of working families.
I am sorry to take my right hon. Friend back to the subject of investment in housing. I was disappointed that he did not say how the Government intend to meet the Barker review targets for affordable rented housing. It is true that the Government have substantially increased investment in housing, but that investment was at a low level when we inherited it in 1997. Current plans will not reach the Barker target. How will we reach that level? It is probably an underestimate, given the amount of demolition of unsatisfactory council housing that has taken place in cities such as Birmingham.
In total, we are refurbishing 2 million houses. If my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister and I have not given my hon. Friend the conclusions from the consultation on the Barker review, it is because the review is still out to consultation. We shall set out the final recommendations when we have the final report following the consultation that has taken place.
Last week's employment figures showed—
I have given way quite enough. Every time I give way to the leader of the Scottish National party I have to point out that employment is rising in Scotland, despite everything that he says.
Last week's employment figures showed that employment is above 28 million. Last week we had more people in employment than at any time in the history of our country. With unemployment falling, the spending on benefits on unemployment—this is a point that the Conservatives must realise—has halved since 1997. We have saved £5 billion a year, which we can now spend on health, education and other social services.
Our employment success is not an accident. We did not reduce unemployment by the laissez-faire policies of the Conservatives, of leaving things to chance. We did it by combining stability with the existence of a new deal. Unemployment in the UK is half what it is in France, in Germany or in the euro area. The shadow Chancellor might have said that, as a result of Government policies, unemployment in his constituency has been reduced to just 1 per cent. Perhaps the shadow Chief Secretary will be pleased to hear that unemployment in his constituency is 0.9 per cent. Both constituencies, like so many others, have seen a 50 per cent. fall in unemployment since 1997. However, we are not complacent and there is a great deal more to do.
With higher skills at a premium in meeting global competition, it is time, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will be saying this evening, to extend and improve the new deal as a new deal for skills. It would be wrong to follow the advice of the Liberals or the Conservatives at this stage and abolish the new deal.
The Queen's Speech announces the steps that we are taking to help more single parents, more young unemployed and more incapacity benefit claimants to get work. In return for new opportunities there are, however, new obligations for many who are unemployed. For those in the first three months out of work, we shall test and then extend widely a new jobseeker's agreement of work-search requirements and regular signing on. For those who are six months out of work, we are piloting in 12 areas a personal action plan that is based on compulsory interviews and an intensive work programme. For those who refuse, there is to be a tougher sanction regime. In return for these new obligations, we shall in this Parliament help 3 million adults gain basic qualifications so that they can play their full part in a modern economy in all constituencies. Those who stay on after 16 in education or unwaged training and who need finance could receive up to £75 a week in educational maintenance allowances and children's benefits. There will be special transitional help for 16 and 17-year-olds who have fallen through the net. In partnership with business, which has welcomed this, and the trade unions there will be another 50,000 people in apprenticeships by 2008.
The question for the Conservative party and for everybody who is concerned about these matters is whether they are prepared to support the public investment that is necessary for the apprenticeships, the improvement in youth training and the improvement in education.
I have given way quite enough and I have some further announcements to make.
When Rover went into liquidation, all parties in the House supported the emergency measures. The measures to train and to retrain and to provide job-search advice and relocation help are possible only because we have an employment service. They are possible only because there is a rapid response. It is only because the new deal is on people's side. It is only because we have a Labour market policy that is active. Is not what happened at Rover an example of why Governments, while refusing to subsidise loss makers, cannot simply walk away?
What all the Queen's Speech measures have in common—public investment in the new deal, in skills, in child care and in shared equity—is the idea of a Government who stand with people and support them as they face change in their lives and communities. That is not laissez-faire but being on the side of hard-working families. It is the role of Government in the modern world not to stand against change, not to freeze the frame but, on the other hand, not to do nothing. Our role is to help people through change. That is the modern and the most appropriate role for the responsibilities of the community in relation to individuals and the market. That shows what we mean by fairness for families at a time of change and need.
Where does the Conservative party now stand on these issues? What Conservative vision of the future has emerged from the Queen's Speech debates? What is the Conservative economic prescription for the future of our country? What is unique about the Queen's Speech debates as I have watched them over the past few days is that we do not have, as usual, a Labour economic plan as against a Conservative economic plan. There is one Labour economic plan and about half a dozen Conservative economic plans.
The Chancellor has brought me to my feet by touching on the future for a moment. He has taken us back over his record and ours, citing figures that go back a quarter of a century in some cases, to make comparisons favourable to himself. Given that we have seen a rapid fall in consumption in this country, a rapid fall in retail sales, a stabilisation, at best, in the housing market and a large fall in industrial production so far this year, does he still stand by his forecast of economic growth for this year, looking ahead? It is upon those forecasts that all his confidence about his economic policy and his fiscal policy appears to depend.
I am grateful to the former Chancellor for giving me the chance to say that I believe that north America and Britain will be the fastest growing economic areas this year. We will publish our next economic forecast—[Interruption.] I know that the former Chancellor would like to think that Germany, France and the euro area were growing faster, but they are not. Britain and the north American countries will be the fastest growing areas of the G7 this year. The right hon. and learned Gentleman has a good reputation for getting many things right, but in 1998, the year after we came into government, he said in The Mail on Sunday:
"Our gloomy Chancellor is going to bust our economy without any risk of a boom coming first. I have been forecasting doom and gloom for the British economy in my column in Financial Mail for most of the past year."
No recession, but stability, happened not only that year, but for the next seven years.
I said we had half a dozen Conservative plans. As we finish the Queen's Speech debates, it is important that we see what the debate in the House is all about. Always helpful to his Front-Bench team and now to the new shadow Chancellor, the shadow Minister for deregulation, Mr. Redwood, who was mentioned earlier, wants £12 billion of tax cuts. The shadow Foreign Secretary made a speech only a few days ago, saying that he wanted a "radically smaller public sector" and even bigger tax cuts. The shadow Home Secretary, the favourite for the leadership, said that the Conservatives must
"make the moral case for lower taxes from now".
The view taken by all three is that they lost the past three elections not because they were too right wing, but because they were not right wing enough.
Against that, we have the other economic prescriptions. The shadow Health Secretary spoke of
"cutting tax only if you can".
The former shadow transport Minister said:
"You have to talk about issues other than tax cuts".
"Cutting tax . . . does not add up to an economic policy on its own".
The former shadow Chief Secretary, one of the half-dozen former shadow Chief Secretaries of the past eight years, says that we need a new agenda for the state that puts public services first, rather than tax cuts.
The only Conservative shadow Minister without an economic prescription in these debates is the man responsible for economic policy, the shadow Chancellor. Now surrounded by so many diverse and divided prescriptions for the economy, the cracks are already so wide and extensive that, if I may be excused for saying so, even the heir to a distinguished wallpaper empire cannot paper over them.
How does the Conservative party resolve these great issues? I can do no better than share with the House the thoughts of Chairman Maude, the current chairman of the Conservative party. I have the full report of the remarks that he made to the newspapers, explaining what he thought should be the direction of the Conservative party from now on. He was asked what the public believe is wrong about the Conservatives. Was it the leadership, personalities or policies? No, he said—
"It's the belief that we (sometimes) live on a different planet".
That is not just a reference to the shadow Minister for deregulation. He went on:
"It is the sense that we don't understand modern Britain . . . We are thought to be backward looking . . . We have to stop being the party that disapproves of people" and
"occasionally sounds like it doesn't like modern Britain".
Even more dispiritingly for Opposition Members, he said:
"We have a real problem in that Conservative Associations in some parts of the country are moribund. They barely exist. . . We are about a tenth of the way there."
If that advice was not dispiriting, let me quote the advice of the vice-chairman of the Conservative party, who was asked what he thought should be done. He said that the Conservatives would have to sack hundreds of candidates. He said there may be blood on the floor. Asked in the Financial Times what sort of candidates he wanted, he said—I think this is the most interesting comment in the entire debate—
"I am looking for people who are normal . . . in the broadest sense of the word".
Asked what that meant, he said that nine out of 10 Conservative candidates would have to be sacked. At his most optimistic, he is describing a party that is 10 per cent. normal. No wonder the Opposition Chief Whip is thinking of introducing a performance test for Conservative Members. The vice-chairman of the Conservative party whom I was quoting is Andrew Mackay. To paraphrase Lady Bracknell, to lose one out of 10 candidates is misfortune. To lose nine out of 10 is worse than carelessness.
What is the answer for the Conservative party? I have been given the benefit of an interview that took place since the election with Howard Flight. I also miss him from the House, as do Conservative Members. There will be general agreement that it was shabby treatment of him which lost him his candidature. He has given an interview that will not endear him to the leadership of the Conservative party, and which may make it quite difficult for him to get back at the next election. In the past few days he gave an interview to an obscure magazine, Money Market. It is difficult to get on to the official Conservative website now.
Howard Flight said there is no one left in the Tory party to carry the torch for business. He stated:
"The two Conservative MPs who were business heavies, myself and Archie Norman, are no longer there. If the party wants to be taken seriously again by the business community it must have more MPs with business experience . . . like me".
I do not underestimate the problems that the Conservatives face. They are trying to find a new leader—their fifth in opposition, a new system for finding a new leader—their third in opposition, and a new shadow Chancellor—their seventh in opposition. They are trying a new constitution, a new statement of values and new candidates, and some are even thinking of a new name, but if they do not change their basic ideology and ideas, there is very little hope left for the Conservative party.
In conclusion, I have some questions which the Conservative party should face up to, and which we faced up to as a party. I notice the shadow Chancellor gave an interview in December saying—this is very interesting, in the context of the debate going on in the Conservative party:
"I would be reluctant to give myself the moderniser label".
Even though we cannot ask for detailed answers on policy, it is fair to ask the fundamental economic questions—perhaps the shadow Work and Pensions Minister will respond—that any shadow Chancellor should be able to answer, as I am sure the former Chancellor would agree. On the share of public spending in our economy, does the shadow Chancellor hold to the election view that it should be reduced from 42 per cent. to 40 per cent.? Or does he support the former shadow Chancellor in the view that in theory it should be 35 per cent.? Or does he support Lord Saatchi in the view that it should go down to 30 per cent.? Or is his priority, like that of John Bercow, to fund decent health and education services without taking too dogmatic a view of the size of public spending? In that case, the shadow Chancellor would have to say that his party was wrong in the last Parliament to vote against the national insurance changes to fund the NHS. What does the shadow Chancellor believe on that? I am happy to give way if he wants to clarify the policy, so we can have debates during the course of this Parliament.
On tax, does the shadow Chancellor believe the election tax cuts of £4 billion were right; should they be £12 billion; or does he agree with other shadow Ministers that tax cuts are a diversion from the priority to finance public services in their cases? On spending priorities, does he hold to the private patient plan and the private pupil plan, diverting money from the health and education services—local schools and local hospitals? Does he agree with the shadow Foreign Secretary that the party should privatise more, or with the hon. Member for Buckingham that such a policy could be seen as one for the few rather than for the many? On full employment, does he still hold to the view that the new deal should be abolished, or does he accept, as the Tory Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee did, that the new deal is useful in helping people to get back to work? Those are tests of modernisation that the Conservatives will have to meet.
There is a further question on Europe. Do the shadow Chancellor and the shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions agree with the party's official policy on Europe—to renegotiate not just the current treaty, but the common fisheries policy, the overseas aid budget, the Amsterdam treaty and the Geneva protocol? That is the policy that the former Prime Minister, John Major, described as "crazy", "absurd" and "mad". Do they support those who want to leave, or do they agree with the former Conservative Chancellor that the Conservatives should accept that renegotiation will not happen?
Those questions have direct relevance for the future of our country, and the last one has relevance for our presidency of the EU. I would like to see an all party consensus behind business to push for economic reform in Europe, but that is impossible as long as there are Members who wish fundamentally to renegotiate our membership of the EU.
I am not giving way now.
Tomorrow we will publish our proposals for economic reform for our presidency, but I come to a final issue that is prominent in the Queen's Speech, and that is an economic, social and moral issue upon which I believe that there can be all party agreement—our shared responsibilities to Africa and to developing countries to move forward on debt relief, aid and the attainment of the millennium development goals, where Britain under the Prime Minister's leadership has a powerful role to play in the G8 and the UN special summit.
Yesterday, as we heard, European Ministers proposed to double aid by 2010, on the road to 0.7 per cent. for all the richest countries. But I hope that in our Finance Ministers meeting on
Many hon. Members have been in Africa and in developing countries and have seen what I have seen—the humiliation and agony of abject, relentless poverty; the humiliation of illiteracy and disease; children destined to die even before their life's journey has begun; mothers struggling to save the lives of infant sons and daughters and in doing so losing their own; millions of children denied education simply because their mothers and fathers cannot afford the fees; the great poverty and yet the great potential of these countries if we play a part in helping.
I believe that there can be all party support so that in 2005 Britain can become a beacon to the world in our crusade to tackle poverty in the poorest areas. Ours is a call to action to all men and women full of idealism, irrespective of political party. I want this generation to be remembered for seizing the opportunities, not for missing them.
This is a Queen's Speech that recognises our international responsibilities and our domestic responsibilities. Its themes are stability, not instability; equipping Britain for the future, not laissez-faire policies; renewed public services, not privatisation; and fairness. It is a Queen's Speech on the side of the people and I commend it to the House.
I beg to move, as an amendment to the Address, at end add—
"but regret that the Gracious Speech contains no commitment to introduce legislation to reform the voting system and ensure that the composition of this House reflects the wishes of the electorate;
further regret that the Gracious Speech proposes the introduction of a costly and ineffective system of compulsory identity cards instead of providing for more police on the street;
further regret the absence of proposals to introduce a fair system of local income tax, related to the individual's ability to pay;
deplore the absence of measures to ensure that the elderly receive free long term care;
further regret the absence of proposals to end the complex means tested pensions system, which has deterred saving, has left many pensioners in poverty, and disproportionately disadvantages women;
further regret the absence of legislation to reverse the punitive system of tuition fees and top up fees that mean students could begin their careers with mortgage level debts by 2010;
further deplore the absence of specific measures to tackle the serious threat from climate change;
and are concerned that there is still no commitment to introduce legislation to clarify the responsibility of the Prime Minister to Parliament, particularly in relation to the prerogative powers and the role of Parliament in matters of war and peace." [Interruption.]
I should like to extend a welcome to the new shadow Chancellor. He has enjoyed some good press over the last few days. I was particularly intrigued by the comments in The Economist this week coupling him with Mr. Cameron. It says that the hon. Gentlemen are "posh and youthful" and
"are already the object of much spiteful comment from their colleagues."
It quotes one senior Conservative Member as saying:
"On top of our usual disagreements we are now riven with ageism and class hatred."
The shadow Chancellor will, I am sure, face many challenges from both myself and the Chancellor, but neither the Chancellor nor I have any intentions of trying to compete with him in respect of being either youthful or posh. However, we have one thing in common of which he may not be aware, because one of his ancestors, the hon. Ralph Osborne, was once the Liberal Member for my constituency, which was then called Middlesex. He was a dashing gentleman with a reputation for living dangerously, a trait that he has clearly passed on to his descendant, because we saw during the earlier part of the election campaign an example of how dangerously the hon. Gentleman lives. It occurred at the time of the episode to which the Chancellor has already referred when the affable and inoffensive Member for Arundel and South Downs, as he then was, was burnt at the stake for the heresy of saying that there were two different versions of the report on public spending, one of which had been filleted for its political sensitivity. The grand inquisitor, the leader of the Conservative party, was obviously not aware that a day later on the "Today" programme, the new shadow Chancellor had said almost exactly the same thing in almost the same words. I have the quote here for him. None the less, he escaped and has been promoted, and he is welcome.
I mention the James report because one of its key recommendations—this was in both the expurgated and the unexpurgated versions—was a severe cut in provisions for social housing. That may be one reason why he glossed over rather quickly the challenge to the Government on their new housing policy. I do not intend to gloss over it because this is clearly one of the Government's major new policy initiatives. It has not been dealt with in a way that is terribly courteous to hon. Members; we have picked up what we know about it from the newspapers, but it is substantial and I shall try to address myself to it. It is superficially attractive—it deals with the problems of first-time buyers, about which we are all concerned and which led three parties to argue for lifting the stamp duty threshold; it promotes shared ownership, which Liberal Democrats are keen to encourage—but as far as I understand it, it is in many ways a very bad idea.
One of the characteristics of the Chancellor's period in office is that while he has an excellent record in respect of macro-economic management, he periodically comes up with what are frankly wacky ideas, worked out on the back of an envelope with very little detail. Some of us call to mind individual learning accounts, the private finance initiative for the London underground, film industry subsidies—between them they have cost the taxpayer well over £1 billion—and I suspect that this is another one.
There is no proposal, but we have a completely open mind and a willingness to look at new ideas, which is what I am endeavouring to encourage. There may be something to learn from other European countries that are experimenting with this, but we do not have a proposal to that effect. We campaigned on the tax proposals in our manifesto.
On the basis of the information provided to us, there seem to be several serious problems with the housing proposals. Perhaps the Chancellor or one of his colleagues will intervene to put me right if I have got this wrong. The first is that it seems to be a very clumsy intervention in the housing market, which as we all know is volatile and characterised by a major bubble. None of us knows what will happen to house prices. I used to do forecasting for a living, and I have learned the hazards of trying to make forecasts. In one of its technical annexes, the Treasury itself predicts that prices will fall this year by 1 per cent. They may or may not, but if prices reflate—this proposal may help that process—a growing amount of Government subsidy will chase first-time buyers up the housing ladder.
The housing market could, however, collapse. Bodies such as the International Monetary Fund have predicted a very substantial and painful correction of 20 to 30 per cent.—who knows? If that were to happen, a large amount of taxpayers' money would be put at equity risk.
One detail that has already emerged is that the Government, in their partnership with the banks, will accept the first losses in any fall in the market. Why should the Council of Mortgage Lenders, which has always been cool on shared ownership, suddenly have developed an enthusiasm for it? The only possible reason is that the Government are accepting a substantial level of risk. As the Chancellor knows, one of my criticisms of him is that, in the five years since he failed to implement the findings of the Cruickshank report on bank profits, the banks have run rings around the Treasury. I suspect that this is yet another case in which that will happen.
There is a second criticism of the proposals as they have emerged. Why on earth are the Government trying to reinvent the wheel? Shared ownership is a complex and specialised business. A great deal of knowledge about it resides in housing associations and the Housing Corporation, which, as I understand it, the Government propose to bypass in their entirety.
A good report sits in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Housing Corporation, called "Shared ownership models that work". I should declare an interest, in that it was written by my wife, Rachel. It is one of several reports suggesting that shared ownership is a complex process and that we must learn from the mistakes as well as the successes. But if the Government's proposal is, as has been announced in the press, to bypass completely the existing institutions with a new, centralised Treasury-driven initiative, it will not work.
No, I am not suggesting that at all. The Government propose to spend a lot of money on this initiative, and there are different—and, I suggest, better—ways of spending it. If the Government were to work through housing associations and local authorities, rather than through a centralised initiative, the fundamental difference would quickly emerge between demand for housing as determined by applicants to banks, and housing need as determined by overcrowding and homelessness, for example. As Lynne Jones said in an intervention, the real problem is the chronic shortage of social rented housing. This initiative neglects that point completely.
Although this initiative addresses issues of demand, it does nothing at all about supply. The Chancellor mentioned earlier a paper produced by the ODPM on making available public sector land, which is clearly a sensible thing to do as there is a lot of surplus land. There may have been a misprint, but the version of the statement that I read stated that the first step in making that public land available would liberate land for 400 houses; not 4,000 or 40,000, but 400. We have talked about freeing up public sector land for eight years, and little has been done—there is talk but little delivery. I wait to hear more about the proposal, but unless it is very different from its description in the press, it promises to be a major turkey, rather than a major success story.
I have always acknowledged, as I did in my introductory remarks, that the Government have a successful record in macro-economics. The National Institute of Economic and Social Research—like the Institute for Fiscal Studies, it is a genuine and impartial judge of economic performance—described the Chancellor's record as very satisfactory so far. I do not dissent from that and it is a good point of departure, but the problem is, where do we go from here? There clearly are problems ahead.
I am reluctant to indulge in forecasting, but there are a series of problems connected with the failing demand in the retail market, which is associated with personal debt. There are growing difficulties in employment: despite low levels of unemployment, unemployment has risen for three successive months. There are also serious problems in manufacturing: output fell by 2 per cent. in March, and Britain now has one of the worst manufacturing records in recent years, even compared with Germany and Japan, which have had their problems.
The Chancellor has said in the past that we had such problems—a slow-down—back in 2001, but we coped with them because we had the right institutions in place. It is becoming increasingly clear, however, that the Government's freedom of manoeuvre is narrowing considerably. As he knows, there is little scope for the Bank of England to cut interest rates because inflation is at the top end of the range given to it. Inflation is there for several reasons, the most important of which is probably the world price of oil, which may go much higher. There are fundamental problems of capacity shortage, rising demand from China and the United States, and political instability, which may get worse. If that happens, the Bank will be bound to respond to inflationary pressures by putting up, not cutting, interest rates.
There is little scope for relief from private investment, because the rate of return in manufacturing has fallen since 1997 from 12 per cent. to 6 per cent. There is little confidence or cash flow to generate private investment. The Government have no scope for increasing the growth of current public spending, because of the Chancellor's potential problems—they may not be actual problems yet—with the golden rule.
The one possibility left is the scope for increasing public investment, which I believe he plans to increase next year by 23 per cent. He has the scope to do so because the Government balance sheet is still healthy. Its healthiness is now under question, however. If the Office for National Statistics is to be believed, a lot of Government private finance initiative debt may have to be reclassified, taking the Chancellor near to his 40 per cent. limit. In the light of all that, the Government's freedom for manoeuvre may be greatly limited.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the management of the economy in the past eight years has been better than at any other time in the past 100 years? Does he accept that we have low unemployment, which is at a level not seen since way back in the early '60s? For the past eight years, we have heard all the doom-and-gloom statements about how bad the economy is, but does he accept that every time anybody has challenged the Chancellor's figures, they have been proven wrong?
I graciously accepted at the beginning of my remarks that the record was good; I am not disputing that. I shall be equally gracious in the other direction by pointing out that this trend started before the Government came into office, and that they have had a favourable international environment. However, the hon. Gentleman is of course right: the Government have a good track record in many respects.
A few days ago, the former Chancellor, Mr. Clarke, made a perceptive point that at the time seemed witty and wise. He said that eventually, all Labour Chancellors run out of money. I reflected on that, and it struck me as being in fact the opposite of the truth. If one looks back in Labour history, Philip Snowden, Stafford Cripps, Gaitskell, Roy Jenkins and Healey all faced economic difficulties and were forced into an extremely austere approach to public spending, often implementing savage cuts, including cuts in public sector pay. I suspect that last week's comments from the Chancellor at the Trades Union Congress may have been a first indication of the discipline that will have to be exercised in that direction.
Were the Chancellor to intervene, he would doubtless say, "These things are all true, but what I have put in place—unlike my predecessors—is a good framework for policy." That is right. We now have 70 per cent. of a good framework for macro-economic policy.
This week, the Financial Times, which is not politically inspired and which has been very complimentary about the Chancellor's economic record, pointed out that fiscal policy assessment is not independent. We need a genuinely independent element in the assessment of not only the Government's assumptions, but what stage of the economic cycle we happen to be in. We need a fully independent Office for National Statistics, so that sensitive decisions concerning the classification of debt are handled transparently and honestly. Why do the Government not finish the job and create a proper framework for macro-economic management?
The Government must address several big issues that are coming through the pipeline. In the Chancellor's speech to the CBI last week, he hinted at the need for a U-turn on regulation, and some good ideas are emerging on how to institute a deregulatory process. What is missing—perhaps it will emerge—is a proper process, so that every new regulation is subject to the discipline of a proper and independent regulatory impact assessment and has sunset clauses built into it?
The Chancellor must also establish credibility on the deregulatory front by seeing off the problem created by the working time directive. If the problem is not solved, his credibility on deregulation will be in shreds. His position is vulnerable, because he faces the political equivalent of a penalty shoot-out in the Council of Ministers. In the national interest, we hope that he succeeds, but the outcome is not clear.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that a new approach by the Government to regulation would be welcome. Given that it is now six years since the then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Stephen Byers—who is admittedly not a friend of the Chancellor but who was the Chancellor's colleague in the Government at that time—announced his conversion to the use of sunset clauses in legislation in an interview with The Daily Telegraph, does the hon. Gentleman think that we are at least entitled to an explanation as to why sunset clauses have not materialised in any significant form in Government legislation in the intervening six years?
The hon. Gentleman has pursued that cause in his eight years in the House. He is right that, despite the rhetoric, very little has happened, and I support his view on the matter.
Is it not important to differentiate between protective regulations, such as those concerned with health and safety and the national minimum wage, and regulations which should be consolidated because they are inefficient—for example, the election rules which many hon. Members will recently have experienced? Will the hon. Gentleman distinguish between those two kinds of regulations? Surely the Liberal Democrats are not saying that they are against protective regulations such as the national minimum wage.
The hon. Lady knows that the whole argument is about how regulation is framed. I shall pursue the example of the working time directive, on which the Government are now in a very difficult position. Last week, Brendan Barber, the TUC general secretary, wrote a thoughtful article in which he pointed out that the trade unions might well have come on board on the working time directive if the Government had confronted at an earlier stage the crucial distinction between workers who genuinely want to work long hours because that is their lifestyle preference and workers who are coerced into working long hours by their employers. If the system of regulation had captured that distinction, no problems would have occurred. The issue is not about, as the hon. Lady put it, "protective regulations"; it is about the how regulations are phrased. The matter must be addressed in a market-friendly manner, which relates to the key issue of the working time directive.
At Prime Minister's questions, my party leader touched on another big theme, pensions, about which enough has been said not to pursue it in great detail. However, a tension clearly exists between whether we address pensioner poverty through large-scale means-testing, which is the Chancellor's preference and which is becoming unsustainable because of the scale of the testing and the disincentive effects that have been created, or whether we pursue it in another way. We have advanced the idea of a citizen's pension for men and women that is above the means-tested level, at least for older pensioners. We must debate the matter, but we cannot do so until the Government give a clear message on how they want pension policy to evolve.
