Before I call the mover and seconder, I want to announce the proposed pattern of debate during the remaining days on the Loyal Address.
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I beg to move,
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, as follows:
Most Gracious Sovereign,
We, Your Majesty's most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, in Parliament assembled, beg leave to offer our humble thanks to Your Majesty for the Gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament.
When I was asked by the Chief Whip to move the Address, I was extremely proud and honoured, not least for my constituency of Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill, and to be seconded by my hon. Friend Liz Blackman, who, among other issues, has an excellent reputation for bringing autism to the fore.
Christened Thomas, I have throughout my life been instinctively suspicious of well-meaning gestures, even one such as this, so naturally I pondered, "Why me?" All was revealed when my hon. Friend Mr. Cunningham, a man of great wisdom and knowledge, met me in the Lobby. The tone of our conversation reminded me of the fact that as boys we both attended St. Mary's school in Coatbridge. In his own inimitable style, he said, "I hear you're moving the Address." "That's right, Jim." "Do you know why you were selected?" "No, Jim." "Do you want to know?" "Yes, Jim." He said, "According to Alex Salmond, you've the safest seat in this House and you will be the only Scottish Labour MP to be re-elected." Responding, I replied, "The right hon. Member for Banff and Buchan claimed Labour would lose the Glenrothes by-election, and we didn't, so we're all still here."
There are three distinctive areas within my constituency of Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill. Historically, the one common feature that connected all three was the contribution to heavy industry. Ironworks, steelmaking and coal mining were once the main sources of employment. I want to pay tribute to those who worked hard to look after their families, as many of them died far too prematurely because of associated illness and disease, often linked with those heavy industries. A special tribute is due to all the women, who, as a consequence, were widowed and left to raise a family single handed.
Today, the older heavy industries have almost disappeared, and newer light industries are taking their place. Coatbridge has a new £10 million redevelopment project at the Summerlee heritage park, which graphically illustrates our history and, just as vitally, our potential.
Chryston embraces communities such as Moodiesburn, Muirhead, Stepps, Auchinloch and Gartcosh. One of the darkest days that that community suffered was
With the utmost humility and poignancy, I wish to add my father to the endless list of men who died as victims of pneumoconiosis without a penny in compensation. My late mother, Mary Gordon, born in Armagh, was left to raise a large family with nothing like the benefits that are rightly paid to widows and families today. That is why I will be eternally grateful that, under this Labour Government, the largest ever financial compensation—nearly £7.5 billion—was paid out to miners and their families who had been affected by diseases through working in such appalling mining conditions.
Among the many improvements in my constituency is a large site, formerly the Gartcosh steelworks, which is now well on its way to being redeveloped as part of a multi-million pound regeneration programme. Such investment has laid the foundations for Gartcosh to be completely transformed socially and economically, which is very welcome given the traditions of my industrial constituency.
Bellshill boy Billy McNeill captained Celtic, the first British team to hold aloft the European cup, in Lisbon. Another proud son of the town was Sir Matt Busby, who became the manager of Manchester United—for the record, the second team from Britain to win the European cup.
My predecessor, the late and much loved Jimmy Dempsey MP, lived in Bellshill and his wife Jane still closely observes political events here at Westminster. Jimmy was renowned for his tireless work in helping to bring jobs to the county of Lanarkshire. He would marvel at the volume of employment opportunities in the Bellshill area. Between the business park and the food park, there are approximately 8,500 jobs.
Bellshill also gave birth to one of the finest and most outstanding parliamentarians of our time, Robin Cook.
I do not wish to claim that I am alone in working hard for my constituents. In my experience, hon. Members of all parties are genuinely committed to their work in Parliament and their communities. For example, it would be remiss of me not to pay tribute to hard-working hon. Members who supported victims of pleural plaques. Tragic sufferers of asbestos-related diseases need a compensation package similar to that paid out to the miners.
During my time here I have served both as a Back Bencher and on the Front Bench. One particular highlight was the time that I spent working under the leadership of the late John Smith, my neighbouring MP, who was destined to become Prime Minister before his sudden and untimely death. When I was shadow Cabinet spokesperson for disability under Tony Blair, I worked closely with Mr. Hague. His Disability Discrimination Act 1995 stands, no matter what else he does, as a considerable achievement. I hope that my praise for him does not damage his future prospects—or, perhaps more importantly, mine.
It would also be remiss of me not to pay a warm tribute to my hon. Friend Michael Connarty, who later served as my Parliamentary Private Secretary and who, in my view, would make an excellent Minister himself. The House also appreciates his hard work as Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee.
In my time here I have always tried to work closely with members of other parties, including the Liberal Democrats, such as Mr. Kennedy. Just last week I was speaking in a debate at Glasgow university, where he is the distinguished rector, and I can assure him that he is held in the highest esteem. Indeed, more recently, on a flight down here, I overheard that there might be some imminent vacancies on the Lib Dem Front Bench. If he finds himself back there, I wish him well.
During debates here I often follow my namesake, Mr. Clarke. Occasionally, we also receive each other's mail. Not long ago, I read a postcard from a woman who wrote:
"Dear Mr. Clarke,
You are an absolute disgrace. Having betrayed us on Europe, I will never vote for you again."
I took that as a compliment and I urge the right hon. and learned Gentleman to do the same.
Since becoming a Member of this House, I have set myself three priorities: first, and most importantly, to represent the interests of my constituents. Secondly, I feel as passionately about supporting disabled peoples' rights today as I did when I helped to steer the Disabled Persons (Services, Consultation and Representation) Act 1986 on to the statute book, and that will never change.
Thirdly, in the year of the Make Poverty History campaign, and with the unanimous support of the House, I succeeded with another private Member's Bill, which became the International Development (Reporting and Transparency) Act 2006—incidentally, I acknowledge the role that the then Secretary of State for International Development, my right hon. Friend Hilary Benn, and his ministerial team played. That is why I welcome the Government's—and especially the Prime Minister's—determination to achieve the millennium development goals. The figure of 0.7 per cent. of gross national income is still our objective for 2013. I have every confidence that the Government will deliver, and I have noted the support of those on the Opposition Front Benches.
There is much to welcome in the Gracious Speech. The banks' responsibility to consumers, the Bill reforming training and apprenticeships, and ensuring an end to child poverty by 2020 are among the priorities that my constituents will find practical and helpful.
In this debate on the Gracious Speech, the dominant issue is the fragility of the global economy, but let us not forget that thousands of UK troops, from almost every constituency, are sacrificing themselves in a war against extremism. In the Congo and Darfur, displaced people face a violent non-future. Here, and across the developed world, people face the threat of losing their jobs and homes. People who are in poverty, people with disabilities and the people dying in the third world have to overcome many more hurdles than we face in this global downturn, and we should look to their example for inspiration. I passionately believe that, whatever their circumstances, British people have the character to be creative and confident. Working together, we will, we can and we must succeed. In that positive spirit, I commend the Gracious Speech to the House.
It is with great pride that I stand to second the Loyal Address. It is a huge honour for me and my constituents, and I am particularly pleased to follow my right hon. Friend Mr. Clarke. On every occasion that our paths have crossed, I have thought what a charming man he is, with his soft Scottish lilt, but people should not be fooled: whenever he sets his sights on a target, he goes after it with utter determination and deadliness. During his 26 years in the House, he has campaigned to improve the lives of disabled people, their families and their carers. He has done so with awesome determination and massive success, and I pay tribute to him.
Another charming, and some might say deadly, man is the Chief Whip. I am still in a state of shock because he has invited me to speak today. First, because I have been a Government Whip, I have not spoken in a debate for more than two years—so no pressure there! Secondly, I do not exactly fit the profile of the young, up-and-coming Members who are usually called on to perform this honour. My hon. Friend Mr. Roy put it another way when I confided in him, in the Tea Room. He said, "That's great," and added, after a pause, "No offence, hen, but they normally pick 'em younger." Whatever the reason that I have been chosen, I am incredibly honoured.
In 1997, I found my way here, as the proud Member of Parliament for Erewash after 25 years in the classroom. "So, what exactly is the difference, Miss?" asked one of my pupils. The only comment from my dad, who does not hold politicians in high regard, was, "Well, at least you've done a proper job first."
My constituency is pronounced "Erreywash", not "Airwash", and certainly not "Earwash", and it is found between Nottingham and Derby. Most of its people live in the market towns of Long Eaton, to the south, and Ilkeston to the north. Sandiacre sits between the two and has a sizeable population. There are also a number of villages stretching out towards Derby. I wonder how many Members were brought up watching "Citizen Smith" from the Tooting Popular Front. I am glad to say that Robert Lindsay is a local lad.
Coal, lace and heavy engineering are at the heart of Erewash's industrial heritage. At one time, Stanton Ironworks employed 12,500 people. One of its products are manhole covers, which can be found all over the world, even on my walk into the Commons. In fact, last week, in preparation for this speech, I was crouching down in the middle of Horseferry road, forensically examining one of those engineering masterpieces, when a certain Leo Beckett, the husband of the Minister for Housing, my right hon. Friend Margaret Beckett, suddenly appeared. I did not explain my strange behaviour, and he was certainly far too polite to ask what I was doing. However, I did catch him looking at me rather oddly as we walked along. He was clearly thinking, "What is this woman on?"
The old industries in my constituency have now all gone, but niche engineering and light manufacturing are holding their own. Members' three-piece suites—perhaps from John Lewis; perhaps not—could well have been made in Erewash. The area has seen other changes, too. There have been vast improvements in health and education, and there is a vibrant voluntary sector. There is a newly formed credit union to protect people from doorstep lenders, and more people are in work. One thing that we need, however, and which we do not have, is a station at Ilkeston. With that in mind, I am currently stalking my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport. I remind him about the need for the station every time our paths cross—which, funnily enough, I find happening less and less often.
Given the industrial background of my constituency, Members will not be surprised to learn that the people there are pretty blunt. In 2005, the perma-tanned leader of a political party called Veritas put himself up as a candidate for the constituency in the general election. A local radio station conducted a vox pop, seeking people's reactions. The broadcast ended rather abruptly when a woman said, "Kilroy-Silk, my MP? Kilroy-Silk, my ar—". At that precise moment, the producer pressed the "silent" button, so the "s" never arrived, but the woman's sentiments certainly did.
It takes a lot to impress the youngsters in my constituency, too. "Have you met the Queen?" asked one small child. "Yes," I replied. "Ooh! Have you met the Prime Minister?" "Yes." "Wow! Have you met David Beckham?" "No." "Oh." I dropped right down in his estimation after that, and never recovered.
The best thing about the people I represent is that they give me advice, and plenty of it, without charge, wherever I go. They tell me when they are happy, and they tell me when they are not. They are good, hard-working, decent people with a strong sense of community.
The subjects that I have concerned myself with in the House have mainly been rooted in the constituency that I represent, but I was honoured to be the chair of the all-party group on autism for several years. The group pushed the agenda on, but the provision of better services for adults with autism is still work in progress. The great strength of an all-party group is that it does exactly what it says on the tin: it puts party politics to one side in the interests of progress.
Putting party politics to one side was not the mantra of the Whips Office, but I enjoyed my time there, too. I would like to take this opportunity to thank my former east midlands group for being so approachable, my hon. Friend Mr. Skinner for enriching my vocabulary, and the wider membership for the innovative reasons that they gave for being unable to do statutory instrument Committees on a one-line Whip on Thursdays. Echoes of my teaching past flooded back at such times. "The dog ate my homework, Mrs. Blackman." "My mam says I can't stop 'cos I've to be home early." Colleagues offered those traditional excuses in a modern setting. However, even my dad was proud when I became Vice-Chamberlain of Her Majesty's Household. So was I. It was an honour that I will never forget.
I must now return to the people whom I represent. It is these same communities of these people who are looking to this Government and this House at this time for all the support that we can give them. It is a particular pleasure to second the Address as so much of it is relevant to what most concerns my constituents. They want to know that the financial system is as robust and responsive as we can make it and that their hard-earned savings are totally safe. The banking Bill will help here. Poorer people want more for their children and a safety blanket of knowing that there is a little put by, so the child poverty Bill and the savings Bill will respond to them. They want to be able to take advantage of opportunities wherever and whenever they arise. Measures in the children, schools and learning Bill will develop and improve their skills, and the welfare reform Bill will offer more support to those on benefit, those with mental health problems and those with disabilities. My constituents will also welcome the measures in the policing and crime Bill that clamp down on the pockets of mind-numbing, alcohol-fuelled yobbish behaviour that ruin their neighbourhoods. We live in tough times and I believe that all these measures will make a difference.
To conclude, I have now come full circle and back to education, my first love, as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Minister for Schools and Learners—and I am loving it. However, as a born-again Back Bencher, I feel that I must warn my Whip that on a distant Thursday on a one-line Whip where a statutory instrument is on offer, I may have to say to her, "The dog ate the notification and, anyway, I can't stop 'cos I've to be home early."
