I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the matter of the draft legislative programme.
This is the second time that the Government have published their legislative programme in draft for consultation. This opens up the legislative process, increases its transparency and, most important, enables Parliament and the public to have their say and feed in their views before the programme is finalised in the Queen's Speech. This year, we have improved the process. We have published the programme two months earlier in the year to allow more time for comments and discussion and to take comments into account. We have also included non-legislative actions in the draft legislative programme report to set the programme in its wider context, following recommendations to that effect from the Modernisation Committee.
The work of the House and the Government is about a great deal more than legislating. Many things can be done by non-legislative means and it is important to allow the House the time to spend on its other roles such as scrutinising Government, debating key issues affecting the country, considering private Members' Bills and engaging with our constituents. The Government are therefore committed to improving and simplifying the legislative process from beginning to end. The draft programme sets out our aim to publish nine Bills in draft for pre-legislative scrutiny this Session. We have also begun publishing draft bills in plainer English alongside the statutory language, to make our laws easier to understand and debate.
As well as improving the openness of legislation at the outset of the process, we have this Session introduced a systematic process of post-legislative scrutiny, to look back at past legislation. Departments are now required to assess Acts passed three to five years ago to ensure that the legislation that we pass is measured against what it was intended to achieve.
We have so far received more than 450 comments through the Leader of the House of Commons website since the draft legislative programme was published on
Copy and paste this code on your website
The Leader of the House talked about the importance of Parliament in not just legislating but in holding the Government to account and examining other measures that go through Parliament. In judging the legislative programme, an important consideration for Members is the length of time over which the programme is to be implemented. The Queen's Speech is not until December. Does the Leader of the House have an idea of how long a legislative year she is planning to allow for the programme to be delivered? In the following year, will the Queen's Speech be in December again, or will it go back to an earlier, more normal date?
I can give the hon. Gentleman the time of the Queen's Speech this year, but I cannot give him the date of next year's. He will see from the draft legislative programme that some Bills are due to appear in draft and then to be taken forward in the Queen's Speech after next; some are ready for more immediate implementation. There are different time tracks for the different Bills in the programme.
As well as the detailed consultations that Departments undertake on proposals that form the Bills in the programme, the Ministers for the English regions and the Secretaries of State for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are holding a number of events in their areas to consult a range of different sections of the public, including businesses, the third sector and local authorities. We have arranged for ministerial colleagues to engage in a co-ordinated national day of consultation on
Given the extent of the scrutiny before the Queen's Speech, do we really need five days debating the programme all over again after the Queen's Speech has been made? Could that time not be put to better use?
That suggestion has been made, particularly as some hon. Members would like to see a debate on the pre-Budget report. I shall take the right hon. Gentleman's suggestion into account, and we can discuss it through the usual channels.
We will explain how the final programme has changed as a result of the consultation and, when we are not acting on comments, we will explain why. For example, we acknowledge that, in the time available, it will not be possible to bring forward completely new ideas into legislation for the next Session. However, we can explain our view on new ideas and whether it will be possible to develop them in future years.
The purpose of the programme is to build a more prosperous and fairer Britain. Our first priority is to help hard-pressed families and to ensure economic stability. A banking reform Bill will ensure that Britain underpins its banking system with the best protection for depositors. A savings gateway Bill will give 8 million people on low incomes access to a national savings scheme, with each pound saved matched by a contribution from the Government.
We also want to equip this country to meet the challenges of the future by making the most of people's potential. The Education and Skills Bill will seek to reach the highest standards for schools and lifelong learning. It will also create a statutory right for every suitably qualified young person to obtain an apprenticeship. A welfare reform Bill will place a duty on the unemployed to have their skills needs assessed and to acquire skills. We will consult on further reforms to ensure that no one with the ability to work is trapped on benefits for life.
We are committed to personalising and improving our public services. This is the 60th year of the NHS—a very proud anniversary to celebrate. We propose to introduce an NHS Bill to enable the NHS to offer a higher standard of care and to focus on prevention as well as treatment, and to make it more accountable to local people and patients. The Bill will establish a constitution for the NHS that sets out what patients can expect to get from the health service, including entitlements to minimum standards of access, quality and safety. It will also set out the right of NHS staff to be consulted and involved in taking services forward.
Protecting the safety of the British people is paramount for any Government. A policing and crime reduction Bill will create directly elected representatives to give local people more control over policing priorities and responsiveness. A law reform, victims and witnesses Bill will give the victims of crime more legal rights. A citizenship, immigration and borders Bill will put in place our new and tougher test for permanent residence or British citizenship.
We are also committed in this programme to safeguarding and enhancing our heritage and our environment. A heritage protection Bill will increase protection of our historic sites and buildings. We will consult in draft on legislation to implement the recommendations of this week's Pitt review on the 2007 floods, so better to protect vulnerable communities in the future. A marine and coastal access Bill will protect our seas and our shores with new powers to designate marine conservation zones and to create a path around the whole English coastline, with public access for walking. We are also committed to a constitutional reform Bill, to a community empowerment Bill, and to the equality Bill, on which I made a statement this morning.
We will build on the themes of this programme—economic stability, making the most of people's potential, personalised and improved public services, and constitutional improvement and fairness—through legislation and a range of other Government action. The draft legislative programme not only sets out the Government's plans and priorities but enables this House and the wider public to consider and give their views on these plans before they are finalised. I commend it to the House.
This draft legislative programme is a massive disappointment for the people of Great Britain. It does not deal with the real problems of our country, such as the causes of poverty, falling educational standards, and the need to improve social mobility. In his speech to the House on
Nor does the programme show that the Government have any understanding of what people really want. For example, their plans for polyclinics could lead to the closure of 1,700 doctors surgeries throughout the country—although not in the Prime Minister's constituency, of course—and there is no comfort for people who will see their local post offices close. The shutting of surgeries and post offices will rip out the heart of many communities. It affects not only my constituency but the constituencies of Members across the political divide. I note that Sarah McCarthy-Fry is smiling. I hope for her sake that no post offices are closing in her constituency and that she will not be losing any surgeries.
Is the hon. Gentleman's party prepared to put the funding into the post office network that we have put in? Has he received, as I have, representations from constituents who are working families and who are trying to juggle home and child care? They welcome the chance to have a doctor's appointment between 8 o'clock in the morning and 8 o'clock at night, seven days a week.
I am happy to put the hon. Lady out of her misery. First, I remind her that this debate is on the draft legislative programme. As for spending commitments, I will certainly not make any such commitments on behalf of the Conservative party, because we do not know what other horrors we have ahead of us after having just witnessed the first run on a British bank for 125 years. Given how this country is run at the moment, Lord only knows what it will be like in two years' time.
This is not a programme for the greater good of the country but a programme to try to save a failing Prime Minister who leads a discredited Government who have lost their way and have no vision. It clearly shows that the Government are bankrupt of any new and fresh ideas. That is why the proposals contain no fewer than 12 Conservative policies. As for the rest, they are recycled policies and measures to clear up the failures of the past 11 years.
Incidentally, the Leader of the House failed to give proper credit to the Conservatives even though the Government have taken on board our policies. I would like to be generous and say that that might have been an inadvertent error of omission, given that she has enormous responsibilities in other capacities. However, I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will make good the omission and give credit to the Conservatives for yet again helping out the Government with their policies.
Let us consider some of the proposals in a little more detail. We welcome the Government's acceptance of our proposal to have directly elected police chiefs and the pledge to cut red tape in police departments. The House will appreciate, however, that this is the very same Government who have spent 11 years increasing red tape for the police force, only now to realise that it needs to be cut. It is regrettable that the programme makes no mention of dealing with the chaos of overcrowding in our prisons. Nor is there is any indication that the Government understand that when a judge sentences someone to serve time in prison, that does not take into account that part of the sentence that is served on early release outside prison.
At a time of enormous housing uncertainty, it is good to see that the Government have adopted our proposals to help first-time buyers to get on to the housing ladder through shared equity schemes. However, the public will appreciate the contradiction. The Government speak of helping people to get on to the housing ladder, yet through their nationalisation of Northern Rock they are repossessing people's homes. That brings me to the banking reform Bill, which is necessary because the procedure for financial oversight set up by the Prime Minister when he was Chancellor proved so ineffective when there was the run on Northern Rock. I am pleased that in this respect, too, our proposals have been adopted by the Government.
The citizenship, immigration and borders Bill is a perfect example of a Government in disarray. It is the seventh immigration Bill since 1997, during which time immigration has quadrupled. When will the Government understand that what Britain needs is an annual limit on economic migrants from outside the European Union? Until they recognise that such a limit is required for the greater good of the country, all their immigration policies will continue to fail.
In 1997, Tony Blair repeatedly proclaimed, "Education, education, education", yet the Education and Skills Bill comprises several rehashed announcements, while the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families indulges in empty rhetoric, showing that he is more interested in political scheming and manoeuvring than in looking after the welfare of British children's education and skills. May I respectfully suggest that he spend a little more time dealing with the problem that almost half the 11-year-olds in our country cannot read, write or add up? He should reflect on the fact that despite the Government's spending £1 billion on trying to deal with truancy, truancy has gone up by 45 per cent. since 1997 to a staggering 1.4 million pupils in 2005-06.
In a speech to the House on
"Every adult should have the right to a second chance in education".—[ Hansard, 14 May 2008; Vol. 475, c. 1386.]
He said that despite the fact that his Government announced in September last year that funding would be phased out for higher education institutions, directly affecting part-time students, lifelong learners and women returning to work.
We broadly support the measures in the constitutional renewal Bill, but I have to put on record the fact that they are not new. They were announced before the last draft legislative programme. That is not to say that the Bill is comprehensive, because it most certainly is not. Major issues have been ignored. Why, for example, is there no proposal to give English Members of Parliament the final say on English matters? Despite several high-profile cases of electoral fraud, why are the Government still dithering and not bringing in individual voter registration to safeguard effectively our electoral system? Failure to do so not only encourages the continuance of fraudulent practices, but further undermines an already damaged process.
The welfare reform Bill highlights the Government's desperate position. Mandatory skills assessment and training for the unemployed are not new measures. The Prime Minister announced them five years ago, in 2003. Our proposal that incapacity benefit recipients should undergo assessments has quite rightly been adopted by the Government, but this Bill is no way to deal with the serious issue of welfare reform. Almost 5 million people are on out-of-work benefits and 2 million people are economically inactive and want to work. One in six young people are not in employment or education, and the UK has a higher proportion of children living in workless households than any other European Union country. Apart from re-announcing five-year-old policies and acquiring Conservative proposals, what else have the Government done on welfare reform? It has had 10 strategies in two years and more than 30 announcements in one year alone, and none of them has delivered for the millions who desperately need the Government's assistance.