The Liberal Democrat amendment regrets
"the absence of proposals to introduce . . . local income tax".
Will the hon. Gentleman take this opportunity to end press speculation to the contrary by confirming that local income tax remains Liberal Democrat party policy?
Yes; it most certainly does, and I am happy to refute any suggestion to the contrary. The hon. Gentleman must have foresight, because I was about to conclude on that point, which I shall approach in the context of the slightly wider question of social justice.
I believe in local income tax, but how does the hon. Gentleman reconcile the concept of a local income tax with the concept of a flat tax?
Local income tax is a flat tax, so I cannot see the point of the intervention. Local income tax might be right or wrong, but it is certainly flat.
I have always acknowledged the Chancellor's pursuit of his objective of a fairer system over the past eight years. One of the problems is that all measures of pre-tax income and post-tax income show that income inequality is not significantly better—indeed, it may be worse—than it was in earlier periods. We need to debate the ONS numbers on the share of income paid in tax by different income groups, but, for some reason, the release of those figures has been postponed until next month. The available evidence suggests that the overall tax system in this country is highly regressive, which completely undermines the Chancellor's pursuit of social justice through taxation and tax credits. That is why Liberal Democrat Members continue to believe that income-based local taxation based on ability to pay is the way to proceed, and we will continue to argue that case. We await the Government's proposals with interest, because we understand that they to some extent converge with our point of view.
Order. Before I call the next speaker, I remind the House that Mr. Speaker has placed a 10-minute limit on all speeches by Back Benchers and that it applies from now on.
I know that a number of maiden speeches will be made in this Chamber this afternoon. Indeed, I feel as if I am making my maiden speech, because it is 17 years since I spoke from the Back Benches.
When I made my maiden speech, I talked about unemployment in my constituency. In 1987, there were 6,000 unemployed people in my constituency. Today, the figure is 1,000, which means that 2.2 per cent. of people in my south Wales constituency are unemployed. That is almost full employment. The dramatic transformation of our economy over the past eight years in particular has meant that youth unemployment, for example, has dramatically reduced in all our constituencies. In my constituency today, there are only 45 long-term unemployed young people. Some 2,000 people have used the new deal, 1,000 of whom have found jobs. I am sure that all hon. Members understand that their own local economies have changed beyond recognition, too.
Helped by the dynamic economic development policies of my local authority, my constituency, which was based on coal, steel and heavy engineering, now relies on a host of different types of employers. Those employers range from light engineering to business to traditional employers such as the brake manufacturer TRW, which employs some 800 people, to Big Pit in Blaenafon, which employs people in the tourist industry at a world heritage site. That diversity of our economy owes a very great deal to the policies of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer under the Government of whom I was proud to be a member for eight years.
Similarly, in Wales generally we have had unparalleled resources going into our public services. They have come because, as my right hon. Friend said earlier in his very good speech, we were able to release public funds because we were paying less and less in unemployment benefits. As a result, unprecedented and unparalleled levels of public resources are going into public services in Wales, particularly into our health service. We were able to obtain European objective 1 status for Wales, which has meant that Wales has become more entrepreneurial and more skills and industries have developed.
We have seen a great partnership between the Labour Government here in Westminster and the National Assembly in Cardiff in dealing with the question of our pensioners. In Wales, the transport policies of the Assembly mean that a pensioner can travel free the length and breadth of the Principality. Added to that are our own policies of free television licences for over-75s, help with council tax bills, and winter fuel payments; 30,000 of my constituents are benefiting from the latter.
Of course, more needs to be done—we acknowledge that. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor spoke about the importance of helping young people with getting on to the housing ladder, for example. In the autumn, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will be looking at the extremely important report on the way in which pensions develop in the years ahead.
As well as that, economic change has been formidable in Northern Ireland. I had the very great privilege of being a Minister and a Secretary of State there for nearly five years, and I cannot begin to thank the people of Northern Ireland—Protestant, Catholic and those of no persuasion—for the warmth, generosity and hospitality that they gave me over those years. They have experienced a transformation in their economy that is beyond belief. Unemployment in Northern Ireland now stands at 4.7 per cent. compared with nearly 13 per cent. in 1993—that is down from 89,000 claimants to 37,000. Fifty per cent. of young people in Northern Ireland now go on to higher education of some form or another. New industries are developing. European aid has proved invaluable, as in the Republic, and a new spirit of enterprise is growing. Tourism is flourishing. More people now visit Northern Ireland than live there—2 million people visited last year compared with 1.7 million residents. Although there are of course areas of deprivation, the face of Northern Ireland has changed dramatically for the better.
I believe that the Good Friday agreement and the peace process have brought that about, coupled with the policies of a Labour Government who have encouraged investment from all over the world, especially from the United States and the European Union. As result, people are staying and living in Northern Ireland to create new wealth, which they did not do in the past. When devolution was up and running, local industry could be encouraged and government was more accessible and accountable to the people there. Devolution certainly helped the local economy. That is why the restoration of the Assembly and Executive in Northern Ireland is vital for the economic future of the Province. No one in that place wants to return to the days of the troubles. Everyone wants economic progress, and most people realise that a continued stalemate cannot be good for Northern Ireland's economic future.
I wish my successor, my right hon. Friend Mr. Hain, the very best in his new role as Secretary of State, and I urge all the parties in Northern Ireland to continue to try to find a solution to the impasse and to create the confidence between parties to come to an agreement. For that to happen, all paramilitary groups, especially the IRA, must decommission their weapons and abandon criminal and paramilitary activity. When that happens, Northern Ireland, with a restored and vibrant local democracy, can look forward to a prosperous, peaceful and politically stable future.
I was recently elected as the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire, replacing Jonathan Sayeed. Jonathan was an extremely courteous man who helped countless constituents with individual problems during his time as their MP. On my recent arrival at the House, one hon. Member informed me that every Member of this House had visited my constituency on many occasions. That left me rather perplexed until I realised that he was referring to the M1, which runs through my constituency from junctions 12 to 13. On that basis, most of the population has visited my constituency without having any idea of what Mid-Bedfordshire is like.
My constituency resembles a gently rolling patchwork quilt of arable green and yellow, and in the folds lie Norman churches, market towns and small villages. Late summer nights will see the combine harvesters working by their headlights and early mornings will see market gardeners packing up their produce and heading to London to the various markets. On his way, the market gardener would pass Ampthill, an historic town, and Woburn abbey, the seat of the Duke of Bedford. The traditional heart of the constituency is largely rural, yet in recent years it has become a recognised centre for high-tech research and development, IT and distribution—obviously due to its easy access to the M1. We are also home to the prestigious Cranfield university.
One noteworthy resident of Mid-Bedfordshire was John Bunyan, who was born in Elstow. Unfortunately, as a young man he found himself on the wrong side of the law. He was arrested while hiding up an oak tree in Harlington and dispatched to Bedford jail. Jails in those days held some very inspiring characters, because it was there that he wrote "Pilgrim's Progress". If Patrick Hall, who sits on the Labour Benches, ever finds himself across the border in my constituency, I can assure him that the same fate will not await him—as long as I know that he is coming beforehand, anyway.
People in Mid-Bedfordshire have an extraordinary capacity for acceptance and change. They accepted me into this idyllic rural constituency, yet I have spent the largest part of my life on a Liverpool council estate. Until now, my only claim to fame has been that my grandfather was one of the founders of Everton football club. In my family, supporting the blue team runs in the genes. However, I am afraid that that applies only to politics. As many of my constituents know, I am an avid Liverpool supporter—I have company on a number of Benches—and cannot make my maiden speech today without wishing the team well tonight.
One could be forgiven for thinking that all is well in Mid-Bedfordshire, because I have painted a fairly idyllic picture, but I am afraid that that is not the case. Many of the residents who accepted me did so because they too came from large towns such as Newcastle, Manchester, London and Liverpool. They chose to live there, as I have, because they wanted to wake up to the sound of birdsong rather than the incessant hum of traffic or, unfortunately, the sound of the bulldozer. Therein lies the rub. The face of my constituency is under threat from over-development. I fail to see why, in a country with a population as large and static, we need to develop green fields rather than existing urban areas that need regeneration. In fact, only this morning the residents of Islington were asking on television for new houses to be built in Islington, not 50 miles away in Mid-Bedfordshire.
A great challenge faces the Government, and it requires brave decisions from them. They should encourage economic activity in areas where there is surplus housing or where housing demands are less intense, and develop those areas. I am reminded of Liverpool, the city of my birth. It is bit like a size 8 woman in a size 12 frock because so many people have left over the years. Developing greenfield sites means that such towns and cities are not getting the urban regeneration that they need, and if we meet that ambition, we will be preserving the countryside. There is certainly no need to impoverish the environment and amenity of people in Mid-Bedfordshire and other rural counties for the sake of short-sighted and short-term policies. The price of indiscriminate development on the green fields of Mid-Bedfordshire is to leave much of urban Britain unregenerated.
Children with special needs also have a tough time in my constituency. Mid-Bedfordshire has a high number of exclusions and, on closer examination of the figures, many of them are of children with special needs—high-level autism and Asperger's syndrome. Those children are labelled as disruptive because they cannot swim in the slipstream of the national curriculum. They do not have the necessary social and interpersonal skills to communicate, learn, concentrate or even belong, and, unfortunately, the existing policy of inclusion exacerbates the situation. Because there are few specialist schools, many of those children's most serious problems are compounded and their parents are on the edge of despair.
During my time as the MP for Mid-Bedfordshire, I will, with Mr. Speaker's indulgence, use the House to highlight the concerns of my constituents and what matters to them most. My family's route from the council estate on which we lived was the right-to-buy programme, which was introduced by Margaret Thatcher. The policy brought hope, inspiration and achievement to a generation of people to whom social progress had been a distant dream. During weeks of campaigning, I made promises to my constituents to speak up for those who want to buy their own council houses and follow their dreams for their children. It is a great sadness to me that my father is not alive to witness today.
I promise to be a voice for the family and to stand up for mothers who wish to stay at home and raise their children but feel voiceless and unworthy in such a career-oriented society, when raising the children of tomorrow's society is the most worthy job of all. I promise to speak up for the large farming community in Mid-Bedfordshire, which is battling to come to terms with legislation being heaped upon it. Most of all, I promise to do my best and to base everything that I do on integrity. I know that people will be able to judge my actions and performance in that light, and I hope that, with the help of the House and my colleagues, I will succeed. I will always do my best for the people of Mid-Bedfordshire, the place that I now call home.
I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to the House for the opportunity to make my maiden speech in this important debate, and I congratulate Mrs. Dorries on an excellent maiden speech. I also wish to express my gratitude to established Members of Parliament of all parties and to the staff of the House, whose advice and kindness is helping me and other new Members to find our feet.
The constituency of Worsley contains wards in both Salford and Wigan metropolitan boroughs. Although covering two local authority areas is a complex matter, I am grateful for the support of my right hon. and hon. Friends in neighbouring constituencies in those two boroughs—I want to represent the people of Worsley as well as I know that they represent their constituents.
I pay tribute to the 22 years of service in this House of my predecessor Terry Lewis. Many hon. Members have told me that they liked and respected Terry, and I understand that a typical picture is of him sitting on the Benches below the Gangway vying with his hon. Friends to intervene during debates with Conservatives. I wish Terry well in his retirement after so many years as Worsley's Member of Parliament.
Manufacturing, mining, cotton and weaving were historically Worsley's key industries. That industrial heritage is still evident in our canals and landmark buildings. An important event in Worsley's history was the building of the Bridgewater canal in the 18th century by the third Duke of Bridgewater—the famous canal duke. It was built to take coal from Worsley to Manchester and was later extended to the River Mersey at Runcorn, linking Manchester and Liverpool by waterway. The canal was regarded as an 18th century masterpiece. Nowadays it is an attraction for visitors, particularly the canal basin with its distinctive orange-coloured water.
Coal mining started in the Worsley area in the 14th century, initially from open-cast mines. Deep mining of coal developed in a number of local pits, but production ceased more than 30 years ago. At Astley Green, the pit winding gear acts as a local landmark—the only surviving pithead in Lancashire. It is being developed by volunteers as a museum and heritage centre. However, mining is in Worsley's future as well as its past. UK Coal has plans for new open-cast mining at the Cutacre site. Having researched the effects of open-cast mining on local communities in Yorkshire and Scotland, I have many concerns about that development, and I will campaign to ensure that people in Little Hulton, Walkden, Shakerley and Tyldesley do not suffer unduly from mining activity over the next few years.
Worsley has always played a key part in providing important transport links between the region's cities and towns, including the Roman road that linked the forts at Manchester and Wigan, the Bridgewater canal, Stephenson's Manchester to Liverpool railway, and now the M60 and the east Lancashire road. Such transport links are vital, but my constituents suffer traffic congestion and noise pollution from them. Indeed, traffic congestion at the Worsley interchange is so bad that there are daily traffic reports about it on local radio. The accident rate on the east Lancashire road also causes concern. Therefore, I pledge to make highway safety, traffic congestion and the need for improved public transport some of the key priorities on which I will campaign for change.
Worsley is a constituency of great contrasts. Although the Worsley ward has many properties selling at over a million pounds, a few miles away, Little Hulton ward is the second most deprived ward in Salford, and the 138th most deprived in the UK. The ward suffered greatly under 18 Tory years, and measures by the Labour Government of the past eight years are at last starting to make a difference. I hope that my career experience will help me to represent such a diverse area.
Worsley no longer has the mining jobs or a large number of the manufacturing jobs that it had in earlier decades. However, we have a large number of public sector staff, because the national health service and the two local authorities are the biggest local employers. We also have many jobs in service industries and small businesses. My background in some ways mirrors that mix. In my early career, I worked in the IT industry as a systems engineering manager working with the type of small businesses that we have in Worsley, and which I am sure will be assisted by the extra help for small businesses mentioned earlier by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. I decided that my heart was more with the values of the public and voluntary sectors, and I became a self-employed adviser working on community regeneration projects. I learned a great deal about the need for partnership working and how to listen to people from community organisations.
I hope to use that experience to support community regeneration initiatives in my constituency, for example, in communities such as Higher Folds, where the community centre and the tenants' and residents' association have an understanding of what local people need. Government funding channelled through the Coalfields Regeneration Trust can help to develop that former coalfield community, but people such as Jackie Farrington and Eileen Waldron from such local organisations can point to what the community needs.
I also want new sport and leisure facilities to develop, particularly for young people. However, even the best facilities need the commitment of people such as Mavis Bent and Gwyn Pierce, who run the Tyldesley swimming and water polo club, which was established in 1876 and now has scores of volunteer coaches and 400 young members. Such voluntary organisations are vital because our communities need to be brought together. I want the towns and estates in Worsley to have the best shared community life we can develop, as well as improved services and facilities.
Since 2001, I have worked nationally on policy issues related to carers. Although my work commitments have changed, carers' issues will always remain important to me. There are many thousands of unpaid carers in my constituency, including some 2,000 people who care for more than 50 hours a week. Our health and social care services benefit greatly from the work of those unpaid carers. I hope that understanding the national policy issues for carers will help me to improve support for carers in my constituency. Carers week starts on
As we heard earlier, most new Members' speeches have touched on the success or strengths of a local sports team, but doing that would be hazardous for me. Some of my constituents support Manchester United, others support Bolton Wanderers, while some even support Manchester City, including my hon. Friend Paul Goggins. Many people support Salford City Reds or Leigh or Wigan's rugby league teams. However, rather than siding with any one local club, I wish all the very best to the England women's football squad, which will soon embark on the UEFA European women's championship, which kicks off in Manchester on
I am exceedingly proud to be the first woman MP to represent Worsley constituency and part of the Wigan borough. I thank the people of Worsley for the trust that they have shown in me, and I also thank the House for listening to me today.
I have had no difficulty whatsoever listening to Ms Keeley. She paid a very graceful tribute to her predecessor, and she will be a worthy voice for the people of Lancashire. She spoke with knowledge and a great deal of sincerity about the various issues facing her constituency, and I hope that we hear a good deal more from her very soon.
We have also heard the very competent and confident maiden speech of my hon. Friend Mrs. Dorries, who described the real threat of over-development in her constituency. Over-development is also a threat in my constituency and many others. She also spoke warmly about all sorts of different issues facing Mid-Bedfordshire, including education and family matters. We are very lucky to have these two new Members to help us with our debates, and I suspect that some of us older Members will need to look to our laurels if we are to speak as well as they do.
I should like to add one final tribute. We are lucky to have in the Chamber Mr. Murphy, a man of huge authority and distinction. He has given great service to the country, not least to Northern Ireland, and the points that he made were very valuable.
I should like to speak briefly about pensions, the most important issue facing this country at the moment. We need not only to encourage people to set aside money for their old age, but to ensure that our older people live in dignity and with the kind of worthwhile lifestyle that is now under threat. We all know the background: our pensions are in crisis. People are living longer and saving less: this represents a demographic time bomb, and I am afraid that the Government's £500 million-a-year raid on pension funds did not help. There have also been uncertainties in the stock market, and I have to say that the mis-selling of pensions in the 1990s did not help either. The Conservative Government did their utmost to sort that out, however, and I think that we were successful. I do not believe that the Government's heavy reliance on means-testing is the answer. The pension credit route down which the Government are going will make matters worse, as Adair Turner said at the weekend.
We need to encourage older people to stay in the work force, and to enable them to get back into it if they lose their job. Adair Turner said at the weekend that graduates might well have to work until they are 70. On Monday, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry said that they would not. We need some kind of policy on this, and I hope that the new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will work on that. Why does pensions policy always need to be sorted out? Why has it not already been sorted out? Working longer must be part of the answer to the pensions crisis that we face.
In 2002, there were 20 million people over the age of 50. By 2031, there are likely to be 27 million such people. There will therefore be more people on pensions and fewer people in the work force to support them. The worry is also that those people in the work force could lose their jobs—we have recently had the crises at Rover, Marconi and Colgate. People who lose their job when they are in their 40s and 50s are usually not prepared for it; it comes as a dreadful shock to them. They also find it harder to re-enter the work force, and they know that there is a real possibility that they will be discriminated against by employers. Ninety per cent. of older people believe that they will face discrimination in the work force, and in 2002, a MORI poll showed that ageism was the most common form of discrimination that we face.
May I assume that the right hon. Gentleman is an enthusiastic supporter of the European directive that will outlaw age discrimination in the UK work force by 2006, and that he will assist us in bringing it into being rather than regarding it as a piece of European regulation that needs to be abolished?
The Government have done a number of different things to try to help older people. For example, they have introduced the new deal 50-plus and spent about £800 million on trying to help older people to get work. The Public Accounts Committee recently produced a report entitled "Welfare to work: tackling the barriers to the employment of older people", in which the Committee says that the new deal 50-plus has not been subject to "proper evaluation".
We have also seen from the evidence given to the Committee that, although the Government initially encouraged the Age Positive campaign, they have issued only 150,000 leaflets to support it. The permanent secretary at the Department for Work and Pensions said that 150,000 leaflets had been sent out over five years. When asked how many employers there were in this country, however, he said that he was not quite sure, but he thought that there were several million. It was not surprising, therefore, that one of the members of the Committee said:
"You're not making a very intensive effort, are you?"
More than 1 million people over the age of 50 are looking for work at the moment. I would have thought that one of the things that they could be doing was helping to distribute leaflets to employers to show how damaging age discrimination is.
As Angela Eagle has pointed out, a directive is likely to make age discrimination illegal next year. However, legislation is not the only factor that will encourage older people to get back into work. Another thing that needs to change is the attitude of employers and employees. We need vigorous support for the removal of ageism, and a serious public awareness campaign that will bring about a complete change of attitude towards older workers in every sector, every industry and every aspect of life.
Of course there are advantages in having a youthful work force. However, there are also huge advantages in the values that experience and wisdom can bring to a work force. These include improved staff retention, higher staff morale, fewer short-term absences, higher productivity, and a wider range of skills and experience. It is not true that older people are resistant to technology or to change, as most people think. It is essential to change the stereotypes that deprive us of the value that older people can bring to the work force.
Research shows that older and younger workers respond to training and are equally capable of development. We need to be able to identify any skills that are lacking, and to provide training to suit the older student. We also need to make older workers who are unemployed aware that they can work, and that interesting work is open to them, whether full-time, part-time or self-employed work. We need to ensure that the support given to them by the state is effective, and not just public money poorly spent. We must not limit that support to those claiming state benefits. Many people, particularly in that age group, believe that it is wrong to depend on the state, yet they often need the state's help to return to work.
The Public Accounts Committee has made some valuable specific recommendations, all of which I hope the Government will take fully on board. It recommends proper skills assessments, advisers of a similar age, continuity of advisers, and real practical help.
The key is giving older people self-confidence—confidence that they can work, and that their skills and experience will be welcomed. All too often, older people find it harder and harder even to admit that they are unemployed, because it deprives them of the respect to which they feel entitled. They are right to feel entitled to it, because they have a great deal to offer us all.
Let me begin by congratulating my fellow "maidens" who are present today on breaking their duck. I also thank the staff of the House, who have helped every one of us new starters with a large degree of patience and professionalism. They really have helped us all to get somewhere near up to speed during the past few weeks.
I pay tribute to my predecessor, John McWilliam—a man who gave 26 years of sterling service to the House, and a man for whom those who really knew him in this place had nothing but the utmost respect. John acted as Deputy Speaker, particularly in Westminster Hall. He may not have been one of Parliament's flamboyant types, but he was one of those people whom every successful organisation needs: a man who got things done quietly, efficiently and positively. I can only add my name to the long list of those whom John has helped, here in Westminster and back home in the glorious part of the world that is the Blaydon constituency.
Most people recognise Blaydon when they are told "Yes, that is where the races were held", and some even know the date,
Our part of the world was the cradle of the industrial revolution. We dug the coal, we built the railways, we made the steel. We developed communities that had great self-belief. We had our own welfare state before Beveridge was all out of short pants. We built houses, sports clubs and libraries. We encouraged people to take up musical instruments, and we learnt to care for one another when no one else would. Above all, we became what we are today: an area whose roots are embedded in the world of hard work—from chemicals to coal mining, from farming to forestry, from building earth movers to building ships.
Like many other parts of the country, we are privileged to have thousands of public sector workers living and working in Blaydon. Contrary to the view of far too many in the House, these people are not bowler-hatted bureaucrats counting beans or shuffling papers; they are the glue that holds our society together. They are the people who tidy up when things go wrong in our lives—when our parents cannot take care of themselves, when our child goes off the way, when we are ill, when our house is on fire, when our whole life is in danger of falling around us—and who do all the thousands of other things that public servants do day in, day out, 365 nights and days of the year.
I am massively proud that I, like my comrade and hon. Friend Anne Moffat, had the great honour to represent well over 1 million of those people as president of Unison, "the" public-sector union. I am proud of the many positive things that my union, working in conjunction with my Government, helped to make real for working people in this country. I shall mention just two.
The first is the national minimum wage. Despite howls of protest around the House, my party introduced it, albeit nearly two decades after my union began the campaign. Never again will we see job advertisements for security guards at £1.75 an hour—and don't forget to bring your own dog!
The other part of my work in Unison that makes me most proud is the role that we played in the peace process in Northern Ireland. Unison was one of the first cross-community bodies to make a public declaration in favour of the Good Friday agreement, and many of my Irish colleagues in Unison took real risks for peace. Many of us talk willy-nilly about life-and-death issues, but we should never forget that, for far too long, that is exactly what many of our people in Northern Ireland faced. If there is one thing on which we can all agree in the House, surely it is that we must all work towards a real lasting peace, based on respect for each other's beliefs and enshrined in real democracy.
As I said earlier, the people of Blaydon are no strangers to hard work and, sadly, hard times. The devastation caused by the ideological attacks on our communities in the 1980s left ingrained in my people a strong belief in one thing: they never want to see the return of a Conservative Government. As a coal miner who lost his job, his trade, his community and part of his culture, I could not agree more. Never again should unemployment be used as a tool of public policy. Never again should a Government be allowed to destroy an industry and a key part of our nation's natural resources just to prove a political point. And never again should we allow our communities to be run down, ignored or forgotten.
The truth is that we are all in this together. In a global economy, we cannot afford to be anything other than united. That is why the people of the Blaydon constituency particularly welcome my party's commitment to bring full employment to the north-east. It is by no means an easy objective, but it is one that I intend to chase up constantly with those on the Government Front Bench. I am greedy. I do not just want jobs for people in the north; I want the best jobs for people in the north. I want good jobs, I want high-skill, high-quality, secure jobs, and I want jobs based on good employment rights. That is why I will encourage the Government to implement in full—as promised in the manifesto—the so-called Warwick agreement, which addresses some of the massive shortcomings affecting people at work that have developed over the past 25 years.
The people of Blaydon deserve to work in safe, healthy workplaces. They deserve to be paid a decent, legally binding wage. They deserve to take well-earned holiday breaks, again guaranteed by law. They deserve the right to be represented by skilled trade union officials. They deserve to be able to take time off to help bind their families together in every possible way. They deserve, and I will demand, that the Government intervene to protect their jobs whenever and wherever necessary.
I am immensely proud and honoured to be the representative of the people of Blaydon and its surrounding communities. I want to end by referring to one of those communities, the former mining village of Chopwell—a village whose pride in its socialist roots is personified in a miners' banner featuring Keir Hardie, Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin. Written on the banner are these words:
"We take up the task eternal, the burden and the lessons."
To me, that task is to ensure that the House delivers a world in which people are able to live in dignity, security and peace. The burden is one that we should all relish, and the lesson that we have learnt is that the best way in which to do that is to reject the failed policies of the 1980s and 1990s and support a programme based on democratic socialism—which, in their wisdom, the people of Blaydon have chosen to do yet again.
I thank you and the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to make my speech today. I look forward to many future opportunities to play my part in the House on behalf of the great people throughout the Blaydon constituency.
I congratulate Mr. Anderson on a fine and fighting maiden speech. I can tell him that I am a descendant of a long line of operatives working in the Northamptonshire shoe industry. I can convey some optimism to him, based on the fact that the shopmates of Raunds were the forerunners of the Jarrow marchers, but since then they have moved on a little. Now they see some brighter plains, based in many respects on the work done by the Government of Margaret Thatcher. I pay tribute to her, and I pass that optimism on to the hon. Gentleman.