It is the greatest honour, Mr. Speaker, to second the Gracious Speech.
Let me start by congratulating the proposer and seconder of the Loyal Address. Mr. Clarke gave a moving speech about his constituency and about his family. If I may repay the compliment he paid my right hon. Friend Mr. Hague, the right hon. Gentleman, with his excellent work on disability and international development, is indeed admired on both sides of the House.
I have done my homework and I gather that the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill is a Brownite; I also gather that he paid the ultimate price when he was, of course, sacked by Tony Blair. I understand that from 1997 to 1998, the right hon. Gentleman was the Minister with responsibility for film. It is said that on the day he was caught up in the Blair-Brown blood feud and fired, he was actually having drinks on the terrace with Liz Hurley and Hugh Grant—early membership of the Notting Hill set, perhaps. The next day, the right hon. Gentleman was back in the Tea Room with his mates, so we could say that one minute he was hobnobbing with the stars and the next minute he was starring with the Hobnobs.
I feel sure that the Prime Minister will offer the right hon. Gentleman another job, and I think I know what it will be. As film Minister, he met the Spice Girls, I believe, on the eve of their break-up and he described the departure of Geri Halliwell as
"a little local difficulty that they are perfectly capable of sorting out".
With PR skills like that, there must be a job for him in the Downing street bunker.
Liz Blackman, who seconded the Loyal Address, also did a great job. I thought she made a wonderful speech: it was witty, human and personal, while also powerful about what matters most in politics to her. She reminded us of the vital service she provided at the last election when she served all parties, everyone in the House and, indeed, the entire nation when she defeated Robert Kilroy-Silk.
The hon. Lady did not tell us very much about her time in the Whips Office, but she did tell us about her important work as a schoolteacher. I think I have the key to what went wrong. She once gave an interview to a bunch of schoolchildren and, when asked what Whips did, explained:
"Whips listen a lot to what other MPs think."
I am sure that the Whips, who are, as ever, nicely spread out on the Government Benches, will be sitting and listening very quietly today.
We should also today record the passing of some very dedicated Members of this House. John MacDougall was a popular MP and a dedicated servant of the people of Fife. Gwyneth Dunwoody was the very model of an independent Member of this place: she would stick to her guns and challenge authority and she is, I believe, missed on both sides of the House.
Others have also left Parliament, not least Boris Johnson following his election as Mayor of London. I know how much the Prime Minister enjoys working with him and following him as he waves the flag for Britain. Perhaps I can say that I hope one day to be upstaged in exactly the same way.
There has of course been one spectacular return to Parliament: I refer, of course, to the Business Secretary, or, to give him his full title, Baron Mandelson of Foy in the County of Herefordshire and of Hartlepool in the County of Durham—it is good to know he is not taken with the trappings of office. On Saturday, the Business Secretary said that the Prime Minister was like Moses, and was going to lead people
"away from this economic mess to the promised land."
I know that I do not have to remind the son of the manse that Moses never actually made it to the promised land, and he was not responsible for an economic mess, either.
The Peter Mandelson who on Saturday described the Prime Minister as Moses cannot possibly be the same Peter Mandelson who was reported on Sunday in the following way: we read that the late Hugo Young, after long lunches with Peter Mandelson, would write in his diary that senior Labour figures had described the Prime Minister as
"niggardly, brooding, credit-grasping, impossible to work with and fatally flawed."
I am sure that at some stage the real Peter Mandelson will stand up.
As well as those who have left us and those who have returned, there is of course one person who is here despite the best efforts of the Government, and that is my hon. Friend Damian Green. [ Interruption. ] I hope there is something— [ Interruption. ]
I mentioned the Whips spread about the Chamber, and they have already started their shouting. Labour MPs used to shout for free; they now have to be paid to do it. I hope there is something we can all agree on: Parliament is here to call the Government to account, to question, to challenge and to publish information that is in the public interest. That is why we are here. Is not that what the ceremony this morning is all about? When we slam the door in the face of the Queen's representative and assert the right of the public to challenge the Government and to know the truth about the country we live in, that is Parliament doing its job.
What I have explained over and over again is that the information published by my hon. Friend has nothing to do with national security and everything to do with revealing the fact that the Government have tried to cover up information. Let me invite the hon. Gentleman to intervene again if he can tell me which of the stories put into the public domain the public do not have a right to know. Do we not have a right to know that the security industry is riddled with illegal immigration? Do we not have a right to know that the Home Office is looking at voting figures for Labour MPs that should be in the Whips Office? Do we not have a right to know that this House has been employing people who should not be here? Those are things the public have a right to know and my hon. Friend was entirely right to publish them.
I want to focus—
I want to make a little more progress before I give way again.
I want to focus on one question that I think is being asked up and down the country: where does the Prime Minister stand on this issue? [Interruption.] Does he think it is right for a Member of Parliament to be arrested and held for nine hours, to have his offices searched by anti-terrorism police, and to have his house raided and his daughter reduced to tears?
Order. The right hon. Gentleman says he will not give way just now. He will give way, but he will not— [Interruption.] Order. Members must allow the right hon. Gentleman to speak.
I do not think that it will be a point of order, and I ask the hon. Gentleman to give me a guarantee that it will be.
I knew it would not be a point of order. I invite the right hon. Gentleman, the Leader of the Opposition, to continue.
Which of the stories I mentioned should not be in the public domain? I give way to the hon. Gentleman on that point.
Order. Members should now let the hon. Gentleman speak.
This is quite extraordinary. The approach that the hon. Gentleman is taking, and that some Labour Front-Bench Members seem to be taking, is that Members of Parliament should not release information that is in the public interest and that they should be pursued and arrested for doing so. If that approach had been taken when the Prime Minister was in opposition, he would have spent most of his life in prison. [Interruption.] Well, he laughs about it now, but he produced leak after leak after leak, all of which he claimed were in the public interest.
Let me just make the following point to the Prime Minister, and then I will give way to all the Members who are standing. It is no good the Prime Minister hiding behind the defence of "I didn't know" and "I support the operational independence of the police." People want to know— [Interruption.] People know what I believe; what people want to know is what the Prime Minister believes. He has told us endlessly about the independence of the police; what about the independence of this place and its Members? People want to know whether our democracy, and our right to challenge and to question and oppose, are safe under this Government and this Prime Minister, and I hope that when he speaks' he will have the courage to get off the fence and tell us what he believes.
The right hon. Gentleman has made a great deal of the control of information and how people should handle information. Will he tell us when it is appropriate for the chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority to ring someone who is under investigation by the Metropolitan police?
What the chairman of the police authority, the Mayor of London, did when the police told him about their plans was give them the trenchant view that that was a mistake, and I happen to agree with him; I think it was a mistake. What I find so staggering is that Members of Parliament, who should be thinking about how we defend the public's right to know and how we defend challenging the Government, are quite happy to say, "Come and get me." That seems to be the hon. Gentleman's attitude.
Let us see if we can get a bit more sense out of Stephen Pound; he normally stands up for Parliament, so let us find out if he will stand up for Parliament now.
Like everybody in this Chamber, I will, of course, stand up for Parliament. Have the right hon. Gentleman or the party he leads taken any legal advice on the difference between receiving a leak and inducing one?
Let me explain to the hon. Gentleman the approach that we take. What my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford has done is publish information the public have a right to know—about cover-ups in the Home Office, about maladministration and about illegal immigration, all subjects that the Government are not clear about. He has not done anything that is to do with national security; that is the judgment that the Opposition have to make, and I am very confident we made the right judgment. It is exactly the same judgment the Prime Minister made when he was in opposition and lived off a diet of leaks, some of which did concern national security.
The right hon. Gentleman would like to become Prime Minister one day. Is he really telling the House that as Prime Minister he would be perfectly relaxed about a civil servant committed to impartiality entering into an arrangement with an Opposition spokesman to release information on a continuing basis in breach of the civil service code?
Let me tell the hon. Gentleman what I am not relaxed about. I am not relaxed about a Member of Parliament being arrested for doing his job. I am not relaxed and, incidentally, neither is Mr. Speaker, about the police coming and searching offices in Parliament. I am not relaxed about nine anti-terrorism officers going into the house of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford and reducing his family to tears. I used to think that the hon. Gentleman believed in standing up for Parliament. I must say that yes, I do have ambitions to be Prime Minister, and I hope to take his seat in the process.
I am grateful to the Leader of the Opposition. This follows on from the point just made, which is one of fundamental principle. Whatever happened during this specific case—all of us have concerns about that, and they will be addressed—what the Leader of the Opposition is saying from the Dispatch Box is tantamount to the creation of a new principle if he were Prime Minister —[Interruption.] If Opposition Members will listen to me, I shall tell them what it is. He is announcing in advance that, as Prime Minister, he would be perfectly happy for any civil servant, on their own judgment, to release any information other than that classified for national security purposes and that he would support its publication for the public. Is that what he is saying?
The right hon. Gentleman knows that that is absolutely not what I am saying. Of course no Government—I have worked for a Government—want to see information leaked. But the principle that he and others on the Labour Benches now seem to be putting forward is that it is all right for the police to arrest a Member of Parliament for doing his duty.
I have answered the right hon. Gentleman's question. I have to say that he told us that the Home Office was "not fit for purpose". What my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford has done with the information that he has published is just prove that it is not fit for purpose. There are many former Home Secretaries in this House. Another one, Mr. Blunkett, has said that he would have behaved quite differently had he been Home Secretary instead of the one whom we have in post.
Order. After the right hon. Gentleman's intervention, I shall take the point of order.
I would not want to delay the Leader of the Opposition in getting round to the Queen's Speech, but I just wish to put it on record that what I said was that I found the way in which the police had operated and behaved very disturbing; I thought it was heavy-handed. At no time have I suggested—nor would I—that the police did not have the right to investigate Members of Parliament.
I listened very carefully to what the right hon. Gentleman said. The term that he used—"heavy-handed"—was exactly the one that I used when I was first asked about this issue. He takes a very common-sense view of these events, and I just wish it was shared more broadly on the Labour Benches.
Order. I must take a point of order and I must be able to hear the point of order.
Is it in order to point out that the Leader of the Opposition inadvertently misled the House when he suggested that I had supported the arrest of a Member of Parliament? I did no such thing; I said that it was subject to inquiry. My point related to the point of principle, and not to the specific judgment as regards the hon. Member for Ashford.
The right hon. Gentleman has gone into a point of debate, and it is not a point of order.
We support the excellent work of our troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, and I would like to pay tribute to the two Royal Marines who were killed in Afghanistan on Thursday, Marine Tony Evans and Marine Georgie Sparks. We should remember once again all those whose names have been read out in this place over the last year, and what they have done to serve our country.
In Iraq, we support the draw-down of troops as conditions allow, and I am sure that the Prime Minister has learned that the draw-down must take place when appropriate and not according to some pre-announced political timetable.
On Afghanistan, the British Government will clearly come under pressure to increase troop numbers as President-elect Obama plans a surge in US forces. Does the Prime Minister agree that any proposal for an increase in British forces should be accompanied by an increase in troops from other NATO nations, an increase in helicopters to ensure that they are properly mobile, and an increase in equipment and protection for our troops? I hope he also agrees that we will not succeed in Afghanistan through military means alone. We need better co-ordination of aid, less corruption and better government. I hope that the Prime Minister will give us a realistic assessment of the situation when he speaks.
The work of our armed forces also reminds us of the threat that we face from global terrorism. We saw it last week with the appalling attacks in Mumbai, and our thoughts are with the friends and families of all those who lost their lives. We should be clear about what the terrorists are trying to do: they are trying to rob India of her rightful place in the global economy, to set one community against another, and to set east against west. We should also be clear that those terrorists will not stop trade and co-operation, and they will not break up the excellent relations that exist between Britain and India. We must never give in to that sort of terror.
One thing that was promised but that did not appear in the Queen's Speech was the draft floods Bill. The Secretary of State promised it for this Session, and I hope that the Prime Minister will be able to confirm that it will go ahead.
Of course, there are some things in the Queen's Speech that we welcome, not least because we proposed them. There is the NHS constitution—a Conservative idea. There is the independent exam regulator—I proposed that in 2005. There is a savings scheme with matching contributions—that was in our 2005 manifesto. More security for ports and airports was also in our 2005 manifesto. The Prime Minister likes to accuse me of writing that manifesto; he has now introduced most of it. Welfare reforms and direct elections for police accountability were both in my conference speech last year. The Prime Minister likes to accuse us of having no substance, but without Conservative substance there would be almost nothing of any worth in the Queen's Speech.