The NHS reform Bill is welcome, not least because it contains Conservative proposals, such as a constitution for the NHS and new rights for information about health care, but plans for hospitals to receive payments depending on patient satisfaction miss the point. The point is not whether a patient feels satisfied, but whether the treatment received by the patient has improved their condition.
The right hon. and learned Lady chunters from a sedentary position that it is both. If she looks at the small print of the draft legislative programme, she will find that it talks about satisfaction. It does not talk about end results. There is a distinction, and a very big distinction.
Continuing Government interference in the NHS will not help. If the NHS is to be truly successful, it must be at arm's length from political interference. Regrettably, the NHS reform Bill fails to address major concerns. Centrally imposed, politically motivated targets will not be scrapped. The scandal of mixed-sex wards continues and cancer survival rates are lower than almost all European countries except the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovenia.
As for the substance of the law reform, victims and witnesses Bill, we broadly support its measures to protect victims and witnesses. There are, however, matters that we oppose. We oppose the creation of a sentencing commission, which would consider the size of the prison population when setting sentencing guidelines. That simply is not right. There should be prison places for all those who have been sentenced to serve time in prison. Sentences should not be restricted because of a lack of spaces.
It is important to appreciate that we are debating a draft legislative programme—I emphasise the word "draft". By definition, that means that there is the possibility that the programme may be changed in some way. However, it is clear that the Government have already made up their mind, and that there is no intention to incorporate the points that may be made in the debate today. That was confirmed by the statement that we heard today on the equality Bill. The equality Bill is part of the draft legislative programme, but earlier this morning, the Leader of the House stood at the Dispatch Box and spoke about it as if it were a fait accompli and how it would now become part and parcel of the Government's legislative programme. So much for consultation of the people in this House or in the wider country.
The fact that the draft legislative programme is a sham is also confirmed by the online consultation programme to which the Leader of the House referred. She helpfully informed the House that there have been 400 responses to the survey, despite the fact that the five questions asked are of a broad, general nature. Members of the public wishing to contribute to the debate are allowed to use only 500 characters, including punctuation and spaces, for comments on each Bill. Incidentally, that is 500 characters fewer than they had last year. Perhaps the Leader of the House would like to explain why, despite the fact that she is so keen to tell the public about this consultation process, she is not so keen to listen to them, other than by restricting them to only 500 characters. I would also be grateful if the Leader of the House would inform us how much has been spent on this sham consultation, which consists of meetings throughout the country. Perhaps she could inform us how many meetings there have been and how many people took the trouble to attend them.
This draft legislative programme leaves no doubt that this Government are tired, have run out of steam and have no vision. They have vision only when they borrow policies from my party. The Government do not understand people's concerns, nor do they want to understand those concerns. Instead of leadership, there is dithering. Instead of substance, there is rhetoric. Instead of hope, there is despair. The people of Britain deserve better.
It is a pleasure to follow Mr. Vara. A little later, I shall refer to one point on which I agree with him, notwithstanding the fact that we appear to have snaffled half of his programme.
If I welcome our programme, it is on the basis that there is room for a more open debate about the type of programme that Governments wish to implement in their years of office. I think that this is a welcome innovation, and I intend—notwithstanding the acres of empty seats today—to hold the House enthralled while I speak at length about the need for a Labour programme.
If I may wax a little philosophical, it seems to me that over the past 20 or 25 years, the country has become less of a community, and become more atomised and more individualistic. While one sees many merits in the enterprise, drive and real excitement that individuality can bring, it seems that opportunities have been wasted, lost and thrown away—opportunities to bring together those talents into a more meaningful whole by working together and understanding we can do certain things much better together than by providing for them individually. A little later I will mention the three core services that Government and local government should try to administer efficiently, effectively and in the interest of developing community opportunity, equality and fairness in communities.
This is the Labour party's programme. I make no apologies for that: it is a political programme that concerns the Labour party and the Labour Government. It has been a disappointment to me that fewer and fewer people seem to have a real understanding of what the Labour party does, what it is for and what its real aims are—its goals and its purpose. People do not seem to know what it wants to achieve, behind those glorious sentiments that we have held so dear for so long—equality, fraternity, friendship, community, equal opportunities and equal outcomes. I am not sure that the people whom I represent know quite what the Labour party means now. People in my constituency always knew where the Labour party stood on, for example, grammar schools, private health care and private schooling. They knew that we were working in the opposite direction and that we wanted to produce more collective responses to the needs of our people in education, health and equal opportunity. Now, they are not sure because, over the years, we seem to have adopted a pragmatic, right-of-centre view about the nature of our collective response to the need for housing, for example.
I have always believed that one of the great achievements of the Labour and Conservative Governments that immediately followed the war was the production of 400 million houses that the local authority owned, controlled and managed. For many years, they provided a safe haven for skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled workers who knew that they had a home that was protected and for which people were democratically accountable. People could go to their local councillor and say, "This hasn't been done, that hasn't been done. They're hopeless—they ought to do this." The opportunity to make representations through an elected person was valued—not spelled out, trumpeted from the roof tops or even articulated, but understood. It was in us—we knew that a councillor was not too far away to whom our mothers could go if they could not get on the housing list. We have taken much of that contact away and we are the poorer for it.
Council housing was a massive success and perhaps the greatest public health measure that an advanced country has taken anywhere on earth. It provided standards and made decent provision for the preparation of food, for hygiene and for sleeping accommodation that was not desperately overcrowded. I do not claim credit only for the Labour party because the Churchill, Macmillan and Eden Governments followed that path and recognised that people in our society do not have to aspire to home ownership. Council housing provided a huge safety net for people who otherwise would have fallen on the sometimes less than gentle mercies of private landlords. Housing shortages led to Rachman. Labour and Conservative Governments failed to tackle the post-war housing crisis and that provided the opportunity for Rachman and his like to exploit people to a terrible extent, at a huge price to family happiness and welfare.
I believe that 300,000 homes were built under Macmillan's rather benign rule, which did a huge amount to house the people of this country. Now we seem obsessed with finding new, different, more complicated—even labyrinthine—ways to fulfil the demand of the individual to be treated individually and not have to be part of the common herd. It is me, me, me and we have got to the stage at which we must introduce some corrective measures. I well recall and greatly admire—although I am not especially of his political persuasion—Anthony Crosland's view of housing provision. He said that there should be a role for the voluntary sector. He estimated that 2 per cent. of the housing stock should always be untrammelled by price or local authority rules, which must be open, fair and transparent. He said that there would always be 2 per cent. who did not fit, and he believed that the voluntary movement—dating back to Octavia Hill—could provide the little bit of space for those who simply do not fit to be decently housed.
Before the first world war, private landlords owned approximately 90 per cent. of all housing in Britain. Some were good, some were indifferent and some were frankly appalling. We were moving away from that. Building societies grew in the 1920s and 1930s and the idea of mutuality was adopted—the virtuous circle of local savers putting money into their local building societies and the local builder building houses for local people. A feeling of belonging and warmth kept the virtuous circle going and people revelled in self-help and improvement.
The great advantage of the mutual building societies was that they had the savings to lend for the mortgages, so they did not over-extend themselves, get into trouble and put everyone at risk.
The hon. Gentleman is right. The local nature of the building societies meant that they knew people and could help them before they got into serious trouble. The building society movement built on the idea of mutuality. It provided the opportunity for those who were earning more, doing better and aspiring to move not so much for social mobility but for geographical mobility to get to employment, to take advantage of living near relatives and so on. That movement has recently been crushed, again by the demands of selfish individuals: "I want my £600, £700, £800 by demutualising." Building society after building society has demutualised. For what? A few coppers. In the great scheme of things, people are no better off for breaking up a wonderful community facility—our local building societies—and taking a few pence from that.
The hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire mentioned Northern Rock. What a tragedy. Why did it happen? For the sake of a few hundred quid for the members of that building society. It resulted in overstretch, overreach, greed, incompetence and rules that were not intended to govern that sort of institution being smashed through. A few people got very rich indeed, but that was not for our overall benefit. We wanted to ensure that everybody had a fair kick of the ball and our building societies did that job.
I am sad that the Queen's Speech contains no real understanding of how to put things back together, whether by again giving councils the right to build decent, proper homes for those who wish to rent, or revitalising our building society movement through the idea of mutuality and the virtuous circle that I mentioned. A Labour Queen's Speech should impress those virtues into the text, but they are simply not there.
Let me consider education. Everybody says, "Of course, I want the very best for my children." Don't we all. Would people sensibly express some other sentiment? However, we then have to consider how to achieve that. Again, let me give a Conservative example—Rab Butler, who introduced the Education Act 1944, which produced the mechanism for comprehensive schooling. That did not happen in a big way, although Catholic schools in my constituency admirably adopted the idea long before Shirley Williams came along with her circulars in the 1960s. The Act created the opportunity to provide a high standard, quality education and to get rid of the idea of the sheep and the goats. In the 1930s, the Hadow report stated that we needed three levels of schools, starting with secondary modern schools for ordinary, dull boys—it did not mention girls. We needed technical high schools for those boys who were going to do better and become engineers, and we needed grammar schools for the very bright children who would lead the nation into the future. It was a tripartite, three-legged system. Post-war, it delivered a Britain that was not performing, and that was wasting great swaths of talent. It was not employing our men and women who had fought through the second world war and who had returned to our industries. It was not giving them the tools that they needed to make a new start and to develop Britain in the way that it should have been developing from the end of the 19th century.
Will the hon. Gentleman accept, however, that some of the blame for what he is describing must be placed at the door of teachers, who often encourage pupils to go into further or higher education when they are not suited to it? We now have the ridiculous situation in which we have a shortage of plumbers and carpenters, yet we have people at universities studying the pop group, the Beatles.
I am not going to be drawn into an argument about the Beatles, because I know that the right hon. Gentleman knows much more about pop music than I ever will. Notwithstanding that, I have real sympathy with that idea. I am firmly of the view that a course of education should be open to every child who can benefit from it, whether in primary, secondary or tertiary education. The test should always be the same: is this course of study appropriate to this child, and will the child benefit from it? There is little point in taking swaths of children into higher and further education who simply will not benefit from that resource being offered to them. Our job, across the House, is to ensure that more and more children can take advantage of the quality education that abounds in many of our institutions across the nation.