I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to make my maiden speech during this debate. During the election I promised the people of Northampton, South that I would be as active in pursuing their interests in the House as I had been as a member of Northamptonshire county council, so I am grateful to have this opportunity at this juncture.
I rise to speak in the Chamber as a relatively elderly new entrant, which will, I hope, gain me sympathy and understanding both from you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and from hon. Members. One of the joys of being able to look back over a full number of years is that if we play our cards right, we build up a store of friendship that serves us well in our demise. I am delighted to have reacquainted myself with some very friendly faces in and around the House over recent days. I am also delighted to have reacquainted myself with a rather younger friendly face on the Labour Benches, who reminds me of the immense good that we can do when we put aside our political differences and concentrate on the matters that we mutually agree upon. I refer to Mr. Watson, whose father was the Labour agent in Kidderminster when I was Conservative agent in the 1970s. The hon. Gentleman's father and I identified much common ground, which we worked upon together in the interests of the people of that constituency. It was a practical lesson in political action that I have never forgotten. Consequently, I am grateful for this opportunity to pay tribute to a good friend who was also a very pragmatic and caring political activist.
That leads me to my predecessor in Northampton, South, Mr. Tony Clarke, who is also a caring political activist who served his constituency well as an MP for eight years. The dedication that he displayed to his constituents was exemplary and was commented upon to me often during the election. It gives me pleasure to pay tribute to him in this Chamber.
Tony Clarke and I worked together on a number of local projects over the three years that I was a parliamentary candidate, and I thank him for his input and friendship. Indeed, such an attitude reflects much that is positive about the people whom I now represent. They are hard-working people who have their roots firmly planted in agriculture in a county famed for its oak forests. Together, those components created the shoe industry, which later provided employment for many generations of Northamptonshire people, and is still the industry most associated with the county. I need hardly say that one of the great loves shared by my predecessor and me is the local football team, nicknamed the Cobblers. That highlights the importance of that industry to my local community. I know that he shares my disappointment that they failed to gain promotion again this year.
Disappointment is a part of life's rich pattern and is certainly no stranger to the good people of Northampton and those in the surrounding countryside. They were disappointed when Parliament ceased to meet in the town, as it did on many occasions in the 14th century—not least because, for a change, Parliament then brought money to the town rather than taking it away. They were also delighted when Cromwell placed an order for shoes for his new model army on the promise of later payment, only to be again disappointed when the payment failed to materialise. In more recent years, they have been disappointed by the demise of the shoe trade and the loss of many skilled jobs that generations had practised with pride, although quality products are still manufactured by the likes of Church's, Crockett and Jones, and Trickers.
My constituents have also been concerned by the closure of much of our engineering sector. British Timkin and Express Lifts have both closed over recent years, with the consequent loss of thousands of jobs. It is true that those jobs have been replaced, but many feel that they have been replaced by jobs demanding less skill and paying less money, and that disappoints them.
I do not want to give the impression that Northampton is "on its uppers". It is not. It is still a thriving town populated by hard-working people who want to live decent lives, create a caring society, obey the law, ensure that their kids have a good education, provide properly for the elderly and receive quality health care. However, the message that they gave to me on the doorstep is that they feel let down in many of those respects, too—they are disappointed. There were three subjects about which they felt especially aggrieved. Many asked me to raise those concerns at the first opportunity, and I am pleased to do so.
The Gracious Speech made it clear, as it always does, that estimates for the public services will be laid before this House, and those will include the revenue support grant. There is a growing feeling in my constituency that the revenue support grant is in danger of being distorted. Let me explain. Three years ago, Northampton borough council had a massive increase of up to 30 per cent. when it was under Labour control. Two years ago the increase was 8.5 per cent.—the council was still under Labour control. Last year it dropped to just 0.9 per cent. after Labour lost control.
Now I know the Government will argue that the reduction is caused by the need to transfer resources to less affluent areas, but the argument is not that straightforward. I have already touched upon the loss of skilled well-paid jobs in Northampton and the influx of less skilled and therefore less well-paid jobs. As a consequence, many of my constituents feel that they are being neglected and ignored by a Government who are reducing the revenue support grant at the very time that that need is beginning to grow.
That feeling is heightened when we consider that Northampton and its immediate surroundings feature greatly in the Government's sustainable communities plan, which projects an extra 47,000 or so houses to be built by 2031. It does not take a member of Mensa to work out that such additional development will increase the town's population by almost 50 per cent., which is well above the figure projected in the county structure plan. That will create the need in and around Northampton for approximately 370 extra hospital beds, nine new upper schools and 27 new primary schools—to say nothing of the additional policing, transport, social and health services, waste disposal, sewage, leisure, water and employment requirements. Yet with all that need, the Government have stated that they will not guarantee the extra money for infrastructure.
No wonder local people feel that they are expected to take much more than their fair share of the housing needs of the London area. No wonder they feel that the Government are letting them down by failing to appreciate the infrastructure demands that they face. No wonder they feel that they are being short-changed by a Government who fail to support local people in Northampton properly at present and seem intent on failing to support them properly in future, while at the same time placing massively increased demands upon them.
I plead with the Government to address those problems urgently by fully recognising Northampton's needs in the forthcoming revenue support grant allocations. I also call upon the Government to reduce the burden of extra housing placed on the town and its immediate surrounding areas by an unfair, ill-conceived and under-resourced sustainable communities plan. I urge the Minister to ask the Government to include that rethink in their commitment to achieve sustainable communities.
Finally, I want to refer to the question of the travelling communities in our society. Northampton, like many other areas of the country, faces a serious problem caused by a section of the travelling community. Let me make it clear that not all Travellers act irresponsibly—and it may be only a small number in that community that do. Let me also make it clear that the great majority of my constituents would be happy to support a continuation of the travelling way of life—provided that Travellers fully accepted their responsibilities. However, some of them do cause damage in my community, place extra demands on resources and policing, and generally act as if they lived beyond the law.
I recognise the need for additional sites. Equally, I recognise the need to protect individuals' rights within our community, and we are not doing that. A change in the law is needed. That is what residents are calling for. I therefore ask that the Government consider that when they look at creating safe and secure communities and fostering a culture of respect.
I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for this opportunity and look forward to having further opportunities, under your guidance.
I am privileged to speak in this Queen's Speech debate. I congratulate the new Members who have made maiden speeches: Mrs. Dorries, my hon. Friends the Members for Worsley (Ms Keeley) and for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson) and Mr. Binley. They have all focused on our primary responsibility: to represent our constituents. I congratulate them on the focus of their maiden speeches and wish them well.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend Mr. Murphy on his work as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. He is unique in that he has left his post with acclaim from all sides in Northern Ireland. That is testimony to the great work that he has done in fostering the peace process.
I congratulate the Government, and particularly the Chancellor, on their stewardship of the economy. My new constituency is entitled West Dunbartonshire, and the stability of the economy was key to my successful return. I spoke to many hundreds, if not thousands, of people there, who told me that employment and youth employment, which is at record levels, were crucial in terms of their voting Labour. Low inflation and low interest rates have meant that businesses can plan for the future and home owners could have the confidence to invest in their houses and develop their own lives. The family-friendly policies—such as the working families tax credit and child benefit—as well as free nursery places for three and four-year-olds, were important.
One of my last duties as MP for Dumbarton was to sign a letter to a single parent of three children to tell her that she was getting £13,000 a year extra as a result of the working tax credit. That is what I call investing in families and communities and ensuring stability in the economy.
My new constituency includes Clydebank, and I wish to take the opportunity to thank my colleague, Tony Worthington, who has retired, for his sterling work in Clydebank over the past 18 years. I wish to continue his work in this House and elsewhere. Tony not only represented his constituents in a fine way, but articulated the needs of the international community through his membership of the International Development Committee. He hopes to continue that work with the World Bank and others, and I wish him well, as will all those who know him.
I wish to continue his work with Clydebank Re-built, one of Scotland's first pathfinders in urban regeneration. Clydebank Re-built, although a small development company, will develop the waterfront at Clydebank over the next seven years. That waterfront is where the famous great ships—the Queens, the Lusitania, the Britannia—were built at the former John Brown shipyard. Over £250 million of development work will be put into that area.
In the wider constituency, projects including Clydebank Re-built, the Strathleven regeneration company—which I chair—the Loch Lomond shores and the national park are making an impact on the community. The business environment is creating new jobs and providing high-quality business units, tourist destinations and attractive residential areas.
Housing is a crucial element in the post-industrial strategy for our region, and I note with pride that more than 60 per cent. of all the people in West Dunbartonshire have privately owned houses. The message to the Government from my constituents is that Clydebank, Dumbarton and the Vale of Leven—the main areas—need the continued economic stability that we have seen over the past eight years to ensure increasing prosperity for our constituents and our communities.
Turning to Westminster, there is an air of gloom, particularly among Opposition Members. We have heard that the economy is spiralling into decline, that house prices are down and that unemployment is up—but let us look at the record. In The Sunday Times, David Smith—a distinguished economic commentator—said that the official figures indicated that since the early 1990s more than 3 million jobs had been created, most in the private sector. It is important for us to hit that nail on the head: not all jobs have been created in the public sector. Jobs have been created there, but the majority have been created in the private sector.
Statistics for the past 12 months indicate that there has been a rise of almost 80,000 in the number of jobs in the construction industry, 30,000 in financial and business services and 30,000 in distribution including retailing. We have heard that retailers are on a downward path—but they are increasing their business property. If they are doing so, it must be because they have a buoyant outlook for the next few years. That property means more retailing, but also more jobs.
The position in which the British economy finds itself in is clear. We are the 12th richest economy in terms of the gross national product per capita and, after nearly falling behind Italy and thus putting our placing at the G7 table at risk, the UK has recently moved ahead of France into a comfortable fourth place in the table of world economies. UK average growth between 1990 and 2003 was 2.7 per cent., putting us at the head of our main competitors, France, Germany and Italy.
I note that the Ernst and Young ITEM Club estimate—one that is not always favourable to the Government—indicates that solid growth will continue over the next three years, with consumer confidence expected to recover in 2005 and house price worries evaporating. Those are the comments of outside and objective commentators, but we must face the future, and as the Chancellor indicated, our future is firmly in the global economy.
The Bank of England report on inflation has indicated that the pace of expansion of the world economy is slowing and the recovery in global equity prices has ground to a halt. It also says that global growth is expected to slow this year, but is still expected to be higher than the historical averages. The oil price futures curve has risen, suggesting that the record oil prices may persist in the medium term. That is the background.
Let us focus on what the Government have done over eight years. Despite constant challenges and the risks of instability in the world economy over the past five years—those include the Asian crisis when Korea went bankrupt, the Russian crisis, the IT crisis, the stock exchange crisis, the US downturn, which spread across Europe and Japan, with world trade stalling for the first time in decades, and the volatility of oil prices—we have outpaced our European competitors in terms of growth. Also, the UK matches the United States in terms of future optimism. Despite world instability we have a base from which to grow the economy, and that is down to the very effective stewardship we have experienced over the past few years.
We face challenges from China and India. With the Treasury Committee in the last Parliament, I visited China, which should be taken seriously for a number of reasons. The first is the sheer size of the country: China's population is 1.4 billion, something that we cannot understand. The second is the pace of change; we visited Shanghai and saw the result of the input there over the past 10 years. The Shanghai skyline mirrors that of Manhattan. Ten years ago there was no such skyline in Shanghai; the pace of change is enormous.
I make one request to the Government in terms of the future of the G7. The Government must ensure that China's place in the G7 is recognised by others. China is growing and we must recognise that. The Prime Minister and the Chancellor could do us all a favour in terms of the global economy by ensuring that China gets its rightful place in the G7.
Still thinking about Tony Worthington, I wish to say that there is a great need for the international finance facility, and a need to ensure that the humiliation felt by the billions of people in poverty is eliminated. I wish the Government, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor well at Gleneagles—on climate change, but also on the African objectives, as we try to ensure future security and prosperity for all of us in this divided world.
Mr. Deputy Speaker, thank you for allowing me to make my maiden speech. I commend and congratulate the hon. Members for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mrs. Dorries), for Worsley (Ms Keeley), for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson) and for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley), all of whom made their maiden speeches today.
It is 99 years since the last Liberal Member for Westmorland made his maiden speech to this House. Ninety-nine years ago, my predecessor, Mr. Dudley Stewart-Smith, campaigned for fairer taxation and for greater support for pensioners and against an iniquitous and counterproductive foreign war. As we can see, despite being a century apart, we Liberals are nothing if not consistent.
That my constituency had to wait such a long time for its second Liberal MP may in part be due to the character and abilities of my Conservative predecessors. I pay tribute to my predecessor but one, Michael, now Lord, Jopling, who represented first Westmorland and then Westmorland and Lonsdale with great distinction for 33 years. However, I wish to pay particular tribute to my immediate predecessor, Tim Collins, who represented Westmorland and Lonsdale for eight years and proved himself in that time to be an energetic parliamentarian with sharp instincts. He rose quickly in his party, spending most of his time on the Conservative Front Bench, speaking first for the Conservative party on transport and then on education, and then for the whole nation on matters to do with "Dr. Who". While on a political level I am delighted to replace Tim in this House, on a human level I feel for him, and I wish him and his family all the very best for the future.
Westmorland and Lonsdale does not need to lay claim to being one of the most attractive constituencies in the country, because that claim is self-evident. My constituency takes in large parts of three historic counties—Westmorland, Lancashire and Yorkshire. It contains significant swathes of two of our most breathtaking national parks—the Yorkshire dales and the Lake district, of which it has the largest chunk. Parts of the Furness peninsulas and the Arnside and Silverdale area of outstanding natural beauty also fall within the seat. Ours is a land of mountains and lakes, from the Furness mountains in the west to the Howgills near Sedbergh in the east, with the lakes Windermere, Coniston, Rydal Water and Grasmere in between.
The outstanding natural beauty of my constituency underpins its vital tourism industry, but it can also provide many challenges. Most challenging of all is the extreme and intolerable situation relating to the substantial lack of affordable housing. One in six houses in Westmorland and Lonsdale is a second home, and while I recognise the liberty of people elsewhere to purchase a second home, I value far more highly and recognise more firmly the more important competing liberty to have a decent first home.
Average income in my constituency is about £16,000 a year, and the average house price is about £200,000. I seek to persuade the Government—indeed, I have already written to the Minister for Housing and Planning—to take action to deal with this unsustainable situation. With regard to the Queen's Speech and this debate on the economy, I refer to the statement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, which has already been mentioned today, that additional help is to be given to allow first-time buyers to purchase homes through millions of shared ownership schemes. It is heartening to see the Government acknowledge the problem, but that move will barely make a dent in the problem that I have outlined.
Some 27 per cent. of young people born and bred in Westmorland and Lonsdale leave the area and make their homes elsewhere, largely because of the excessive cost of housing, the lack of rented accommodation in the social sector and the absence of well-paid work. With regard to the latter, last week, one of our largest employers in Kendal, Goodacres, announced the loss of 50 highly skilled jobs. To lose so many young people is not only deeply upsetting in terms of dividing local families, but extremely damaging to our economy.
Losing young people from our communities also has an obvious subsequent impact on the birth rate, reducing demand for our local maternity unit and reducing school rolls, and therefore threatening the viability of some of our most important local services. My hon. Friend Mr. Breed campaigned a few years on the slogan "Breed for Cornwall". I am afraid that the proportion of my fellow residents who are in a position to breed for Westmorland is sadly diminishing. My wife and I are doing our best, but we cannot make up the shortfall on our own.
Successive Governments have left Westmorland and Lonsdale with only a quarter of its original council housing stock; average house prices that are more than 12 times average incomes; and farming and manufacturing industries that are undervalued and undermined to the extent that our communities are now under extreme threat. In the past 12 months alone, there has been a 60 per cent. increase in the number of people in my constituency presenting as homeless.
The lack of any limits on second home ownership gives freedom to a few to purchase such properties in volumes that have become unsustainable, thus putting up house prices and removing from the market otherwise good homes for local families. Changes to the planning laws, local taxation and the financial rules governing local authority housing are among the measures that we must pursue if we are to ensure that there is a future for rural communities such as ours.
My constituency remains one where agriculture and farming are vital to the local economy and to our culture and environment. Farmers who are recovering from the body blow that was the foot and mouth epidemic four years ago are now placed yet again in an economically marginal position by the unnecessary tardiness of the single farm payments scheme. Farmers will not only be paid in arrears for their work, but these payments are now to be paid at least two months late. Farmers may wonder whether Ministers would put up with their salaries being paid to them at some ill-determined and delayed point in the future.
My constituents are generous, outward-looking people who value fairness at home and abroad. Indeed, the best attended debate during the recent election campaign in my constituency was the World Development Movement's "Make poverty history" meeting. I therefore know that many of my constituents will have been horrified to read in the press that the European Trade Commissioner, who I understand once sat in this House, is seeking to undermine this Government's moderately progressive stance on economic partnership agreements between the European Union and the developing world. The Commissioner in question is allegedly expressing a view that this Government should support economic partnership agreements that allow multinational companies unfettered access to the markets of developing countries.
I would wish to call on the Prime Minister to put his old friend in his place and to make a stand consistent with his stated support of the "Make poverty history" campaign. Countries that have been exploited to such a damaging extent by the developed world would be exploited and impoverished yet further if they were forced to open up their markets to powerful multinational companies. It is not free trade that we need, but fair trade. Freedom rarely comes about either in the housing market of Westmorland and Lonsdale or among the peoples of the developing world through an absence of intervention. Competing liberties must be refereed, and in the absence of any invisible hand, visible intervention by the community is essential if real freedom is to prevail.
I know that my job here is lent to me; it is not mine in perpetuity. I have it only so long as I deserve it in the eyes of the people of Westmorland and Lonsdale. The people of my constituency voted for the first time in 99 years for a progressive Liberal Democrat who will fight to protect and strengthen our communities, who will be a powerful advocate for them and who will be Westmorland's man at Westminster, and not Westminster's man in Westmorland. For the duration of my time here, that is precisely what they will get.
I offer my congratulations to all who have spoken before me on their excellent and heartfelt speeches, and especially to Tim Farron, on his interesting and thoughtful contribution.
Like most Members of this place, I approach this moment with excitement and trepidation. We are bombarded with advice from colleagues, friends and family about the content, timing and conventions of this place. The advice varies from "Make it in the first 24 hours, before anybody knows who you are" to "Well, leave it a year and learn from everybody else's mistakes." Others say "Be workmanlike, keep it short and tell jokes." I am unlike my hon. Friend Stephen Pound, whose maiden speech I was privileged to witness, in that I lack his comic timing, so there will be no jokes. He literally had hon. Members rolling in the aisles, and I would recommend his speech to hon. Members as a very good read.
The conventions however are clear, so I will now focus on my constituency, Plymouth, Devonport. I urge hon. Members who have never ventured into Plymouth to do so. It is a great place in a fantastic setting, bordered as it is by the Dartmoor national park to the north and the Tamar estuary to the west, spanned by the Royal Albert bridge, the last and greatest of Isambard Kingdom Brunel's great railway engineering structures. To the south is Plymouth city centre itself; vibrant and exciting, its skyline is marked out by cranes, indicating the regeneration that is happening in this historic city. The architect David Mackay has developed a new and exciting vision for the city that will have positive outcomes for its wider hinterland, extending into my constituency and beyond.
This city's great history is revered around the world. Indeed, more than 40 towns and cities are named in honour of Plymouth. Plymouth conjures up names such as Francis Drake and the pilgrim fathers. Its heritage is something that I and my hon. Friend Linda Gilroy value greatly. The maritime history of the area extends up from Plymouth harbour into my constituency, where the royal naval dockyard is situated. Devonport was initially known as Plymouth dock, but as it grew in importance, local pride and rivalry took over and it became the port of Devon—Devonport. It has buildings dating from the 18th century, through the period of the great sea captains such as Nelson and into the 21st century. It was, like the rest of Plymouth, targeted during the second world war, and many workers gave their lives, as did their families. More than 1,000 civilians died in Plymouth.
In its heyday, the dockyard employed more than 15,000 people. The number is now down to 5,000, but they are carrying out essential work for the Royal Navy refitting Type 22 and Type 23 frigates and Vanguard nuclear submarines. It is vital that we retain locally the valuable engineering and technological skills of that work force. The quality of those jobs, which are generally highly skilled and therefore better paid, is crucial to the long-term survival of what is otherwise a low-wage economy. Devonport has an ongoing and essential role to play in maintaining our fleet, and I shall certainly champion that cause in the House.
The dockyard is a major employer, but there is a need to develop a more flexible work force to meet the needs of a growing and changing economy. We in Plymouth want to be able to meet the challenges of the 21st century, so skills training and community development play a vital role. In my constituency, there are a number of excellent training establishments meeting a wide range of needs, including the Plymouth engineering group training scheme, which targets young people and also retrains older, more experienced workers such as plumbers and electricians who are seeking to update their skills; the brand new training centre at the Peninsula Medical School, which has just accepted its first intake of medical students; and the radiology academy, which will be one of only three in the country training much needed radiologists. That is all evidence of the massive increase in investment in the front-line services in our health service.
Plymouth is home to the innovative Tamar science park, which is rapidly growing new businesses in hi-tech areas linked to medical research. Cardioanalytics, which was set up by two consultant radiologists about eight years ago, now has an international reputation and employs 60 to 70 people. In Devonport, local communities work at a micro-level to improve the skills of people who live in them. Individuals and organisations bring people together and provide basic community facilities. In Belliver, Marlene and Peter Turner run a community centre from their front room. They support various craft groups, organise City and Guilds courses and arrange the annual St. George's Day festival, which I was delighted to be able to attend this year. They are now introducing proposals for a purpose-built community space. In Honicknowle, there is a thriving youth and community centre where excellent work is being done to motivate young people. That positive action helps young people to find a purpose in life and, to use a much used phrase, learn to respect others as well as to be respected themselves.
I welcome measures in the Queen's Speech that make children and young people a priority but also clamp down on antisocial behaviour and assist authorities and parents in the setting of boundaries for young people. The Budshead Trust is another group that does excellent outreach work and encourages local people to participate in their local community. Of all the schemes that I have visited in Plymouth, Sure Start has been the real catalyst for change in some of my constituency's more deprived areas. Sure Start schemes have acted as motivators for young women and men who previously felt cast adrift. Along with the new deal, they support them into new pathways of work and training. I am immensely proud of the investment that the Labour Government have made in setting up and running those schemes, and I look forward to the further expansion of children's centres in my area.
The Plymouth, Devonport constituency is made up of a number of separate communities. Because of the topography of the area, links between them are not easy. Much of the housing is post-war local authority property, built to house people who were bombed out of their homes and dispossessed during the second world war. A lot of it has fallen into disrepair, and it presents a major challenge to the city council, which is responsible for much of it. Ensuring that the city council has the funding necessary to manage that stock will be one of my earliest challenges as a new Member of Parliament, and I shall undoubtedly beat a path to the door of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.
I am encouraged by the emphasis placed on the need for new affordable housing by my right hon. Friends the Deputy Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer. In an area where housing costs have risen sharply but where wages have remained below average—a dual-income couple earning 25 per cent. above the average in the south-west struggle to buy the average south-west home—new affordable homes, including some of the £60,000 homes flagged up at the recent sustainable communities conference in Manchester, would be very welcome indeed.
Issues relating to the economy, housing, communities, transport and the dockyard were themes of the maiden speeches of my predecessors. David Jamieson, who decided to stand down at the election, had a reputation in the House as a witty and passionate speaker. He is best known in Plymouth for his work following the tragic deaths of four children in the Southway area of my constituency in the Lyme bay disaster. David pushed through a private Member's Bill and got the Activity Centres (Young Persons' Safety) Act 1995 on to the statute book without the support of the Government of the time, which was no mean feat. In later years, as a transport Minister, David fought passionately for the cause of improving road safety.
Other names spring from the pages of Hansard, including Michael Foot, who is deeply cherished by the people of Plymouth and whom I met recently at the launch of the Mackay vision for Plymouth at the House of Commons. He is still an official substitute for Plymouth Argyle football club, with the number 90 on his shirt, to match his years. Lord Owen, too, continues to take a close interest in Plymouth. Devonport was also represented by Leslie Hore-Belisha, a Liberal known for the eloquence of his speeches. He is perhaps best known for the introduction of the highway code and the Belisha beacon. Plymouth has also been notably well represented by women, including Lady Astor, Dame Joan Vickers, Dame Janet Fookes and my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton who, if she were cut in half—heaven forbid that anyone should want to do so—would be found to have Plymouth running right through her like a stick of rock. I very much hope that, in time, I will be as strong a champion for Plymouth, Devonport as she is for Plymouth, Sutton. I am honoured to serve in Parliament and I am mindful of my responsibility to the people of Plymouth, Devonport. I very much hope I can live up to the example set by my predecessors, and I certainly look forward to the challenge.
I am grateful for the opportunity to make my maiden speech on the final day of debate on the Queen's Speech. It was a pleasure to listen to the maiden speeches by my hon. Friends the Members for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) and for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mrs. Dorries), and by the hon. Members for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck), for Worsley (Ms Keeley), for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson) and for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron). I wish them all the best in their parliamentary careers. I would like to add my own tribute to those that have already been made to Mr. Murphy for his excellent work, both in Northern Ireland and in the Principality.
I count it a huge honour to be elected as the new Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire. I am only the second Member to represent the constituency, which was created before the 1997 election, when it was won by Jackie Lawrence, and again in 2001, for the Labour party. Jackie retired at the end of the last Parliament. She and I were opponents in the election held four years ago, and we both fought robust campaigns. The more that I saw of her during that election, however, the more that I was struck by the sincerity and humanity with which she carried out her duties as a Member of Parliament. She entered Parliament for exactly the right reasons—to improve the lives of Pembrokeshire people—and served her constituents well during her eight years as an MP. Her parting remark to me on election night in 2001 was, "Best of luck with your parliamentary career, Stephen, just not here in Pembrokeshire." I am afraid that I have disappointed her, but it was typical of her integrity and grace that not only did she send her congratulations after my win on
Preseli Pembrokeshire, with much justification, can be described as one of the most beautiful parliamentary constituencies, containing as it does much of the Pembrokeshire coastal park with its 185 miles of footpath running alongside scenes of spectacular beauty. The coastline is important to Pembrokeshire. We are surrounded by the sea on three sides, and that has been the source of our comparative economic advantage throughout our history. Even today, after whaling, fishing, oil refining and defence-related industries have all flourished and then declined, the sea is still important to our local economy.
