Draft Legislative Programme

Part of Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 2:33 pm on 26th June 2008.

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Photo of Robert Smith Robert Smith Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons 2:33 pm, 26th June 2008

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.

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