The right hon. Gentleman suggests blaming teachers. Well, they are a very easy target. I take a somewhat different view. There are teachers who do not do their job well, but that is true in every walk of life. We need to deal with people who do not deliver properly. That might be in a private company, where the employer can see that obstructions are being caused to their production process. Something would need to be done about that; there is no way around that. Equally, in the public sector, people who are an obstacle to progress and who are preventing the very best service from being given have to be removed or dealt with. The right hon. Gentleman and I find ourselves at one on this matter. This is a pragmatic matter where we have to be sure that people's competences are right, proper and appropriate to the job that we are asking them to do, whether in the private or the public sector.
In education, however, we have found ourselves going down the road of diversification, choice and parent choice. People say, "We have not got enough; we must have more. We must have trust schools. We must have academies. We must have this, that and the other." It is all about the cachet attached to their boy or girl going to this or that school, but I say, "Look out." The more selfish people among the middle classes will get fed up with academies. Oh yes, they will get fed up and they will need something different to say about their kids. Just look out for the word "conservatoire" starting to creep into Education Ministers' vocabulary. It will not take long for that to happen.
It is problematic when we talk about parents aspiring for the very best for their children. It is such an easy track to take, and there is such a ladder to climb but, frankly, it is a bit like Jack and the beanstalk. We can never be sure where the ladder is going to end. We do know, however, that every child and every student is worthy of the best that we can give them, and that must be offered on the basis of affordability, even though we are a rich nation. The way we should do that is through a generalised education system, in which teachers are trained to give the best teaching and to recognise special ability where it exists and bring it out in every child.
I am a great fan of sixth forms, but I recognise that some young people do not prosper in sixth forms. However, if we put them into a less regimented further education college, we find that, a little further down the road, they start to see what their peer group is doing and they develop again. Development in children has fascinated generations, as people have asked how we can best deal with an uneven development and maturation process that cannot be addressed on a collective basis and has to be individualised, and how we can then encapsulate the opportunity within an affordable, comprehensive system of education.
I want to move on to health. Again, we hear people saying that we must have something different. First we had trusts; now we have foundation hospitals. There is an idea that everybody has to be involved, but not everybody wants to be involved. Generally, people want to see decent houses, decent schools and decent hospitals in their area. They then want to get on with their lives. They want to go to work and provide for their families as they grow up and grow old. There is a great deal of focus on getting people to participate in this, that and the other. Well, people do participate, but they do so at the point of use, be it in housing, education, health or local transport.
In the health service, we are paying the price for the atomisation of the service. We have a national health service, and what a remarkable achievement that was for a post-war Government who were so strapped for cash that they could scarcely afford to feed the nation, let alone develop a health service that was free at the point of use. Yet now, we regard the health service in terms of regions, districts, PCTs and hospitals. We need to get some coherence, because that is the best way to deliver the service that people want.
I promised that I would agree with something that the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire said, and I am going to. He suggested that Labour had stolen his party's policies, and I am afraid that that is true. That is why we do not have the good Labour legislative programme that we should have. Not only have we stolen the hon. Gentleman's clothes; we have also gone in for re-announcement after re-announcement. It was a technique that was brilliantly developed by Mrs. Thatcher. We had not come across it before, but it was absolutely superb. We would have five announcements of the same thing over three or four weeks in the newspapers, and now my lot have learned the technique. It drives me absolutely insane. An idea, which was probably not a very good one to begin with, is re-announced and re-announced.
An example is the one about privatising part of the national health service. People have had it up to here! They do not want the national health service to be privatised. As I have said, they want a good hospital that does a proper job for them. They do not want private clinics and private this, that and the other. BUPA has been doing all that for years—I do not know whether it does it well or badly—but good luck to it, on one level. The truth is that we need a proper, funded state system of health care that is available to everyone at the time of need and free at the point of need. Frankly, I am fed up with the re-announcement of these initiatives, most of which I do not find very helpful anyway.
Is not the reason that the Government are so far behind in the opinion polls that they are not delivering what the public want? The hon. Gentleman touched briefly on transport. A classic example is the Government's plans for road-user charging and for forcing upon Manchester the proposition that people will have to pay a charge to go into the city every day. That is why the Government are so unpopular. People do not want things like road-user charging.
I resisted the temptation to discuss the Beatles with the right hon. Gentleman, but this is irresistible. What he refers to is typical of what has been happening in housing, health and education, and certainly in transport. I am so proud of my local authority, because it has said, "No, we won't have congestion charging, and if you won't give us proper money to develop our transport infrastructure, we'll have to find another way." No, we in the west midlands—Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Coventry, Solihull, Sandwell, Walsall, Dudley—we are not having congestion charging.
May I therefore say three cheers for those councillors in the hon. Gentleman's constituency who have made that decision? Is he aware that Councillor Jones, who represented a safe Labour seat in Manchester and was the biggest proponent of road charging there, not only lost his seat in the May elections but came bottom in the poll?
Yes, I am aware of that. At one level I am very sorry, because Councillor Jones is a fellow member of Labour. However, if he was so misguided as to introduce Conservative policies, I am very happy for him to be defeated. To give the other point of view, did the right hon. Gentleman know that in Barrow, three people stood as anti-academy alliance candidates, opposing the local academy, and ousted three sitting councillors, one of whom was the Tory leader of Barrow council?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for putting me right on that. It was my fevered imagination at work—I always think that schemes that are likely to be of no consequence to the rich are Tory ideas. In Manchester, the scheme will hurt a lot of people. There are people in Manchester who are strongly opposed to the scheme, but my Government have put them in a difficult position by saying, "Do this or you don't get that."
We had that with council housing, too, with authorities being told, "Either put it out to arm's length or you don't get money to refurbish your houses." That is an absolute disgrace. Why on earth is my party punishing the poorest 10 per cent. of people in this country? It is an extraordinary decision not to let progressive councils—Tory or Labour, it does not really matter to me in that sense—not to keep their houses properly maintained without giving them away to some undemocratic body.
The situation is the same with schools. Building Schools for the Future looks like a great programme and, although we can argue about whether it is correct in every detail, a lot of money is involved. However, the programme comes with a little pair of handcuffs attached. Authorities are told, "Of course you can have all this money, provided you have an academy," because somebody somewhere has, for whatever reason, got the idea—it is quite mistaken—that academies can deliver where other head teachers and schools cannot.
There is a tendency—and it is not a nice one—for the Government to strong-arm local government. I say this to Conservative Governments and Labour Governments: they cannot deliver their programmes in this country without working hand-in-glove with local authorities. Local authorities are to be treasured and trusted, and they are to be given powers to do the things that they believe to be right in their local circumstances. That is why local democracy is so important. That is why the idea of accountability, democracy and elected representatives having a proper say and determining what is best for the people whom they represent should run through the draft Queen's speech like lettering a stick of rock.
At one level, it is great that we can have a draft speech. It is a pity that more hon. Members have not seen fit to be here on this Thursday afternoon. Indeed, I am very sorry that only a few hundred people have visited the website, with all its imperfections—I might add that more people look at the beautiful baby pictures that I put on my website. The website has not been a great success, but that illustrates another point. People want good services where they live and they want laws that are appropriate, fair and just. Although the proposals in the Queen's speech may, in the end and in law, deliver some of those things, I would have preferred a programme that had Labour running all the way through it just like lettering a stick of rock.
It is a pleasure to follow Mr. Purchase, who made a thoughtful contribution on the importance of community and expressed his concern about the direction of Government policy. On council housing, when I was not long elected, constituents came to me bewildered, because although they thought that the council was the best landlord, they were being bullied to vote for someone else as their landlord. If we really believe in local community, it would make more sense to reflect the wishes of local people in a fair and balanced way.
As the Leader of the House said, the Government's legislative programme must be seen in the wider context of the whole Session, which is not just about legislation. In fact, many of us would argue that it should be a lot less about legislation. There is a great danger of regarding the number of Bills as a measure of the vibrancy of the Government, but if things are going reasonably well and legislation is not required, introducing another Bill just to get another headline is not an effective use of Parliament's time or an effective way of avoiding extra bureaucracy and red tape.
It is important to recognise that although the Government have a wider programme, they will be working in a much changed world. The economy will be far more challenging and energy prices will still be a major issue, as will food security, and the Government will have to cope with those challenges. With the economy, world factors may well be at play, but over-extending Government borrowing and allowing private borrowing to get out of control has reduced the flexibility for coping with economic changes. Perhaps it was dangerous to believe the rhetoric that the economic cycle had been abolished; recognition that economic cycles are fairly relentless would have allowed better preparation for coping with a downturn.
As Mr. Vara said, the everyday bread-and-butter concerns of our constituents, such as the future of our post offices, are important. Post offices in my constituency are going through a closure consultation. It is quite frightening that the head of the Post Office has said that if the Government fail to award the contract for the Post Office card account to the Post Office, another 3,000 to 6,000 closures will be needed. At this stage of the Government's thinking, the drawing up of the terms of that contract seems farcical, when this funded closure programme could prove to be just the tip of the iceberg, to be followed by yet further piecemeal closure programmes.
It is crucial to recognise the value of services that are delivered locally. To that end, the Department for Work and Pensions must avoid getting back into its bullying ways with pensioners and others in receipt of benefit—an issue raised during business questions earlier. If people have chosen to use their post office and they prefer the POCA, they do not want to receive phone calls badgering them to switch to a bank. They had a choice and they freely made it, so they should not be bullied out of it. It is even more frightening for those who find the card account too difficult to cope with. As they could not handle PINs or had visual problems or needed others to collect money for them, they were led to believe that they could keep their girocheques going. Those people are now receiving letters saying that they will have to switch to a bank account. It is worrying when people who have learned and grown up budgeting in one way are suddenly told to change their whole way of life at the behest of, and to make life easier for, the Department for Work and Pensions. That Department should remember that it exists to serve the people it provides pensions to; it is not the master but the servant of the recipients of pensions.
As well as all the big issues posed by the legislative programme, I hope that the Government will turn their attention to, and focus their energies on, the day-to-day practice of good governance. They must not be distracted from that by an excessive amount of legislation.
Let me return to the intervention I made earlier on the Leader of the House. People are too often asked to comment on the priorities in a draft programme without knowing the length of time within which the programme is to be delivered. Dealing with 18 Bills over 18 months is different from dealing with 18 Bills over 10 months. It may be time for the Government to get more grown up about sharing their thinking about the legislative timetable with the whole of Parliament.