We have two ports: Fishguard, with its ferry service to Rosslare in Ireland; and the port of Milford Haven, which is the UK's fifth largest port, with major oil interests, a remnant of the fishing industry, and an Irish ferry from Pembroke dock. As I speak, construction is under way on two major liquefied natural gas terminals near Milford Haven. When completed, those could provide 30 per cent. of the UK's natural gas needs, which will be shipped into the nearby port of Milford Haven. Not surprisingly in an area of such outstanding natural beauty, the liquefied natural gas development is not without controversy, and some specific issues need to be addressed. The LNG investment, however, will bring a vital injection of economic activity to west Wales, which could provide a substantial long-term pay-off for many years to come.
As well as our coastal heritage, Pembrokeshire is also home to Britain's smallest city, St. David's, with its picturesque streets and beautiful ancient cathedral. St. David's was a site of huge importance in early Christendom. It lay on the intercontinental route that took Irish pilgrims through Britain on the way to Rome and sometimes Jerusalem. Still today, the A40 trunk road, which leads from Fishguard through Pembrokeshire towards the M4 corridor is recognised by the EU strategic trans-European network, which links western Ireland with mainland continental Europe.
Travelling along the single-lane A40 through Pembrokeshire can be a slow and frustrating journey, however. Upgrading the A40 to a dual carriageway is certainly overdue. Local business needs it, local people want it, and while I am a Member of this House I want to do whatever I can to make the case for it, and, I hope, to persuade the rather Cardiff-centric Welsh Assembly of the need for investment in critical infrastructure in other parts of Wales.
In the heart of Pembrokeshire is the old town of Haverfordwest—the county town of Pembrokeshire—which I am blessed to be able to say is my home town. I grew up there, in a street of council housing, which backed on to my old secondary school. Many of the houses in that street have now been bought and had small porches, kitchen extensions and other improvements added to them. I want to add my voice to that of my hon. Friend Mrs. Dorries, who said that no one should lose sight of what the Conservative right-to-buy scheme did for hard-working, working-class families in constituencies such as mine. Of course we need to provide an adequate rented sector for individuals and families who might, through different circumstances in their life, have to fall back on social housing, but the aspiration of the vast majority of people in this country is towards home ownership, which should be recognised as a key goal of housing policy.
There have been Crabbs in Pembrokeshire for many generations, and not just on our wonderful beaches. My grandfather was a baker in Haverfordwest at a time when, like other small market towns, it was full of independent traders, grocers, shopkeepers and tradesmen. In those days, there was no such thing as a small business sector; there were only small businesses. Times change, and today Haverfordwest has a Tesco, a Morrisons, a Kwiksave and an Aldi, and I am told that we will soon have a Lidl store as well. I am not a betting man, but I am willing to wager that not many of our long-suffering local farmers who still constitute a significant part of the local economy will see much of their produce on the shelves of that supermarket when it comes to Haverfordwest.
A principal reason why Pembrokeshire is such an attractive place for the food discounters is that our per capita GDP is so much lower than the UK national average. GDP in Pembrokeshire is less than 70 per cent. of the EU's 15-member average, which qualifies us for objective 1 status. We are currently in receipt of structural funds through that programme. I do not want to be too controversial today, but I am more than a little sceptical of the long-term success of EU structural funds in closing the wealth gap between regions. The targets for the EU cohesion and structural funds have consistently not been met.
Objective 1 did, however, provide an important opportunity for many stakeholders in west Wales to focus like never before on what needs to be done to improve the region's economy. My fear is that that was a missed opportunity. Many business people in Pembrokeshire tell me that they do not feel that the business community was actively involved in the objective 1 programme, and that the process was dominated by public sector bodies. I believe that small business is the backbone of the Pembrokeshire economy and I want to do whatever I can while I am a Member of the House to provide a voice for the hard-working men and women who comprise that sector.
I greatly value the commitment in the Queen's Speech to reducing burdens on business—business regulations. The small business community in my constituency is looking for action, not more words, from this Parliament.
I am grateful for the courtesy of the House this afternoon, and to the people of Preseli Pembrokeshire for giving me the opportunity to be their representative during this Parliament.
It is a great honour to make my maiden speech in this House on this, the final day of debate on the Queen's Speech, to follow the thoughtful speeches of my right hon. Friends the Members for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) and for West Dunbartonshire (Mr. McFall) and to follow a series of excellent maiden speeches, not least that of Mr. Crabb, which together show that we can look forward to a number of thoughtful and constructive contributions in the debates of this House in the years to come.
This is the first maiden speech by a Member of Parliament for Normanton for 22 years. Bill O'Brien, my predecessor, was a hugely respected MP, whose commitment to improving the lives of hard-working families in our area is beyond question. Almost everyone I have met in our constituency has a personal story to tell of how Bill has helped them, a friend or a family member. I know, too, that he is widely respected in the House for his parliamentary experience, for his detailed knowledge of mining and local government matters and for his wisdom. I have been told by many hon. Members how they have turned to Bill for advice and support during their parliamentary careers.
I also want to mention Bill's family and in particular his wife, Jean, who has also served for 22 years, as an MP's spouse. It is my considered view, speaking from some personal experience, that the role of the MP's spouse is not always fully appreciated at a political level. I want today to set the record straight: Jean O'Brien has consistently been by Bill's side, a tower of quiet strength and dignity. I am sure that all hon. Members will want to wish them a long and happy retirement from the Commons and to thank Bill for his commitment to public service.
I have had the privilege of speaking to many hundreds of voters in the past year about issues that directly affect their daily lives—pensions, skilled jobs, plans for a new hospital at Pinderfields, out-of-school child care and the need for more police and community support officers on the beat. All those issues I will be actively pursuing in the coming months. As we have talked, time and again I have heard and felt first hand the powerful traditions that run deep through Normanton.
My constituency forms an arc around the north of the city of Wakefield, running from Sharlston and the town of Normanton in the east, through Altofts, Stanley, Outwood and Wrenthorpe to the north, and then round to Ossett and Horbury in the west, all linked together by the M62 and M1 motorways, which intersect in the constituency. It is a constituency united by a strong industrial tradition in manufacturing, railways and coal mining, and by a long-standing civic, trade union and co-operative tradition. In our district, the Co-operative party is our conscience, and I look forward to participating actively as a member of the Co-operative group of Labour MPs.
Most important, Normanton boasts a historic Labour tradition, with the longest continuous Labour representation of any seat in England—a continuous representation, that is, since 1885, when the Liberals stood aside for 12 working-class Lib-Lab candidates. We are proud of Normanton's Labour tradition, matched only by the Rhondda valley in south Wales, and if I may be so bold, long may it continue.
We are now in a time of great change, as the revolution of globalisation transforms communities such as ours, but these challenges of technological change, foreign visitors and new investors are, for us, nothing new. Few constituencies can boast visitors as distinguished as Queen Victoria, Prime Ministers Gladstone and Disraeli and US President Ulysses Grant, all of whom visited our area in the mid-19th century, Normanton being, for passengers travelling north to south in the pre-buffet era, the restaurant stop of choice.
One visitor above all left his mark: the Emperor of Brazil, Dom Pedro II, who stopped for lunch in August 1871, heard about the local colliery at Hopetown, arranged a visit and caused such a stir that the pit shaft was renamed Dom Pedro and became known as the Don. The emperor also visited the Normanton iron works, was shown a special rail and immediately ordered a batch to be sent back and used in the expansion of the Brazilian railway.
To us, globalisation is nothing new, and well over a century later the same strengths that made my constituency an industrial leader—our strategic location, our manufacturing expertise and our skilled work force—are now the key to our future prosperity. It is the task of the Wakefield Way steering group, on which I serve, to ensure that we exploit those advantages to the full. We want to see the Wakefield district established as a key logistics cluster, and a centre of industrial and manufacturing expertise.
We also have to be honest about the weaknesses that we must address. We still have too many people trapped on incapacity benefit, who want to work but need extra help and support to return to work. Compared with other parts of Yorkshire, we have skills shortages alongside low levels of qualifications in the adult work force. It is both an affront to social justice and a real economic threat that so many 16-year-olds in my constituency still leave school without a proper qualification. I therefore welcome the measures set out today by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in this Queen's Speech debate on science, skills, employment, housing and regional policy, which will really help us in that task.
We are able to debate today how our wider economic policy can build on stability—rather than, as used to happen, how we can avoid stop-go—because the Labour Government have put in place a new British model of monetary and fiscal policy for our country and taken the tough decisions to establish and entrench economic stability. Twenty years ago, the Wakefield district was labelled a "high unemployment area", with one young person in every four unemployed for more than six months as a result of the devastating loss of manufacturing jobs and the closures of the pits. It was not a price worth paying. Today, because of our economic stability, our district has an unemployment rate, not above, but below the national average. The new deal has cut youth unemployment from a peak of 3,300 young people out of work in 1984 to just 130 today—20 in my constituency. It is because of the proactive and forward-looking approach that Labour has taken to economic policy—Bank of England independence, the symmetric inflation target and the two fiscal rules—that, for the first time in a generation, my constituents are benefiting from what is close to a full employment economy.
That stability—that prudence—has been for a purpose. We have shown that a Government committed to progressive goals—increasing investment in our public services, introducing a national minimum wage, lifting 1 million children out of poverty—can also deliver the lowest inflation for 30 years, the lowest mortgage rates for 40 years and record levels of employment. Some said that a Labour Government could not run a stable economy and pursue progressive goals. The present Government have proved them wrong.
At this point, I must confess that, yes, as a young economist working in opposition back in 1994, I wrote that truly immemorable phrase, "post-neoclassical endogenous growth theory"—but there was a penultimate draft from which that infamous phrase had been excised, and it was not I but a rather more distinguished Member of this House who wrote in the margin, "Put back the theory." From 1997, I was proud to serve the Labour Chancellor and the Labour Government for seven years as economic adviser and then chief economic adviser to the Treasury. I was privileged to chair the International Monetary and Financial Committee Deputies during a period in which Britain, under the leadership of the Prime Minister and the Chancellor, have led international efforts to reform the international financial architecture and meet the millennium development goals.
I know that those opportunities—all the opportunities that my family and I have had—were made possible only by the achievements of the Labour party in government. My grandfather, a lorry driver, died from cancer soon after the war, when my father, the youngest of three boys, was only 10. My father—from a widowed family in a working-class community in Norwich—was able to stay on at school at 16 and get a scholarship to university. All the opportunities that he and we have been able to enjoy were made possible only because of the welfare state that the Labour Government created in 1945, reflecting our core belief that opportunity should be available for all, not just for the privileged few.
I am now able to be in public service once more, as a Member of this House and as Labour's ninth MP for Normanton. My Labour predecessors—Benjamin Pickard, William Parrott, Fred Hall, Tom Smith, George Sylvester, Thomas Brooks, Albert Roberts and Bill O'Brien—were all coal miners, every one of them. They were Labour because the adversity they suffered taught them not selfishness, but solidarity. However insurmountable the obstacles seemed to be, they never settled for second best for themselves or anyone else in their struggle for full employment and social justice. I hope that, in the coming years, I shall be able to demonstrate the humility, hard work and commitment to public service for which previous Normanton MPs are known, remembered and honoured, and thus enable my constituency's historical traditions to live on renewed in this century. We owe it to our predecessors, as we owe it to our families and to future generations, to complete their work and, on the platform of stability that we have built, secure an economically strong and socially just society of which we can be proud.
I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to make my maiden speech today.
I know a fair amount about English history, and after listening to eight excellent maiden speeches I now know something about English geography. They were all first-class contributions. I mention particularly the speech of Ed Balls. To say that the hon. Gentleman's reputation precedes him in the House seems somewhat inadequate in all the circumstances. He certainly did not disappoint in the excellence of his first contribution in the Chamber. In owning up to the endogenous growth cycle theory, I was wondering whether he had written one or two speeches thus far in the debate. We can say of his own fine contribution that it was not brown and it certainly was not balls either in this instance. I look forward enormously to more contributions from the hon. Gentleman.
I sometimes think that my party's policies are insufficiently radical. There is, for example, our policy of extending the franchise to 16-year-olds. That strikes me as insufficiently radical when I saw the school results in the Chancellor's constituency—the SNP swept the board in the school elections. I was particularly interested in one contribution that I received from a young man called Edmund Peppitt, who stood for the SNP at the Royal Russell school in Croydon, and came within seven votes of a shock win. I was struck by the strength of opinion in Croydon. I shall quote briefly from young Edmund's speech. He says:
"Why is Edmund Peppitt standing as a Scottish Nationalist in Croydon? Well, I'll tell you. It's because I believe in fairness. Scotland has contributed more to the UK than any other part of Britain—for example, £600 billion of North Sea Oil, green energy in the form of hydro-electric and windpower, a large part of this country's armed forces, penicillin, the telephone, television, whisky and golf. But Scotland is ruled by Westminster and cannot decide its own future, which is simply not fair . . . what has Westminster given Scotland in return? Well, the Conservatives gave Scotland the poll tax and Labour has given Scotland the war in Iraq and afterwards sacked Scottish soldiers who had fought in it. Now you may not care about Scotland because it is a long way from Croydon. But you care about fairness. And everyone here who has links with a country that has been ruled by another country will know the value of freedom, independence and self-determination. So if fairness, freedom, independence and self-determination are important to you, vote Scottish National Party. You don't have to be Scottish to believe in what it stands for."
Given the success of the young shadow Chancellor in writing speeches for the erstwhile Leader of the Opposition, perhaps I should be employing young Edmund to be writing some speeches for me. I am not saying that we will intervene in Croydon at the next election, but if we do so at the election after next, I suspect that we could do a great deal worse than to have Edmund Peppitt as the first SNP candidate for Croydon.
We can interpret the election result in a variety of ways. Statistics are well known to the hon. Member for Normanton. In the island of Ireland, the Democratic Unionist party managed to secure an 80 per cent. increase in representation. On the mainland, the SNP managed to secure a 50 per cent. increase and, admittedly, an increase from four seats to six. None the less, it was a sizeable increase. The Conservatives and Liberals managed to achieve an increase of 20 per cent. and Labour lost about 12 per cent. of its Members. Labour, however, won the election, and that must be acknowledged and Labour must be congratulated.
I cannot help but think that the Prime Minister, in many ways, lost the election in the sense that two thirds of the people voted against him, that perhaps two thirds of Labour Members would rather see the back of him and that he maintains his position by promising to go sooner rather than later. That is not a particularly secure basis for the Prime Minister's present position.
I am interested to hear how well the SNP did. Why does the hon. Gentleman think that the Welsh nationalists had such a disappointing result?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the only opinion poll that we have had thus far for the 2007 Scottish elections, taken by YouGov, which accurately forecast in the same poll the result of the general election in Scotland, showed the Scottish national party not in second place, but in first place. I am not claiming that one opinion poll two years before an election means certain victory, but I am saying that we are in with a fighting chance. I know that secretly the hon. Gentleman and some of his colleagues wish us well as we look forward to that Scottish election.
May I say to Scottish Labour Members in particular that I was interested in the argument that the Chancellor had defied his critics, and that every time doom and gloom was forecast, he came up trumps once again. I see him back on the Treasury Bench. When I tried to intervene earlier I merely intended to ask who carries the responsibility for the three quarterly downturns that there have been in the Scottish economy since the Chancellor took office. I was struck by how much of the Labour party election campaign claimed the credit for 50 consecutive quarters of UK economic growth. I wondered whether it followed that responsibility would be taken by the Chancellor for the three quarters of downturn in the Scottish economy since 1997.
I tabled a parliamentary question on the matter just before the election, and received a charming letter back from the Treasury, saying that the Chancellor wanted me to know that it was more appropriate for the Secretary of State for Scotland to provide a written answer to the parliamentary question about negative growth. I am not aware what economic powers the Secretary of State for Scotland is meant to have to carry responsibility for the disappointing performance of the Scottish economy, and for the fact that Scotland currently has the highest unemployment rate of any nation in the United Kingdom and the lowest growth rate of any country in Europe.
One of my predecessors, the late Bob Boothby who represented East Aberdeenshire, once described the Secretary of State for Scotland as the scullery-maid of the Cabinet, in the sense that he had to clean up the mess left by other Ministers. It now seems that the present Secretary of State for Scotland has to carry the responsibility that should properly belong to the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
During the election campaign I did not see much evidence of the economic miracle that the Chancellor claims. I saw a fine factory about to close in Scalpaigh in the Western Isles, or Na h-Eileanan an Iar—I have been practising the Gaelic name for the constituency. In many ways the proportionate impact on that small fragile community is as great as the industrial story that emerged during the campaign about the closure of Rover in the midlands, as are the closures in the defence and food industries in the constituency of my hon. Friend Angus Robertson.
A hundred thousand manufacturing jobs have been lost in Scotland since 1997. I know that some people think that manufacturing is not the basis of a modern economy. If we glance at the balance of payments, we are entitled to be concerned about the demise of so much manufacturing industry. That process of closures continues apace around Scotland.
In the past few days in the north of Scotland we have seen Norfrost go into receivership. For the past 30 years it has been a beacon defying gravity, producing high quality fridge freezers from Caithness. We have seen large scale redundancies at R B Farquar in Huntley, with production being moved to a facility in the Czech Republic. We have seen the closure of the buying headquarters of Aberness in Aberdeen and its move to a more central location. In each of those closures or redundancies, we see pressures bearing down on much of the industrial economy in Scotland.
My question to the Chancellor on the Queen's Speech is how the economic policy will combat the pressure on transport costs felt by a company such as Norfrost. Where are the measures that will improve the competitive position and allow our economy to compete with the developing economies in Europe? With the centralisation of buying processes, which affect so much of the retail chain, what protection is offered and what thought is being given to the fragility and vulnerability of marginal and remote economies?
I want to turn in closing to the subject of energy, because I believe part of the answer to the questions that I have just posed is to maximise the benefit from resource economics. I saw in The Times today that I was not the only person who was thinking about energy. It says:
"Hovering half a mile above the English countryside last month, David Willetts began to wonder where the Government's energy plans were heading. As he looked down from the Conservatives' campaign helicopter, he 'suddenly began to see how many wind farms there are cropping up all over the place, sometimes in rather beautiful places'."
Now that Mr. Willetts is applying his formidable brain power to the question, I hope to have some support for the proposals that I have been putting forward. First, there is the proposal to maximise the potential of Scotland's offshore alternative energy resources—25 per cent. of Europe's wind potential; 25 per cent. of the tidal potential and perhaps 10 per cent. of the wave potential. Secondly, we should not discriminate against that vast base of future energy by charging £20 a kilowatt to connect to the grid in the north of Scotland, while in this part of the kingdom the subsidy is something approaching £10 a kilowatt. If we are trying to reinforce the prosperity of places such as Scotland, and perhaps answer young Mr. Peppitt's questions on fairness, which should apply to every part of the kingdom, we should not discriminate against the potential of Scotland—having won the natural lottery twice, and having bankrolled the present Chancellor and his predecessor's economic plans, when the Chancellor this year is now looking at £10 billion of oil revenues flooding in to his Exchequer—to lead Europe in the exploitation of renewable power as we have done in other energies.
The transformation of the economy and its impact on jobs, reflected in today's excellent maiden speeches, remain my abiding memory of the last election. Figures published last week show the strongest labour market for decades, employment at near record levels and unemployment at the lowest level for 30 years. The highest rate of employment of all the major world economies is the result of Government policies. Compare the UK for example with the rates of the G7. We have the highest employment rate at 74.9 per cent. We see Italy at 56.2 per cent. We have the second lowest unemployment rate at 4.7 per cent., marginally below Japan, which is No. 1. That compares with the rate in France and Germany of 9.8 per cent., which is more than double ours.
Yes, I am coming to that.
Under the Government, employment is up by 2 million. The Conservative party let unemployment rise twice to 3 million between 1979 and 1997. So I speak with genuine pride about our achievements and our proposals in the Queen's Speech. I am proud of the opportunities for our young people. Long-term youth unemployment has fallen by 92 per cent. to its lowest level for a quarter of a century. I am proud that the numbers claiming unemployment benefit are back to the levels that were seen in the mid-70s, and I am proud that long-term unemployment has fallen by 75 per cent. since 1997.
In my constituency, the new deal has been an outstanding success. We claim a share in the fact that over 480,000 young people have been helped back into work, and that all important first step into the labour market should not be underestimated. The suggestion that those jobs are predominantly in the public sector is simply not accurate. Two thirds of the increase in jobs since 1997 has been in the private sector.
There should, however, be no request for forgiveness for employing 220,000 more workers in education, 280,000 more workers in the national health service and 40,000 more workers in the police. Cumulatively, that is a credit to this Government. Of course, we live in a period of constant change and challenge. For example, at first glance too many manufacturing jobs have gone since 1997, but in fact—as is reflected by global comparisons—we are producing more output with fewer workers. Output is 25 per cent. higher than 20 years ago.
Economic stability is one hallmark of this Government, and there is widespread confidence, particularly among home owners. According to the Bank of Scotland's house price index, house prices have risen by 54 per cent. over the past three years. I welcome the fact that my constituents share in a genuine property-owning democracy.
There was one other big issue in the election, and I am delighted that it has been mentioned by other hon. Members today. At the hustings, in the churches and on the streets, my constituents were absolutely committed to the concept of making poverty history. The main themes of the UK's G8 presidency will be Africa and climate change. Both are pressing issues in the world today, and Africa demands particular attention as the world's poorest continent.
The Prime Minister recently launched the Commission for Africa to take a fresh look at the challenges that African countries face. It will consider what needs to be done to meet the millennium development goals on time; regrettably, we are currently not on course to meet them.
However, the commission will make recommendations in order to address the full range of issues, including trade, HIV and education. Clearly, other regions also merit attention, but Africa contains 18 of the world's 20 poorest countries.
When the G8 summit meets later this year at Gleneagles, which is less than one hour's drive from my constituency, what will be required is resolute political will. A "can't-do" attitude from any member of the G8 will be wholly unacceptable if we are to overcome what I passionately believe to be the biggest challenge to peace in modern times—avoidable poverty.
Richard Curtis, one of Britain's leading screenwriters, penned the script for a movie called "The Girl in the Café", featuring Kelly Macdonald, which highlights what The Observer described as the cynicism of global politics and its ultimate victims: the voiceless people of Africa. At one point, Kelly clicks her fingers three times as someone speaks. Everyone knows precisely what the three clicks mean: every three seconds of every day, a child in Africa dies from extreme poverty. Fortunately, we have a Prime Minister and a Chancellor who, unlike the actors in the film, uniquely see those important issues as absolutely paramount for Britain. If a breakthrough on poverty led to an agreement—we are told that such an agreement will be recalled in history alongside the abolition of slavery and the extinction of apartheid—what an outstanding reward it would be for humankind. As Richard Curtis said:
"If 50,000 people died in London on Monday, in Rome on Tuesday, in Munich on Wednesday, in New York on Thursday and in Paris on Friday, they would find the money and the solution to the problem as they walked from the lift to the breakfast bar, they just would".
A breakthrough on poverty means writing off debt, fair trade and encouraging western cultures to do as we do and increase their aid.
We can do something to obtain the moral authority to challenge the corruption that undoubtedly exists in developing countries. For every £1 in grant aid given to developing countries, more than £13 bounces back in debt repayments, which is why the Chancellor wants to eradicate £1,000 billion of debt owed by poor countries to the major banks. That could put an end to this statistic, which would be more than worthwhile: one in 16 women in Africa is at risk of dying during pregnancy or childbirth, compared with one in 1,400 in Europe.
"come here with the attitude that I know they currently have today, of doing nothing—don't come, stay at home, not welcome."
He went on to say:
"On the other hand, should you come with the intent to stop this open wound, you will be embraced and remembered throughout this century."
In that spirit, I welcome the Queen's Speech, which I genuinely believe offers opportunities and hope to my constituents and to millions more.
I am sure that all hon. Members feel for those who are making their maiden speeches. We all remember the terror, hesitations and anxieties that go into the process. I give a cheer that so many hon. Members have accomplished their maiden speeches so well today. New Members refresh the most important institution in our national life—the Commons.
It was a privilege to listen to Mr. Murphy. He is unusual in this age of "I am". He was a modest, dignified, decent and remarkable Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I wonder at the extraordinariness of modern Governments—Ministers do not last for any length of time and they are moved when they begin to become experienced.
There were two big "I ams" in the general election campaign. There is no Labour party or Conservative party any more; there are leaders who say that they will do this or that for us. The leaders use phrases such as "I pledge", "I will dismiss" and "I will reduce"—I, I, I. The campaign was about the big "I".
The most modest thing in the Queen's Speech is Her Majesty herself. We have seen the struggle across this nation to assert the primacy of party leaders, which will not work and is not working. We are beginning to see a fracture: the Chancellor of the Exchequer had to accompany the Prime Minister to reassure the core voters of an ancient, important political party, which includes old Labour as well as the fading new Labour.
In the Chancellor of the Exchequer we saw Ozymandias and heard the sounds of the winds beginning to blow. We can reflect on all the marvels of new deals, whatever other deals or the computerised economic theories of today, but if they were such a wondrous Government with such a wondrous programme, why could not they induce any more than 22 per cent. of the British electorate to vote for them? Why did they get fewer votes in England?
We have heard the assertions of Front Benchers that they know best, but then we get the further hubris of a Queen's Speech such as this. Six months after the last announcement of 32 Bills, we are now presented with more than 45. However one looks at it, it is really only a political message, like those of Mr. Alastair Campbell: "We'll put this in the Queen's Speech just to tell you what our general intentions are." We have only a few months—until November next year—in which to complete this business. My right hon. and learned Friend Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who is sitting on the Front Bench, will be surprised by what has happened to the House since he was last here. This House no longer has the time to discuss anything—it has given over to the Executive the right to determine at the end of a Bill's Second Reading how little time we may have to consider such matters.