Let me tell the Prime Minister what is wrong with this Queen's Speech. There is no recognition in the Government's programme of how the world has changed. We are moving into an age in which there is no Government money left, so we need public sector reform to get better value for money. We are moving into an age of massive debt, so we need to mend the broken society and reduce the demands on the state. But in the Queen's Speech there is no serious reform, just bureaucratic bungling and technocratic tinkering. It is all about the short-term prospects of the Prime Minister, not the long-term future of the country. It is last year's Queen's Speech from yesterday's Prime Minister.
There is no change. Let us look at the promises that the Prime Minister made when he said—remember the phrase?—
"Let the work of change begin."
Let us examine them. We were told that there would be loads of eco-towns, but only one is still alive. He promised zero-carbon homes, but there have been virtually zero of them. There are just 15 in the whole country. He promised 3 million new homes, but house building fell by a quarter last year. What about free nursery education for all two-year-olds? That has been abandoned. More maintenance grants for students were granted last year, collapsed in a complete shambles this year and face massive cuts next year. Then there is the Prime Minister's promise of a new constitutional settlement. We were promised more powers for Parliament to question the Executive. That one ended up down the nick.
What about the statement of British values? Does anyone remember that? According to Government sources, that will never see the light of day. What about British day? Does anyone remember that one? The question is simple—when will it be? How long does it take to set a date for a new bank holiday? Given that the Prime Minister is about to stand up and cancel happy hour, we need cheering up. When will it be?
It would not matter if those ideas were all just gimmicks, but some of them really raised people's hopes. Whatever happened to social homebuy? The scheme was launched in a blaze of glory and was by now meant to have helped 10,000 families to buy their home— [ Interruption. ] I know that the Government do not follow these things, but we like to check up on them. It was meant to have helped 10,000 families, but it has helped just 235. With this Prime Minister, it is always about short-term politics and never about long-term change.
Most of the Bills in the Queen's Speech replace one set of failing quangos with another set of failing quangos. Let us take one measure as an example, the thing that the Prime Minister has banged on about year after year, in Budget after Budget—skills. Seven years ago, the Government set up the Learning and Skills Council. They then created 47 local learning and skills council branches. There were then four reorganisations. In 2006, the 47 branches were replaced by nine regional centres, but with 148 local partnership teams. What was the result? The Learning and Skills Council's own report this year said that "unnecessary duplication abounds" and that one arm does not know what the other is doing.
What is the Prime Minister doing in this Queen's Speech? He is scrapping the Learning and Skills Council altogether and he is passing responsibility for education and training for 16 to 18-year-olds back where it came from, to local authorities. What a waste of time, money and effort. The most ridiculous thing about it is that instead of just killing off the quango, the Government are introducing three new ones—the SFA, or skills funding agency; the YPLA, or young people's learning agency; and the NAS, or national apprenticeship service. Millions are being spent on redundancies, reorganisation and rebudgeting, and administrative costs are going through the roof. In the middle of all that, the number of people being trained has gone down. That is what has happened.
The Government have abandoned public sector reform, there is no social reform and the promised change never happened. Labour was on the verge of getting rid of the Prime Minister, but the party now clings to the one thing that it thinks that it has left—the economy. So let us look at the state of the economy after the Prime Minister has been in charge of it for a decade. So far, we have focused on the claims that he has made over the past 10 years and on how hollow they sound today. One of his claims was prudence, when we entered the recession with the largest budget deficit in the industrialised world. Another was stability, when unemployment is rising more quickly than in any other major economy. Another ridiculous claim was that he abolished boom and bust. That was ridiculous because under him we had the most unsustainable debt-fuelled boom followed by one of the biggest busts in our history.
So much for the claims of the past 10 years—let us now take a look at the claims of the past 10 weeks. They are just as threadbare. He told us that Britain is better prepared for this recession—he says that it is true—but it is now forecast by sources that include his own Treasury that we will have the worst recession in the G7 next year. That is how well prepared we are. He told us that Britain's debt is more sustainable, but just yesterday Britain's credit-worthiness slipped behind that of Portugal, Belgium and even HSBC.
The other claim of the past 10 weeks is that the whole world is following the Prime Minister's plan for fiscal stimulus. This weekend, the German Finance Minister said— [ Interruption. ] He is following my plan, as Labour Members will find out if they listen. He said:
"Since I've been dealing with economic stimulus packages, that is, since the end of the 1970s, they've never had the real effect that was hoped for. In the end, the state was just more in debt than before".
He also said:
"Just because all the lemmings have chosen the same path, it doesn't automatically make that path the right one".
One would have thought that the Prime Minister might listen to a fellow socialist, but he is too much of a lemming.
I am coming to exactly that point, but let me tell the hon. Gentleman what we will do. Let us freeze the council tax for two years for every family in the country. Let us give small businesses a £10 billion VAT boost by letting them pay their bills late. Let us cut national insurance for the very small companies so that they do not have to fire people. Let us have a £3 billion jobs plan to use the money that will be spent on unemployment benefit to get people off the dole. Above all—and this is absolutely fundamental, although the Prime Minister does not understand it—let us have a truly massive Government-backed insurance scheme to get the money out of the banks and into small businesses. Those are five good reasons—perhaps the hon. Gentleman will listen to them and cross the Floor so that he does not have to lose his seat.
Everything that the Prime Minister has told us, not just in the past 10 years but in the past 10 weeks, has completely fallen apart. His latest claim—and I want to be fair to him by taking it apart—is that the political division is between action and inaction. That is typical of his approach. He cannot handle a real argument with a real alternative, but can only ever set up a straw man. We see it week after week at Question Time: he takes a set of beliefs that nobody holds—a set of propositions that no one agrees with and usually a set of things that nobody has said—and then proceeds to attack them.
That is a sign of his weakness, not of his strength. This recession was brought about by runaway borrowing and a massive failure of financial regulation, yet the Prime Minister's answer is more discretionary borrowing and a complete refusal to admit any mistakes in the regulatory system that he created.
The real solution, which we are putting forward, should lie in lower interest rates, massive Government-insured guarantees for bank lending, and support for families and businesses that does not permanently impair the public finances and the chances of recovery. That is the answer, and it is contained in the five points that I just outlined to Rob Marris. Only some boneheaded Whips' plant could argue that that is inaction; even the hon. Gentleman is nodding his head in agreement that what I have set out is not inaction—it plainly is not. The real division is between the right and the wrong action, between our long-term action that will really make a difference and the Prime Minister's short-term action taken just to get through tomorrow's headlines.
Let us take the situation with the banks. When will the Prime Minister accept what the whole country now knows—that his bank recapitalisation is not working? It rescued the banks but not the small and medium-sized firms. They cannot get the loans or overdrafts that they need, and the charges being levied on them are frankly outrageous.
The Government's response is to hold endless meetings with bankers that are conveniently briefed to tomorrow's newspapers to try to make the Prime Minister look good, but it is not making any difference. That is why we need, in this Queen's Speech, a Government insurance scheme to get the banks lending. That is long-term change, not short-term politics.
Now let us take the cut in VAT. The Prime Minister wanted a stimulus so a stimulus we had to have—the only problem being that borrowing money when we are already virtually broke to cut prices when they are already falling and then warning of tax rises that are coming down the road is not exactly stimulating. Instead, what we need in the Queen's Speech is a plan to reduce the future growth of public spending to show how we can keep taxes down in future—again, that is long-term change and not short-term politics.
What is the long-term consequence of the Prime Minister's failed Budget and short-term approach? It is a black hole in the public finances that everyone knows means taxes going up under Labour. The Government have already told us about the national insurance change, but that is not just a tax rise on anyone earning over £19,000—it is also a tax rise on every job in the country. Can anyone think of anything more stupid than putting a tax rise on jobs when the economy is going to be struggling to recover?
We all know what the secret tax rise is—VAT will first be raised to 18.5 per cent. and then to 20 per cent. [ Interruption. ] It is no good Labour Members shaking their heads, as we have all seen the Government order. This was not some leak to the Tory Front Bench; this was the Financial Secretary to the Treasury signing a document and putting it on the Treasury website. Who is the Prime Minister going to arrest for that one?
The Prime Minister's approach of making endless announcements to try to win short-term advantage depends on one crucial assumption, and it is one that I think he always gets wrong. He assumes that the British people are stupid and that they will not realise he will have to fill the black hole with higher taxes. He assumes that they do not notice when the Government present a tax-con rather than a tax-cut Budget, and that they will believe it when he tells them that all the problems come from America.
The Prime Minister thinks that British people are stupid, or that they do not see through him when he wanders off to Iraq to visit the troops in the middle of a Tory conference. However, he has to realise that if he takes people for fools, they will never take him for their Prime Minister.
A proper Queen's Speech would be honest about the state that the country is in. The truth is that the Prime Minister is borrowing so much because he has spent so much, and that he has spent so much because he has done so little to solve our social problems. Let us just look at those problems.
Welfare dependency is worse: there is more youth unemployment in Britain today than there was when the Government took office in 1997. That is why we need the Conservative plan for radical welfare reform, by giving the voluntary sector the power to go into our most deprived communities. On family breakdown, we have one of the worst records in Europe. That is why we need the Conservative plan to strengthen families, to end the couple penalty and to back marriage in the tax system.
What about health inequality? Surely a Labour Government would do something about that. Wrong. The gap in life expectancy between the richest and the poorest in our country is greater than at any time since the reign of Queen Victoria. That is why we need the Conservative plan to scrap the top-down targets and to stop doctors answering to Whitehall and get them answering to patients. All that needs to be underpinned by our plan to reconstruct a battered economy.
The Leader of the Opposition said earlier that there were no social policies in the Queen's Speech, but will he ensure that the Conservative party supports the legal target to eradicate child poverty, which is the biggest social ill that we have in this country? Will he do so—yes or no?
Yes, of course we will support it, but the problem with the Government's approach is that they keep legislating for things that they are not achieving. Child poverty is getting worse. [ Interruption. ] Yes, and if they wanted child poverty to improve, they would take up our plan to abolish the couple penalty that would lift 300,000 children out of poverty.
We need a new powerful independent office of budget responsibility, so that the Government never end up in such massive deficit. We need a debt responsibility mechanism, so that the Bank of England can call time on levels of private debt in our economy. We now live in a country with national debt doubling under Labour to £1 trillion, putting us on the brink of financial bankruptcy. We live in a country with more than 1 million violent crimes a year—almost doubled under Labour—on the brink of social bankruptcy. We live in a country where counter-terrorism police are used to arrest MPs who hold the Government to account, and that is what I call political bankruptcy.
The Prime Minister is wrong in recession; he is wrong for the recovery. Largely responsible for the collapse of our economy, he is absolutely clueless about the collapse of our society. He is yesterday's man, so will he get on and call an election so that the people of this country can put this dreadful Government out of their misery and start the long-term change that our country needs?
I know that the whole House will wish me to start by sending our profound condolences, as the Leader of the Opposition did, to the families and friends of Marine Tony Evans and Marine Georgie Sparks of 42 Commando Royal Marines. They were killed in action in Afghanistan last Thursday. We owe them our gratitude for their service and their sacrifice to our country.
It is also a noble tradition to remember Members who have served the House and who have died during the year. I am sure that all Members will want to join the Leader of the Opposition in remembering two Members who deserve the title, "House of Commons people." The sad death of Gwyneth Dunwoody last year robbed the House of its longest-ever serving woman MP. First elected in 1966, Gwyneth was the third generation of a family dynasty of political women who have perhaps done more than any other to give voice to women in politics today. She was the granddaughter of two suffragettes, and she was the daughter of one of the first female Ministers. If she challenged the Government, she was always critical of the Opposition. She will be sorely missed from her place in the House—a seat located close to the officials' box— from which, during decades of Transport questions, she was heard to shout "Nonsense" and "Rubbish" to officials, as Members on both Front Benches spoke. On her role as Chairman of the Transport Committee, foolish was the witness who had not prepared fully for an evidence session. Legendary was the loud tapping of her pen if witnesses dared to speak from notes: grown men made weak at the knees. Always formidable, always her own person and fiercely independent, she is already sorely missed. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."]
When during his long and fatal illness, John MacDougall arrived in Westminster for a vital vote last year, he was given a standing ovation by Members who came to meet him. Such was his popularity with fellow MPs. He was an apprentice in the dockyard at Rosyth; an engineer; then in the coal mines; then leader of the council; then convenor and then provost of Fife council—one of the first in Britain, three decades ago, to provide free bus travel for the elderly. His constituency was next door to mine, and he embodied the values and ethos of Fife. I met John only a day before he died. I thanked him for all his endeavours on behalf of the people of Fife. I told him that his achievements were great and would be remembered for many years to come, and he gave me one instruction: to ensure that Glenrothes was safe for the future.
John's campaigning on behalf of sufferers of asbestosis and mesothelioma, from which he himself suffered, has helped to raise awareness of that terrible illness, and as hon. Members know, the Government are examining how we can provide better support for both them and their families. John never wavered in his understanding that his first job was to serve his constituency, and he will be sorely missed.