When the programming of Bills was introduced, it was part of "modernisation". It is easy to see why securing a more systemised scrutiny of legislation is tempting and attractive to all Members. It was understood at the time that individual Bills would be programmed, but also that, in the long run, Parliament would get a programme for the year's legislation, which would enable Members to look ahead and discover when Bills were likely to be introduced. The idea was that that would facilitate input from outside lobbying and allow people to influence legislation as it developed. We should build on those ideas. We now have a draft programme and the Queen's Speech will happen later in the year. The Government must have an idea of what they are thinking of doing for the rest of year, and they could share that with Parliament so that we could make better use of our time and provide better scrutiny. Above all, that would engage the public and the outside world, as is meant to happen. Announcing the business a week or so in advance does not give the public a real chance to influence their Member of Parliament's response to the next Bill. More delivery is required from the Leader of the House on the wider agenda of programming and the efficient use of parliamentary time.
To a Government who have been in power for 11 years, I also suggest that one of the other inevitable cycles—although they might plan to avoid this—is that Governments, Parliaments and those in power change. It would be sensible for them to consider whether the systems in place would make life easy or difficult for them if they find themselves in opposition. They should start to think about how Parliament can scrutinise and hold Governments to account, rather than being frightened of creating such a system. One day they might not be in government, in which case they might welcome such a system.
Similarly, those of us who aspire to be in government should resist the trappings of power that have accrued to the Executive, and recognise that Executives who are held accountable stand a better chance of long-term credibility and popularity in the country. Executives who get out of touch with the country and Parliament are the ones that start to fall foul of the electorate.
Let me turn to some of the specific Bills in the draft legislative programme. In some ways, the banking reform Bill is an attempt to put right the Chancellor's legacy, and to pick up the pieces after the damage has been done. The general trend of the banking reform Bill is welcome, but again it should be recognised that allowing private borrowing to get out of control put a lot of pressure on individuals and the economy, which even that Bill will not tackle.
The business rate supplement Bill could go further to reinvigorate local economies through restoring business rates to local authorities. Currently, business rates go to central Government and are divvied out on a formula. Therefore, making the local area more vibrant benefits individuals, but has no direct payback to the local authority. When a planning authority considers, for example, whether a quarry is a good development, it cannot even calculate the benefits to the local community from a business rate increase.
The marine and coastal access Bill has been a long time coming. We generally welcome the idea of greater structure in marine planning, but are concerned that the marine management organisation might not be adequately funded to deliver the intentions of the Bill. Reassurance is needed that the means will be willed as well as the ends. The marine and coastal access Bill in this Parliament would govern all the waters off the shores of England and Wales, as well as all the waters around Scotland outside the territorial limit. How will co-operation and co-ordination be ensured between the two authorities with regard to installations and wind farms that cross the border between territorial waters in Scotland and territorial waters covered by UK legislation?
The Education and Skills Bill could go further in giving full independence to the education standards authority, because the Department still has control over the appointment of its chair and setting directions. That does not create independence from political interference in educational standards. I very much welcome any attempt to improve the apprenticeships scheme, which is also long overdue.
The welfare reform Bill will operate in a growing economy, with increasing numbers of jobs. Trying to get those who could work back into employment can be quite a positive message to give out. But if we are entering a period of growing unemployment, especially in certain regions, the challenges faced by those who cannot find jobs, because there are not jobs to be found, must be handled sensitively and carefully.
The Government have referred to directly elected representatives in connection with the policing and crime reduction Bill. We should like some reassurances about the role of those people and their relationship with day-to-day policing. I should be seriously worried if the Government adopted the American model of elected sheriffs to direct policing. As a councillor, I was a member of the Grampian joint police board. We were able to work with the police, but it was the responsibility of the chief constable, as head of the local police force, to deliver day-to-day policing. It was not for politicians to tell him how he should do that job. We do not want a vigilante-style model to be developed in this country.
A transport security Bill would provide some reassurance, especially if it went further and ensured that foreign workers would be checked for criminal records, given that they would be working in such secure environments. We have severe reservations about the communications data Bill and its intrusion into private life. There is a danger that by continually producing anti-crime legislation in order to be seen to be doing something, the Government will make the state's role in our private lives far greater than it needs to be unless there are proper checks and balances.
As we heard in the statement earlier, the issue of victims' anonymity is to be revisited more fully in the law reform, victims and witnesses Bill. I welcome that. I also welcome the creation of a sentencing commission, which will take sentencing out of day-to-day headline party politics. Sentencing should involve long-term understanding of deterrence, reform and effectiveness, and should not be judged on the basis of day-to-day interference by politicians.
May I make a plea for proper funding for those who must implement the immigration Bill? There is nothing more frustrating for a Member of Parliament than dealing with casework involving individuals who have themselves been frustrated by the operation of the immigration and visa system, which has forced them to surmount many hurdles and experience much delay before they are eventually found to be entitled to what they set out to obtain in the first place. Many of my constituents in north-east Scotland work in the oil industry and move around the world a good deal. Their lifestyles do not fit the simple models used by those who are trying to police the immigration and visa service. It is important to recognise that marriages can be genuine even if they do not accord with the idea of a genuine marriage that someone in London may have.
One of my constituents who had married in Malaysia was transferred to Angola, and wanted his wife to stay at home. He was told that she must go and live with him in Angola, because that was where he would be working. That is not the way in which people in the oil industry work: their families stay at base, and the breadwinner goes out to the more hostile countries where life is more difficult. Eventually the couple won their case on appeal, but the most frustrating aspect of the case, highlighted by the judge, was what had been said by the immigration authority: if the couple had filled out the form in this country, there would have been no problem. At that point the judge said, "I have been told that I must go away and consider the case, but I want to make my judgment now." Bureaucracy should not be allowed to destroy people's lives, or take years out of their lives, when immigration measures could be implemented so much more effectively.
The coroners Bill is long overdue. As for the constitutional renewal Bill—a rather grand title—I share the view of Mr. Vara that individual voter registration should be introduced. Eleven years ago the Government embarked on quite a strong path, recognising that changes to our constitution can greatly benefit and influence our way of life. They delivered on their early promises—on, for instance, their commitment to devolution in Scotland and, perhaps to the despair of many Members of Parliament, on freedom of information legislation—but they lost momentum when it came to recognising the fundamental importance of the constitution and the way in which we are governed to the effectiveness and accountability of the country.
I still strongly feel that the Government should deliver on reform of our election system, so that every vote in the country counts once again, and people can get engaged. In a politically evenly balanced nation with a two-party system where votes are spread evenly across the country, first-past-the-post can work, but when geographical concentrations of support for parties start to develop and there are many safe seats and only a few marginals, there is disfranchisement, because the political parties all have finite resources—albeit some have greater resources than others—and they decide to engage their campaign resources in those parts of the country where they think they can make a difference to the result. As a consequence, the party message and resources are targeted at those living in marginal seats; and the situation is, in fact, even more serious than that, as the parties work out that only certain people are likely to switch votes. Therefore, very few people in the country are actively engaged in general elections. If they live in what the parties consider to be a safe seat, they are less engaged in the debate and in having a say in the result of the election. Changing our electoral system so that every vote counts is, therefore, not just about altering the balance in Parliament so that it reflects the views of the country more accurately and therefore holds the Government to account more effectively, but about ensuring that, because their vote counts, every voter is seen to be valued by all the parties as someone who has to be influenced and engaged with at election time.
In 1987, I stood for election in Aberdeen, North, which was considered a safe Labour seat. Frank Doran was the Labour candidate in Aberdeen, South, which was considered a marginal seat with the Conservatives—he is now the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North. Money poured into Aberdeen, South; leaflets cascaded out, and people living there had a real sense of being part of a general election. In Aberdeen, North, my Labour opponent put out a wee postcard saying, "The Labour candidate is Rob Hughes". He was so well known and popular that that was all he needed to do. I remember that I was outside a polling station on election day and a Labour activist said to me, "I'm awfully worried; we've put all our troops into Aberdeen, South," and I thought, "Well, I'm going to come second here, so I don't quite see why you're so worried." They won both seats. The north half of Aberdeen had no engagement on the doorstep with the election, but the south had every engagement. That highlights an important reason why we need to reform our voting system.
On constitutional renewal, as my hon. Friend Simon Hughes said at business questions, I would have thought that the Government themselves had started to see that fixed-term Parliaments have benefits, as having them would have avoided a very messy situation last year. It would give Members and those in the outside world a date that they can plan around, too. Having a fixed term for the life of a Parliament also fits in with the idea of pre-legislative scrutiny and of having a draft legislative programme, because it gives a natural cycle to the political process, which cannot be interfered with on a day-to-day basis by the Government.
I reiterate that although this debate is about the legislation, the delivery is about much more than that. It is time that the rest of the House was allowed to know how long the year will be in which we are planning to legislate. It is time that we had far more foreknowledge of the Government's thinking on the programming of legislation. The Government should reinvigorate themselves to be ambitious about constitutional renewal, and should not forget that there is still much to be delivered if we are to have an effective modern democracy that engages all our citizens in the day-to-day life of the governance of our country.
I, too, welcome this innovation of a prior debate on the Government's draft legislative programme. It is worth while, so it is disappointing that so few Members are present, but I hope that when it becomes a permanent fixture that will begin to change. I welcome it not least because it is an opportunity for Members to raise our eyes to the bigger picture—to see the wider landscape. We find it so easy in this place to be borne down on by the relentless treadmill of nitty-gritty legislation. To look at the themes behind the Government's intentions for the next year, and perhaps beyond those, is very worth while.
I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality on her statement about the equality Bill, which is excellent and much-needed legislation. There are several items in the draft legislative programme that I strongly welcome, but I want to measure it against the problems that we in this country actually face, which seems to me the relevant index.
Three major breakdowns in the British state are seriously threatening both our economy and society. One could probably say that of any year that one is discussing, and I want to discuss the issues in this particular year. One is the over-centralisation of power and the virtual collapse of accountability in this country, to which my hon. Friend Mr. Purchase eloquently referred; he was absolutely right. The second is the breakdown in financial markets and the manifest and comprehensive failure in banking regulation. The third—there is no originality in any of this, of course—is the collapse of the housing market, which will deprive perhaps up to one fifth of the population of any reasonable opportunity of getting a decent home for the foreseeable future. I am pleased to see and welcome the fact that there are items in the draft legislative programme that touch on all these points, but none of them adequately addresses the depth of the problems.