I will reflect on just two things that spring out of this long, abysmal, soul-dismaying Queen's Speech of good intentions. The Identity Cards Bill was launched in the last Parliament and it should have full and adequate discussion. When it was put into Committee Upstairs, so limited was the time given to the consideration of a measure that may cost the Exchequer untold sums of money—
I am grateful, Sir. I am trying, though, to direct myself to legislation that arises out of the substance of the Queen's Speech, and the amendment relates to that.
In the last Parliament, we tabled an amendment, supported by Members on both sides of the House, detailing what was not discussed in relation to the identity cards legislation.
We will also discuss—this touches on the economy—the European Union Bill, which gives unto the European Union, in addition to its existing powers, the ability to make great and profound changes to our social and economic structures in almost every area of central Government. That will not be properly discussed. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea will remember how we anguished for a week over one small section of the Maastricht treaty legislation. The people of this country, whatever view they took, knew that everything was being discussed.
A closer examination of the amendments tabled by the Conservative and by the Liberal parties shows that they are all about what is not in the Queen's Speech. Does not that indicate that both parties want to see more, as opposed to the less that the hon. Gentleman is advocating?
I am grateful to the leader of the Scottish National party to the extent that regardless of anything else this House will spend the next 18 months trying to assess these measures.
I want us, as Back-Bench Members, to remember that we stand for the people of England, and that in the end we should be able to attest to those whom we represent that we have discussed and debated the matters in the Queen's Speech. We are nothing unless we stand up for those from whom we came. I thank her Gracious Majesty for being so modest, and rest my case.
It is with a deep sense of humility and responsibility that I rise to make my maiden speech as we debate the economic parts of the Queen's Speech. I congratulate all new Members who have made their maiden speeches today.
I begin by paying tribute to my predecessors as hon. Members for Wolverhampton, South-East, Bob Edwards and Dennis Turner. Bob Edwards was elected for what was then the constituency of Bilston in 1955. He was an extraordinary man; a true international socialist whose life and career in politics mirrored not only the struggles of the Labour movement, but the great European conflicts of the past century. A member of the Independent Labour party, he played his part in the slow and often difficult marriage between that organisation and the Labour party. More famously, he fought alongside Jack Jones, George Orwell and many other brave men as a captain in the international brigades during the Spanish civil war. Bob said of the conflict that
"the future of human freedom for the peoples of Europe was being drawn on the map of Spain".
As well as taking part in that epic struggle, Bob claimed a personal acquaintance with, among others, Mao Tse Tung and Leon Trotsky. Those of us who grew up, politically speaking, in the Labour party in the 1980s sometimes felt that we were developing a personal acquaintance with Leon Trotsky, but none of us could match Bob's put-down of one enthusiastic follower, when he replied, "Well that's not what he said to me."
Bob is still remembered with great warmth and admiration in the constituency. When he stood down in 1987, he was succeeded by Dennis Turner. Dennis is a true black country man. He was born and bred there and has lived there all his life. In 1991, he joined the Opposition Whips Office, where he served as education and health Whip, west midlands regional Whip and defence Whip. In more recent years, Dennis was best known as the Parliamentary Private Secretary to my right hon. Friend Clare Short, and as Chairman of the Catering Committee. With his characteristic good humour and his conviction that an army marches on its stomach, he set about ensuring that the best possible facilities and quality of food were available for Members and staff alike.
It is rumoured that Dennis literally knows the names of the dogs in the street in the constituency, and after campaigning alongside him during the recent general election, I can well believe that. He is regarded with great love and affection in the area, and I am conscious that I walk in large footsteps as I attempt to succeed him.
The constituency of Wolverhampton, South-East is centred around the black country town of Bilston and stretches through the wards of Ettingshall, East Park and Blakenhall towards Wolverhampton city centre. It is a place with tremendous warmth, strength of spirit and a deep sense of pride. I record my thanks to the people of Bilston and the whole constituency for the welcome and friendship that they have shown to me as a newcomer to the area in recent months. Their spirit and friendship has redoubled my resolve to serve them as best as I possibly can in the years to come.
Since Labour was elected in 1997, real progress has been made in the constituency. Economic stability, low inflation and low interest rates have helped to reduce unemployment by more than 30 per cent. There are 1,600 more doctors and 4,500 more nurses in the area's strategic health authority. There are hundreds more police in the West Midlands police force; 16,000 pensioners receive the winter fuel payment and more than 5,000 receive pension credit. That is all progress, but the challenge for politics and government is not only meeting the problems of today but how we respond to the challenges of the future.
The whole black country once pulsated to the rhythm of production as countless factories and mines poured forth their products for use around the world. Coal, steel, chains, enamel and every type of machine tool was made there. A flavour of the area's proud history and deep sense of community was brought home to me by the wonderful series of collections of photographs of Bilston, Bradley and Ladymoor produced by Ron Davies, the latest of which he sent me during the campaign. Today, many of the old factories and mines have gone, but it would be a grave mistake to say that manufacturing was a thing of the past in the black country. There are still world-class manufacturers in Bilston and the surrounding area. Companies such as Mueller Europe, which I visited last Friday, are investing in modernising their operations, and praise what they regard as a first-class local work force.
Wolverhampton is fortunate in being a well-led city, with good councillors working hard for local people, and many inspiring people working for the local community. I was honoured to meet some of them during the election campaign. They include Jan Barlow and Pauline Bird, whose work with Sure Start has been a huge help to young mothers, Ann Reaney and Biddi Patel, who have set up a city-wide pensioners link line to reach out to elderly people living alone, and Raj Bansal, who is working to give young people the skills to find a job. They and many others bring life to the idea of community. They help us to achieve more together than we ever could alone.
Over the years, Wolverhampton has welcomed immigrants from every corner of Britain and, indeed, from across the world. Today, my constituency is a diverse community, with almost 30 per cent. of its population made up of ethnic minorities. The vast majority of that population are Sikhs, but there are also many Hindus and Muslims. Out of many communities has emerged one, made richer by its different strands, which combine to make the city a better place—not person against person, or community against community, but one community living and working together. During the election, I had the privilege of taking part in the celebrations to mark the Sikh festival of Vasaikhi in the city's West park. It was a wonderful open-air event attended by thousands of people. This annual event has become a vital part of the city's cultural life, and is testament to the warm bonds between people of different faiths and cultures in Wolverhampton.
I believe that Wolverhampton, South-East can look forward to the future with confidence. Manufacturing will remain vital to the area's economy, but there must and will be diversification into services, information technology, distribution and other industries. The Bilston urban village, a new development on old industrial land, will bring vital new housing, leisure facilities and employment opportunities to the area. But more than anything, the area's future must be built on education, skills and opportunity for its people. In this, the Government have done a tremendous job, providing more investment per pupil, more computers, more staff and more modern buildings. I know already, from visiting schools such as Graiseley primary school and meeting head teachers such as Wendy Briscoe, that there is excellent leadership in local schools. This primary school already has a twinning agreement with Wolverhampton university to introduce children to the aspiration towards higher education from the moment they start school.
For all the progress, however, there is still much more to be done. This Government's work and this party's work are far from over. There is more to be done to ensure that no child is held back by lack of means, more to be done to ensure no child is held back by lack of ambition, more to be done to ensure that if an adult loses a job, they get the training that will give them a second chance. There is also more to be done to get rid of the outdated, misplaced notion that anyone should know their place or that certain paths in life are for some but not for others.
The liberating power of education should mean that every child should be stretched to the utmost of their ability, that they may reach their full potential. We still have a long way to go to make that goal a reality. Just one generation ago, my mother and father went to the same small school, at Meenderry, in the hills of Donegal. For them, there was no chance of further or higher education. The pressures of the times—the pressure to work, to earn and, indeed, to emigrate—closed in all too soon, but they raised seven children and gave all of us a passion for learning. It has served my generation well, and it is a big part of the reason I am standing here today making this maiden speech.
The belief in using the collective power of all to enhance the individual opportunity of each is at the core of what we stand for as a political party. So if there is one thing I commit myself to in this maiden speech, it is to serve as a champion of learning and opportunity for the people of Wolverhampton, South-East. The means by which that goal will be achieved will change over time, and we on the centre left must embrace that change, as we have already had the courage to do in recent years. Nothing—no barrier and no interest—should stand in the way of our mission to spread opportunity. It is only by doing so that we will realise our ambition that people, whatever their means, may realise their full potential in the years to come.
It is with a sense of privilege and perhaps some trepidation that I rise to speak on this first occasion. It is a great privilege and honour to be here. Like all right hon. and hon. Members, I look forward to working hard on behalf of my constituents to the very best of my ability. Let me record my appreciation to all Members, and to the staff and officers of the House, for the warmth of their welcome and their support over the last three weeks. Any new role in life is a challenge, and election to the House is no exception.
According to the convention of the House, I am required to pay tribute to my immediate predecessor—a task that I happily undertake. Simon Thomas was a decent and principled man, who worked hard in the House and the constituency. I have learnt quickly from all sides of the high regard in which he was held. He spoke with authority and dedication, not least on the challenges that we face environmentally and on wider global issues, and he was a valued member of the Environmental Audit Committee. During the three elections in which we fought each other we enjoyed a good personal relationship, as is often the case, and I genuinely wish him and his family well.
I am privileged indeed to represent Ceredigion, which is the most beautiful constituency in Wales, if not further afield—although in normal circumstances Members may wish to debate that, not least my hon. Friend Tim Farron and Mr. Crabb. Ceredigion stretches from the banks of the River Dyfi in the north, with the spectacular beaches of Borth and Ynys Las, down to the market town of Cardigan on the banks of the River Teifi, thus including much of the beautiful Cardigan bay coastline.
Historically, while beautiful, the land is also demanding. Its farming economy has seen difficult times, producing the culture of work and thrift whence the Cardi's legendary cautious approach to all things financial emanates. It boasts a strong entrepreneurial spirit, but also a radical one. In the 19th century, Cardigan was one of the areas most notorious for the eviction of tenants who voted contrary to their landlords' wishes. One still meets constituents who talk about that.
Ceredigion has some of the best standards of learning in Wales, and per capita spending on children is the highest in Wales. Until a fortnight ago I was a teacher in a small village school in Llangors, in the neighbouring constituency of my hon. Friend Mr. Williams, and I can vouch for the huge challenges facing rural schools. Small fluctuations in roll numbers can have a dramatic effect on budgets and staffing, and thereby on children's education. We need stability and a wider assessment of the implications of school closures. All too often, the school is the focal point of the local community.
Ceredigion boasts some of the great institutions of Welsh public life. The university of Aberystwyth, which was my initiation to Ceredigion some 21 years ago, is a fine institution at which to study. Two of my election opponents studied there as well, as did my hon. Friend Mr. Rogerson, who I noticed was proudly wearing his Aberystwyth college scarf on his first day here. There is a particularly acclaimed international politics department, soon to be housed in a new building, and with 10,000 students and nearly 600 staff, the institution is critical to our local economy. No wonder issues of student finance and the funding of higher education are so important to us locally. I look forward to the publication of the Rees commission's report tomorrow, and welcome yesterday's vote in the National Assembly. The university college of Wales Aberystwyth was established in 1872, and was founded very much on the principles of stewardship. It was founded on the basis of "people's pennies"—some 100,000 individual donations, which is a testament to the high esteem in which education is held in Ceredigion.
Aberystwyth is also home to the national library of Wales, which dominates the landscape of Penglais hill. It is the largest library in Wales and one of the world's largest research libraries, and houses the archives of Lloyd George and Saunders Lewis, priceless mediaeval documents, and church and chapel registers.
We also boast Lampeter university, the oldest degree-awarding institution in Wales, which is, again, critical to the local economy, and there is a healthy town and gown relationship between students and local residents.
The bulk of Ceredigion is farming country with smaller towns such as Aberaeron, Pontrhydfendigaid, Aberporth and Tregaron, which boasts one of the only two functioning farming marts in the county. That is perhaps a sad reflection of the continuing hard times that agriculture faces, which is of importance in a constituency where 10 per cent. of the population are actively employed in the industry. The two biggest concerns of the farming community are excessive regulation and the burgeoning influence of supermarkets. Ceredigion's small family farms remain the backbone of the economy as well as the guardians of much of what we value in the environment.
One particular community has become infamous in some circles: the village of Llanddewi Brefi, home to Dafydd in TV's "Little Britain". Hon. Members who wish to visit that community—Ceredigion has always welcomed visitors—should beware. Llanddewi Brefi is no longer signposted, as eager Dafydd fans have made off with anything bearing the Llanddewi Brefi name, much to the consternation of local residents.
The seaside town of New Quay has worthy associations, too. Dylan Thomas's stays in the town provided much of the inspiration for "Under Milk Wood", although that is open to much debate with the residents of Laugharne in Carmarthenshire, who also claim him as their own.
Such communities epitomise the third fundamental part of Ceredigion's economy after education and agriculture: tourism, particularly along the coast. Many tourist enterprises have been supported by European funding through objective 1. I pay tribute to the work of the local objective 1 partnership. Over the past four years, 1,098 jobs have been created or protected. Some £58 million has been injected into the local economy. I look forward to guarantees from the National Assembly that such provision will continue for West Wales and the Valleys after 2007.
That funding has greatly enhanced the community fabric of my constituency. Two particular schemes are of note: the quayside regeneration and development in Cardigan, and the restoration work under way at the historic Cardigan castle, which was the scene of the first national Eisteddfod in Wales in 1176.
Before I finish, I wish to pay tribute to my last Liberal Democrat predecessor in Ceredigion: Geraint Howells. He served in the House from 1974 to 1992, and then as Lord Geraint of Ponterwyd in another place until his sad death last year. He was held in great affection across the House. He was a true son of Ceredigion; I am an adopted one. He worked tirelessly for all. He was passionate about protecting rural areas from what he perceived as a remote Government, and sought to represent them effectively in Parliament. I hope to follow in that tradition.
Geraint Howells passionately believed in a Welsh Parliament with full legislative powers on a par with the Scottish Parliament. I applaud the recommendation of the all-party Richard commission that the National Assembly should have full legislative powers by 2011. In that vein, I look forward to the Government's White Paper, the Bill that is to follow and the debate that will ensue.
In Geraint Howells' maiden speech, he remarked:
"It often strikes me as ironical that Cardiganshire gives its children an excellent education, culminating in a range of higher education, only to find . . . there is no work in the county to offer them." [Hansard, 14 March 1974, vol. 870, c. 430]
In the Ceredigion of 2005, it is the issue of affordable housing that determines my constituents' capacity to stay. I do not claim any uniqueness for Ceredigion on that issue. Many hon. Members have mentioned it this afternoon. Few communities across Wales are unaffected. What is different is that many of the youngsters who have been forced to move away are Welsh speaking, and 59 per cent. of the people in my constituency speak Welsh as their first language. Therefore, such moves inevitably have a negative effect on language and culture. That is a widespread feeling in my constituency and I share it. With average house prices in Ceredigion more than six times the average income in Ceredigion, I am glad that the Chancellor has started the debate on what needs to be done.
It is a great pleasure to follow the latest of 10—I think it was 10—maiden speeches in today's debate. The speeches have given me renewed faith in the vibrancy of our political culture, because of the obvious talents of the people who have spoken today—I will not list them all—and have given me a few holiday ideas for those weekend breaks to which we all aspire, even if we do not manage to take them. I shall go to my map of Great Britain and plan to visit many constituencies after listening to their Members of Parliament waxing lyrical about them. Of course, I am still of the opinion that Wallasey is the centre of the universe.
For all Labour MPs who served in opposition as well as in government in this place, there can be no greater thrill than to speak in a Queen's Speech debate from this sided of the Chamber. To be doing so at the beginning of an unprecedented third term in office for a Labour Government is even more gratifying. In the depths of the Thatcherite wilderness years, when I began my own personal political odyssey, that would have been utterly unthinkable—but here we are.
Labour's achievement is mighty and, some would say, very long overdue. After a tough election, in which we have lost some good and talented colleagues, we find ourselves in a position that none of our predecessors enjoyed—not Attlee, not Bevan, not Bevin, not Wilson, not Healey and not Callaghan: we find ourselves in government for a third term.
We have a precious opportunity that we must not waste. We have earned the chance to embed the changes that we have begun to implement in the very fabric of our society for the long term. We have earned the opportunity to transform our society profoundly for the better and we have earned the chance to lay solid foundations that will make this century in Britain a Labour century.
I also believe that in the 21st century, the problems that the world will face—climate change, instability and poverty, terrorism—can be solved only by multilateral collective international action and not by market fundamentalism, laissez-faire economic dogma or by retreating from the European Union into isolationism. We must build on the economic stability that has been such a feature of our success to date. This is necessary if we are to make more progress towards our goal of greater social justice. The current Chancellor's achievement here is as unprecedented as our third term in office. He has made a massive contribution to our continued political success and to our real and lasting achievements.
We must build on our progress on poverty elimination, both at home and abroad, if we are to tackle the shameful legacy that we inherited from the Tory years. This condemned millions in our own country to the stunted life chances and narrowed opportunities and unfairness that come with poverty. It did nothing to tackle the scandal of billions of our fellow human beings dying in a world of plenty for want of the basics required to sustain human life.
Finally, we must build on our progress on fairness and equality. No society that hopes to thrive in our increasingly competitive world can afford to tolerate bigotry and discrimination in its ranks. We have made some progress here, but much remains to be done.
This Queen's Speech contains many good and worthy pieces of legislation that will improve our country when they make their way on to the statute book, and I wish to highlight a few. The Consumer Credit Bill makes a welcome, fast return to Labour's programme after it was shamefully blocked by Opposition parties in the dying days of the last Parliament. I had the honour of serving on the Treasury Select Committee in the last Parliament, and aspire to do so again in this one. The House will be aware of the work done by the Treasury Committee on credit cards and the financial services industry generally.
Some consistent themes emerged from our inquiries and the Bill addresses some of the most important. The first is extortionate credit agreements; many Members will remember the court case of London North Securities v. Meadows, in which an original debt of £5,000 had ballooned into an astonishing £384,000—all legal under the old legislation, but unfair now. The Bill will also deal with transparency in costs and credit terms, including penalty fees, which are often levied on those least able to pay, at levels disproportionate to the debt that they have taken on. It will also deal with financial exclusion and access to dispute resolution.
Currently, 2 million households in Britain have no real access to financial services and pay much more to get access to credit in a much more vulnerable position than many of us would tolerate. The extra protection from loan sharks and charlatans who prey on the desperate is long overdue, as is a crackdown on the more dubious practices of some of our mainstream companies. The time when people with low borrowing limits can be forced into spiralling debt by hidden and unavoidable penalty charges and then menaced by constant harassment to pay what they cannot pay is, I hope, drawing to a close.
On poverty in the UK, great strides have been made by this Government. The 60 per cent. fall in unemployment in my constituency has helped, as have tax credits and the provision of child care costs. That has given many women with children their first real practical opportunity to go to work. My time on the doorstep in the recent election brought home to me how much these policies are appreciated by women, and it is no coincidence that proportionately more women than men voted Labour in the 2005 election. Indeed, MORI has calculated that if all voters had voted as women did, the Labour majority would be not 66 but 90. I believe that we need to build on the progress that we have made there.
In the past eight years, Labour has raised 1.9 million pensioners out of the absolute poverty in which the Tories left them. At the same time, we have helped 1 million children out of absolute poverty in our own country. If we are to achieve our aim of eliminating child and pensioner poverty, we need an intensification of our drive in these areas.
Abroad, Britain is leading the battle to reshape the agenda on poverty elimination and to strive to achieve the United Nations millennium development goals. The European Union agreement reached yesterday is a tribute to the work of both our Chancellor and Prime Minister, and to the success that they have achieved in shaping the G8 and EU agenda during our presidencies this year. I hope that the Prime Minister's 40,000-mile trek will deliver the engagement of the United States of America, despite some kicking and screaming, in this campaign, and perhaps even ensure that it joins the "Make poverty history" campaign, alongside everybody else.
I welcome the quick reintroduction of the Equality Bill in the Queen's Speech. This is a worthy measure that consolidates some of the good work under way to reinforce the protections that we give our citizens against discrimination. I hope that it speeds its way on to the statute book, but I believe that it needs to be followed equally swiftly by a single equalities measure that will simplify, harmonise and extend the law and protections in this area.
With the gender and race pay gaps still persisting, and even growing in some sectors, we need to do more. We need to do more because there is no general positive duty to promote equality. We need to do more to extend protection from discrimination in the provision of goods and services to our citizens on the grounds of age, belief and sexual orientation. This is not special treatment; it is legislating for respect and fairness, which are the definition of what a Labour Government do.
Respect has been much in the news lately, but I believe that it is a two-way process. Proper respect empowers. It does not humiliate or degrade, or stigmatise or caricature entire generations. Real respect means the creation of a good society that respects people's rights and dignity at work, incorporates fairness and opportunity for all our people, and ensures that everyone is respected as they are and that we hear every voice in our political democracy. I believe that we need a more sophisticated debate about respect and about what is happening in the commercialised, media-driven and advertising-dominated culture that is destroying it.
We have a third term in Government. We even have a little Red Book to guide us on our way. It is rather less declamatory than another one of which I have had experience, but it is just as exciting. This will be a challenging and exciting period for Labour Members, and we are looking forward to it with determination and commitment.
I congratulate hon. Members who have made maiden speeches today, particularly my hon. Friends the Members for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb), for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mrs. Dorries) and for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley). In their eloquence and passion, they demonstrated that they will be doughty champions of their constituencies in this Parliament.
The Chancellor's speech today was characteristic of his speeches on all these occasions. It was full of facts and figures that supported his case, but it carefully ignored those that did not do so. He refused to stand by the forecasts that he made during this year's Budget. At times, he seemed to be preparing the way for breaking the golden rule, but above all, he struck a note of complacency and self-satisfaction. There can be no room for complacency in the running of the economy. No one can afford to take risks with it at the moment. I recently heard an economist say that current economic growth is built on the twin pillars of Government debt and personal debt. We can see from the Red Book that debt is helping to finance higher Government expenditure. For example, the 2002 Red Book forecast what would happen in the current fiscal year. It predicted a surplus of £9 billion and Government expenditure of £444 billion. This year's Red Book shows that public finances have deteriorated over the past three years, and have swung from a surplus of £9 billion to a deficit of £6 billion, with £15 billion used to fund half the increase in spending.
That increase in spending and the Government's problems in meeting their forecast tax revenues have led economists to predict that the Chancellor will have to fill a £10 billion black hole in his next Budget. He can only do so by increasing borrowing, which will take him towards the top of the golden rule, or by raising taxes on hard-pressed businesses and consumers. Strong consumer demand is partly financed by the increase in personal debt. If anyone doubts that relationship, they should look at the headlines that greeted the announcement at the end of the last week that, for the first time in several years, consumers have paid off more on their credit cards than they have put on. Many commentators link the fall in credit card borrowing with the downturn in the high street and the poor results announced last week by some of our major retailers.
We must be careful, however, as it would be wrong to forecast that the end of the world is nigh. People will continue to borrow if they believe that they can afford to service their debt. That will depend on the level of interest rates and their employment prospects, as well as incentives not to spend or borrow but to save. The incentives to save in the present economy are not sufficiently strong, and do not encourage people to put money away for a rainy day in case their employment prospects deteriorate or to save for their pensions. The reform of the pensions system on which the Government are seeking cross-party consensus should look at ways of strengthening incentives to save and providing greater stability for the economy.
In his maiden speech, Ed Balls referred to the stop-go economy of the post-war period. The Government should consider the way in which they tackle tax changes in the Budget. Too often, the changes that they propose are ill-conceived, ill-considered and ill-thought-through. They distort underlying economic activity and send signals to businesses to embark on projects from which they later have to retreat. Just as the stop-go economic policy of the post-war period sought to fine-tune the economy by reducing taxes or increasing them and introducing credit restrictions when the economy was out of control, so tax changes stimulate activity but then lead the Government to row back when they recognise that they are damaging. Let me cite three examples.
The Government were proud to introduce tax reliefs to stimulate film production in the UK. They were later forced to restrict those reliefs, however, because of the way in which taxpayers had taken advantage of them. If only the Government had thought through that change earlier they might have been able to stop other taxpayers having to subsidise those reliefs through the higher taxes that they had to pay instead.
A couple of years ago, the Government introduced a zero rate of corporation tax. I remember the Paymaster General saying in Committee that that would stimulate enterprise and have a tremendous effect. It also, however, encouraged unincorporated businesses, such as sole traders and partnerships, to incorporate to take advantage of those tax reliefs, not to stimulate economic activity. The Government have therefore had to restrict that tax relief, realising that in trying to drive the economy forward they have made a mistake, as it sends out the wrong signals and encourages the wrong type of activity in our economy.
Not that long ago, the Chancellor announced with a great flourish that he wanted to abolish stamp duty on commercial property transactions in disadvantaged areas, and that that would be a great reform to stimulate property transactions in those areas. The Government sought state aid exemption from the EU, which runs out at the end of 2006. That relief was forecast to cost £50 million. When the Chancellor announced its withdrawal in the Budget, however, the tax saving from which taxpayers would benefit was £350 million. Yet again, a measure that the Government introduced had been ill-thought-through and was costing taxpayers far more than the Government had suggested. As a consequence, people working on property schemes in the areas concerned stopped suddenly, as the relief was withdrawn overnight, and scrambled to complete deals that were in the pipeline.
Such ill-conceived, ill-considered measures harm the stability of the economy. They do not give businesses a secure framework in which to plan their activities, or a stable tax regime in which they can develop long-term projects for the future. Too much of this micro-fiddling in the economy, with small reliefs and measures that are suddenly taken advantage of and become much more expensive than the Government predicted, ends up distorting business priorities and taking business's eye of the ball.
I spent several years working for a firm of chartered accountants, and I understand some of the issues that businesses consider in relation to long-term projects and some of the taxation issues. The Government need to think carefully about this activism in the economy. In the same way as targets imposed by Government on our health, education and other public services distort the priorities of GPs, teachers in our schools, and nurses and doctors in our hospitals, such activism distorts the priorities of businesses and gets in the way of businesses being run in a way that is right for the economy, their employees and customers.
Let me give this advice to the Treasury Bench at the start of this Parliament: Ministers should look for a more simple, straightforward and above all more stable and predictable tax regime, so that business can continue to flourish and thrive.
I am most grateful for this opportunity to make my maiden speech. It is a great honour and a privilege. I want to give my congratulations to other hon. Members who have made their maiden speeches this afternoon. They have all spoken with great passion and eloquence, and I look forward to hearing from them again.