I thank the proposer and seconder of the motion. Few Members have the distinction of having piloted one private Member's Bill through the House; even fewer have the distinction of having piloted two groundbreaking Bills, and my right hon. Friend Mr. Clarke is a member of that elite group, the first Bill giving rights to people with disabilities and the second holding the Government to their overseas targets. Those are formidable achievements of which he and his constituents can justifiably be proud.
Once, my right hon. Friend spoke at an international conference about international development and worldwide poverty and about the difficulties faced by people suffering in so many countries. So successful was his speech that, either because of a failure of translation or for some other reason, food parcels started to arrive in Scotland for people there.
More than 25 years ago, I had the pleasure of campaigning for my right hon. Friend when he was first elected to Parliament. I remember that the constituency name then was Coatbridge and Airdrie. I found on the streets that he was known by everyone as a former councillor and provost of the area. His opponent was a young Conservative, who was so keen to make himself popular that he said that, if elected, he would buy a house in Coatbridge and marry someone from Airdrie, or vice versa. Needless to say, my right hon. Friend was returned with a huge majority.
When, during the last election campaign, I visited the constituency of my hon. Friend Liz Blackman, who has spent all her life serving the public as a teacher, a councillor, a deputy council leader and then an MP, I found, as the Leader of the Opposition mentioned, that her most notable opponent was not the Conservative party or the Liberal party, nor even her other opponents representing the Monster Raving Loony party or the Church of the Militant Elvis, but someone well known to the House: Robert Kilroy-Silk. Hon. Members may remember that after defeating Mr. Kilroy-Silk, she was returned to Parliament with an increased majority. As we know, Mr. Kilroy-Silk has found a more appropriate place for his talents: eating insects in the celebrity jungle—although he was the first to be voted off as a result of his behaviour.
In paying tribute to the outstanding and selfless contribution of all those who have served in our armed forces, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan, those who have lost their lives, those who have been wounded, and those who risk their lives daily in the defence of our security and to bring peace and stability to the peoples of those countries, I can confirm to the House that we are looking anew at the Afghanistan policy. The review takes into account the dangers that now exist on the Afghan-Pakistan border. It also takes in the need to complement military action with enhanced protection by helicopters and the new fund for asking other countries to provide helicopters, as well as proper burden sharing, with help to train the Afghan army and police, to strengthen their systems of governance and to develop their economy. We have recently increased our forces beyond 8,000, but I repeat that with 41 countries involved, there must be fair burden sharing.
Afghanistan is our front line against the Taliban; it is also our front line against al-Qaeda. The reason why 41 countries are pledging support for action in Afghanistan is that they know that what happens in Afghanistan can directly affect what happens on the streets of London and major cities and towns in our country and others.
It is, however, right that there is proper burden sharing. I agree with the Leader of the Opposition that in the next few months, as we discuss the need for more troops in Afghanistan, we will look to other countries to make their fair contribution to that burden.
Does the Prime Minister accept that there is widespread concern among the armed forces that there is dislocation between various Government Departments? I very much welcome his review, but will he say who is in charge of it; and will he put a Minister in charge of Afghanistan policy, to answer on the totality of that policy? I promise him that, at the moment, one gets very different perspectives from the different Departments involved on the challenges that we face in Afghanistan.
The review, which I am leading, will bring together, as it has over the past year, all the Departments that are responsible: the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development in particular. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we have led the way in telling America and other countries that military action must be complemented with special help so that people have a stake in the future of Afghanistan, with training of police and of the armed forces, and with reform of government in dealing with corruption and other issues in the government of Afghanistan. If he were being fair to us, he would understand that we have led the way in asking our allies to look at a co-ordinated strategy that is comprehensive in dealing with the issue.
I also want to confirm that our troops are completing the final phase of the task that we set ourselves in Iraq—training Iraqi security forces, building economic development, and speeding up the local democracy that is needed in the Basra area for which we are responsible. In the months ahead, there will be a fundamental change of mission and presence, and we will move to a long-term relationship with Iraq similar to that which we have with other countries in the region. We want a democratic Iraq, strong local government, armed forces who are properly trained, and police who are independent. We want the people of Basra to have a full stake in their future.
A week after the terrible events in Mumbai, the whole country and, I believe, the whole House are in a state of shock at the scale and devastation of the murder of innocent people. It underlines again the threat that a democratic society faces from those who would use terror indiscriminately against ordinary people. I have sent this country's condolences and sympathy to all who have suffered from this loss of life. Terrorists cross borders to murder innocent people. Our response must be to work across borders to protect them and demonstrate that terrorism will not succeed in undermining democracy.
Our country has offered Prime Minister Singh and India every support in countering extremism. We have sent men and women from the Metropolitan police. We have agreed on the need to generate even closer co-operation against terrorism. I have spoken to President Zardari of Pakistan and urged him to offer the fullest support to India in rooting out terrorism and to show that he will bring to justice any terrorists who seek haven in his country.
We cannot hide from the truth about Zimbabwe, which is now facing chronic state failure. In addition to broken down schools and hospitals and rampant inflation, we now have a cholera epidemic, which is not just spreading within Zimbabwe; it threatens South Africa, too. We have increased our aid to ordinary Zimbabweans. I have called on United Nations humanitarian agencies and non-governmental organisations to mount a new effort and initiative with our support to get help to those who most need it. We are working hard with the region's Governments, so that they can work together to do what needs to be done most acutely and most immediately to uphold the democratic rights of the Zimbabwean people, to support the bravery and resilience of people still in Zimbabwe and to ensure that they can exercise the maximum pressure on the Mugabe Government and in support of democracy in Zimbabwe.
I want to repeat to the House that in the Democratic Republic of the Congo we will act to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe as we work to facilitate a political solution to the conflict that has already displaced 800,000 people. We are working with partners to get aid through, but I have also written to contributors of peacemakers to ask them to encourage the rapid deployment of the extra forces who are needed to save lives. We have been prepared to put money up. I believe that we will be able, after talks yesterday, to raise the number of peacekeepers from 17,000 to 20,000, so that people can see that there is safety and security for people in the DRC as we search for what is most needed: a political solution.
I can also announce that we are bringing Israeli and Palestinian leaders to London later in December to establish how best we can use 2009 to make real progress towards political and economic solutions in the region.
I can also say that, following the historic agreement between the parties in Northern Ireland, we will bring forward proposals to sustain devolution in Northern Ireland. I thank all parties in Northern Ireland for coming together to make the final part of a devolution settlement possible and now something that can be delivered, with policing and justice devolved in the next few months.
We are finding that the solutions to every crisis require not just action in our country but action internationally. In the challenges to our security and to our economy, and to our environment posed by climate change, the world is having to act together to resolve those problems. We know that climate change, terrorism and global poverty are the problems of a changing global society. The lesson of recent months is that the problems that we face can be met only by acting co-operatively on the basis of our interdependence, not by glorying in isolation. The financial problems that we have require action not just in Britain but in every country. After a year when oil prices have been volatile, the climate change and energy challenge can be met only through action that will lead, I believe, to a settlement at next year's crucial Copenhagen summit.
The right hon. Gentleman signed the report that said that we should give up regulation in mortgage finance. I criticised a Conservative Member last week for saying that the recession should take its course, but what the right hon. Gentleman said yesterday on his website is even more amazing:
"Living standards in both the public and private sector have to be brought down."
That is the Conservative party's answer to the problems that we face, not taking the necessary action.
When the Prime Minister was in opposition, he adroitly used information that public servants gave him, which he believed it was in the public interest to know, and placed it in the public domain. Does he believe that a Member of Parliament doing exactly what he did when he was in opposition should be arrested?
I notice that Conservative Members do not want to talk about the economy. [ Interruption. ] That is absolutely true. I uphold the right of Members of Parliament to pursue their duties in a way that is necessary for the public interest. Today, the acting police commissioner has said that the police are investigating a substantial series of leaks from the Home Office potentially involving national security.
Order. It is for the Prime Minister to answer the question that was put to him.
Order. Mr. Benyon, calm yourself—it is the best way.
That is not only a matter for the inquiry. I want to defend the operational independence of the police. You cannot pick and choose whether you support the operational independence of the police—either you support it or you don't.
That is precisely why an inquiry has been set up. An inquiry is being set up in this Chamber, and an inquiry has been set up by the police themselves. We should wait until the outcome of the inquiry. [ Interruption. ]
Order. Hon. Members should be calm. They may not like the answers, but the Prime Minister is entitled to give whatever answers he wishes to give. [ Interruption. ] Mr. Duncan Smith, when I am on my feet, you have got to be quiet.
In the legislative programme, as we did in the pre-Budget report, we are setting out the detail of real help for home owners and families, real help for small businesses, real help for jobs, real help for young people and real help for communities not only for the downturn but for the upturn that will follow. Today, we are introducing for the first time legislation to abolish child poverty in our country. We are also introducing legislation that will give, for the first time, young people who qualify the right to apprenticeships. We are also bringing forward legislation for an NHS constitution that will give rights to patients.
With apologies for going back for a moment, may I ask the Prime Minister calmly and courteously whether or not he regrets that the action was taken without a warrant? Such action might be justified on occasion with a warrant, but does he regret that it was done on this occasion without a warrant?
The hon. Gentleman may be prepared to prejudge everything. The House has consented without demur to Mr. Speaker's proposal to set up an inquiry into these events. The House has agreed to set up its own inquiry, and the police have set up their inquiry. Surely it is right for us to wait for the results of that inquiry before drawing our conclusions.
The House has a long tradition of not drawing the Speaker into the argument; I would not want that. [Interruption.] Order. The Prime Minister is perfectly in order; he gives a reply that he wishes to give. It is up to him.
I assure the hon. Gentleman that he does not have a point of order for me; he definitely has not, but I will try him.
Once again, it is a debate. It is not always the case that exact accuracy is called for. [Interruption.] Order. It is a debate. Sometimes the hon. Gentleman has not been too accurate, and I have had to put him right.
On the question of child poverty, does the Prime Minister remember that as a member of the Opposition back in 1993, he leaked information about the potential taxation of invalidity benefit? What would he advise other Members who had been given similar information to do?
I just repeat, in defending the rights of Members to pursue their duties, that what the Metropolitan police acting commissioner has said is that he is investigating a substantial series of leaks from the Home Office, potentially involving national security. That, in my view, is very different.
I am grateful to the Prime Minister, particularly as I have reason to be aware that it is important to preserve the difference between leaks that are about national security and those that are not.
What I wanted to put to the Prime Minister was that earlier this afternoon, in the statement, arrangements were announced that involved the Serjeant at Arms being given instructions not to grant the police the ability to search in these premises without a warrant. Does the Prime Minister support those arrangements?
Order. Let the Prime Minister answer in the way he wants to answer.
I thank the Prime Minister for giving way. Does he believe that national security was damaged when my hon. Friend Damian Green found out that the Home Office was seeking to cover up the fact that 5,000 illegal immigrants were working in the security industry in this country? Was that an issue of national security or not?
I am not going to comment on a police inquiry that is ongoing, and I would caution Opposition Members against doing so as well. This is an ongoing police inquiry, and it is right to defend the operational independence of the police. [Interruption.]
Does the Prime Minister accept that there is no dispute about the operational independence of the police being very important and that— [Interruption.]
Order. Let the right hon. and learned Gentleman speak.
Furthermore, there is no dispute that any breach of national security is an important matter. However, does the Prime Minister also accept that the police are themselves accountable, and will be accountable for their statements? Would he not express an opinion that, if it turns out that the leaks were merely matters of confidence—the kind of leaks with which he and I are only too familiar—it would be an abuse of police power to use the police to intervene to try to intimidate either a civil servant or Opposition spokesman who was getting access to confidential leaks embarrassing for the Minister concerned?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman is a senior member of the Bar, and he knows perfectly well that we cannot prejudice an investigation that is ongoing by making comments in this way. I would repeat the statement that has been made by the Metropolitan police saying what they are investigating. I have to go on what they say—it is they who are investigating. Of course the police are accountable, but we also have to recognise that they are operationally independent. Opposition Members cannot pick and choose whether they support operational independence on one occasion or another—they have to support operational independence. I am now going to make progress with my speech.
The Chancellor set out the most comprehensive programme of real help for businesses and families, and now we want to go further. In the past 10 years, 1 million more people have become home owners and there are more owner-occupiers than ever in the history of our country. People who have saved up for a house are proud of what they have achieved, and we are proud of what they have achieved. For many, their biggest fear is that they might face repossession in this world downturn. Today the Government can go further than we were able to go last week, with a new charter for mortgage holders. We want to do what no country has done before in providing new protections for home owners. We will do everything in our power to ensure that no hard-working family who demonstrate to their bank a willingness to pay can or should face the fear of repossession of their family home.