I turn to the first of my three issues. Sir Robert Smith spoke about constitutional renewal at some length and ended his speech on it, and he was absolutely right. He did so in the context of preparing for opposition; I do not accept that point, but irrespective of a party's being in opposition or in government, it is for the whole House—all of us have an interest in this—to strengthen the procedures of Parliament. Parliament is weaker today vis-à-vis the Executive than at any time in my political memory, and I have been here quite a considerable time.
It is proposed in the draft legislative programme that Parliament be given the final say in ratifying treaties, which is obviously right, and—I am very pleased to see this—that the civil service should for the first time be put on a statutory basis. There has been a great deal of discussion in the past about Governments and Ministers overstepping the line of propriety between politics and the civil service. To clarify the position is very helpful. However, on the wider constitutional issue, that is hardly even skirting the problem. There is a huge democratic deficit in this place and outside. Within Parliament itself, a whole series of reforms is urgently needed to redress that imbalance of power between the Executive and the legislature. Let us not forget—I am sure that none of us does—that this programme was the centrepiece of the Prime Minister's first major statement to Parliament after he became Prime Minister in July of last year. I think that we all thoroughly welcomed it, and I still welcome it, but the heady atmosphere of ambitious reform that it generated has yet to be realised.
I want to make some proposals that I hope will command support across the House. Members of Select Committees should be elected by secret ballot of all non-Executive Members of the House in accordance with party quotas and should choose their own Chair. That would give Select Committees an independence and standing that would greatly improve the scrutiny of the Executive by the House. In addition, the Prime Minister's nominations for the Cabinet should, as in the US Congress, be subject to ratification by the appropriate Select Committee.
The terms of reference and membership of committees of inquiry, an extremely important part of the power of a Prime Minister and of enormous relevance to Members of the House and the wider public, should be ratified by Parliament. I am sure that in the vast majority of cases they would be, but there should be that ratificatory process. In addition, Parliament—this would be an innovation, and an important one—should be empowered and funded to set up its own parliamentary commissions of inquiry where it believed it necessary. That is not a radical proposal. I remind hon. Members that that is exactly what the Victorians did, and it is only to return to some of the excellent scrutinising work that Parliament did more than 100 years ago.
The Liaison Committee should have the right—again, not an original idea of mine; it happens in the French Assembly's equivalent of the Liaison Committee—once a month, or at some other agreed interval, to table a motion for debate and a vote on the Floor of the House. That would make a great deal of difference, whether we are talking about Select Committees or the Liaison Committee. Such a debate should not be on the Adjournment of the House, a mere discussion shop or an Oxford union-style debate, but for a vote of the House, decided not by the Government but by the House, and once a month is not an unreasonable proposal.
I could go on, and I hope that others will do so, but perhaps we should also have a Select Committee on the democratisation of the House. Others may say that we have the Procedure Committee, which I am perfectly well aware of, but what I mean by a democratisation Committee is that its terms of reference, membership and Chair would be elected by the House, not by the Executive or the Whips. It is our House and we should treat it as such, and we should take upon ourselves the rights and responsibilities that that entails.
Reform is also just as necessary in the wider society outside the House. We are regaled with the evidence for that virtually every day in the newspapers. In the last few months alone, I have kept a record of several events that are linked by one common thread. Discs containing the sensitive personal details of 25 million people were lost by a private contractor in transit. Metronet's tube refurbishment programme went bust, leaving the taxpayer with a £2 billion bill. A disc containing DNA profiles of more than 2,000 people linked to serious crimes abroad went unchecked for a year by the Crown Prosecution Service. The rescue of Northern Rock, as everyone knows, has cost the taxpayer some £25 billion—I have lost sight of the exact figure—but the former chief executive has walked away with a bonus of £750,000. The National Audit Office recently found that the Ministry of Defence had spent at least £400 million on eight Chinook helicopters that were still not airworthy 13 years after being ordered. I could go on, because there are many more examples.
What is the link between those examples? It is that nobody was ultimately held responsible. That is what I mean by the collapse of accountability, and it is very unhealthy. I am not being punitive: I am simply saying that we have to consider the negligence, the mismanagement and the other causes. People have to understand that rights and power carry with them responsibilities.
Why has that collapse in accountability occurred? There are several reasons. Civil service liability is shielded by the myth that the Minister is always responsible. The Minister should be responsible for all things political, but the ambit of responsibility often goes considerably wider and we need to recognise that. Another reason is regulatory capture by the vested interests. One worrying example, which I noted yesterday, was the announcement that an ex-private equity chief has been selected to head up Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs. That is an instance of regulatory capture that I find disturbing.
Another problem is that the regulators, especially in the Treasury, are given too little staffing and funding to be really effective in pursuit of the endemic culture of tax evasion and avoidance. In the unfettered neo-liberal economy in which we live, the big companies and the big financial institutions have largely captured the state—as we repeatedly see. Whatever they demand, they usually get, as is laid out in the newspapers for us week after week. That is where constitutional reform is needed, because the big companies have too much power relative to the democratic forces in this place that are supposed to hold the ring in managing the state.
The Government like to talk about empowerment, and I am pleased about that. They talk about empowering the citizen, whether through citizens' juries or participatory budget making, but the key is that the Government have to mean it. It does not happen all that often, but when consultations of public opinion take place—notoriously on nuclear energy, genetically modified foods or the third runway at Heathrow—it only generates cynicism when most people give one view and the Government still go ahead with their predetermined view.
My hon. Friend the Minister may share some of these views, although perhaps I should not say that. It is very difficult to make the case for constitutional renewal when only 24 hours ago the Planning Bill removed all democratic accountability from the licensing of nuclear reactors, incinerators, airports, large road-building schemes and waste dumps. In my view, it is just as difficult to make the case for constitutional renewal when, under the draft legislative programme, the Attorney-General, although he or she will be less able to direct prosecutors, will still be able to prevent prosecutions, as was the case in the recent BAE corruption investigation. I cannot see how that cannot be a conflict of interest. I hope that when we come to debate the matter the House will examine it very carefully.
The second area of major breakdown concerns the neo-liberal economic order that, as I said, has been dominant in this country and throughout the west—in the US and Europe—for the past three decades, together with the light-touch regulation, which is fairly unique to London, that has always accompanied it. The proposed Bill on banking reform, which I welcome, will make it easier in future for the Treasury, the Bank of England and the Financial Services Authority to intervene when a bank gets into difficulty. That is fine. It will also strengthen the financial services compensation scheme. No one would disagree with that. It is perfectly sensible, good stuff, but it does not begin to address the fundamental underlying causes of the banking crisis.
Several reforms are clearly urgently needed and I want to mention some of them. Structured investment vehicles—SIVs, as they are known in the trade—collateralised debt obligations and all the other fancy, new-fangled financial derivatives through which the sub-prime securitised contagion was carried across the world should surely now all have to be approved, if they are to be approved at all, by a much revamped and more robust FSA. Otherwise, when the economy eventually recovers—it will, even if it is several years down the line—will we not return to where we are now? Where is the evidence of a fundamental rethinking?
Credit rating agencies, staggeringly, are now paid by the institutions they assess for creditworthiness. That is almost like something out of "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland". It is extraordinary that that has gone on for so long. Those agencies should clearly be regulated to ensure that they are wholly independent with no conflict of interest. That is obvious, but where is the evidence that that will happen?
Investment banks should be legally separated from commercial banks. That was exactly what happened in the US in an earlier era and we have to look again at that precedent. The financial system, which has been recklessly overextended in recent years almost like a giant pyramid selling scheme to fund the enormous City bonuses, clearly needs urgent regulation. I am not objecting to high pay or a pretty good bonus as long as they genuinely reflect public welfare and are not a creaming-off of wholly artificial financial froth, which is what so many of the current payments are.
Robust capital adequacy ratios are also clearly urgently needed if western banks are not going to need increasingly to be bailed out. Only yesterday, we saw Barclays being bailed out by a Qatari bank and sovereign funds from China, Asia and the middle east.
We need to spend a lot more time in the next year on banks. They should also understand that they have responsibilities besides their drive for self-enrichment. They should be required to co-operate in establishing a public mortgage bank—I am rather sorry that Northern Rock did not stay in the public domain to do exactly what I am proposing—focused on credit provision for households with low incomes or irregular work. The banks should also have an obligation—I do not say this to be radical or to speak out of turn—similar to the one in the United States, where banks have to contribute at least 2 per cent. to 3 per cent. of their lending to community projects or social enterprise. If they do that in the States, the apogee of capitalism, why in goodness' name do we not do it in this country?
We need much more public debate on the subject. It is astonishing that since August, when the crisis began, there has been virtually no systematic discussion of it in this House. We need that debate, and preferably a high-powered committee of inquiry to investigate the whole range of problems. There is not just one problem; they are all interconnected—the lack of prudential controls, the regulatory capture, the obscure accounting, the absence of auditor independence, and the existence of an economic élite driven by reckless short-term profit-making at the expense of taxpayers, who then have to bail them out.
The third area of serious breakdown is the housing market. I welcome the proposed housing Bill, which will do some useful things. It will give social housing tenants more influence over the management of their homes, which is fine, and give people in general more influence over decisions made by their local councils. I am sure that we would all applaud that. However, it does not begin to address the depth of the crisis that is now enveloping housing in this country.
There has never been a time when the divide between rich and poor has been as great as it is today. I say that with great sadness. I am in favour of people getting better off, and I am not opposed to people being rich, but I am opposed to the enormous gulf between the people at the bottom and those at the top.
I believe that my hon. Friend is referring to a statement made by a previous Labour MP, who is now a Trade Commissioner in Brussels, shortly after we came into government in 1997. I was saddened by a current Minister commenting that we should celebrate people being very wealthy. I certainly do not object if people become wealthy by honest work, but the Labour party did not come into existence, and it is not its rationale, to celebrate the very wealthy. It is there to protect the poorest, give them more opportunity and reduce the divide between rich and poor.
Against that background, the epicentre at which the credit crunch will strike the poorer half of the population hardest is housing. There are already 4 million applicants on lists for council and housing association accommodation. That is an average of more than 6,000 per constituency. Obviously the situation varies a great deal in different parts of the country—in my constituency, it is double that number. There are 80,000 people registered homeless nationwide. One way of preventing that huge pool of housing need from ballooning even further—this is a radical proposal, but I would like it to be considered seriously—would be to allow houses at risk of repossession to be bought by public authorities and their owners converted to tenants until such time as they are able to buy again. I should like that possibility, and the economics that might bring it about, to be considered very seriously.