I want to begin by paying tribute to my predecessor, Derek Foster, who held Bishop Auckland from 1979 until the last general election. Wherever I go in the constituency, I hear his praises sung most highly: whether by old-age pensioners in difficult circumstances whom he has helped; or by farmers whom he supported during the foot and mouth epidemic; or, indeed, by the manufacturing engineers, for whom he seems to have provided a network of connections beyond the constituency and into academia. Indeed, Derek seems to have been practising endogenous growth theory before my hon. Friend Ed Balls invented it.
Most recently, with Brian Stephens, the former leader of Sedgefield borough council, Derek spearheaded the campaign to set up the Locomotion railway museum in Shildon, which has been a great success, receiving 100,000 visitors and one prize already. It is indeed right that Derek's loyalty and service are to be recognised by ennoblement and transfer to another place.
It is an honour to be the first woman MP for Bishop Auckland, and that honour belongs to Ruth Dalton, who took the seat in a by-election in 1929. Her husband, the then MP for Peckham, had already been selected as the Bishop Auckland candidate for the forthcoming general election when the sitting Member unexpectedly died. Meanwhile, in Peckham the prospective candidate was the sitting MP for Gateshead. Had it not been for the ingenuity of the Bishop Auckland Labour party, instead of one by-election there would have been three, but the whole matter was resolved in two days.
In his excellent biography of Dalton, Ben Pimlott tells us:
"Without Ruth even attending for interview, the seventy-strong General Committee Bishop Auckland decided unanimously that she should become the by-election candidate. No other name was even mentioned", because she could be relied on to resign in favour of her husband as soon as Parliament was dissolved, three months later. I fear that the second woman MP for Bishop Auckland will not prove to be reliable in quite the same way.
Bishop Auckland is a remarkable constituency. With its industrial east and rural west it is truly a slice of England, so its needs reflect many of the long-term challenges facing the country as a whole. The former mining villages have long since given way to industry and manufacturing. Spennymoor, Shildon and Bishop Auckland have a strong engineering base, and in Barnard Castle there is a large Glaxo plant. Under this Government's economic stewardship they are thriving. Of course, there have been job losses and restructuring, but the fact is that unemployment now is half its level in 1997. Next month, Electrolux is inaugurating a new production line, securing 600 manufacturing jobs.
Within the constituency the community suffering the most serious deprivation is the Woodhouse Close estate. There, homes are boarded up and bombed out before being demolished. My work on Sure Start first took me to the constituency, and in partnership with voluntary sector groups, led by such capable women as Jane Armstrong, Doreen Kett and Jackie Heslop, Sure Start is making a real contribution to community development and hence to opportunities for children. The Government have set themselves ambitious targets to halve and eradicate child poverty, and I urge Ministers to stick with them. Sure Start is part of that. Equivocal academic evaluations are irrelevant; it was never intended as a quick fix. The full benefits will not be realised for another 20 years.
That part of the constituency is in the Wear Valley district, which has the dubious distinction of being the most deprived rural authority in England. One manifestation of that is that it has the worst obesity rates in the country. In her maiden speech in 1929, Ruth Dalton complained about the quality of school meals, and I am sorry that that was still an issue in the last general election, despite all the good work by my colleagues on Durham county council. I welcome the financial package announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education, but I do not believe that the problem of children's diet can be solved through Government spending alone: responsible behaviour on the part of the private sector is also necessary. I therefore welcome the commitment made in the last public health White Paper to introduce legislation if a voluntary code of conduct on advertising during children's television is unsuccessful.
Sweeping up to the west of my constituency is the Tees valley, which passes through some of the most beautiful farmland in England to the Pennines, where there are ski-lifts above Mickle Fell. I am looking forward to testing them in the winter, but now beautiful walks are to be had through the bluebell woods by the river. Hon. Members will not need to be reminded by me that the bluebell is one of our native species most threatened by global warming. I have to report that during the election campaign in Bishop Auckland, the need for strong action to meet our Kyoto targets was the one thing on which the candidates of all the major parties agreed. I am especially glad that the Government have made that a priority at the forthcoming G8 meeting.
The Bishop Auckland constituency is also rich in historical sites, including the Roman fort at Binchester, the Saxon church at Escomb, Raby castle and the Bowes fine art museum. I am torn between the feeling that this is a secret best kept for those who know it and the knowledge that there is fantastic potential for tourism in the area. None the less, the beauty can hide serious problems of rural deprivation and isolation as farming communities come to terms with changes in international markets. However, reform of the international trading system cannot be accomplished in a moral vacuum, and I do not believe that that is what my constituents want. One hundred and fifty years of political and social action in County Durham have produced a culture based on the values of solidarity with those less fortunate than ourselves, collective action and standing up for what we believe.
All those issues—jobs, child poverty, the environment and international trade—are, at their root, economic problems, but they are not technical problems requiring technocratic solutions; they are political problems. Labour was re-elected on a programme of reform. The aspiration of Labour Members is that our values should dominate the 21st century in the way that the Tories' did the 20th. That means addressing long-term challenges. That is not an excuse for procrastination: we must tackle urgently those changes that take time to come to fruition.
My sincere desire is to serve my constituents well and represent their views in our debates, so that in 76 years' time, when the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland is describing her constituency, she is no longer worried about school meals, but the children are still enjoying the bluebell woods. I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and hon. Members for listening to me this afternoon.
In common with many hon. Members who have spoken today, I rise to make my maiden speech with some trepidation, especially as I am nursing a heavy cold. I hope that the House will forgive me if I splutter during my speech.
I enjoyed the speech we have just heard from Helen Goodman and all the other maiden speeches that we have heard today and in preceding days. As an amateur psephologist, I have enjoyed hearing the potted political histories and geographical descriptions of many of the constituencies that I have studied in newspaper lists and books over the years. All new Members are united in our enthusiasm for talking about our constituencies.
Bristol, West includes the city centre and most of the famous landmarks and institutions of the city. At the eastern edge is Temple Meads station, the original terminus of Brunel's Great Western Railway—a station and a line with which I am now becoming extremely familiar. The western boundary is formed by the Avon gorge, which is bridged by Brunel's Clifton suspension bridge—probably the iconic image of Bristol that is known throughout the world. To the south lies the harbour from where John Cabot sailed to Newfoundland in 1497 and, in the 19th century, Brunel launched his ships, which transformed voyages to all parts of the globe. A replica of Cabot's Mathew and the ongoing restoration of Brunel's SS Great Britain are now key attractions in Bristol's vibrant harbourside. The city's maritime heritage co-exists with the arts and media centres around the harbour, including the Watershed media centre, of which I have been a long-standing director and the Arnolfini gallery, as well as many commercial and leisure developments that are transforming the economy of the city centre.
Within these boundaries is a great variety of communities. In the south-east, there is St. Pauls, which every summer hosts a colourful carnival that attracts visitors from throughout the country. It is a fixed and popular reminder of diverse multi-cultural Bristol. In the west end, we have the elegant Georgian squares and crescents of Clifton and my own neighbourhood, Kingsdown. Forty years ago these areas were in decline. Now, again, they are once more the most desirable housing districts in Bristol, with the fashionable shops and coffee houses that characterised them when they were laid out in the 18th century.
To the north, over the downs, Bristol's precious expanse of green space that is protected by an Act of Parliament, there lies Westbury on Trym. It is a community with a history as long as that of the city of Bristol, into which it has been subsumed. It still retains as its centre a distinct village feel.
In the midst of these communities lie the Edwardian and 1930s suburbs that characterise Bristol, West. They are home to the thousands of professionals, managers, academics, students and Government workers that comprise so many of my constituents. At the heart of all this lies Bristol university. The university, together with the university of the West of England, makes a huge contribution to the life of the city. The research that takes place, particularly in engineering, together with the work of Airbus, which is just outside my constituency, makes me proud to represent a city that has an illustrious history but is also one where the future is being made.
Last night, I attended the all-party parliamentary university group and dined with a roomful of vice-chancellors, including the vice-chancellor of Bristol. It brought home to me that as a Member of this place I shall have access to individuals and to viewpoints that previously have been unavailable to me. As a new Member, there will be many opportunities for me to listen and learn, as well as having a platform for my own views.
I am proud to be an alumnus of Bristol university. I went there from Mountain Ash comprehensive school in south Wales. I hope that they will not mind me saying so, but the Minister for the Middle East, Dr. Howells, and Mr. George are also alumni of the school. That is not bad for a school in one of the most deprived communities in the country. I have to say that if I were faced with the same financial arrangements that the Government have now put in place for students, I am not sure that I would have gone to Bristol university. In some way, I think that my life might have been somewhat different.
Since graduating from Bristol in history, I qualified as a member of the Chartered Institute of Taxation. To amend slightly the words of Jefferson, in this place there is always history and taxes. I hope that my twin disciplines may be of some use in debates in future.
Two summers ago, purely for recreation, I researched the political history of Bristol. It was useful preparation for today, although I did not know so at the time. The city and county of Bristol, from the earliest days of Parliament, sent two representatives to the House. Since the glorious revolution of 1689, the electors often used their dual franchise to return both a Whig and a Tory Member. In the early 18th century, elections turned on the protection of the West India trade or the emancipation of slaves. Once that issue was settled for the better, there was the issue of electoral reform, an issue that led to riots in the city in 1831.
In 1885, the city was split into four constituencies, each with one Member, each of them elected by the single vote. That pattern was replicated throughout the country. It exists to this day, and it is responsible for bringing us all to this place. From 1885 to 1997, there were 112 years of unbroken Conservative representation in Bristol, West. There was a succession of Conservative grandees, from Sir Michael Hicks-Beech, whose crest adorns the Chamber—as I noticed today—to Oliver Stanley and Walter Monckton through to William Waldegrave, who was vanquished in 1997. I shall speak of my Labour predecessor in a moment.
In 2005, I was elected as the first Liberal ever to represent Bristol, West and the first Liberal in the city for 70 years. I was the first ever within the city's boundaries to be elected in a genuine three-cornered contest. The three-way fight in Bristol, West in the last general election attracted attention from around the country as, supposedly, the most interesting contest in the election. A media cavalcade descended on Bristol, West. So did the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and half the Cabinet. I do not think they came to marvel at the achievements of Brunel or to take coffee in Clifton, but their political tourism was to no avail.
Why was the election in Bristol, West ferociously fought, whereas in the rest of the city the election was—I am sure the hon. Members involved will not my mind my saying—a relatively quiet affair? Why was the election in Bristol, West perceived as having a chance of changing the composition of the House, whereas the same was not said of the rest of the city? How can it be that the votes of the electors of Clifton in my constituency carried more weight than those of the electors of Lawrence Hill, Windmill Hill or Avonmouth in the other three city constituencies?
First past the post is a fine way to settle a bet on a dog race, but it is no way to determine the government of our country. In the Queen's Speech there is reference to means to adapt electoral administration. I am sure there is much good work to be done, most notably on postal voting and electoral registration, but we do not need to tinker with the existing electoral system. We need to reform it radically, sweep away first past the post and introduce a system of fair votes.
Electoral reform is an issue that unites me and my immediate predecessor. I have known Valerie Davey for more than 12 years, since we were both elected to the now defunct Avon county council. She was a shining example to me of the fact that there are decent people in all political parties who are doing their best for their communities. For the past eight years she served Bristol, West diligently as a constituency Member, and I know that for many people who decided for national political reasons to part company with the Labour party on this occasion, it was a wrench to part company with Valerie. I wish her well for the future.
I end with a reference to perhaps our most illustrious predecessor in Bristol, Edmund Burke. I noticed in the Members Dining Room a couple of evenings ago that in the caption underneath his portrait, it is recorded that he once spoke in the previous Chamber for more than four days. I am not sure what he would have made of the 10-minute deadline that is crunching down on me. On his statue in the city centre in Bristol is an extract from his hustings speech at the 1780 general election, which reads:
"I want to be a Member of Parliament to have my share of doing good and of resisting evil."
I am sure that is a maxim that all his successors have tried to uphold, and I will certainly attempt to adhere to it during my membership of the House.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to take part in the debate. I begin by congratulating Stephen Williams on his maiden speech, and all the other Members who have made their maiden speech today. I should like to make special mention of my right hon. Friend Mr. Murphy, who has tirelessly served the people of Northern Ireland and Wales for so long.
Over the past week we have been debating the Government's programme for the forthcoming year and a half. We face many challenges, but we have built a sound base and delivered the longest period of economic growth in modern history. To maintain that success, we need successful industries and businesses generating income and jobs and making sure that Britain moves forward in the face of tough international competition.
Airbus UK is at the forefront of meeting that challenge. The hon. Member for Bristol, West mentioned Airbus, and it is clearly important in his area as well. It shows that European co-operation can deliver a world-beating company. I am delighted that the Prime Minister and the Chancellor found time to visit Airbus UK's Broughton site during the election campaign and to meet some of the company's numerous apprentices. Airbus UK provides tangible evidence of what can be achieved when we invest for the future. The company represents one of the UK's most knowledge-intensive industries, requiring a highly skilled work force applying the latest technologies and the use of high precision, lean manufacturing processes. Working in partnership with its trade unions, it is a model that many other industries could follow.
However, just as no country, not even the most successful, can take its prosperity for granted, nor can any company. Just as there is a need for the Government to pursue policies that entrench stability and promote long-term growth, so, too, companies must adapt and innovate to secure the very same long-term growth and success.
Following the successful first flight of the A380, attention is now focused on the A350, the new long-range aircraft—the hub-to-point aircraft, as it is known. That market is expected to grow by 35 per cent. over the next 20 years, and the A350 would provide a competitive Airbus product to meet that need.
For Airbus UK, the A350 poses both opportunity and threat. The company, which employs 13,000 people and supports an estimated 135,000 UK jobs, plays a leading role globally in wing design, technology and manufacturing. Airbus UK and its supply chain undertake the design and production of the wing, landing gear and fuel systems integration. However, that leadership is based on a metallic wing solution, while the A350 marks the beginning of the next era in wing technology, which is the large-scale use of composites.
The future for Airbus overall is composites. However, because many composites have already been used in current products, namely the A380 and the planned A400M, the military transport aircraft, composite design and technology expertise has been built up over the years in many Airbus sites, namely those in Germany and Spain. While the UK has developed experience in this technology, the A350 is the first Airbus civil product with the wing primary structure made largely from composite. Airbus is now considering investments for this product and the decisions on work-sharing activities, and it is important that those decisions be taken in the near future.
Success for the UK in winning the A350 would mean the creation of almost 11,000 jobs in the aerospace sector and a further 21,600 jobs being supported in the wider economy through induced employment. Those will be long-term jobs and many of them will be highly skilled. It is well known that other Airbus countries, namely Germany and Spain, are keen to see those high-value jobs brought to their sites. Whoever secures the work on the A350 will be much better placed for the future and the next generation of aircraft, as the decision on the A350 will have a significant bearing on where that work and investment will go.
In order for Airbus UK to win this vital wing business, considerable investment in new engineering and manufacturing facilities and work force training in composite processes is needed. Airbus has therefore applied to the Government for repayable launch investment for the A350. As Airbus is a successful company, one may ask why the British taxpayer should stump up repayable launch aid for it. But why should we not invest in success? In the past Governments of all political colours have tended to respond only to crisis and collapse, often with little long-term gain. For aircraft manufacturers, development costs in the industry are often greater than the total share capital of the company developing a new aircraft, while the pay-back period for these costs can be over a 15 to 20-year cycle. The financial markets do not find that particularly attractive, so Government commitment via repayable launch investment is a key method of ensuring market confidence. As a public-private partnership, the process works very well. Without it the UK will lose out to other European countries that already have competence in the area.
Quite apart from all those arguments, repayable launch investment is a sensible decision for the British taxpayer because it is repayable. For example, the Government supplied £250 million in repayable launch investment towards the A320. Repayments from Airbus UK to the Treasury now total more than twice that amount and continue to grow with each aircraft, with royalties being paid.
If we mean what we say about wanting to build a true partnership with industry, to invest in science and skills, to develop high-tech modern manufacturing and to build prosperity for Britain in a global economy, we must not, at this crucial moment, turn our backs on the potential of Airbus UK. Nor should we be intimidated by the loud, self-serving voices of some of our American cousins, whose cries of principled objection to repayable launch investments surface only in the wake of Boeing's lost market share. While we would all like the disagreement between the United States and the European Union to be concluded, that conclusion must reflect the fact that although Airbus receives direct but repayable loans from EU member countries, Boeing receives huge subsidies, be they in the form of NASA or Department of Defence contracts, or even of tax breaks.
Europe has been accustomed over the years to American allegations of unfair subsidies to Airbus. US hostility tends to intensify when Airbus launches a new plane or opens up a significant lead in the marketplace. That Boeing is comfortable with direct subsidy for aircraft manufacture is evident from the fact that its strategic partners in Japan are funding a share of the development of the 7E7 Dreamliner. Japanese partners are to receive repayable grants and, in addition, other low-interest repayable loans will come from the Development Bank of Japan. They will be worth almost $1 billion in total. Boeing's Japanese partners on the 7E7 will receive more than $1.4 billion in subsidy, and some of that will not even be repayable. That demonstrates that the direct support which Boeing and the US Government believe is completely unjustified when adopted in Europe is acceptable if granted to a partner working on the Boeing programme.
Airbus UK's application for repayable launch investment for the A350 represents an opportunity for the Government to work in partnership with industry, to invest in high-skilled jobs and to prepare and equip our nation for the challenges ahead. It is an opportunity to build our modern manufacturing strength and to ensure British leadership in science, enterprise, education and trade. Let us not pass up that prospect for long-term growth and prosperity, and let us ensure that our aerospace industry leads the world.
I congratulate all those who have made their maiden speeches during the debate on the Gracious Speech. I came to the House in 1983, representing the constituency of Mid-Ulster. I was here until 1997, when that constituency was ravaged by boundary changes and I was therefore no longer its Member of Parliament. I did, however, return in 2000 at a by-election, representing the new constituency of South Antrim, only to be defeated in the 2001 election some eight months later.
Of course, patience is a virtue, and they say that all good things come to those who wait. I was therefore willing, because of my conviction to represent the people of Northern Ireland and the constituency of South Antrim, to take up that challenge again. Although I was not the constituency's Member of Parliament, I continued to represent, and to be active in, South Antrim. Such activity was rewarded by its people, and I am greatly honoured to return to the House. I do so with fresh vigour and excitement, and I am willing to help to meet many of the challenges that face the people of Northern Ireland in general, and of South Antrim in particular.
I have one regret and sorrow, which is that my mother did not live to see this day as she passed away at the election's commencement. However, it is an honour to be here and to speak for the good people of South Antrim in this honourable House.
I listened with care to the Chancellor's speech. He boasted about the UK's economy and said that it was enjoying stability while countries such as America, Japan and Germany were passing through, or had passed through, recession. He said that we have the fastest growing economy and—as any Government would desire to do—he painted a picture in which everything seems to be rosy in the garden.
I need to remind this Government that we must maintain some humility. The attainment of our successes is due not only to ourselves, but to the foundation laid by others and to the hard work that the people of the United Kingdom have put in. In their third term, the Government face the danger of complacency. The speeches praising the Chancellor and the excellence of the present moment have been rather smug. Downturns may occur as well as upturns, so society must maintain a degree of humility. We appreciate the prosperity that we are enjoying, but it involves not only the Government, but the people of the United Kingdom, and we should praise everyone who has played a part in that success.
We must acknowledge that the present situation masks many problems. South Antrim is the most beautiful part of the country. All the new Members say that their constituencies are the most beautiful, and they are right to think it, but I say that South Antrim is the best of all. Although my constituency is affluent and prosperous, many citizens are not enjoying that prosperity, and we must acknowledge such deprivation. Many large estates in my constituency, whether they are in the Antrim borough council area or the Newtownabbey borough council area, do not enjoy the same blessings and prosperity as other areas, and many of the people who live there are trapped within the benefits system.
Regeneration is urgently needed in Antrim and Ballyclare. Many such issues are not the sole responsibility of the Government, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland or Northern Ireland Ministers, but we need Government help to tackle them and to ensure that we bring prosperity to the whole of the United Kingdom.
During the election, I listened to the debate between the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and others in which the Government described the prosperity of the UK economy. In Northern Ireland, the debate was different. On education, for example, the education boards are continually being told to cut back. When the Government were discussing how many new schools to build, head teachers were asking me about the teachers who will teach in those schools, the classroom assistants who are currently being made redundant and the removal of school patrol men and women, who allow children to be safe when they go in and out of school. Today, the Chancellor discussed the new pre-schools and after-schools, but many such schools already exist in Northern Ireland, and they are closing because of a lack of funding, so we must be realistic.
On hospitals, we lack nurses and doctors, and waiting times are almost the longest in the UK. Many people lie on trolleys for hours in our hospitals.
Our planning service is currently in chaos. It seems to be unable to issue planning decisions or even to make planning decisions. It is, however, glad to issue some decisions quickly—for example, the approval of the super dump at Cottonmount or the decision on the asbestos site at Crumlin, which was approved by the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Angela E Smith, in one of her last decisions before the election and against the will of the people.
The agricultural industry faces crisis, but the Chancellor did not paint such a picture in today's economic statement. It faces many challenges such as the nitrates directive and the phosphates directive, which come from Europe. Legislation is being heaped on an industry that has faced so many crises that it cannot cope with the challenges that it faces.
I heard Mr. Murphy speak today. When he was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, he listened very carefully, and I appreciated the grace with which he received Members of Parliament and Assembly Members. I thank him for his service to Northern Ireland.
The Democratic Unionist party has the mandate of the people. We are the only party to return from the general election with an 80 per cent. increase in its MPs, and I am delighted to be part of the team.
It is easy for other Members to tell us about how Northern Ireland is moving on, but if one reads the Independent Monitoring Commission report, one will find that the terrorists are still there at this very moment. The Provisional IRA is recruiting, training and re-arming. The terrorists have not gone away, and they threaten the whole system of democracy of this United Kingdom, particularly in Northern Ireland.
There is no place for terrorists in government in Northern Ireland. The Government had better realise that the day of pushover Unionism is finished and that Northern Ireland has a Unionism that is vibrant, confident, and no longer on its knees. It is standing tall and facing all the challenges. My party will accept the challenges that we face and the responsibility that is laid upon our shoulders as the leaders of Unionism. Much of my party's success is due to the stamina, courage and diligence of its leader and deputy leader, even in days of hardship when they were being maligned by so many on the political scene. They stood for the principles of traditional Unionist values, and we are proud that we are able to join as a united team here to further the cause of the people of Northern Ireland.
I am honoured to represent the people of South Antrim. I long for the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland, but I will make it abundantly clear that there is no room for terrorists at the centre of Government. The day that we want to see is one on which peace and democracy is restored to this United Kingdom, and that will not happen with terrorists at the very heart of our Government. I urge the Government to accept the challenge of telling the terrorists that they are not needed or wanted, and must be defeated instead of crawled to.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is with great pleasure that I rise to make my maiden speech. I congratulate Dr. McCrea and all the other hon. Members who spoke before me. I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend Ed Balls, who shares a boundary with me in Wakefield. I look forward to working with him and with my hon. Friends Jon Trickett and for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) in making our district better.
I wish to speak briefly on the welfare reform Bills proposed in the Queen's Speech. Before I do so, I should like to pay tribute to my predecessors and to say a few words about the constituency that they represented so well. David Hinchliffe was Wakefield's MP from 1987 until this election, and will long retain the admiration of the House and the gratitude of his constituents. David was Wakefield born and bred. A Wakefield councillor and social worker, he brought deep, practical knowledge to his work here, first as a shadow health spokesperson and later as a fearless Chairman of the Select Committee on Health. His Committee's reports on elder abuse, childhood obesity and the pharmaceuticals industry are landmark documents that stand as models for the future. In David's maiden speech in 1987, he spoke of his sorrow at the closure of six mines in the constituency, which left 5,000 people out of work. Today, that figure has been reduced by more than 75 per cent.; I salute the Government for that tremendous achievement.
David was also a politician with a hinterland. He loves rugby league and our local team, the Wakefield Trinity Wildcats. He wrote a book on the struggle to get rugby league recognised as equal to the union game, called, bluntly, "Class War". His wife Julia helped him brilliantly throughout his long career. I wish them both every happiness for a long and satisfying retirement.
Walter Harrison, a legendary Whip in James Callaghan's Government, represented Wakefield from 1965 to 1987. In Walter's maiden speech 40 years ago, he railed against the north-south divide. I am glad that the Government have set up the Northern Way taskforce to narrow the gap in prosperity between the regions. I look forward to playing my part in that work.
Wakefield was fortunate to have such worthy Members of Parliament. I am proud to follow in their footsteps, as Wakefield's first woman MP.
Unlike David and Walter, I was not born in Wakefield. My parents came to Coventry from Ireland and Northern Ireland in the 1960s to work. When people criticise economic migration, I take it personally. My parents taught me that education and employment are paths to a better life and that access to them should not depend on colour or country of origin. That passionate belief led me to the House to represent Wakefield.
The Wakefield constituency includes Wakefield city and a large rural area to the south-west. It includes the parishes of Denby Dale, Kirkburton, Crigglestone, Bretton and parts of Sitlington. Denby Dale is known as the pie village, famous since 1788 for its huge celebration pies. At the national coal mining museum in Overton, visitors can take a guided tour underground to hear how children as young as five were exploited by pit owners. The area has a proud industrial history, which is built on mining and weaving. However, I believe that its future lies in tourism, culture and the arts.
Wakefield will soon be known as the home of British sculpture. Dame Barbara Hepworth was our city's most famous daughter and bequeathed much of her work to the city. We hope that the Heritage Lottery Fund will provide the final piece of funding to build a brand new Hepworth gallery on the banks of the River Calder. The constituency is already fortunate to have the internationally acclaimed Yorkshire sculpture park, where sheep graze among sculptures by Hepworth, Henry Moore and Anthony Gormley. I sincerely recommend the tranquillity of the park to Conservative Members, who may need some time to reflect before the exertions of the autumn's leadership campaign.
Wakefield was known in times past as the "merrie city", mainly for its large number of historic pubs and fine local ales. We all know the problems that excessive drinking causes, but I salute Wakefield's police, local council and our local newspaper, the Wakefield Express. Their Streetsafe campaign has begun to tackle drink-related disorder in the city centre, allowing the law-abiding majority to enjoy a great night out.