We want to build three protections and put them in place for home owners—three pillars for people worried about their homes. [ Interruption. ] I know that Opposition Members think that it is funny when we talk about mortgages, home owners and repossession, but this is exactly what the country wants us to be able to do for them. First, having agreed with the lenders that no repossession should be initiated in the first three months after the borrower has moved into arrears, I can announce that Northern Rock and Bradford & Bingley have joined the Royal Bank of Scotland in agreeing that it will not repossess homes for a full six months. I urge all responsible banks to follow their example. Secondly, our new pre-action protocol makes it clear that repossession should be a last resort. Judges now expect lenders to consider what steps and what flexibilities might help to keep hard-working families in their homes. We are backing that up with free debt advice in every court, and we will work to ensure that the protocol is minimising the number of repossessions ever brought to court.
Today I want to offer to families worrying about their mortgages a third protection, which will be an additional guarantee of fairness for all home owners facing difficult economic times. Hard-working households that experience a redundancy or significant loss of income as a result of the downturn will be able to defer a proportion of their interest payments for up to two years while they get their family finances back on track. This measure is in addition to our protection for the unemployed, who, after 13 weeks, can claim help with their mortgage. It will extend protection for those in work as well as those out of work and will be available at a higher level of income. We will make this possible by guaranteeing lenders against the risk of loss from those deferred interest payments. I am pleased that I can announce today that the country's eight largest lenders have already agreed to sign up and work this new scheme, the detail of which will be published in the next few days. The lenders include HBOS, Nationwide, Abbey, Lloyds TSB, Northern Rock, Barclays and HSBC—already 70 per cent. of the mortgages that are held in this country. The result will be more affordable monthly payments for home owners who need a bridge through difficult times.
We will also—this is in line with the legislation for the savings gateway—consult on how we can create a savings incentive targeted at first-time buyers to help them to save money to get their first step into the housing market. We will continue to take action to improve social housing, with new investment brought forward—an extra £100 million this year and £450 million the year after. That is new public investment that the Conservative party would not fund but we are prepared to fund.
We are, uniquely, buying up surplus stock from house builders—again, a fiscal stimulus that is necessary to meet the needs of our times that we are prepared to do but the Opposition would refuse to do. We are supporting housing authorities and local authorities in building more homes themselves—again, new investment brought forward by this scheme that the Opposition would not support. For 10,000 more first-time buyers, the £1 billion home owner's support package will mean additional money for housing, which the Opposition would refuse to provide. We are not only providing real help for businesses and families now, but meeting our country's need for future housing. [Interruption.]
We will also help the construction industry and give communities real help, with new investment in reformed public services. [Interruption.]
Order. May I stop the Prime Minister? This is a debate on the Loyal Address, but many private conversations are going on in the Chamber. That is unfair to hon. Members who want to follow the debate.
It is absolutely clear that the Opposition have no interest in listening to what we are doing about the economy. It is also absolutely clear that they are obsessed with only one thing today, but we have got to get on with the business of helping move from the downturn to higher prosperity.
Let me deal with small businesses. I can announce that we will ensure that the banking codes are put on a statutory footing, and we will give local authorities a greater role in economic regeneration.
I am reassured to hear the Prime Minister speak about housing, because it was not mentioned in the Queen's Speech. Why did he not take the opportunity of today's Gracious Speech to update the mortgage law, for which Shelter has argued for some time?
We are taking measures to protect exactly the people about whom Shelter is talking. We are providing a new scheme that not only allows mortgage repossessions to be postponed for six months but lets people recapitalise their mortgage, supported by a Government guarantee, if they are in difficulty. That is exactly what Shelter and other organisations want us to do. The hon. Lady should applaud, not criticise us, for our actions.
One of the big problems is that small businesses are unable to obtain credit guarantees. Will the Prime Minister consider a Government-backed credit guarantee scheme for the small and medium-sized sector? That would free up a lot of industry throughout the UK.
Let me explain that we are doing exactly that. The special liquidity scheme that gives money to the banks is on condition that those that we own put the same amount of lending into small businesses as they did in 2007. At the same time, we have introduced a £1 billion scheme for export credits for small businesses. We have also pushed another £1 billion for the small business loan guarantee scheme. All that is on top of a deferment of the rate of small firms corporation tax, £4 billion of loan capital for small and medium-sized enterprises and a pledge that every bill that the Government owe will be paid in 10 days. We have taken all those steps to help small businesses and we are now in discussions with the banks about how they can move them forward. We will meet representatives of the banks later this week, and I tell the hon. Gentleman that we are making available the necessary money, and he should support exactly what we are doing.
Let me deal with jobs. The first step is to help keep people in jobs and that means more funding for training in work. We will invest more to allow small businesses and others to keep on employees to give them skills they need so that training can be done for the upturn, and vital employees can be kept on instead of losing their jobs. The second step is immediate access to advice and training. People who face redundancy will get immediate practical support. That is possible only because we have a new deal in which we are investing more than £1 billion—investment that the Opposition would always oppose. The third step is guaranteeing a start to securing new skills and help within a month for people who are unemployed. That is possible only because we have a properly financed Jobcentre Plus and a new deal that can do that job.
We are also introducing a Bill in this Session to enhance the rights of people who are looking for work—and their responsibilities. It will include a requirement that those out of work undertake work-related activity so that we help them enhance their skills and increase their confidence, thus giving them the tools they need to invest in the future and make a contribution, instead of languishing on the dole. All that is in stark contrast to the Opposition's flagship policy on unemployment, launched in the morning and sunk in an afternoon, which the Federation of Small Businesses called a disincentive, not an incentive, to work.
I have already made it clear that I am making progress with the measures in the Queen's Speech that will help businesses and families in this country. Clearly, the Opposition have no interest in measures that give people jobs, help people with businesses and help people stay in their homes.
Building on our plan to raise education— [Interruption.]
Order. The Prime Minister has indicated that he is not giving way. Hon. Members should be calm.
We have just announced measures that get the money through. The difference between us and the Opposition is that we are prepared to put the fiscal stimulus in, whereas they are not prepared to support it. There is no point in talking about extra support for small businesses if one is not prepared to give the fiscal stimulus that is absolutely necessary.
Building on our plan to raise the educational leaving age to 18, the Queen's Speech brings forward legislation so that every young person has a path to a fulfilling career, by guaranteeing every qualified young person in this country an apprenticeship place, if that is what they want. That means that we will raise the number of apprentices in this country—the Leader of the Opposition said that we had not done anything—from 65,000 in 1997 to 237,000 in 2010. That comes on top of the 40,000 additional teachers in our schools, further action to raise school standards and further legislation in this Queen's Speech to give more rights to parents and children in our economy.
The Leader of the Opposition's speech proves that there is no economic problem that this country faces to which the solution is the Conservative party. However much he tries to hide it, he cannot get round the critical mistakes and misjudgments that his party has made and continues to make, including: its refusal to support our rescue of Northern Rock; the shadow Chancellor's refusal to condemn share speculation a day before we took the action to deal with it; the dogma that monetary policy should act alone and not be supported by real help for families—not even the Governor of the Bank of England, who is in charge of monetary policy, believes that monetary policy can succeed on its own—and finally, the old dogma that any action to be taken has to be paid for by public spending cuts.
Let us be absolutely clear: the real difference between the Leader of the Opposition's party and ours is that we will invest to take the action necessary for the economy, whereas his party refuses to make the necessary investment. It has no policy for the downturn and no policy for the upturn, either. That is the problem of today's Conservative party.
Those on our Benches have just applauded action to deal with home owners' problems, small businesses' problems and the problem of jobs. It is our side that is leading the way in taking action; it is the Conservative party that refuses to support the action that is necessary.
I am grateful that the Prime Minister has given way. One group of people whom he has not mentioned today is the policyholders of Equitable Life. We recently had a debate in Westminster Hall, which was initiated by the Liberal Democrats. Will the Prime Minister give us a concrete date for when the Government will respond to the parliamentary ombudsman's report on the issue?
There will be a statement before the House rises at Christmas. I can say to the hon. Gentleman that that will be done. [Hon. Members: "Answer!"] There will be a statement before the House rises this Christmas.
The Prime Minister has announced a series of measures to deal with repossessions, which are of course the consequence of a gigantic recession. On reflection, is he prepared to say today that at least some of that recession is a direct consequence of his decision to over-borrow and mismanage the economy over the past 10 years?
Every country in the world is facing a downturn. Only the Conservative party thinks that it is a national matter, but this is a world downturn that has to be dealt with by world action. I know that the Conservative party opposes action in Europe, but action in Europe is essential to deal with the problem. Action around the world, by calling the G20, is necessary also. It is amazing: nowhere else that I go in the world do I hear politicians saying to me, "Let's do nothing", but that is the policy of the Conservative party.
To help people through the downturn, we are also raising the pension, effectively from January, with £60 for pensioners and vulnerable people in the new year. We have brought forward April's increase in child benefit to January to help people. We have also invested more money in our communities to enable them to regenerate themselves and so that public investment and public works happen through the downturn. In the Queen's Speech, there are measures to reform our public services, including more say for parents, a new NHS constitution, more help with law and order, more action on alcohol and drugs, and stronger powers to tackle unacceptable care such as that exposed by the baby P case.
When the right hon. Gentleman became Prime Minister, he gave an undertaking that Parliament would be able to scrutinise the Government. Does he, as a parliamentarian, recognise that it is not acceptable for Government Bills to pass through on Report without reaching swathes of grouped amendments which you, Mr. Speaker, have selected for debate, and without debating scores of Government amendments? Will he, as a parliamentarian, undertake to sort that out in this Session?
Of course we will respond to Back Benchers' amendments, but I must tell the hon. Gentleman that we are changing the royal prerogative and giving more power to Parliament over peace and war, and over treaties. We are also planning to make the Intelligence and Security Committee more linked to parliamentary action and parliamentary decision, and for more reports to Parliament. Let us remember that Labour is the party that brought in the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to enable people to have information— [Interruption.] The Conservatives laugh, but they opposed putting the European convention on human rights into British law. Far from standing up for the rights of the individual, they refused to support that.
Last year, the Opposition said no to education at 18, no to nuclear power, no to planning reform, no to airport development, no to our big investment in skills, no to additional public spending. In the past few months, they have said no to action on Northern Rock, no to action on share speculation, no to our fiscal package, no to our VAT cuts, no to our public works, no to our public investment. When it came to the crunch, they reverted to being what they always were: a Conservative party that did not want to take action, and that was uncaring and unfair about the difficulties that people face.
This is the era, as everybody can see, of "Yes, we can." All over the world, people are saying, "Yes, we can." Only the Opposition are saying, "No, we won't." They are on the wrong side of the British people in taking action to deal with this downturn, and they are on the wrong side of history. I commend the Gracious Speech to the House.
Many hon. Members are leaving the Chamber, but they would be well advised to stay. After all, the Liberal Democrat party identified the risks of the recession before any other party, and it was also the first party to identify any of the solutions.
I, too, should like to express my sympathy and condolence to the families and friends of Marine Tony Evans and Marine Georgie Sparks, who tragically lost their lives in Afghanistan last week. Later, I should like to ask the Prime Minister about the review of Government policy in Afghanistan and Iraq that he has announced.
First, I should like to pay tribute to the right hon. and hon. Members who have sadly passed away in the past parliamentary year. No one could forget Gwyneth Dunwoody, who was a great servant of her constituency, this House and the country. She is sorely missed by everybody, not least by people such as me who received tongue-lashings from her fairly frequently. John MacDougall will be remembered fondly for his 30 years of unbroken and unstinting service to the people of Glenrothes. His death, from asbestos-related cancer, reminds us of the work that we still need to do to protect the health and welfare of people in the workplace, and of the research that still needs to take place to stop that terrible and cruel illness in its tracks.
I should like to thank and congratulate the proposer and the seconder of the Loyal Address. Mr. Clarke spoke with great affection about his constituency and his family, as well as deftly poking fun at me and other right hon. and hon. Members of the House. He also reminded us of his great track record of speaking out on behalf of people with disabilities. I congratulate him on that. When I did my research on him, I noticed from some of the newspaper clippings that he was described as being both a member of the "Scottish mafia" and "boring but safe". It is an extraordinary feat to be both those things—although when I look at those on the Government Front Bench, I sometimes think that it might be easier than it seems—but I suspect that he would not wish to be remembered as either.
It has rightly been observed that perhaps the greatest service performed by Liz Blackman was to keep Robert Kilroy-Silk at bay in her constituency. She did not say—I would love to know whether it is true—whether she had a hand in having him evicted from the Australian jungle last week. If she did, I would like to congratulate her, and also urge her to take urgent steps to get David Van Day sent home as well. Many people would congratulate her if she could do that.