The Government have made a commitment to build an extra 15,000 social or affordable houses a year by 2016. That is probably less than half the number necessary to remove the backlog, but it is very welcome. Yet the housing situation is desperate because, tragically, even that lower total is disappearing before our very eyes.
The Government's objective is to build 240,000 houses next year, and we would all like that to be achieved. Like me, however, other hon. Members will have read the announcement about a week ago from the House Builders Federation that it expects the total to be only 80,000—that is, one third of the objective.
Although the financial backdrop is very difficult, the Government recently promised an extra £200 million for housing. I would be the first to say that that is very welcome, but it is only enough to build around 1,000 or so extra homes. There are also plans for more shared equity, an objective that the Conservative party shares. However, that is almost irrelevant to the core of housing deprivation today.
Mr. Vara can correct me if I am wrong, but the Conservatives have made it clear that they would not build a single new council house. They are completely opposed to building council houses, but they are obsessed with home ownership. Home ownership is fine for those who can afford it, and all of us in the Chamber are probably home owners, but a quarter of our population cannot afford it. All that they get is a cavalier, ideological dismissal of their very great needs.
We are all aware of the state of the public accounts. Given that, the only way out of the present housing crisis that I can see is to allow local authorities to build social or affordable housing by borrowing against the collateral of their housing stock. That is how it should be done, and I desperately hope that the Government will consider that.
In conclusion, I am sure that the Government wanted this welcome debate on the draft legislative programme to restore some momentum to their direction. I strongly urge them to pursue many of the matters that I have raised, as that would significantly help them to achieve that purpose.
I, too, am delighted to be able to take part in this debate about our draft legislative programme. This is only the second year that this debate has been held, and I am disappointed that more of my colleagues have not taken the opportunity to speak.
This opportunity to look at the Government's draft legislative programme is very welcome. I never saw the point of revealing the legislative programme as one would drag a rabbit out of a hat, with no chance of consultation before it was finalised. We last debated the draft programme last year, and there has been a very big change in the economic backdrop since then, but I am certain that only a Labour Government can see the country through and deliver for families and fairness. When people consider what is really important, I think that they will see that the Conservative party has not changed, and that it cannot be trusted with our public services. The Labour party is the only party that is truly progressive, and we have a really good record of delivering on public services.
The American sub-prime mortgage market was not something that many of us gave a great deal of thought to. Whatever the problems in the US, even fewer of us expected them to erupt into a financial crisis here—a crisis that has coincided with a huge rise in the world price of crude oil. We acknowledge that people everywhere are struggling and finding that filling the car with petrol—or getting the essentials from the supermarket or even paying gas bills—has become harder to do. However, we have the right policies to see the crisis through. We have the depth and strength of commitment to steer Britain through these difficult times.
I am pleased that the Government and the Prime Minister have made the economy their absolute top priority. I remember the bad old days and, without the stewardship of our Chancellor and his economic team, I know that we would go back to the bad old days of the triple whammy, when inflation and interest rates were both three times higher than today and 3 million people were unemployed.
It is clear what the Government have to do and what the people of this country are asking them to do: to get on with the job, to steer the country through the difficult times and not to be distracted from the bigger picture. Most people acknowledge that there have been significant improvements under Labour. However, it is also true that there has not been a strong enough narrative from us about what we are doing and how we are trying to change Britain. That is what this draft legislative programme is about—bringing forward Bills to help people, such as those who live in my constituency in Portsmouth, to have the opportunity to succeed.
This is also about bringing our legislative programme together into a coherent sense of something bigger, so that people can see that we are not just being driven by daily events or a crisis, but honing a thoughtful agenda, with people's everyday concerns as our top priority. A solid economy is the bedrock, but fairness is a key aim.
I thank my hon. Friend for bringing out that flavour of a coherent programme. However, I would like her to develop that further and give a little more detail about how to make that narrative understandable among the general public—Labour supporters in particular—as the kind of Labour programme that I referred to earlier. The programme needs to relate to the kind of things that my hon. Friend is talking about, which are relevant to her constituency and others, such as housing problems and the other matters that she mentioned. We need to hear a little more detail about how that progressive narrative could be developed.
I ask my hon. Friend to be a little patient and allow me to develop those points. At the moment I am setting the scene, but he has mentioned exactly the point that I am trying to put forward. My hon. Friend said that he was disappointed because he did not feel that this was necessarily a true Labour programme. Through my discussion of the two particular Bills that I want to emphasise, I want to make the point that it is absolutely a Labour programme.
I want to focus on one particular aspect of the programme and, as I said, on two Bills in particular. I want to focus on the part relevant to the people whom I represent and to the reasons why I came into politics—that is, making the most of our potential. If one thing inspired me to be a politician during the 18 long Tory years, it was seeing the waste of talent and the young lives blighted by lack of opportunity and lack of work. We have made massive strides. We have created the jobs so that people can work. There were 3 million unemployed; now, more people are in work than ever before, and under a Labour Government. We have better-educated young people through our investment in schools, which has increased the number of teachers. We have also recognised the value of teachers by improving their pay.
We have a healthier population thanks to investment in hospitals, primary care and an emphasis on preventive health care—and that against a backdrop of a rising elderly population and of more new drugs and treatments, the cost of which were unenvisaged when the national health service started.
However, when there is generational unemployment and lack of hope, is it any wonder that people lack the confidence and self-esteem to believe that they can achieve? Whatever the protestations of the Conservative party, we cannot change that generational feeling overnight, in a few years or even over 10 years; it will take generations to change. The best route to a well-paid job and achieving all we want is through education, and that is the main reason why we are raising the education participation age to 18. That is not an easy task to set ourselves, because we have committed to making the training places available and offering alternatives to school and college post-16 so that everybody—not just the academically able—can participate.
Some people may seem not to be academically able, but they may not have had the same life chances and opportunities as others. That was brought home to me in my constituency last month when I visited the Paulsgrove Baptist church project, where young people who find the school environment difficult are being taken into a church hall. The project is working closely with the school. A dedicated group of teachers is painstakingly working on a one-to-one basis with those young people, who had previously been totally written off, and getting them through their GCSEs. I had a splendid morning at the project. The kids were really feisty and bright, but they did not believe in themselves; they thought they were thick because people had told them they were thick. It just took some encouragement and support to show them that they were not thick—that they had a bright future in front of them and could achieve things. That is what we mean by unlocking Britain's talent.
I am interested in my hon. Friend's argument. I have always thought that what happens outside the school classroom as regards relationships with the wider community, particularly with the parents, is extremely important. As she rightly says, the lack of motivation that comes from young people feeling that they are not up to it has a devastating effect on morale. We have put huge resources into buildings, but does she agree that it is important that we should put more resources into improving educational performance not only through targets or buildings but by building on the relationships of those around the children, which mean so much to them?
I could not agree more. When we talk to young people, we understand some of their problems. In some cases the school was too big, in other cases it was too impersonal, and in other cases they were being bullied by other kids because they were slightly different. When young people are given the opportunity of that little bit of extra support through one-to-one tuition, we can see the light shining through as they think, "Oh, maybe I can do it after all." Unlocking Britain's talent sounds like just a phrase, but it is more than just words from a party that has been in power for a decade. It is what I passionately believe in and what drove me as a Labour MP—that everybody should be able to achieve all that they aspire to, irrespective of their background, but also that Government have a role in making that happen.
Work is the best route out of poverty—we all acknowledge that—but it is more than that. People need good jobs in which they can see that there is a career ladder that they can climb, and something they can aspire to. Having a job can be part of the social glue that binds a community or a family together. Parents who aspire and can see a future for themselves are much more likely to help their children to aspire. As my right hon. Friend Mr. Meacher said, parental involvement is one of the key factors in driving educational achievement.
Turning to the Bills in the draft legislative programme, I want to concentrate on two, both of which are very much about people making the most of their potential. One of the most important things that any Government can do is to free up the system so that those with talent can rise as far as they can without any barriers to success based on class, race, gender, educational background or social background. That is why I welcome the Education and Skills Bill. People in my constituency will welcome its focus on promoting excellence in schools and ensuring that every school is a good school. In my area, we have seen a huge improvement since 1997, with the number of children leaving school with five good GCSEs doubling from 25 per cent. to 50 per cent. However, that still means that 50 per cent. of young people are not getting those necessary qualifications.
May I refer my hon. Friend to the work, surprisingly, of Sir Keith Joseph and his senior researcher, Rodney Lord? They found, many years ago when Sir Keith Joseph was at the Education Department, that the key elements to successful outcomes were absolutely committed parents. Using a statistical analysis called multiple regression analysis, they looked at a number of factors and put them together to show what the relationship was between one particular element and the outcome. Parents came out on top every time, and the second most important factor was experienced teachers. That shows that we have to give full commitment to teachers and parents to get the very best opportunities for our children. I recommend the work to my hon. Friend, who may find it still relevant today.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I certainly notice that when I go into schools. Many of my local schools have programmes for bringing parents into the school in order to help them. Often, parents who have had a bad experience at school themselves are remarkably reluctant to go into the school and help their children. Programmes with a bit of psychology that tell parents they are coming into school to help their child, while helping them with their own educational attainment, remove the stigma and work remarkably well.
The other important aspect is that of skills and apprenticeships. I welcome the right for those already in work to take time off for training and development. It means that young people, whether they go down the academic or vocational route, will find that both have the same respect and value. They will have the opportunity to develop skills that are useful to a current employer, but also to their personal development later on. Strengthening workplace training can only help that process, and by allowing people time off to train, we are recognising that it is no good saying, "Yes, you did have the opportunity to gain skills at school and in higher education, but you didn't take it up, so forget it." Many people do not take up that opportunity, and we are now saying that people who did miss that chance will have the opportunity to take it later in life, when they are ready.
The flexibility of allowing people to train and upskill later in life means that they will be better equipped for the world of work. We will have to enable people to change professions later in life, as their lives change, and as our economy changes. That is not only good for those people, but essential for our economic prosperity. That is why I welcome the provision in the Bill to provide a statutory basis for the apprenticeship programme, establishing the first statutory entitlement to apprenticeships for all suitably qualified young people. The Bill will also create a new national apprenticeship scheme and ensure that careers teachers and advisers provide comprehensive information about apprenticeships, which is absolutely key. A lot of research has been done showing that young people have no idea that apprenticeships have changed, or of the number of apprenticeships on offer, and we will have to offer "training the trainer" courses to ensure that careers services make those opportunities available to young people.