Wakefield people have experienced great improvements in the past few years but more needs to be done to tackle poverty. In our three city centre wards, more than a quarter of children still live in poverty. We must move further and faster to make child poverty history for the children of Wakefield and this country. During the election campaign, one mother whom I met at the school gates whispered to me that the child tax credit was "the best thing your Government's ever done." I look forward to debating the new work and families Bill, which will give mothers more flexible maternity leave and pay.
I recently visited the Lupset Sure Start centre to hear how it and its return-to-work courses were transforming the lives of local families. I look forward to visiting the Castle children's centre in June where I will discuss with parents and staff the Government's plans to increase flexibility and choice in child care.
Our children and young people are our most precious asset. I am glad that Sir Michael Bichard's recommendations to protect vulnerable groups will soon become law. Michael and I served together as trustees of Rathbone, a national charity that provides training for the most disadvantaged young people—those who are not in education, employment or training. At Rathbone's Wakefield centre, I saw the impact of poverty on those young people. I know how the skilled and loving care of staff and the patience of employers will restore their connection to society through the dignity of work.
We must do more to help the working poor—those without children on low incomes who struggle each month to make ends meet. I met several people during the election campaign who wondered aloud whether they would be better off on benefit. I passionately believe that work must pay. I welcome the work of the GMB, Unison and the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers in tacking low pay with the Government through the minimum wage. Now we must make it truly a living wage.
As someone who has suffered severe hearing loss, I want to do more for disabled people. We must do more to help the disabled to keep their jobs and provide better advice when they are unable to work. I welcome the reform of incapacity benefit if it will allow those disabled people whom society has forgotten the dignity, comradeship and prosperity that work brings.
Last weekend, I had dinner with a constituent, who, like my parents, is an economic migrant. He is a man in his 50s with little English and he told me that he wants to train as a gas engineer. He has already built his house extension and he wants to work in the wider community. Wakefield needs his skills; this country needs his skills. As we look to increase access to work, I hope that we can examine the specific needs of carers, disabled people and those for whom English is a second language.
I thank hon. Members for listening. I thank the people of Wakefield for the great trust that they have put in me and I look forward to working with my right hon. and hon. Friends in Government to deliver greater prosperity for them and a brighter future for their children.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for allowing me the honour of making my maiden speech during the debate on the Queen's Speech. I congratulate Mary Creagh and all the other hon. Members who have made their maiden speech today.
During my short time as the Member for Manchester, Withington, I have been careful to pay heed to the advice that has been offered by family, friends and colleagues, not to mention by opponents. The first piece of advice that I received was that I should not allow this place to change me. I have always believed that speeches should be short and to the point and, given the Speaker's advice, the House can be reassured that I shall not allow this place to change my view on that, regardless of any desire to emulate certain hon. Members on both sides of the House.
I should like to begin by paying tribute to my predecessor, Keith Bradley. He was always forthright in his opinions, as all Members from the north-west should be. This was ably demonstrated in his maiden speech, in which he challenged the former Conservative Government's Finance Bill. Setting aside political differences and intense political rivalry, I am in no doubt that Keith Bradley represented his constituents with great determination and gave them 100 per cent. of his support. I want to thank him for helpfully encouraging people to contact me since the election. I am sure that the people of Manchester, Withington will wish him well for the future, as do I.
Manchester, Withington is the vibrant heart of south Manchester, with an increasing population as more and more people choose to live and socialise in its south Manchester towns. People take pride in the area and play an active role in the numerous civic societies, residents' groups and tenants' associations. The constituency is also home to part of the Mersey valley, with its numerous open spaces and parks; it is a real green lung for south Manchester. The area is also home to several conservation areas that protect our heritage and architecture, and to the famous Christie hospital.
The election on
The people of south Manchester are equally dismayed to have heard no mention of light rail transport in the Queen's Speech. Manchester's Metrolink has been a resounding success in tackling congestion on the roads that it serves. The over-development of certain parts of south Manchester has placed an unacceptable burden on our roads, causing serious congestion and pollution problems. Metrolink is the key to tackling that congestion, and it must be a top priority.
I would like to welcome the proposals to encourage greater participation in elections. Unfortunately, however, I remain unconvinced that the Government's proposals are what is required. Turnout in Manchester, Withington during the election was up five percentage points, mainly due to the intense competition there. However, many people chose not to vote. They felt that their vote would be wasted because their party of choice had no chance of winning. Surely the most effective way of increasing participation is to introduce not voting gimmicks but a system in which every vote counts.
I warmly welcome the Government's assurances that they will use the presidency of the G8 to secure progress on tackling poverty in Africa and on climate change. The many thousands of pounds raised in Manchester, Withington for the tsunami appeal show the generosity of Manchester people and their commitment to helping to alleviate poverty. The Government must seize this opportunity and lead the way for other countries to follow, both on poverty and climate change.
When I was preparing my maiden speech, I took the opportunity to check on what my predecessors had had to say. I was initially alarmed to find that Mr. Fred Silvester, who represented the constituency from 1974 to 1987, had made not a maiden speech but a reincarnation speech. However, I am informed—reliably, I trust—that he had not come into Parliament from beyond the grave; he had previously been the Member of Parliament for Walthamstow. In any event, Mr. Silvester spoke in the rate support grant debate, highlighting the inequities of local government taxation for residents of Manchester, Withington. Some things clearly never change.
There are many losers under the current council tax system, especially pensioners and low earners, who continue to spend a much greater proportion of their incomes on council tax than the most well off. Many people in Manchester, Withington would have liked council tax to be abolished and replaced by a local income tax based on ability to pay.
For the last 18 years, the constituency has been ably represented by Keith Bradley. In his maiden speech, he rightly highlighted the plight of the health service in Manchester, Withington and what he described as the crisis in our hospitals, the closure of the accident and emergency department at Withington hospital at weekends and the threats to cancer services at Christie hospital. It is amazing what a difference a period in government has made. Despite the closure of Withington as a full general hospital, the new community hospital is described as a success for the Labour Government. But although I look forward to taking up an invitation to visit the excellent new Withington community hospital facilities in the next few weeks, the people of Manchester, Withington have not forgotten that their hospital was closed under the Labour Government.
Back in 1987, Mr. Bradley told the House of the threats to cancer services at Christie hospital. Just before this election, 60 doctors from the hospital expressed concern in our excellent local newspaper, the Manchester Evening News, that a review of cancer services by the strategic health authority could result in the removal of services from the hospital, and that that could threaten its future. This time, Labour described it as scaremongering.
Christie hospital has a clear vision for the future: to transform itself from a regional centre of excellence to a world-class facility. That vision is backed by Manchester university, and by Cancer Research UK. I share it, and as Withington's Member of Parliament I will try to help make it a reality. I am delighted to learn that the green light has been given for the critical care unit, but we must ensure that the strategic health authority supports the hospital's plans in its review.
I welcome the assurance that education remains a top priority. In Manchester, Withington we are fortunate enough to have some of the best schools in Manchester, and over the last nine years I have been fortunate enough to see at first hand the success of two of those schools, as a school governor at Cavendish and Chorlton Park primary schools. Their success is a testament to the hard work of teachers and non-teaching staff, supported by strong governing bodies. Over the next Parliament I hope to forge strong links with all schools in the constituency. I have already visited one, Brookburn school: it was my first official visit as a Member of Parliament.
The biggest challenge for education in south Manchester is the lack of available places for an expanding population. In some parts of the constituency, parents cannot send their children to the schools of their choice because they live too far away to receive a place according to the distance criteria. That emphasises the problem of choice in schools. In fact, for most people in my constituency there is no choice. The lack of available places is a big challenge facing south Manchester, and one of the many challenges that I will face as Member of Parliament for Manchester, Withington. I hope that I will rise to the challenge, and I thank the people of Manchester, Withington for giving me the opportunity.
It is a pleasure to speak in the debate. I will speak briefly, as others wish to contribute. I congratulate all who have made their maiden speeches today, and those who may yet do so, and wish them well during their service as Members of Parliament. I thank Stephen Williams for his kind comments about his predecessor Valerie Davey, who is a close friend of many of us in the House. She is a person of enormous integrity, and served with excellence as Member of Parliament for Bristol, West. I really appreciated the hon. Gentleman's tribute to her work.
I want to focus on the Government's welcome proposals to help those receiving incapacity benefit and those who may find themselves receiving it without intervention, but first I want to say a little about the economy. My abiding memory of the election in Kingswood is that as we raced up and down the streets during the day, it was incredibly difficult to find anyone of working age at home. That, of course, is because the overwhelming majority were in work. The contrast between the situation in my constituency now and the situation when I was first elected in 1992 makes me wonder whether I am more shocked by the fact that the shadow Chancellor had no economic policy to put before the House, or by the collective amnesia among the Conservatives in relation to what they did to our economy when they were in office.
When I was first elected to the House 12 years ago, 3 million people were unemployed in this country and long-term unemployment in my constituency of Kingswood was at record levels. Interest rates and home repossessions were at record levels. The record now, after eight years of a Labour Government, bears interesting comparison. I am proud to be a supporter of a Government who have delivered on the economy the way this Government have delivered over the past eight years. The Chancellor and all his colleagues on the Labour Benches can be proud of that record.
It is not a question—I would say this to Dr. McCrea but he is not in his place—of being complacent. There is much more to do and I will come on to that. However, the position today is radically different from the position bequeathed by the Conservative Administration.
As we all know and as is widely agreed, about 1 million people on capacity-related benefits wish to work. A lot of nonsense can be found in sections of the press in relation to incapacity benefit. I do not have time to go through some of the awful stuff that I have read over the years, but let me make one point. Some sections of the press seem to think that people can simply pop along to a GP, get a sick note and end up on incapacity benefit for life.
All right hon. and hon. Members will know from talking to their constituents that life is not like that. Constituents who are sick or disabled and cannot work have real difficulty persuading not their local GP but a Department for Work and Pensions-appointed doctor that they are entitled to the benefit. Of those who appeal against refusal, 50 per cent. end up getting the benefit. That does not suggest that the initial appraisal is over-generous. Indeed, it is not.
The problem is not that there are people in receipt of capacity-related benefits who should not be getting them because they do not meet the criteria—they do meet them. The problem is that, as I say, about 1 million people on capacity-related benefits wish to work. With the proper support, they can secure employment.
The obvious question is why those people are not in work now. It could be because of a lack of accessible transport, discrimination at work, inadequate adaptations at work, a lack of appropriate personalised training, or the risk of loss of benefit—it could be one of many factors, which the Government have already begun to deal with. The Disability Discrimination Act 2005 deals with a number of areas of discrimination that prevent disabled people from getting to work. Under the present Government, there has been a substantial increase in funding the access to work initiative, which is clearly an important policy. We have also had the pathways to work pilot projects, which have been a great success. I was delighted the Prime Minister's strategy unit report of January on improving the life chances of disabled people emphasised the positive things that Government should do to prevent people who are running the risk of losing a job due to a disability from even going on to incapacity benefit in the first place. They included measures to ensure that they can retain their job, and help for those who are on incapacity benefit to get back to work.
I welcome the Government's promise of more financial support for disabled people who are looking for work. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will no doubt comment but I am not sure that calling it a rehabilitation support allowance is the neatest way to describe the benefit. However, the principle is right—it has probably changed its name by now. It is right that people who are accepting work-related advice should be paid more than is currently available on incapacity benefit. It is also correct that those who, sadly, will never be able to work should receive more support, as the Government propose under the scheme.
Incapacity benefit is not a generous benefit; an average of £84 or £85 a week, or £4,000 a year, is not generous by any means. Those unable to work should receive more support and I welcome the Government's commitment to that. I look forward to the draft welfare reform Bill, which will reflect the five-year strategy for the DWP that we saw earlier this year, and is something on which we can make progress.
I am still surprised that the perception in some quarters of the popular press of people on incapacity benefit tends to be negative. I, too, will invoke the word respect. I have read things in newspapers that show no respect whatever for people who are unable to work because of their disability. That is not good enough. I welcome the fact that, under the DDA, all public sector bodies have a duty to promote positive attitudes and equality between disabled and non-disabled people, which will get people thinking positively about what people can do.
I should like the Government to reassure the House about the speed of the roll-out of the pathways to work project. From October this year, the scheme will be extended to around a third of the country. It is important that we have an assurance that there will be a nationwide roll-out of the scheme, the main vehicle for supporting people on incapacity benefit back into work, before the reforms are introduced. We also need an assurance that the work of personal advisers, which is so crucial to the scheme, will be of the highest possible quality.
I hope that as there have been close consultations with the disabled community on these matters so far, the detail of the proposals will be developed in consultation with disabled people's organisations such as the Disability Rights Commission and others.There are details that the House would wish to consider, but, in conclusion, I welcome the policy to extend opportunities for disabled people who have found themselves on incapacity benefit. We should all strongly support that positive policy and I hope that it commands cross-party support in due course.
We have had 14 excellent maiden speeches today, and I pay tribute to them all. They showed charm, humour, clarity and sometimes passion. At least two Members mentioned their local paper. Those two will go far, I am sure.
I start by congratulating the Government on starting on their ambitious and right programme to achieve the millennium development goals and to tackle world poverty. We need cross-party support on that measure. Unfortunately, that is where my charity ends, because I have mixed feelings about this Queen's Speech. It sets a very heavy programme with some good measures that we can support, subject to detailed legislation. However, with its emphasis on quantity rather than quality, this Prime Minister's swansong leaves much to be desired.
The Queen's Speech follows the Government's modus operandi of too much legislation rushed through—and therefore with too little scrutiny, and producing bad legislation. The programme suggests that the Government have stopped listening. It drips with sickly gesture politics. There are many comments about motherhood and apple pie that we can all agree with, but they are meaningless without the detailed plans to go with them. We have seen over eight rather disappointing years that this Government have had a good way with words and with soft soap, but have fallen down badly when it comes to delivering what they promised to the people.
Let me quote from the Queen's Speech:
"My Government will further reform the education system to improve quality and choice in the provision of schooling".
I hope that that extends to our pupils with special educational needs. If it does, the Government must stop their closure of special schools, and especially the MLD—moderate learning difficulties—schools, which they are specifically targeting for closure. If the parents of those special children are to have choice and quality, those excellent and caring special schools must stay open. I was delighted that the Opposition spokesman on education, my hon. Friend Mr. Cameron, said last night in his winding-up speech that our party policy is still to have a moratorium on the closure of all those special schools. If the Government follow that course, they will certainly have our support.
The Queen's Speech goes on to say:
"My Government is committed to creating safe and secure communities, and fostering a culture of respect."
I am grateful, Madam Deputy Speaker. I have the amendment that we are debating, and I shall stick to the issues that it deals with, such as the skills gap, the burden of regulation, public services improvement, the pensions crisis and encouraging saving. I am grateful for your advice.
I shall therefore quote another statement in the Queen's speech:
"My Government is committed to promoting efficiency, productivity and value for money."
We need to improve productivity; that is for sure. Improvement will come, however, through lower regulation. What will the Government do to remove the burden of red tape and bureaucracy on British business? What will they do to remove EU interference? Will they do what they did before: give us warm words and soft soap, and more of the same regulation and bureaucracy? Where are the plans to invest much more in our skills base and provide easier access to vocational training at all levels? How are the Government to promote better use of science and research in our economy, and encourage investment in productive plants? Workers need to work smarter, rather than harder and longer—although we need, of course, to work harder and longer as well.
There is great disappointment among pensioners that there seems to be little help for them in the Gracious Speech. The fact that they need help is not in question. Pensioners have received a poor deal from Governments of both colours over the past two or three decades, and things are getting worse not better. Under this Government, pensioners' share of national wealth has fallen since 1997, when the Prime Minister promised the earth, after which he has delivered very little sustainable improvement to pensioners.
The Queen's Speech tells us:
"My Government will begin long-term reform to provide sustainable income for those in retirement."
At those words, people in Canvey Island senior citizens association sang and danced in the aisles at CISCA house, but the Government's word then began to give way to the reality that there is little in the programme before us today to help hard-pressed pensioners, one in five of whom are currently living in poverty. Some 500,000 of them are living with nutritional problems because they cannot afford to buy the food that they need. That is a shame after eight years of a Labour Government.
There is nothing in the legislative programme to reverse the growth of means-testing, restore the earnings link and give a decent basic state pension. What will this programme do to improve private pensions, give more fairness and flexibility on the purchase of annuities and help fill pension funds by giving access to unclaimed assets held by the banks and financial institutions? What real incentives will be given to encourage people to save for their pensions over the next two or three decades? Pensions should have been the Government's key measure; instead, they were the people's key disappointment in this programme.
Having listened to your strictures, Madam Deputy Speaker, I shall skip House of Lords reform and turn back to the economy. A leader in the Financial Times teased the Government and pilloried the Queen's Speech, calling for less Government interference in the economy and business, and less regulation. The Gracious Speech gave a commitment
"to streamline regulatory structures and make it simpler to remove outdated or unnecessary legislation".
Perversely, however, the programme, with its mass of legislation, will increase the burden of regulation and bureaucracy on UK business. We live in a global economy—Europe is an important part of our trading relationships, but so is the rest of the world. We must fight to retain the rebate that was won for us by Mrs. Thatcher in 1984, which is as relevant today as it was then. We must reverse much of the inappropriate control and regulation emanating from Europe, and we must hold an early referendum on the constitution, whatever the outcome in France.
Today, Parliament is less significant, less respected and less relevant to the people we represent. Democracy is damaged by an overbearing Government, who cram through bad or irrelevant legislation without scrutiny and ransack our constitution or sell out to Europe. People are disappointed by the dominance of political correctness over common sense under this Government. As my hon. Friend Mr. Shepherd said, Parliament must reassert its control of the Executive so that we can better serve those who sent us here.
That brings me to the electorate. In my first speech in the new Parliament, I wish to include a word of thanks to my constituents in Castle Point for returning me in such a handsome manner. Turnout increased significantly, and there was an 833 per cent. increase in my majority. Indeed, if replicated, the Castle Point result would have returned a Conservative Government, and thus led to a more tightly drawn, relevant and meaningful Queen's Speech.
I congratulate hon. Members who have made their maiden speech today, especially my hon. Friend Mary Creagh and Mr. Leech. I am grateful for this opportunity, and it is with pride and humility that I rise to make my maiden speech. My pride is in the faith that my constituency of Ochil and South Perthshire has placed in me as its Member of Parliament, and my humility is rooted in that faith.
Due to the reorganisation of Scottish constituencies, I have the unique privilege to be the first in what I hope will be a long and impressive line of Members for Ochil and South Perthshire. Before progressing any further, I would like to pay tribute to my predecessor. Before the election, most of my seat was part of the old Ochil constituency, which was represented by Martin O'Neill—soon to be Lord O'Neill. I am honoured to have known Martin for much of his time in Parliament, serving as his agent in 2001, and working closely with him on a number of local issues. Martin is a hard act to follow, as he served the people superbly. I do not intend any reference to our comparative sizes, but I fear that I may be in his shadow for some time.
Martin was first elected in 1979 as the Member for Stirlingshire, East and Clackmannan, with a majority of just 984, which is similar to my recent majority. In his final general election in 2001, his majority rose to 5,349, but I do not make any connection between that increase and my role as his agent. Martin is an insistent and passionate man, loved by many in the constituency. Much of his passion outside politics focuses on Hibernian football club, of which he is a director. I am sure that his passion was bruised following Saturday's result, but at least Hibs are still in the UEFA cup. As many hon. Members know, Martin's dedication to the club brought him into contact with another feisty Scot elected in 1979—the former Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley, George Foulkes, who is the chairman of Heart of Midlothian football club. In opposition, Martin worked as a spokesman, first, on defence and disarmament, then on energy. In 1995 he became Chairman of the Trade and Industry Committee. I am sure that many hon. Members in the House want to extend to the future Lord O'Neill of Clackmannan their best wishes for his time in the other place.
The constituency that I humbly represent has seen its fair share of boundary reviews. The villages and towns, from Alloa in the south-west, to Crieff in the north and Kinross in the east, have fallen into 11 different constituencies since 1918. From examining the historical records for the area that I represent, I see that I am the first Labour Member of Parliament to represent Crieff, the area having been previously represented by Liberal, Liberal Unionist, Conservative and, lately, Scottish National party MPs, most recently Annabel Ewing. As her website informs us, Annabel Ewing is the daughter of SNP president Winnie Ewing and sister to Fergus Ewing MSP. I note, however, that the "Almanac of British Politics 2002" reminds us not to confuse the Scottish Ewing dynasty with that of J. R. Ewing from the 1980s television show "Dallas". Other distinguished representatives for the area have included former Secretary of State for Scotland Arthur Woodburn, Sir Nicholas Fairbairn, often remembered for his use of "unparliamentary language" and former Foreign Secretary and Conservative Prime Minister, Sir Alec Douglas-Home.
In 1785, the first recorded cricket match in Scotland took place in Alloa. The actress Sophie Stewart was born in Crieff in 1908, and more recently, I spent my secondary education with former Partick Thistle, Liverpool, and Scotland footballer, and now "Match of the Day" pundit, Alan Hansen. Perhaps the most interesting claim that I have heard is that Pontius Pilate was born in Strathearn I am sure that my hon. Friends will appreciate, however, that that is not entirely possible to clarify, even with the substantial resources of the House of Commons Library.
My constituency is quite diverse, covering two local authority areas, Clackmannanshire and Perth and Kinross. Clackmannanshire is the smallest county in Scotland and my home for the last 37 years—an area of great beauty, with the Ochil hills, Alva Glen, Dollar Glen, Alloa, Sauchie, Clackmannan and Menstrie Towers, and Castle Campbell in Dollar. Over in Kinross lies Rachel House, the first children's hospice to be built in Scotland.
There is a great industrial past rooted in paper manufacture, textiles, woollen mills, mining, brick manufacture, and—lest we forget—brewing and distilling. Sadly, many of those traditional industries have disappeared, but fortunately we are left with a considerable whisky presence, including many world-famous Diageo brands and the former United Glass bottle manufacturers plant—quite a useful relationship, I am sure that the House would agree. Not only do we have the whisky and the bottles—and quite a number of consumers, I am sure—but the water to go with it in the form of Highland Spring from Blackford. At least we can now begin to see the sense of the boundary commission's work. We are also lucky to have leading technology companies such as Landcatch and E-Point adding to the diversity of the constituency.
Close to the centre of the constituency is the Gleneagles hotel, the location in just over 40 days of the G8 summit of world leaders. Much has been made of decisions to hold the summit at this location, and while I support the right to peaceful demonstrations, that should not be the expense of other local residents or the safety of all those present in the area, including demonstrators. I have great faith in the ability of our police force to carry out its job. Great work can be done at Gleneagles, with the opportunity for it to be the launch pad for the redevelopment of Africa and the associated alleviation of suffering.
Ochil and South Perthshire is diverse in both landscape and people, as I was reminded by Mr. Speaker on the occasion of my swearing in—and who am I to disagree? I am immensely proud to be a Labour Member of Parliament, especially as this Labour Government established a national minimum wage, which many Opposition Members could not find time to support. Now, under this Labour Government, Ochil and South Perthshire is growing and developing as a result of continued investment from Westminster and Holyrood.
A new acute hospital serving the Forth valley will be completed by 2009, a new community hospital in Sauchie by 2007, the reintroduction of rail services to Alloa by 2006 and a new road crossing over the Forth. There will, I hope, be three new secondary schools in Clackmannanshire, with a new school planned in Kinross. South Perthshire has also benefited from new assistance for small businesses and investment in local infrastructure.
Before I was elected to this House I worked in the construction industry, and I now hope to put my experience to the test as we build a better future from these Benches. I am proud to see more than 4,000 successful new deal participants in the Ochil and Perth area, I am proud to see 20,000 local pensioners receiving the winter fuel allowance, and I am proud to see around 4,500 local pensioners benefit from pension credit. Those are the real numbers that show Ochil and South Perthshire is a better place to live under the Labour Government.
I have been asked on many occasions what my priorities are for Ochil and South Perthshire. I wish to help deliver greater equality and opportunity. I wish to see the constituency continue to prosper and grow, and I wish to see people living without fear, happy to be in an inclusive society.
Before resuming my seat, I hope to dig myself out of some trouble here today. My wife Lynda, of 24 fantastic years, and my children Victoria and Dominic, have been hugely supportive during the general election, but I must apologise for missing our wedding anniversary as a result of campaigning—honestly, the risks one takes to win an election! I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to address the House today in my maiden speech. I hope to catch your eye on future occasions—but perhaps not for so long.
It gives me great pleasure to rise to make my maiden speech and to follow my hon. Friend Gordon Banks. I am grateful for this opportunity to make my first contribution to the debates of the House and, in particular, to speak about one of the strengths of my party, the strength of the British economy.
I am proud and privileged to represent the area where I was born and brought up, and where I intend to be a strong local voice for all my constituents, regardless of whom they voted for. I grew up in the 1980s in a one-parent family, surviving on benefits, until I went out to work to earn a living. I can tell you now, Madam Deputy Speaker, that it was not a good time to be poor. I cannot stand here today without paying tribute to my mam, to whom I owe so much. She struggled bravely for many years to bring up my brothers and me, and I know how proud she is of me today, being in this place.
In standing here today I must also speak of the strengths of my predecessor, Joyce Quin, who was MP for Gateshead, East from 1987 to 2001, when it became Gateshead, East and Washington, West. Before 1987 Joyce was the MEP for Tyne and Wear. She was the first Labour woman to represent any part of the north-east for 35 years, so I am proud to be one of now six to follow her in this place. Joyce will be recalled by many here as a staunch advocate of European integration and regional devolution. She served with great distinction on two high-profile Select Committees. She was an Opposition spokesperson, and when Labour came to power she served in the then Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. She is perhaps best known for her work as Minister for Europe in the late 1990s.
Joyce is known as fair-minded, sincere, calm, highly competent and, like so many from the north-east, friendly. As she represented the constituency where once lived Joseph Wilson Swan, the discoverer, along with Thomas Edison, of incandescent electric light, it is appropriate that Joyce became known over 18 years as a luminary, a bright and dynamic force for the north-east and for the people of Gateshead and Washington. She has always steeped herself in the history and culture of the north-east. As well as rightly campaigning for the return of the "Lindisfarne Gospels", Joyce plays the Northumbrian pipes and is a very knowledgeable city tour guide in Newcastle.