The proposer and seconder have, of course, upheld a great tradition of the House. Today, we are celebrating the democratic traditions of the House and our role in scrutinising the Government and holding Ministers to account. That great tradition has been called into question by recent events, however. Unlike the Prime Minister, I feel unambiguously that it is wrong for the police to gain entry into the offices of any hon. Member of this House without a search warrant, and I cannot understand why he will not say precisely that, too.
It is with comic timing that the Government's Queen's Speech has included words about the need to strengthen the role of Parliament, given that this Government show no sign of understanding how much the House has been neutered by the over-centralised, over-secretive and over-mighty Executive that exist under our non-constitution— [ Interruption. ] The Secretary of State for Justice shakes his head. If he understood the degree to which real parliamentary scrutiny had been placed in jeopardy by the actions of his Government, he would have included three more Bills in the Queen's Speech. The first would have been a Bill on parliamentary privilege—as was recommended 10 years ago by the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege—to codify clearly, once and for all, the rights of Members of the House to hold the Executive to account, and to set out in what exceptional circumstances, if any, those rights may be infringed.
The second such Bill would have been a civil service Bill to protect and enshrine the impartiality of the civil service and to ensure that undue political influence could never be applied to any civil servant. The third would have been a Bill to restore the protections for whistleblowers that have been systematically removed and demolished by this Government and their predecessors.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. That involves the much wider issue of the lop-sided nature of the information, power and prerogatives of the Executive, compared with the increasingly feeble powers and prerogatives of the legislature.
From the point of view of the public, this matter should not simply topple into an arcane, introspective debate about parliamentary privilege—a concept that the public have probably never heard of, and about which they care even less. This is about defending the simple principle that anyone wanting to unearth information about the way in which we are governed by the Government of the day should not live in fear of the anti-terror police arriving on their doorstep. This is not, and should not be, an argument between parliamentarians. It is an argument on behalf of the public to ensure that every citizen has the right to tell the truth about the Government of the day, however much that might embarrass Ministers at the time.
Before I turn to the Queen's Speech, I should like to ask the Prime Minister certain questions, if I may. He does not want to listen, but it would be helpful if he would do so. He has made some important announcements this afternoon. As ever, with him, those announcements were not even highlighted, signalled or flagged up in the Queen's Speech. They related to the Government's policy on Iraq, on Afghanistan and on repossessions, and I want to ask him three questions.
On Afghanistan, when the right hon. Gentleman conducts this review, will he accept that any lasting stability or peace can be established or maintained only if there is a regional dimension, so that the powers that encircle Afghanistan—Pakistan, Russia, central Asia, China and Iran as well—must indispensably be included in any lasting settlement? Secondly, the Prime Minister has highlighted the fact that we are effectively on our way out of Iraq. Does he not think that it is time to admit that we need a full public inquiry into the circumstances that led to that fatal decision to invade Iraq in the first place? Finally, on repossession, I welcome much of what the right hon. Gentleman has announced today—but if only he had listened to us three or four months ago when we made precisely the same recommendations. Will he tell me how many households that are falling into arrears will be helped by these new measures? The previous measures covered roughly one in 10 of all households in arrears; how many does he think will be covered by the new measures?
Today was a very important opportunity. This has been a terrible year for millions of British families who are struggling to make ends meet, struggling to pay this month's mortgage bill and this winter's heating bills, and who are worried about whether they can give their children the sort of Christmas they deserve. People are waiting, anticipating, asking and pleading, "Please help us". The Prime Minister says that he is Winston Churchill and the Business Secretary, never known to be outdone in hyperbole, says that he is not Churchill, but Moses. People therefore have the right to expect something big from the Government—perhaps a tablet of stone to fix their everyday problems—yet all they get is this meagre document, dressed up as a solution. We are facing an unprecedented economic crisis and people need a helping hand, yet most of this Queen's Speech is lifted directly from the Prime Minister's pre-Queen's Speech announcements in May. Has he not noticed that the world has changed—and changed utterly? This non-stop drum beat from the Government is like a sort of legislative "muzak", an irritating hum in the background, of no use or no help to anyone.
We see from this Queen's Speech that the Government are once again to prove to be hyperactive in areas of public policy where they should back off and inactive in precisely those areas where they should do something. They act where they should not act and they fail to act where they should. How on earth can the Government justify the 26th criminal justice Bill without a single mention in the Queen's Speech or in the subsequent debate on the Loyal Address of the environment or the climate change crisis, which remains the greatest crisis facing us for generations to come? How on earth could the Prime Minister have unveiled legislation that, if reports are to be believed, will give the police the power to check everyone's identity in this country, so smuggling in the ID card system by the back door, while saying absolutely nothing about reducing fuel bills for those people who cannot pay them at all?
My right hon. Friend's constituents, like mine, have been seriously affected by flooding in recent years. Does he share my bewilderment that after a year and a half of consultation and deliberation, including the recommendations of the Pitt review, which were widely supported as far as they went, the Government have promised us only a draft Bill and yet more consultation, so almost ruling out the prospect of real action on flooding before the next general election?
I agree with my hon. Friend. I can certainly speak on behalf of my constituents in Sheffield, where a young boy lost his life in the floods, about the intense anger they will feel as they see once again that procrastination has taken over where action is needed from the Government to protect us from future floods.
In other words, this is a Queen's Speech for a fag-end Government, running out of ideas. It runs to 650 words and 14 Bills, but not a single one of them will help anyone pay their fuel bills this winter. Not a single measure here or in the pre-Budget report last week will put a single penny back in the pockets of people who need help. Rarely has so much been promised and so very little delivered.
We have been living in strange political times. For years now, we have been witness to an extraordinary amount of political cross-dressing between the two Front Bench teams: new Labour was in effect Conservative lite and the Conservative party, for a while, at least, was all cuddly and green. But now they are back in their corners. That is why the public remember quite why Labour and Conservative Governments have failed them, their families and communities for so long. One lot want to do everything and the other lot want to do nothing: it is a terrible choice between a wrong direction or simply going backwards. This Government's determination to do very little only seems to be outdone by the Conservatives' determination to do even less. Listening to my right hon. Friend—[Hon. Members: "Oh!"] I am just checking that he is paying attention. Listening to Mr. Cameron, I do not know what he would actually do. He seems to think that public spending should be cut in 2010 when we will still be in the teeth of a recession. He calls this "being responsible"; this from the party that has been responsible for most of the worst recessions that this country has seen in the post-war period, and is trying now to steal the cloak of so-called prudence.
Labour imagines that the recession will look good for its poll ratings. The Conservatives seem to think that it is good for people's health. Labour seems to be fiddling while Rome burns—the Conservatives would prefer to hide the fire engines in the first place.
The Queen's Speech should be offering hope where there is fear, reassurance where there is anxiety. The pre-Budget report and the Queen's Speech should have delivered big, permanent and fair tax cuts to people on low and middle incomes who are struggling to make ends meet, paid for by closing the multi-billion pound loopholes that only benefit wealthy individuals and large businesses. The pre-Budget report and the Queen's Speech should finally have released local authorities from the restrictions that prevent them from borrowing money against their own assets to buy up unsold properties to provide more social housing to families who have no permanent roof over their heads.
The pre-Budget report and the Queens Speech should finally have signalled that banks will be forced to lend to businesses and, if not, that the Government would start lending to businesses directly themselves. Instead of using £12.5 billion to give a temporary VAT cut that no one has noticed, that is helping nobody and which everyone will have to pay for later, any borrowed money should have been used to invest in our common future; in greener energy, public transport and better and more social housing.
Finally, the Queen's Speech today could have been used to propose legislation to stop the scandal of the way in which energy companies now charge people for their heating. At the moment, the first units of energy are billed at a higher price than any subsequent units of energy. It sounds technical, but what does it mean in human terms? It means that a pensioner on very modest means, scrimping and saving to heat one single room in her house, will be paying more for her energy than a millionaire heating five floors of their mansion from top to toe. That is wrong, it is a scandal, it should have ended and the Government could have done something about it now.
The banking Bill will not restore lending to struggling businesses. The local government Bill will not allow councils to invest money in housing and the education Bill will not stop the loss of apprenticeships. The tub-thumping populism that we have had for 10 years now on law and order will not cut crime, either.
I understand what the right hon. Gentleman is saying, but does he not welcome the proposals in the police and crime reduction Bill to ensure that alcohol will not be freely available to young people as it has been in the past? Does he agree that it is necessary for us to do something to control the number of alcohol-related crimes—the figure is now 49 per cent? Does he welcome those proposals?
I agree that it is an issue but instead of immediately reaching for the statute book, the Government could now, and could have done so a long time ago, prosecute those licence-holders who are still escaping prosecution for selling alcohol to under-age children and for being the direct source of so much disruption in our town and city centres every single week.
The Prime Minister marches round the world, trying to be the chancellor in chief of every country he visits, but he is supposed to be running this country. He is supposed to be providing help to millions of British families, not congratulating himself on the fact that he is having a "good recession." The Prime Minister is showing astonishing hubris today and we need to see a little more humility. People need less of his arrogance and more of his help.
The present economic crisis shows that not only that our economy is broken but that our politics are increasingly broken, too. As people despair about their own economic futures, they will despair, too, at the failure of our political system to provide the responses that they need. This is dangerous; dangerous for this House and dangerous for anyone who believes in a parliamentary democracy. It breeds discontent, extremism, anger and frustration. People need solutions, yet they look around today and what have they got? Pantomime. This is a Government who received barely 22 per cent. of the eligible vote at the last election, who are stumbling through a crisis of their own making, ramming through laws, deaf to all criticism, and blind to all dissent. People will give up on politics if we are not very careful. It is no wonder that in the last two general elections—those of 2001 and 2005—more people did not vote; more people stayed at home than voted for this Government. If this Government were truly a reforming Government, the Queen's Speech would attempt to reform our politics as well as our economy: it would move to get big money out of party politics altogether; it would reform a clapped-out, unfair electoral system; and it would devolve power away from Westminster and Whitehall, where it is being hoarded. Yet we have none of that from this Queen's Speech.
The hon. Gentleman could have done a lot better than that, but I accept that this is a problem for everybody in this House. Anybody who cares about the legitimacy of parliamentary politics today should care that the public have become extremely sceptical and apathetic. That is why we should all work together. The opportunity was there to make sure big money was finally taken out of party politics altogether, but this Queen's Speech was just pantomime.
Being questioned on donations by a member of the Labour party is a bit like being lectured on customer service by Basil Fawlty. As I have said, we all need to work together in order to make sure that such money is removed from politics, as its presence has seriously damaged public confidence.
This Queen's Speech was a pantomime: bright colours, bad jokes, little substance. This Government have run out of ideas. It is clear that the country needs a new and different direction—a new political beginning—and that is what the Liberal Democrats will deliver.
It is a pleasure and great honour to be called so early in the debate on the Queen's Speech, and it is also a pleasure to follow Mr. Clegg. He described the Queen's Speech as a pantomime. I have now attended some 26 Queen's Speeches and have gone to the other place to follow proceedings, and I have always thought it more a pageant than a pantomime.
It is clear from this debate and the Queen's Speech that there are difficulties in handling the recession. The Gracious Speech must be set against the background of world economic events; we cannot stop the world and get off. The Government's goal is to steer the country through a financial crisis that has converted itself into an economic crisis, and that may yet become a social crisis the like of which we have not seen since the 1930s and the time of the Jarrow marches. There are various corollaries to that: deflation, unemployment and recession leading to depression. That is why, as is clearly stated in the Gracious Speech, the Government place such emphasis on workers, families and small businesses in order to alleviate any effects of the recession and to prevent it from being deeper or longer lasting than it needs to be. That highlights the importance of a fiscal stimulus linked to a monetary policy, and that is where there is a clear difference between the views and positions of the Government and the Opposition.
The Leader of the Opposition made a fine speech. I congratulate him on his humour and on the way he conducted himself; in the House of Commons we can congratulate other Members when they make good speeches, like Geoffrey Boycott would always congratulate the bowler who bowled him a good delivery. However, as is clear from today's debate, there is a clear difference between the views of the Leader of the Opposition and Opposition Members and the views of the Government. The Leader of the Opposition today prayed in aid the German Finance Minister and, in the past, he has prayed in aid the German Chancellor. Although Germany has fallen into a recession, along with the other 12 member states of the eurozone, and although it is committed to a fiscal stimulus as well as to monetary policy, the German response has been hesitant and modest—some €12 billion of fresh spending over two years, or roughly 0.25 per cent. of gross domestic product, triggering €50 billion of investment. The German Finance Minister has set his face very clearly against a fiscal policy only; he gave his approval to the idea of a monetary stimulus and, as the Leader of the Opposition mentioned, he discussed events going back to the 1970s. This always reminds me of a line of poetry:
"And see how dark the backward stream
A little moment passed so smiling."
It is not possible in the age we live in to go back over things; we have to go forward.