Recently, I visited VT Shipbuilding in my constituency, which has a thriving apprenticeship programme, and the young men whom I met—they were all young men; VT was at great pains to tell me that it has women shipbuilding apprentices, but they were not there on that day—were confident, articulate and passionate about what they were doing. A couple of them freely admitted that before they went on the apprenticeship programme, they were well on the way to going off the rails. Since they had been involved in this programme and given responsibility, as second and third-year apprentices, they had found self-esteem and the confidence that they had a future and something to aspire to.
I was thinking of some of the apprentices whom I have met in the new schemes set up in the offshore oil and gas industry, and of how enthusiastic and motivated they were by those schemes. The hon. Lady talked about the importance of being able to see a future. Getting it across to people that a career can be had through apprenticeships, once they have the skills, and that future employment is possible, is an important part of motivation.
It is important to VT Shipbuilding, because it is struggling to find skilled people to fill its orders in the workplace, and we will have to move further on that.
We have to ensure that it is not just large companies, such as VT Shipbuilding, that have the opportunity to offer apprenticeships. Smaller organisations should also have the chance to do so. When I visited one of the smaller companies in my constituency, which was keen to offer apprenticeships, I found that we are often not equipping young people with the sort of life skills required for the world of work. It is important that we go for the five GCSEs, but when I did a seminar with employers, they said that they needed people with skills such as the ability to turn up on time and the ability to work as part of a team. Such life skills are far more important.
One of the smaller companies in my constituency was having that difficulty. It was bringing apprentices in, but the amount of management time taken up with ensuring that they understood what the world of work was about was becoming counterproductive. It got round that problem by saying that it would only take on apprentices who already had a relative employed. It worked on the basis that if a person's father, uncle or mother was working for the company, they would make sure that the apprentice in question got up and came into work. That is all very well, but it means that a huge crowd of people do not get the opportunity to work. If we can offer support to smaller enterprises, allowing them management time and mentoring time, it would help us to move forward.
Raising the education participation age to 18 will be a key enabler of the provisions in the new Education and Skills Bill. Contrary to the Conservative party's views that raising the participation age to 18 is a gimmick or a stunt, I believe that it is a radical, fundamental reform, which shows that we are serious about fairness and maximising the potential of all young people.
In my maiden speech, I referred to the motto of one of the schools in my constituency, the Admiral Lord Nelson school: "Dare to Dream, Aim to Achieve". We should bear those sentiments in mind in ensuring that we have the right framework in place so that every child who dares to dream also has the opportunity to achieve.
I believe that my hon. Friend shares my view that some young men and women do better in a college setting post-16 than they do at school in formal fifth and sixth forms. I am concerned about the arrangements that we need to make to allow that simple choice to be exercised at 16. Perhaps we have not thought it through properly, because the funding is fraught with considerable difficulties. Colleges find it difficult to run an appropriate equivalent sixth form without proper funding. Perhaps my hon. Friend will develop that point. Can we continue with that choice between college and school, and ensure that it remains real through appropriate funding?
There is a question about cost-effectiveness and the size of the unit. Often, the problem with small sixth forms is that they cannot offer the breadth of subjects that colleges can. However, I take on board my hon. Friend's point that we must offer a variety of settings and that it is no good saying that we will raise the education age to 18 and letting people assume that everybody will pour into the colleges. We must offer a variety of training. We are not saying that everybody has to stay in academic education till the age of 18, but that we will not allow 16-year-olds simply to leave school and do nothing. We are there to ensure that a variety of options is available, be they workplace-based or college-based training. We have a lead-in period to ensure that that variety is in place. As I said at the beginning, we have set ourselves a hard task, but there is no problem with doing that if we are serious about making it work.
A solid economy and a fairer education system are the founding principles of a good society. More than that, we need a society based on fairness, with fairness and opportunity enshrined and codified in our national life. In modern Britain, nobody should be discriminated against because of the colour of their skin, their gender, age, religious creed, disability or sexuality. Everybody should have an equal chance to succeed, and it is right that those equalities should be properly enshrined in law.
That leads me to the second Bill that I want to consider this afternoon—the equalities Bill. We have already made good progress in achieving our aim of equality for all, especially thanks to some of the progressive legislation that we have passed in the past decade, which no other Government were prepared to do. However, it is right to move to a single equality duty, which reflects modern Britain in the 21st century and encourages opportunity. If the first pillar is education, the Government must also ensure that people who take the opportunity to gain skills, training and formal qualifications are not thrown off course by lazy prejudice. I therefore welcome the provision to require public bodies to consider the diverse needs and requirements of their work force and the communities that they serve. It is right for those who work in those bodies and for organisations that are based in and serve the community, and for which taxpayers pay, to reflect the diversity of all the taxpayers of this country. It is also right that, under that legislation, we should make public bodies more transparent, in recognition of the fact that inequality can be hidden. It cannot be tackled if we cannot see it.
Britain seems to be a more tolerant society than it was a decade ago, but I am sure that we have all seen examples of people who are still being discriminated against. It is therefore right that we should introduce the equality Bill, to ensure that there is no room for discrimination in today's Britain. And what better place to start than in this House? It is a source of shame that of the 646 Members elected when I joined the House in 2005, only 125 were women. It is, however, a source of personal pride that 96 women in the House are Labour MPs. This was achieved by one means, and one means only: positive action, in the form of all-women shortlists.
Female colleagues on this side of the House will be acutely aware of the recent passing of a very good friend, Val Price, who ran the Labour Women's Network. Many of us owe her a deep debt of gratitude for her strong belief and determination. She championed all-women short lists and devoted herself to giving women the confidence and self-esteem that they needed to follow their dreams. It is easy to forget how few women there were in Parliament before this Government came to office, but fortunately, these days it is difficult for political parties to ignore women and women's issues in politics. I am convinced that much of that is down to the work of Val Price. It is right that we should embed these positive changes, and the progress that we have made so far, and I welcome the commitment that will ensure that we allow political parties to use all-women short lists until 2030.
All-women short lists are a prime example of positive action. The new equality Bill will enable companies that wish to have a diverse work force that reflects the environment in which they exist also to take positive action. Where there is equal ability and equal talent, employers will be able to make a positive decision to redress inequalities in their work force. This will benefit employers as well as employees. Surveys have shown that employees value working for an organisation that has a strong corporate responsibility ethic and a mature approach to equality. Organisations that want to attract the best employees will have to demonstrate their commitment to equality. When we were discussing the equality Bill earlier, we talked about getting the private sector involved. I am very keen that the organisations in the private sector that contract with the public sector, and therefore use public funds, should be subject to these considerations.
The private sector should also remember that many people these days have opportunities to make investment choices that they did not have before. Investment has opened up. Thanks to the child trust fund, every parent in the country now has a nest egg to invest for their child, and there is now a whole army of investors among people who never dreamed that they would have a choice about where to invest their funds. People who have a choice about financial returns might also want to make their choices on an ethical basis. There is therefore a huge advantage in companies starting to look at such factors, and for the private sector to start taking them on board as well.
The gender pay gap represents another huge inequality, and despite all the efforts through equal pay legislation, men who work full time still earn 40 per cent. more per hour than women who work part time. A veil of secrecy is often drawn over pay and, as I said, hidden discrimination is much more difficult to tackle. I therefore warmly welcome the requirement for public sector organisations, and organisations that contract with public sector organisations, to publish their gender pay gap. As I said earlier, I hope that the private sector will follow suit. We can look at the facts and find out where the gaps are. We can see who is following best practice and identify the organisations that need to improve.
We are the party of equality, and we have made progress. We were the party that challenged disability discrimination, tackled the pay gap, fought racism and supported equal treatment for gay people long before it was the accepted wisdom or the current fashion. The new equality Bill shows that we have an unwavering commitment to those values, and I hope that the other parties in the House will support it.
Building on our proud list of achievements, steering the economy through difficult times, fairness, opportunity and equality for all—these are the hallmarks of a Labour Government. We have made solid progress that has all too often been sneered at by the Opposition, but it has been welcomed by the people whom I came here to look after. They are the people who do not have the loudest voices and who are not the most articulate. They are the people to whom life has not dealt a great hand to start with, but they have dreams and aspirations just like everyone else. That is what we are about as a party. The Conservatives might think that they talk a great talk, but I think that that is all empty froth. I believe that what we are delivering in office is not soundbites but sound action, and long may that continue.
It is a great pleasure to have the opportunity to reply to this important debate on the Government's draft legislative programme for the next Session. We have heard some interesting and thoughtful speeches.
Let me begin by saying something about the process, which a number of hon. Members raised. Some hon. Members may be aware that I was a civil servant before I entered the House. At one stage, I was tasked with briefing the then Chancellor of the Exchequer on what should be in the legislative programme. At that time, 10 or 12 years ago, the process was rather random. There are some things that any Chancellor has to support—there has to be a Finance Bill, for example—but I would look down the list, think, "That looks quite good," and then brief him to support certain things. We have taken a major step forward in opening the process up, so that there can be proper scrutiny and so that the entire nation can take part in considering not just the individual items of legislation, but the programme as a whole.
I felt that the speech of Mr. Vara was a little contradictory. On the one hand, he said that he was disappointed, but on the other, there were 12 items that he completely agreed with.
I thought that I was very clear, but obviously I was not. For the record, let me say that I was very pleased with the contribution that the Conservative party had made to the draft legislative programme, but disappointed with all the rest, which was simply rehashed policies or efforts to make good the damage of the past 11 years.
The hon. Gentleman has again set out what is essentially a contradictory position. He criticised the Government for being closed minded, but then said that we borrowed policies. He said that not just about the general shape of the programme, but about specific items. Early on in his speech, he said that we were not doing anything about overcrowding in prisons and prison places, yet when he talked about the law reform, victims and witnesses Bill, he criticised the fact that the new body will take account of the prison population.
Given that the hon. Lady is trying to pick up on what she says were contradictions in what I said, let me make the position absolutely clear. My first comment on crime and prison was simply that when somebody is sentenced to prison, they should serve their sentence in prison, not outside as part of the early release programme. My second comment was about the Government's proposal to have a separate committee to consider sentencing and whether it should be influenced by the amount of space available in prisons. The two are separate and distinct issues. I am sorry that she was not paying attention and therefore got a little confused.
The hon. Gentleman then talked about the constitutional renewal Bill. He said that it contained some good elements, but wondered why English MPs could not vote solely on English legislation. Publishing the draft programme in its entirety enables us to look at the territorial extent of different Bills. The situation is different for different Bills. The banking reform Bill, for example, applies to the whole of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, as does the saving gateway Bill, but the business rates supplement Bill applies to England and Wales. The marine and coastal access Bill applies in its entirety to England, but as Sir Robert Smith acknowledged, only some parts of it apply to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Education and Skills Bill applies in its entirety to England, but only the provisions on the Learning and Skills Council apply to Scotland, while other parts apply to Wales and Northern Ireland. That reflects the different devolution settlements with different parts of the country.