I know that it is a custom in speeches like this to be a bit of a tour guide also, and to rattle off a list of the landmarks in the constituency. However, I find myself in a difficult position because Gateshead, East and Washington, West is remarkable for the number of familiar landmarks which are in Gateshead and Washington but not actually in the constituency. For instance, Gateshead central library, Gateshead leisure centre, the Shipley art gallery and Gateshead college are all just outside my patch. The ancestral home of America's first president, Washington Village, is just outside my patch. Gateshead's Baltic arts centre, the Sage conference centre and the Gateshead Millennium bridge are all just outside my patch. The iconic Angel of the North is just outside my patch, but one can get a fantastic view of it if one stands in Chowdene, which I am proud to say is very much inside my patch.
Of course, we do have the famous Gateshead international stadium, put on the map by a great son of the north-east, Brendan Foster. We are proud of our three modern Metro stations, as well as the much older Bowes railway, designed by another great son of the north-east, George Stephenson. Opened in 1826, the Bowes is a proud relic of the industrial revolution, a colliery railway built to carry coal from the pits to the Tyne. The only working preserved standard-gauge rope-hauled railway in the world, it is in Springwell village—in my patch.
The House may have heard of the bloodthirstiest former resident of my constituency, long ago immortalised in one of the old songs of the north-east:
"Whisht! lads, haad yor gobs,
Aa'll tell yer aall and aaful story,
Whisht! lads, haad yor gobs,
An' Aal tell yer 'bout the woorm."
The "aaful" Lambton worm—a monster that
"wad often feed
On calves an' lambs an' sheep," and sometimes even "swally bairns"—would not have lasted five minutes under a Labour Government pledged to tackle crime. In any case, I am pleased to say, it no longer lives in my patch.
Thankfully, these days what I have in my patch is a large number of hard-working people who have invested in a Labour Government. They have not been disappointed by the regeneration of the north-east in the years since 1997, although there is a lot more to do, which will form part of my work here, as will doing my best to continue to tackle unemployment. Both Joyce Quin in 1987 and her predecessor Bernard Conlan in 1965 raised concerns about unemployment in their maiden speeches. Bernard Conlan said that the unemployment in his area was
"still somewhat higher than the national average."—[Hansard, 16 February 1965; Vol. 706, c. 1043.]
Twenty-three years later, Joyce Quin reflected sadly on her predecessor's speech and spoke of the
"tragedy that 23 years after he made that speech, unemployment in Gateshead, East is three times higher than it was then and that the hoped-for diversification"—[Hansard, 30 June 1987; Vol. 118, c. 441.]— of the local industrial base had not taken place.
Today, the picture in Gateshead, East and Washington, West is very different. Unemployment is down by 50 per cent. and 2,330 people have got jobs as a result of the new deal since 1997. Over the past eight years, Labour has demonstrated that it is both possible and desirable to harness both social justice and economic prosperity, helping to ensure that we have a fair market, which is the servant of the people, not the other way around. I am a great believer in harnessing the power of the economy to help people in their jobs, in schools and hospitals and in their homes and communities. I know that the Labour Government are doing that. I also know that my job here is to represent families with children going through local schools, such as Kells Lane primary, St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic primary school and George Washington primary school. I will be a strong local voice in this place for people using hospitals such as the Queen Elizabeth hospital in Gateshead, as I did when I gave birth to my two children, Joseph and Emily. It is Labour's investment in the NHS that has given the Queen Elizabeth its new Jubilee wing. There are nearly 1,000 more doctors and 3,000 more nurses in the region. To me, revitalised public services with free and equal access are, and must always be, the social benefits of economic success.
As a former trade union official with Unison and a current GMB member, I am particularly keen to see the implementation of the Warwick agreement between the Labour Government and the trade unions. The trade union movement has 7 million members and is one of the biggest voluntary organisations in the country. Warwick is an enormous undertaking that will bring about enormous good in many spheres. Legislation on corporate manslaughter remains a pressing issue deserving bold action in the face of business hostility. Universal child care schemes would be a huge help for many in my constituency. The right for trade unions to bargain on pensions seems obvious, but it will not happen without the Labour Government, nor will the long-term solutions needed to protect and enhance pensions in future. Other issues arising from Warwick include tackling pay inequality, healthy eating in schools, putting cleanliness before cost in hospital cleaning and new help for manufacturing, and all need action in this Parliament.
At the end of this Parliament, we should be able to look back at the commitments made at Warwick and see all of them ticked off. By then, there will be new challenges to be faced with an economy that is strong and an agenda that is clear. We have a greater duty than ever to listen to the wisdom of working people and to their trade unions. I believe that that will make all of our patches brighter.
I begin by congratulating all maiden speakers today on making excellent speeches. This place will be a better place for their presence. I have already marked a few of them for special services in future, though I will not tell them who they are.
Today, the Opposition parties remind me of Private Frazer in "Dad's Army", who always said, "We're doomed." It is hard to believe that we have done as well as the Government have. I came to this place in 2000, like Dr. McCrea, in a by-election. I was fortunate enough, unlike the hon. Gentleman, to be returned in the 2001 election, and again in 2005, in my enhanced constituency.
The best way for me to say how the Labour Government have done is to say exactly what has happened in Glasgow. Back in the 1980s, unemployment in Glasgow was rife. In my constituency, it was running at well over 25 per cent. in some quarters. What do we have now? Unemployment is down by 37 per cent. There are now more than 1,100 young people in work. The number of those unemployed for one year or more is down by 64 per cent. Glasgow thrives on a competitive pool of highly trained flexible labour. More than 500,000 people are employed in the metropolitan travel-to-work area. The availability of a highly-skilled work force at competitive rates is due to the strength of the investments made in training and education to improve the skills of the work force. That has been done by a Labour Government.
We saw what happened to shipbuilding on the Clyde. Before or just after the 1997 election we were threatened with the closure of all shipbuilding yards in the Clyde. The industry was saved by my predecessor and by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence. Shipbuilding is now thriving on the Clyde. There are orders that will keep the Clyde in shipbuilding until 2015. If we get more orders, shipbuilding will go on for much longer than that. I look to the Ministry of Defence to supply these orders.
Glasgow has a thriving business community. Most people who have been there recently will have taken a trip down the Clyde to see what has been built. The new Glasgow harbour project is in my constituency, across from the Govan shipyards. I do not know why anyone wants to buy a flat where a ship is being built opposite it, but the flats have been sold for quite a large amount of money. Obviously many people like to see ships being built.
That is a sign of what is happening in Glasgow. The infrastructure, the buildings and the retail sector are rated to be the second best in the United Kingdom. The only city that surpasses Glasgow is London. In my opinion, Glasgow is a great deal better than London because there is a city centre that has precincts that allow people to walk round all the shops. It is certainly seeing increased business.
The people of Glasgow are proud of their city. They always have been and they always will be. It is because of what has happened in the past eight years that Glasgow is now thriving.
We have introduced a Scottish Parliament, and we should be proud of that; it has helped the economy. I thank my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer for the work that he has done, along with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, in sustaining progress in Scotland. However, we must consider the future. For example, we must examine pensions. We must sort out the issue. I say to the Opposition parties, as I have in the past, that they must come forward with no preconceived notions. If there is to be an all-party solution, we must all discuss the issues. Let us not bring party politics to the table, as the Opposition parties are doing every day.
The Opposition parties find reasons not to support anything. That is good, because we will win again at the next general election for the fourth time. Perhaps we shall even win a fifth term. They have not learned the lessons of the past eight years, but we have. We shall continue to represent the people. The core vote of Labour voters in Glasgow, Anniesland turned out in force in my new constituency. Labour Members in Scotland and throughout the United Kingdom will work even harder to ensure that a Labour Government are returned at the next general election.
We will take on everybody, including the Liberals. We will expose them for what they are. They tell untruths all the time. They tell one part of a constituency one thing while telling another thing to another part of that constituency. We will ensure that they return to a party of 11 Members, as they were in the past. We will take on the Tories as well. The economy has been the No. 1 priority for the Government, and I am here to back them. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will continue to do the job that he has undertaken so far.
Listening to John Robertson and his call for a national consensus on pensions should prove to anyone who had any residual doubts that the Government have already created a pensions crisis and are looking for allies to get themselves out of it.
In replying to the debate, I begin by congratulating Mr. Blunkett on his appointment as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. He and I have returned to the Front Benches after something of an enforced absence—slightly longer in my case than in his. I noticed that almost his first statement after he was appointed was to emphasise that he had received an assurance from the Prime Minister that there were no no-go areas, and that he could explore any options for pension reform that he wished. I advise the right hon. Gentleman in the friendliest possible way not to take such assurances from the Prime Minister too literally. The Prime Minister has form on these matters. The House will recall that the first Minister with responsibility for welfare reform, Mr. Field, was told by the Prime Minister to think the unthinkable. The right hon. Gentleman thought the unthinkable, and the unthinkable happened—he was sacked and was never returned to the Front Bench.
I am delighted to return to the House of Commons, representing an inner-city London constituency. I am well aware that some people think that Kensington and Chelsea is a very grand place. That was not always so. Well over 100 years ago, Queen Victoria insisted that the Albert hall and the Albert memorial could not be in the borough of Kensington and had to be in the borough of Westminster, where they have remained ever since. Her reasons were simple. She said it was unacceptable for Albert's memorial to be in the suburbs—so the constituency was seen at that time, if not more recently.
I have the pleasure of succeeding Michael Portillo, who not only was a distinguished representative of the constituency, but over a good number of years made an important contribution to the political life of the country. The country will be the poorer because of his decision to withdraw from political life, but I have no doubt that he will continue to contribute in a substantial way to the wider public affairs of the country.
Today we heard a superb Front-Bench speech from my hon. Friend Mr. Osborne and some marvellous maiden speeches. It is somewhat impertinent of me in my current circumstances to congratulate maiden speakers. Those on the Government Benches face a difficult challenge over the weeks and months to come. Do they make their mark by supporting the Government, even when the Government are making a mess of things, or do they represent their constituents by showing their independence? Perhaps they ought to follow the wise advice of a former Member of the House, Kenneth Baker, who always advised Government Back Benchers to tread that narrow path between rebellion and sycophancy. It is a difficult path to pursue, but it is one that usually produces rewards.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friends who made their maiden speeches earlier today. My hon. Friend Mrs. Dorries made a moving speech about the children in her constituency with special needs. I have no doubt that she will be a doughty champion for such interests over the years to come. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Mr. Binley, who will clearly be a champion of his local community. He already speaks with great authority on all matters affecting Northampton. My hon. Friend Mr. Crabb reminded not just his hon. Friends but hon. Members on the Government Benches that a social revolution was achieved by the right to buy for council tenants. When the Chancellor of the Exchequer tries to posture, as he did earlier today, as the champion of homeowners, he might like to remember that he and all his right hon. and hon. Friends passionately opposed tenants having the right to buy, and did so with all the power at their disposal. We always welcome a sinner that repenteth, but we are at liberty to remind him of his previous misdeeds.
The issue before the House today is welfare reform, and I am happy to concentrate my remarks on that theme. The Government raised in the Gracious Speech the issue of incapacity benefit, a benefit that was first introduced by the Conservative Government. When this Government came to office, no less a person than the Prime Minister accused his predecessors of allowing a situation whereby more people claimed incapacity benefit than jobseeker's allowance. It is well worth considering this Government's achievements in that regard in the past eight years. What we find from the pre-Budget report published only last December is that today the number of incapacity benefit claimants is three times greater—a multiple of three—than the number claiming jobseeker's allowance. So, far from the Government having reversed—[Interruption.] No, I knew that the Government would respond in that way. They seem to be conveniently overlooking the fact that the Prime Minister's boast was that a million people on incapacity benefit were seeking work. We know that. The fact is that eight years later there are still a million people on incapacity benefit seeking work. Despite what the Gracious Speech says, the Government have not even offered a Bill; they have offered a Green Paper that will at some time lead to a Bill, which will not come into effect until 2008, three years from now, and will affect only new claimants. So nothing is offered to the million people currently on incapacity benefit, whom the Government themselves say wish to work and are entitled to find work.
If incapacity benefit has been a matter of some deep disappointment, on pensions there really is a crisis. When my hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor correctly reminded the House of the words of Mr. Field, he did so not just to make a point. The right hon. Gentleman said that this Labour Government inherited a country with one of the strongest pension systems in Europe, and now eight years later we have one of the weakest. The fact that that came from no less a person than the right hon. Gentleman shows that that is not a partisan point. He is a loyal member of his party. He actually tried to do something on this matter for the Government, and his judgment and that of the outside world is that the Government have manifestly failed in this area.
It is not just a question of the demographic changes that the Adair Turner report is looking at; what the Government cannot refuse to acknowledge, and what the Chancellor in particular must accept, is that the Government are to a significant extent the authors of the crisis. This is a crisis of their making. The Chancellor's decision in the first months of his tenure to take £5 billion a year from the pension funds was a disgraceful decision, and of course it was not a one-off decision. The figure of £5 billion is used, but it is £5 billion a year, continuing as we speak. Therefore, some £30 billion to £40 billion, which would have been available for those receiving pensions, is no longer available.
During the last few years I have served as a non-executive for a company dealing with fund management and I have seen the consequences of the Government's policy. They cannot deny those consequences. This crisis affects not just those with private occupational pensions, but those with local authority pension funds. All the local authority pension funds have lost out in exactly the same way, and public sector workers are suffering in exactly the same way as those in the private sector.
The Chancellor is also responsible for the collapse of confidence in saving. The proportion of household income that was regularly saved when the Government took office, when the Chancellor took up his responsibilities, was 11 per cent. That has now collapsed to almost half that figure, to 6 per cent., with no sign of it going up again. That is because the Chancellor, more than any other individual, has been responsible for the destruction of the public's confidence in saving, and he must accept responsibility for that.
What are the Government doing to deal with the matter? We are told that there is a common desire to see savings increase. I have no doubt that that is what the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions wants, but there is already evidence of a desire on his part to use compulsion, rather than incentive, to deal with this matter. Indeed, he has said as much, and I can share a couple of the relevant quotations with him if he chooses to challenge the point that I am making.
If the Secretary of State is looking for national consensus on this matter, he will not get it if he chooses the route of compulsion. Compulsion is wrong in principle. Once taxpayers have paid their lawful taxes, it is not for the state to order them as to what their priorities should be with the remainder of their income. The Secretary of State must acknowledge the fact that if he wishes to get broad support for an approach to pensions, he cannot go down this route because it will not work.
This approach is not only wrong in principle; as Sir Digby Jones of the CBI has said, it is another form of taxation. As he also said, to compel people to save is in fact to create another stealth tax, and Government Front Benchers must recognise that fact. Moreover, such an approach is also grossly unfair to those who have saved under the existing incentives. If the Government make saving compulsory, the first thing that the Chancellor will do is to remove the existing incentives. There will be no need for incentives if people have no choice. All those who have planned responsibly for their future retirement, based on an assumption that incentives will continue, will find them swept away.
Finally—[Interruption.] This is not an amusing point; the Chancellor should not smile and I will tell him why. He said that he takes great pride in the pension credit. As a result of introducing means-testing, if those in receipt of pension credit are forced to make further provision through private or occupational pension schemes, they stand to lose between 40 and 100 per cent. of their pension credit. So there are real and serious problems, and the Chancellor and his colleagues must recognise that fact.
The introduction of compulsion will be a matter of great controversy, but we have also seen total confusion among Cabinet Ministers as to the pace of pension reform. Reference has been made to Ed Balls, who said in a press conference—he was no doubt speaking with all the Chancellor's authority—that no pension reform could be implemented for many years to come, and until after the next general election. However, as soon as the new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions was appointed, he said that the hon. Member for Normanton was speaking not as a Government spokesman but merely as a candidate. On this occasion, the Chancellor immediately jumped to the rescue of his old ally. He was quoted in the Financial Times as making it clear that such reform would indeed take many years, and that there would indeed have to be another election before pension reforms were introduced.
If there is this confusion between the Chancellor and the Secretary of State—and doubtless among other Ministers as well—I make an offer to the Secretary of State. [Interruption.] I am very generous and I want to make him an offer. If he wants national consensus on pensions, the first step that he should take to prove it is to achieve consensus within the Cabinet. Once the Cabinet is united, speaks with a single voice and we know exactly what is being proposed, we will be more impressed by pious rhetoric about the need for national consensus.
Let me put another point to the Secretary of State and the Chancellor. The Prime Minister said in February that he was proud of what had been achieved on pensions. Is he really proud of taking £5 billion a year from pension funds, of a collapsed savings ratio, and of those on pension credit having to be means-tested? Is that his idea of something to be proud of? The Chancellor aspires to replace the Prime Minister. I do not know what his prime ministerial qualities are, but he does remind me of a general whom I knew in the Ministry of Defence. It was said of that general that "This man has great leadership qualities. His men will follow him anywhere—even if it is only out of curiosity."
The Labour party and the country as a whole are indeed curious about the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Today, he tried to bludgeon his way through all the various arguments that have demolished the weakening economy that he presides over. He is as anxious as ever to replace his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. This country will judge the Government's record on pensions and on welfare by the fact that, according to the views of Labour spokesmen themselves, we have seen this country's strong pensions system turn into one of the weakest in Europe. For that reason, I have no hesitation in inviting my hon. Friends not only to see the Queen's Speech as a tired speech from an increasingly tired Government, but to reject the confusion in the Government's own ranks by voting against the Government and for the amendment.
I welcome back to the House of Commons the shadow Secretary of State, who is experienced, thoughtful and mature—just the sort of individual to be rejected as the leader of the Tory party. When a maiden reaches the altar for the second time, the first betrothal must be annulled, but the present Opposition have no values, no policies and no principles, so the annulment will be difficult. As we have seen this afternoon, he has not yet reached a consensus in his own mind, never mind within the shadow Cabinet. On the other hand, his constituency has a fine tradition—the much lamented Alan Clark, the still lamenting Michael Portillo and the flower show—which provides an interesting background for him to address some of the serious issues around welfare reform, pensions and employment with which we will be dealing in the coming months.
The Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman, Dr. Cable, declared that he has an open mind. He presumably has an open cheque book, too, and he uses invisible ink that changes his writing depending on which part of the country, borough or city he is in. I think he said that he would apply local income tax at a flat rate across the country, which means that it would not be a local income tax. [Interruption.] Oh; it will be a flat tax at a variable rate with a variable contribution from the Treasury to wipe out the inevitable variations. At least it will provide us with some entertainment over the years to come.
Before I mention my hon. Friends who have made their maiden speeches, I congratulate my right hon. Friend Mr. Murphy on his gracious and thoughtful speech. He was a great friend; he showed me great kindness on occasions when I needed it; and I will miss his presence in the Cabinet. We owe him a debt of gratitude for his work in Northern Ireland.
I congratulate all new Members, and my hon. Friends in particular, on their maiden speeches, including my hon. Friends the Members for Normanton (Ed Balls) and for Wolverhampton, South-East (Mr. McFadden). When No. 10 and No. 11 work together, we are invincible, and I am sure that when former occupants of No. 10 and No. 11 work together, we will be equally invincible on the Back Benches. [Laughter.] It is absolutely true.
My hon. Friends the Members for Worsley (Ms Keeley), for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson), for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck), for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), for Wakefield (Mary Creagh), for Ochil and South Perthshire (Gordon Banks) and for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson) all made excellent speeches. I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon, because I visited his constituency and his majority was undoubtedly enhanced enormously by my visit, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield, who mentioned David Hinchliffe, who is a long-standing friend of mine and who did a tremendous job as the Member of Parliament for that constituency.
I also want to mention the comments of my hon. Friend Ms Keeley, who reflected on the importance of our welfare-to-work policies and the contribution that they can make.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland mentioned bluebells, on which I commented in a poem during the general election. I want to assure her that my right hon. Friends the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will ensure that global warming does not wipe out the bluebells, although we have every intention of pushing back the blue tide that emerged halfway up the beach and then receded again on
The Chancellor of the Exchequer referred to the tremendous strides that we have made over eight years. When I was Secretary of State for Education and Employment, I was involved in the way in which employability and employment policies were implemented in the first four years, and had the privilege of working with my right hon. Friend on establishing the new deal programme, through which more than 1 million people passed into work, more than 0.5 million of whom were young people over the age of 25. I am proud that 75 per cent. of the working age population now have a job and that more than 2 million extra people are now offered the opportunity of working for themselves, building dignity and self-respect.
I have seen the pension credit come into force, with more than 2 million people in retirement receiving the income guarantee and 2.7 million receiving the pension credit. The rise from £69 to £109 is unprecedented in overcoming pensioner poverty, and it is absolutely crucial that we build on that in the years to come. Let us refute immediately the idea that the changes in advance corporation tax, and with it the dividend credit, first, started under us, and secondly, were responsible for damaging equity-based pension programmes. After all, it was Norman Lamont in 1993 who first started to reduce advance corporation tax, and with it the dividend credit, saying that it was unworkable and was damaging the way in which people made choices about their investments, including into research, and involved the danger of pushing jobs overseas. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor continued that logic, and reduced ACT by 3p, and by 4p for small businesses. The equity markets were then sustained until the world capital markets collapsed, with £250 billion wiped off the stock exchange. The resulting impact on personal and equity pensions is known to all of us. Adair Turner has said that we lived in a fool's paradise—that people's reliance on the equity markets from the 1980s meant that they misled themselves about the sustainability of pensions in view of the failure to understand the impact of people living longer, on the one hand, and working less, on the other.
The fact is that people were not prepared to face up to the challenge of the future, and we are. We are prepared to offer a consensus to the Opposition parties, because people will not forgive any politician who does not look 30, 40 and 50 years ahead and come up with solutions for the future. It is a challenge for the nation, not just for political parties. It is a challenge for individuals to build in retirement an income that will sustain and support them with dignity and comfort; a challenge to business to ensure that it is prepared to join us in making that contribution; and a challenge to all of us to determine who pays, how they pay, at what point they are entitled, and what that entitlement will bring. Until we face the challenge of people living longer and wanting to work less and retire earlier, and people believing that they will enter the labour market at a later age, we will be in a fool's paradise.
The whole programme that we put before the nation, were elected on and are asking the House to affirm tonight was based certain key objectives. They included making the welfare state a ladder or escalator out of poverty instead of a safety net. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has made tremendous strides, through tax credits, on lifting children out of poverty, and on ensuring that, through our welfare-to-work policies, people can work themselves out of poverty and that they have dignity and self-respect in employment, and that our welfare-to-work policies for those who are incapacitated or sick mean that those who are not prepared to write themselves off will not be written off by us. They can thus earn for themselves and the future.
Our aim of having 80 per cent. of the working-age population in work will not only sustain services and generate the productivity that our economy needs to invest in them, but obviously help to sustain us in retirement through the income that we need for an acceptable pension.
Above all, we must link the welfare-to-work, pension and employment policies so that the nation supports those who are prepared to support themselves and helps those who, because of past failures, need our support in caring and retirement.
We must also recognise the change that has taken place in the past 50 years in the make-up of our social and economic structure. A fivefold increase in divorce has changed not only the income of the households responsible but also their housing requirements. That is why £12.3 billion currently goes into housing benefit and £12.7 billion goes into incapacity benefit, including the attendant variable and passported rates that go to those income support benefit recipients. It is why, in the past, so much money went towards supporting people in unemployment. However, in the past eight years, billions of pounds have been translated from propping people up in idleness into ensuring that they can look after themselves and contribute to our economy.
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor for his vision in raising the windfall levy, investing in the new deal and translating investment in idleness in the welfare state into productivity, growth and an economy that works better than any economy in the western world. That is why Labour Members are determined to continue with the reform agenda, which threatens nobody but provides the extra support for which my hon. Friend Roger Berry asked this afternoon for those who need long-term care and cannot work for themselves.
However, the agenda demands responsibility, matched by rights, from every individual so that all Members of Parliament can go to their constituencies and offer the prospect of an enabling Government, who have developed the child trust fund, Sure Start and allowed us to look to the long term in building assets for those who previously had nothing. Equality in this country has been transformed so that those who had little will now have the opportunity of working and developing as a result of the minimum wage and the tax credit system, and having work that is worth while and can bring prosperity to them and their families. With that come the responsibilities of a something for something society.
It is important to spell out again tonight that the Government's role is not to prop up the welfare state but use it to liberate people to tackle matters for themselves. We value the skills agenda that the National Employment Panel is developing to ensure that people have the prospect of looking after themselves and their families in future. The Government enable them to do that. The vote this evening is about whether we go forward to the future or back to the miserable world of 3 million unemployed, and the benefit-dependant society, where tax was used to prop up the welfare state rather than eliminating people's need to rely on it. We should reject the amendments and vote for a programme for the future.
Question accordingly negatived.
Amendment proposed, at the end of the Question, to add:
"but regret that the Gracious Speech contains no commitment to introduce legislation to reform the voting system and ensure that the composition of this House reflects the wishes of the electorate; further regret that the Gracious Speech proposes the introduction of a costly and ineffective system of compulsory identity cards instead of providing for more police on the street; further regret the absence of proposals to introduce a fair system of local income tax, related to the individual's ability to pay; deplore the absence of measures to ensure that the elderly receive free long term care; further regret the absence of proposals to end the complex means tested pensions system, which has deterred saving, has left many pensioners in poverty, and disproportionately disadvantages women; further regret the absence of legislation to reverse the punitive system of tuition fees and top up fees that mean students could begin their careers with mortgage level debts by 2010; further deplore the absence of specific measures to tackle the serious threat from climate change; and are concerned that there is still no commitment to introduce legislation to clarify the responsibility of the Prime Minister to Parliament, particularly in relation to the prerogative powers and the role of Parliament in matters of war and peace." —[Mr. Stunell]
Question put forthwith, pursuant to
The House divided: Ayes 67, Noes 327.
Question accordingly agreed to.
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, as follows:
Most Gracious Sovereign,
We, Your Majesty's most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled, beg leave to offer our humble thanks to Your Majesty for the Gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament.
To be presented by Privy Councillors or Members of Her Majesty's Household.