The Leader of the Opposition's response to the Gracious Speech made much of the situation in Germany, so it is as well to remember that Germany signed up to the G20 Washington statement calling for a fiscal stimulus, even if it is a modest one, and a fiscal stimulus has been declared as the way forward by the International Monetary Fund, the Governor of the Bank of England, the CBI and the Institute of Directors.
The Leader of the Opposition said today, as he has done in the past, that he does not necessarily believe in the fiscal stimulus. He does believe in what I would call the single-club economic policy; he believes that tax cuts should be funded from elsewhere in the budget. He referred to that today, putting forward some of his own proposals: freezing council tax; cutting national insurance; creating 3 million jobs; and, again, he referred to his national loan scheme. That is a modest set of propositions when contrasted with the Chancellor's proposals for small and medium-sized enterprises—£1 billion-worth of tax cuts, £2 billion in loan guarantees and £4 billion from the European Investment Bank, all building on monetary policy. That is a positive and proactive approach to the present economic downturn and recession, which, again, places the emphasis on workers and businesses. The Government's approach differs from the Opposition's on that. The Government believe in a strong dose of intervention at this time to see us through the recession and lessen its impact, whereas the Opposition are content with what I would call a minimum approach—lowering interest rates and letting them take the strain.
I agree with some of those policies, because they are eminently sensible, but does the hon. Gentleman accept that the reduction in VAT is offset for small and medium-sized businesses, especially those involving transport, by the increase in fuel duty? In fact, what was given with one hand has been taken away by the other. Unless fuel duty is reduced, the long-term effect of that will be a net increase in the cost of fuel, which will have a devastating effect in constituencies such as mine.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that, and I would say two things to him. First, I agree with him on fuel tax, about which I have been lobbied by constituents. Road haulage plays a major part in our economy and in the distribution of goods. All the lobbying that has taken place has not succeeded in reducing the fuel tax. Secondly, the VAT reduction, which people tend to overlook, will be in place for 13 months—it is not something for Christmas only—so over the long term, it ought to help our economy and lessen the effects of the recession.
Today, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition both talked of monetary policy and the actions of the Royal Bank of Scotland. Not only is it committing overdraft facilities, but those are to stay in place for 12 months from the date agreed; it is leaving rates as they are; and it is also providing some 500 managers to offer more intensive support to their small and medium-sized business clients. The Prime Minister referred not only to that, but to the RBS and Bradford & Bingley not repossessing for six months. He also said that eight mortgage lenders would defer interest for two years, guaranteed by the Government, if that would be helpful. We are seeing a hands-on approach to helping those individuals in our society who have problems.
Getting back to the face-to-face banker, who deals with cases individually, will be a great help to the 1.1 million small business customers of the Royal Bank of Scotland, and that can be emulated by others. That is the sort of interventionism that we should all welcome, although it does not appear to be supported by the official Opposition—as opposed to the Liberal Democrats, whose views I respect and have listened to carefully for many years.
We have seen interventionism in the recapitalisation of the banks and financial sectors, and now the focus must move to the industrial sectors where the situation is less clear. We are clear that we do not want jobs to be lost or businesses put into liquidation, but what will that interventionism mean for business communities, such as the motor car industry? Are the Government prepared to intervene and put some £2 billion into that industry, or should we take a different view? I heard no reference in the Queen's Speech to saving Woolworths, for example, and it is unlikely that we will intervene to save that business.
I turn now to the differences between those on the Conservative Front Bench and my party. I was much heartened by the comments of Mr. Hammond, the shadow Chief Secretary, who declared only two days ago that, if tax increases are required, the priority of the Conservatives—should they come into office—would be to protect those on the lowest incomes. Those on our side of the House who believe in a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of wealth and power to workers and their families will be much heartened by the hon. Gentleman joining our happy band of brothers.
We already have British Financial Investments holding shares in banks on behalf of the state, and the Shareholders Executive will work alongside British Financial Investments. President Nicholas Sarkozy has introduced a strategic investment fund in France, in the national interest, to take minority shares in major French companies, essentially to prevent them from falling into foreign ownership, but also if such acquisition is strategic and in the national interest. Is that the approach that the British Government should take? How should we handle the difficulties of the business sector, including major contributors to our economy such as the car industry? Are we proposing an equity participation in those companies, or giving them loans or guarantees?
The Gracious Speech made it clear that the economy and how we handle it will be at the centre of the Government's focus over the year. That is not surprising, as the recession will be with us for a long time. Every day, jobs are lost and businesses affected. What will the Government's policy be? Will the Government assist the car industry or should we emphasise other industries, such as eco-industries—the new kinds of industry that we have been trying to develop for some time?
As Lord Mandelson told the CBI only recently, the next industrial revolution and the low-carbon and post-carbon technologies are what will define the 21st century, including manufacturing areas such as fuel cells, plastic electronics and Bluetooth technology. He hoped that the United Kingdom would be a magnet for what he aptly described as green collar jobs. That sector could be worth trillions of pounds annually by the middle of this century. In June, for example, the Prime Minister said that renewable energy could provide 160,000 new jobs. We did not hear too much about that today, but any review of eco-industry will show that that is where future investment should lie. We need an industry that is diverse, covering manufacturing and services; using new technologies; seeking to minimise environmental damage; supported by public and private enterprise; improving water, soil and air; minimising pollution; and creating a new tier of personnel with commensurate management skills. That idea is at the heart of the Queen's Speech, at the heart of what the Government are trying to say and at the heart how we deal with our economic problems, how we deal with the future and how we reorient our industries.
The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely important point. May I talk to him about some old jobs that also need to be considered? There was nothing in the Queen's Speech about the thousands of people employed in the British pub industry; I know that the hon. Gentleman supports pubs. The Government have announced a devastating increase in duty and we have not heard a single thing about plans to reverse that or about how they will support the pub trade through this difficult time.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. As the recession develops, each sector and each segment of our industry must be looked at and dealt with and cannot be swept aside. The trade to which he refers is part of the service sector and employs quite a lot of people, and we have to consider its difficulties as we consider everything else. The Government have to be a listening Government and an active Government. They must be proactive and they must deal with problems, as they come along, in the best way. They ought to do that within the following framework: they should ask whether when they intervene they should intervene within the free market or in a stronger regulatory form; and they should ask how they can protect jobs and small businesses. That was made very clear in the first four paragraphs of the Queen's Speech, which were the essence of the speech.
The United Kingdom has invested some £600 million in private research and innovation in low-carbon technologies, replicating plans in other European Union member states and in the United States and south-east Asia to create, as the former Chancellor said in March 2007,
"a global network of collaborative sustainable energy research centres" that will lead to
"the creation of a global research platform and hub."
Let me return to the essence of how we deal with our industries. I note that Lord Mandelson is assembling a route map to assess those industries that are viable and those that are not, as well as those that need help, which would include the industry mentioned by Greg Mulholland. Lord Mandelson will not go back to the ethos of national champions and he will probably not go back to the suggestion of an industrial investment fund to take equity participation, but whatever he does will have to fall within the principles of new Labour. New Labour is not a carcase—it is not dead. Its principles of fairness and justice will help small and medium-sized enterprises. We will not look back at the days of the Industrial Reorganisation Corporation but we will look to a future where the emphasis is on new eco-industries and technologies.
Reference was made in the Queen's Speech to the hosting of the G20 summit on
There has been lots of talk about electioneering and how we handle elections. Those are not the issues that face the British public. The British public must come out of the recession in a better and stronger position than the one in which they went into it. It will take time, but it can be done. As the Prime Minister said, it must be done in the interests of the British people. The Gracious Speech sets the framework for that and as a nation state we all ought to work together for that aim.
It is always a pleasure and a privilege to follow Sir Stuart Bell, who is my esteemed colleague on the House of Commons Commission and the Members Estimate Committee. I do not speak in this House wearing my Commission hat but, with that as background, it may helpful if I comment on a few Bills in the Queen's Speech. I shall begin with the one that proposes to strengthen the role of Parliament, but I too regret that there is no Bill on the civil service, as it has long been Conservative party policy that we should have a Bill to restore the civil service's neutrality and impartiality.
It is interesting that a Bill to make the police more accountable should be in the Queen's Speech only a few days after the outrage that has concerned everyone in this House. Like nearly all hon. Members, I am appalled at the Home Office's reaction and the police's over-reaction.
Let us get to the key point. It does not involve Mr. Speaker, although too many people are focusing on this House as the scapegoat; in fact the House was at the end of the line of action. Instead, we should look at who started this assault on democracy. We were told that the Home Office permanent secretary called in the police, but the Met said today that the police were called in by the Cabinet Office.
I have served in the Home Office, and have always respected the calibre of the staff there and considered them second to none in government. However, if it was Sir David Normington who called in the police, he really is the guilty party whose judgment is so flawed that he is not fit to retain his position. If it was the Cabinet Office driving the affair forward, the guilty person would be Sir Gus O'Donnell, and he too should explain his actions and consider his position. I leave it to people in this House much more distinguished than I am to argue about how much the Home Secretary or other politicians knew, but the point is that David Normington and Gus O'Donnell knew everything. They thought it right and proper to arrest a Member of Parliament who revealed the truth about the Home Office—a Department described by a former Home Secretary as "not fit for purpose".
In my 25 years in Parliament, I have never attacked or criticised a civil servant, and I deeply regret that I am now forced to do so for the first time. However, the evidence seems to suggest that Sir David Normington and Sir Gus O'Donnell were the ones who brought in the Metropolitan police's special branch and anti-terrorist squad to track down the leaked Home Office documents. If that is what happened, they are the ones who are not fit for purpose and they should explain themselves rather than hiding behind the Home Secretary, the Prime Minister and other senior members of the Government. Ministers may have their own explaining to do in due course, but we are in danger of losing sight of who initiated this arrest.
Although I regret that there is no Bill on civil service neutrality in the Queen's Speech, we are promised a Bill on police accountability and I turn now to the Metropolitan police. I was a Police Minister for four years, and it was the greatest and most exciting job in government that I was ever asked to do. I liked it so much that I turned down promotion to something else so that I could stay on as Police Minister. I have always defended the police in this country because I regarded them as the finest in the world. I think that all of us have had our illusions about British policing shattered because of this despicable assault on parliamentary privilege by some officers or a section of the Met.
Who are the senior officers who responded to Sir David Normington's demand to investigate Home Office leaks? Why did they not tell the Home Office to sort the matter out internally, as they always used to? Of course, the Prime Minister was absolutely right to say today that operational independence is very important for the police, but that also means that they should not act as lackeys of the Home Office or the Cabinet Office when the senior civil servant there picks up the phone and says, "Excuse me, chaps, could you send in your top team to get this politician?" Who thought it right to involve anti-terrorist officers to raid the home and offices of my hon. Friend Damian Green? Where is the sense of judgment or proportionality? Furthermore, have they nothing better to do?
We are very fortunate that the Government withdrew their proposals to hold people in detention for 42 days without trial. Some of us who were sceptical about that have now seen that some sections of the Metropolitan police cannot be trusted with nine hours of detention, let alone 42 days.
The right hon. Gentleman will recall my long campaign to try and get to the truth of what happened to Army recruits at Deepcut barracks. It was claimed originally that they committed suicide, but the truth may not be so clear. One of the greatest frustrations in my campaign was getting the release of a report by Devon and Cornwall police into the actions of Surrey police in investigating those deaths. I now feel that there has been a conspiracy of concealment, involving a Government Department and those police forces, to cover up what may have been murder. Does he agree that a police accountability Bill might help us to get the truth about what happened to Cheryl James and the other dead recruits?
The whole House has heard what the hon. Gentleman has said. I am not expert in that area and would not wish to go down that path, but we will all now wish to examine carefully any police accountability Bill to see what additional safeguards it might require.
The hon. Gentleman mentions an independent inquiry. The Met has called in the transport police to conduct an independent inquiry. Irrespective of how senior the head of the transport police may be, this is a matter of great constitutional significance. Half a dozen people in the other place may be qualified to rule on the constitutional propriety of parliamentary privilege; some in this House will be qualified to do that, but I am certain that the head of the transport police is not capable of conducting a proper independent inquiry into whether the Metropolitan police acted with due care and diligence and proportionality in arresting a Member of Parliament for leaks from the Home Office. It is a farce; it is ridiculous; and it does the Met even more damage.
Today, I understand that the acting commissioner has made a robust defence of the police. He says that they must be able to act without fear and favour—he is absolutely right—but Members of Parliament must be able to do our duty. Using police officers to interrogate a Member of Parliament for doing his duty is a gross abuse of police powers. I regret that I am saying these words because I have liked the Met for years. I had an old uncle who served in the Met many years ago. I greatly enjoyed being the Minister responsible for the Metropolitan Police in my four years at the Home Office. But until the Met police get their act together and sort themselves out, they are casting a shadow on the neutrality and integrity of the whole British police service that the rest of the police service does not deserve.