The notion that we should have only English votes on English Bills is so over-simplified that it fails to do justice to the complexity of the current situation. Even when a piece of legislation applies to only one part of the United Kingdom, it is often used as a model for secondary legislation in other parts. I thus hope that the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire will think again about this issue.
The hon. Gentleman went on to criticise the effectiveness of the Government's education policies, but he did not take sufficient account of the very significant achievements that my hon. Friend Sarah McCarthy-Fry described in the context of her constituency. We also know that at the overall national level, literacy rates have improved by 26 per cent.—a very substantial improvement—over the last 10 years.
The hon. Gentleman similarly criticised the welfare reform Bill. He said that there was nothing new in it and that we could not be proud of our record. Well, I am proud of the fact that unemployment is half what it was 10 years ago and I think that that is a significant achievement. I also think that it is good that young people have opportunities for paid work, training and voluntary work, which they did not have 10 years ago.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the costs of the consultation process. We have 60 events planned across the whole country and the consultation period carries on until
There is one further point. I asked the Leader of the House to be gracious enough to acknowledge the contribution of Her Majesty's Opposition to the draft legislative programme. I am gracious in thinking that her failure to do so was an oversight on her part, so I invite the Deputy Leader of the House to give due credit to the Conservative party for the policies that Labour has adopted from us in the draft legislative programme.
I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's premise and I am very sorry if he is disappointed with that.
My hon. Friend Mr. Purchase made a very different speech. He reflected on the nature of change in modern society; he reflected on the world becoming more individualised and atomised; he talked about the importance of community and the Labour party's traditional role in working in communities; and he spoke about housing. My hon. Friend took the time to develop an argument, which made his speech excellent and enjoyable to listen to. I hope that he will look more deeply at the community empowerment legislation when it is introduced. The Bill will facilitate many of the measures to build up communities that he seeks.
One of our aims is to improve democratic accountability in local communities. The policing and crime reduction Bill will do that by giving people further opportunities to control the way in which their local community is policed. Although I recognise that the law applies nationally, my hon. Friend's constituency in Wolverhampton is very different from mine in County Durham, so a different policing approach is appropriate.
I hope that my hon. Friend will feel that the saving gateway Bill promotes fairness and equality, which he was pressing the Government to take into greater account.
My hon. Friend mentioned his concerns about housing. One can be sceptical about the theory, but then see what happens in practice. In my constituency, when the tenants in Wear valley voted for the move to an arm's length management organisation, the management of the housing improved as well as the level of resource. The involvement of tenants in the management of the housing has also significantly improved some of the communities that were suffering most from low-quality housing and local environments.
My hon. Friend said that not everyone benefited from being in a classroom for a long time. I am sure that he understands, however, that the legislation on changing the entitlements to education up to the age of 18 does not relate solely to class-based education. Entitlements to learning while having a job, or in other training environments, are also covered.
My hon. Friend spoke about what he saw as the over-egging of choice in the NHS. I would ask him to draw a distinction between different kinds of care. He has a good point—if he and I break our arm, we both want it mended, and we want it done quickly. The skills to mend one arm are much the same as those to mend another. But if he and I needed psychotherapy, it would be reasonable for us to say that we required a more personalised and individualised approach. Therefore, empowering patients in some circumstances, as the Health Minister responsible for personal care is doing, can improve the quality of care.
Finally, my hon. Friend criticised what he saw as too many re-announcements. Sometimes consultation can look like a re-announcement when it is not intended as such. For example, he saw part of the draft legislative programme as just a re-announcement of the banking reform Bill. I would say to him, however, that it is good that we had consultation on the previous banking Bill. It is good that we had a White Paper on the business rates supplement Bill. It gives more people the opportunity to have an input into the drafting of the law, and it allows stakeholders to influence the laws that particularly affect them.
The hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine spoke of the importance of giving legislation its appropriate place and not seeing it as the only lever of Government policy. The point was well made, and that is what we have tried to do. I am sure the hon. Gentleman noticed that chapter 2, which refers to the main themes of the programme—economic stability, potential, handing power back to the people—combines Bills with other significant policy initiatives. Our objective was to achieve the kind of rounded approach that the hon. Gentleman wants.
The hon. Gentleman asked how long the next parliamentary year would be. The average length of a parliamentary year is 155 days, and apart from short years in which general elections take place, parliamentary years do not vary significantly in length. However, I think that the hon. Gentleman's point was reasonable. We have made a small but significant improvement in our planning: this year we produced the draft programme before deciding on the length of the parliamentary year, which we have not always done on other occasions.
The hon. Gentleman welcomed the business rates supplement Bill, but thought that it should go further. The Bill will promote long-term growth, and should facilitate investment that will increase economic activity. He asked about co-ordination with the Scottish Executive on the marine and coastal access Bill. Ministers are fully conscious of the importance of that, and are working on it. He went through the Bills in a very systematic way, but I shall not respond to all his points, because I have dealt with some of them in responding to other Members.
Will the Deputy Leader of the House expand on how she sees the role of elected representatives in the policing and crime reduction Bill? Does she recognise the need for operational control of the policing function to remain with the police service itself?
Yes, that will happen. The hon. Gentleman will not have to wait too long for the Green Paper, in which he will be able to read our proposals in more detail.
The Deputy Leader of the House might wish to improve the proofreading of the legislative programme document. According to page 48 the Green Paper is expected in May, but according to page 18 it is expected in June. I hope we shall not have to wait too long, but it would be sensible at least to stick to the same month in a single document.
As the hon. Gentleman will realise, that probably means July.
The hon. Gentleman found the constitutional renewal Bill somewhat disappointing, as did my right hon. Friend Mr. Meacher. The Bill contains 61 reforms relating to such matters as the civil service, treaties and the role of the Attorney-General. Those are all important matters, even if they are not widely understood: they make a significant difference to the way in which the country is governed, and to the openness with which it is governed.
The hon. Gentleman made a plea for electoral reform to be included in the Bill. As I am sure he appreciates, a key element of constitutional change is a degree of consensus so that changes can be sustainable and long-lasting. I do not believe that there is that degree of consensus on electoral reform.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West and Royton congratulated my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality on the proposed equality Bill, and spoke of the importance of promoting equality in this country. He wanted us to look at how the draft legislative programme fitted in relation to three issues: what he sees as the over-centralisation of power and the collapse of accountability, problems in the financial market, and problems in the housing market. I have already outlined some of the measures in the constitutional renewal Bill, but my right hon. Friend needs to ask himself whether it is correct to assert, as he did, that Parliament is significantly weaker now than it was 20 years ago. I am sure he is familiar with the statistics put together by Professor Cowley at Nottingham university, which demonstrate that this Parliament, the one before that and the Parliament elected in 1997 are far more assertive than Parliaments were in the previous 50 years. That is not always applauded by my colleagues in the Whips Office, but it is true. That shows that parliamentarians are taking an assertive approach to scrutinising proposed legislation.
I am sure my right hon. Friend is also aware of the significant programme of parliamentary reform that is under way. He knows that we will introduce regional Select Committees, and I hope that he knows that we are looking at the petitioning arrangements and at having an e-petitioning system. We have also opened up the EU scrutiny process. The Minister for the Cabinet Office is taking forward the practice of pre-appointment hearings for many public sector posts. While I do not know what happens in the other political parties, the truth is that Labour Select Committee members are not chosen by the Whips; there is a negotiation with the elected committee of the parliamentary party. I am not saying that we have a perfect Parliament and that we do not need to make further reforms, but it is right to acknowledge the good things that have been happening in recent and current Parliaments.
My right hon. Friend talked about empowerment and citizens juries, and about the role of the Attorney-General. Ministers are, of course, primarily responsible for maintaining national security, so it is reasonable for there to be an exception in respect of the involvement of the Attorney-General in national security cases. The benefit of the proposed legislation is that the conduct of such cases will be clearer and more transparent.
My right hon. Friend talked about the banking reform legislation. He displayed a far greater expertise in, and understanding of, all the different financial instruments that are used internationally than I have, so I cannot say that I know exactly how all the points he made will be addressed. However, we will pass Members' suggestions on different Bills to the relevant Departments.
My right hon. Friend also talked about inequality and his concern about the level of pay and bonuses in the City, which he feels have reached irresponsible levels. I hope that he saw the remarks of the Governor of the Bank of England to the Treasury Committee a couple of weeks ago.
My right hon. Friend referred to the current significant housing need, and his interest in the forthcoming housing Green Paper. I hope that in addition to his appreciation of the equality Bill, he will be pleased to see that legislation will be introduced on agency workers and on the right to request flexible working time.
My right hon. Friend was right to say that the Opposition seem to be opposed to building more council housing, and he pointed to the need for a significant increase in affordable housing. In fact, the Opposition seem to be opposed to most house building.
One of the new flexibilities will look at council house building, as well as building in the housing association sector.
My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North made an excellent speech about the importance of economic stability and fairness. She spoke particularly eloquently about the Education and Skills Bill—in fact, she spoke so eloquently that I cannot really add anything to what she said. She was absolutely right, however, about the importance of giving young people better advice on what is available to them. That was brought home to me when I discovered that 1,200 different apprenticeship courses are now available from employers, which really is remarkable.
My hon. Friend also talked about the importance of the equality Bill and about the fantastic work that Val Price has done in supporting Labour women in coming into this House. I echo absolutely what she said. Val Price was a remarkable woman who was always supportive when we were in our darkest hours and unsure about how the future would turn out.
My hon. Friend also talked about the importance of tolerance in a more diverse society, but she did not, unfortunately, refer to the proposals on breastfeeding. I was a little disappointed about that. The other day, my teenage son was in the National Gallery, in the room with the early Italian paintings. As you are well aware, Madam Deputy Speaker, there are lots of paintings of the Madonna feeding the child. There was a woman in the gallery feeding her child, and the attendant said to her, "You must not do that in here—this is totally unacceptable." So she unlatched her baby, and the baby began to scream. The attendant came back and said, "Can't you make that child be quiet?" The tolerance that my hon. Friend is looking for would be very welcome for every generation.
I am about to close today's debate, but consideration of the programme is not over. We are already receiving comments and feedback on the website, and people can give evidence until
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the draft legislative programme .