Finally on this matter, I say to my colleagues that, clearly, some decisions were made in the House—we shall find out more about them—that were perhaps not best advised, but I ask colleagues on both sides to call off attacks on the Chair of the House. Such attacks only feed those in the print media, some of whom sit in judgment above Mr. Speaker and have always held a grudge against him. Yes, we must make it clear that we will defend Parliament from all unwarranted assaults on our rights, but we do not defend Parliament by going along with some in the media who wish to bring down Mr. Speaker. It is interesting that some of those in the print media who now profess to want to defend the status of Parliament are among the first who want to rake in our dustbins to find every derogatory item that they can get. So let us turn the spotlight not on those who are at the end of the chain of accountability, but on those who initiated the action in the first place in the Home Office, in the Cabinet Office and in the Metropolitan police, who did not have the sense to do the right thing and tell the Home Office to sort it out itself.
I have listened with care to an attack on the Metropolitan police and civil servants. The right hon. Gentleman has a very strong record as a former Home Office Minister, so I am surprised to hear him make that sort of attack. Does he understand that the central allegation is serious if not unprecedented? It is that a former Conservative council candidate, after seeking a job from a Tory MP, whom I understand was a spokesperson on the Home Office at that stage, later joined the civil service to act as, in effect, a spy, giving information on political opponents and to steal confidential information.
May I make it very clear that if the hon. Gentleman had listened to the rest of my intervention, he would understand that I am not quite making an allegation but asking a question about the stealing of some confidential Home Office documents? The inducement might have been—and this seems to be part of the concern of the police—the hope of some sort of preferment if the Conservatives won an election.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, we know that no charge has been laid. We have now had a second allegation from the Minister. If he has that information available in his hand in writing, will he provide the evidence, put it in the Library and lay it on the Table of the House of Commons? He has a prepared intervention. Will he lay down the basis for what he is saying now, so that the whole House has it?
I think that the Minister is developing a point of intervention into the length of a speech. I think it is also outside his current ministerial responsibility. Nothing that he said was out of order. It might be a matter of dispute, but I think that the more we delve, the more difficult territory we get into, which would be better reserved, in so far as it is in order, for the debate that Mr. Speaker has indicated will take place on Monday.
I rise just to clarify for you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the fact that we do not know whether any of these allegations are true or not. I am merely saying in response to the point made by David Maclean, a well- respected Member who is a former Home Office Minister, that those allegations merit a serious police investigation at least. Whether the incident in relation to the House of Commons was right or not is a matter for others to look at. I merely responded in an intervention to the point that he was making. I took the view that his making that point and attacking the police was a matter of great seriousness, considering his experience. We do not know whether any of these allegations are true or not, but they are serious and it is right that the police should investigate them.
I do not think that that particular issue is in dispute. We will certainly hear more about it on Monday and that is probably the better context in which it be done.
Precisely. I had concluded my remarks on that matter, but I respect the Minister and I gave way to him. I simply make the point, which has been made by others, perhaps from a sedentary position, that we do not know whether any of these allegations are true, so why repeat them in this place? I have not made general attacks on the civil service; I have strongly criticised two very senior civil servants. If I am wrong, I will happily withdraw my remarks and apologise in a public place to them, but I am commenting on facts that do seem to be in the public domain—that Sir David Normington at the Home Office and the Cabinet Office have initiated this action. I am commenting on the fact that the Metropolitan police have done what they have done and I said that their judgment was flawed because it was a gross over-reaction which has left me deeply saddened by and disappointed in the Metropolitan police. I hope that this matter can be cleared up because I want my faith and trust in the Met restored. I always thought that they were a tremendous police force, acting under the most difficult conditions, doing an almost impossible job in the capital. I have defended them from many previous attacks. The fact that I in my position now find I am attacking a section of them gravely disappoints me more than perhaps it does the Minister.
I welcome the marine Bill. I believe that it will give access to our coast, which leads me to the point that, if people are going to have the right to walk around our coast line, we must have adequate safety measures for them. The House may not know that in a part of my constituency on the Solway firth we have large mudflats very similar to those in Morecambe bay, with the same sort of tides and highly dangerous access. When one is out on those mudflats, if the tide comes in one has only a few minutes to get to shore before one finds oneself in deep ravines; one can drown.
There is only one sort of boat that can rescue people on those mudflats: it is a flat inflatable dirigible—I think it is called a DIR boat. It is run by the coastguard service. Our coastguard masters in Liverpool have withdrawn the boat because they said that it was not safe enough. They say that the Silloth on Solway lifeboat can do the job instead. The courageous souls of the Silloth on Solway lifeboat thought they would do a test, and of course they got stuck in the mud within minutes; the boat was too deep adrift to go on to those mudflats. I have been protesting vociferously about that.
I wrote to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Jim Fitzpatrick, whom I deeply respect, although I regret his taking the same line as the head of the coastguard service. In one splendid passage in his letter, he said:
"In practice, for rescues at the upper reaches of the Firth at low tide, Liverpool Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre is more likely to task a search and rescue helicopter or a mud rescue team approaching on foot across the mudflats."
If someone were on the mudflats and could walk off, they would not need rescuing by a team walking on to the mudflats—the proposition is barking. If we are going to enact the marine and coastal access Bill, we need a proper lifeboat service and must make sure that the coastguards have the proper resources. We need flat, little, inflatable boats, which are not expensive, in areas such as Burgh by Sands in my constituency and other parts of the country, or we will face deaths and catastrophe.
I note the introduction of the banking Bill, which, in the Government's words, will bring in "fairness". I support and welcome that Bill, but if we are going to have fairness, the Bill must deal with the iniquitous charges that banks impose on not only businesses that are renewing their overdrafts but ordinary individuals. One of my constituents has informed me that when they went 50p over their overdraft with the Halifax, they got a £39 penalty, which is the routine penalty. Another constituent went 1p over with Barclays, and the fine was £35—Barclays has now reduced it to about £6.
I pay tribute to the wonderful website moneysavingexpert.com, which has been fighting a long battle to limit unfair, ruthless banking charges. More than 3 million people have downloaded letters from the website, which they can send to banks to say that they want their money back from unfair charges. Credit card companies now charge an admin fee of about £12 if one goes over one's credit limit, so the banks have recognised that charges of £39, £35 or £25 are totally unfair in the case of someone who has technically gone over an overdraft limit.
The Office of Fair Trading won a court case in the High Court in April this year on the introduction of fairness into the regulations. The banks have, of course, appealed, and everything is on hold. The banking Bill is a splendid opportunity to lay down that the OFT shall have the absolute right to determine a fair banking penalty or the cost of sending a computer-generated letter stating, "Oi, Maclean, you're £10 over your overdraft. Pay it back." We must build it into the legislation, and not leave it to the OFT, that the banks will refund within six months every penny of the £2 billion that they have ripped off individual consumers over the past few years through unfair charges.
I note that the Queen's Speech does not include legislation on pharmacies, for which I am grateful. I hope that the Government will withdraw their pharmacy White Paper and plans to change the pharmacy system. There is no problem with pharmacies, as hon. Members will have found in their constituencies. The White Paper includes proposals that would be disastrous for some rural areas, because people would not be able to use the local dispensing chemist in the doctor's surgery and would be forced to go many miles to another chemist. I understand where the Government are coming from—if a town contains two or three good little private pharmacies, it may be unfair for the doctors to have one too—but the parameters set by the Government would mean GP dispensing being wiped out in many parts of the country, in which case there would be no other convenient dispensary for people to get their medicines.
Far be it for me to defend the Government on that issue—I have made criticisms and written to them on many occasions—but will the right hon. Gentleman accept the correction that, as I understand it, the White Paper proposes ending GP pharmacies only if there is a pharmacy within a mile of the GP practice's headquarters?
Yes, that is right. However, in some cases those private pharmacies will be open only nine-to-five and on Saturday afternoons; they will not be available during the out-of-hours times that a GP service could manage. If in my town of Kirkby Stephen, for example, somebody needed a prescription late on a Saturday afternoon and GPs were not allowed to prescribe, that person would not be able to get their medicine at that time.
The White Paper lays down the option of doing nothing, and I ask the Government to take that option. Has anyone encountered a huge problem with GP prescribing at our pharmacies before? The Government are shaking the system up for no good reason, except one—GP prescribing is more expensive. It seems that doctors tend to prescribe more expensive drugs, rather than the generic ones that they could prescribe, from their own pharmacies. However, the control method is in the Government's hands: they could inspect GP pharmacies and impose sanctions on doctors who over-prescribed expensive drugs.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way yet again. The Measham medical unit in North-West Leicestershire is an example of an excellent GP dispensing pharmacy. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the Government's view that GP prescribing is more expensive. People at the unit would say that such prescriptions are more effective, and that effectiveness rather than cost is the measure by which we should assess how effective GP dispensing is.
I would certainly accept that as a criterion, but it is not one of the three reasons given in the White Paper about why the Government are disturbing the system. There is no mention of making the system more effective through GPs or private pharmacies issuing better quality, more effective medicines. One of the main reasons given is cost. GP prescriptions for GP pharmacies are more expensive than those for external pharmacies, so the Government are bearing down on that—and if they cannot bear down on the cost in that way, they will ban the GPs from making such prescriptions. That is the wrong approach. If GPs and individual practices are prescribing over-expensive medicines, there is a system in government and the health service to spot that and clobber those responsible.
Finally, I wish to comment on the private water supply regulations. I can see nothing in the Queen's Speech directly relevant to them, and I hope that there will be a chance for the Government to withdraw them. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is consulting on the implementation of EU regulation 98/83/EC. As has happened under all Governments, DEFRA is adding bells and whistles and gold-plating. The regulation covers even private water suppliers. If one has a well in one's back garden, its water has to come up to a basic standard of purity. The cost of inspection at the moment is about £50 to £70; under the DEFRA proposals, it will go up to between £700 and £800. The Department is suggesting that it will bring in the full risk assessment system and the full inspection that applies to larger private water users, which consume more than 3 cu m of water a day. That is a lot.
Scotland, of course, is not going for that. It is going for the derogation and will not apply the measure to any private water user consuming less than 3 cu m of water. Ireland is not applying the measure. I understand that the Welsh Assembly is in discussions with DEFRA about the regulation at the moment, and I will be amazed if the Welsh implement it. However, DEFRA in England is going full steam ahead towards imposing those ludicrously high charges—and on people who could not get a public water supply in any case. Those people are not making a lifestyle choice to live in the mountains, have a bore hole and put up two fingers to United Utilities. They cannot get water through the mains pipeline because they are so far away from it. In addition to their not being able to get mains water and sewerage, they could now face punitive charges for having their own water from their own well inspected by busybodies who think they know better than local householders.
I have mentioned my reservations about what is not in the Queen's Speech, but I welcome large parts of the measures that are in the Queen's Speech. I end where I started: I am sorry that we may have to build in measures to put police controls into a Bill dealing with police accountability so that the police do not exceed and abuse their powers. Furthermore, we will step up our calls for a Bill to restore the civil service's impartiality and integrity, and the respect that it has had in every country of the world. Despite what I see as failings at too high a level at the Home Office and Cabinet Office, we still have the finest and best civil service in the world.
It is always a pleasure to follow David Maclean. I pay tribute to him. Despite his disability, he contributes fully to the work of this House. He gave a typically passionate and very fair speech highlighting issues that naturally concern Parliament at the moment, and he did so in a way that we can all respect. He was right, in particular, to praise Mr. Speaker for the way in which he conducted himself. Mr. Speaker was absolutely right not to start giving press conferences because of the circumstances that have arisen since last Thursday. He was right to come to the House to address Members first and foremost about this issue. There are no leaks from the Speaker's Office, so nobody was aware of what he was going to say from the Chair, but I was as surprised as probably every other Member of this House to hear that a Member's offices were searched without a warrant and with the consent of a third party.
Mr. Speaker was right to set up the inquiry that we will debate on Monday, when we will have the opportunity to discuss some of the issues that were raised by the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, my hon. and learned Friend Mr. O'Brien and, to a lesser extent, by the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border. That is the right time for everyone to have an opportunity to air their views on this very important issue. I look forward to the debate. I hope that we will be able to set up a Committee that reflects the House and is able to do what Members want it to do, which is carefully to consider all the circumstances of this case. After all, we are setting up an inquiry into an event that occurred not several months or years ago but last Thursday, so it should be very fresh in the minds of everyone involved.
If the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border is right—I am sure that he is, judging from what has been said in the newspapers—this concerns a lot of very senior members of the Metropolitan police and of the civil service. I have spoken to the Home Secretary, who is yet to make a statement on the matter; I gather that she will do so tomorrow after business questions, although it has not been confirmed by the Annunciator. That will be her opportunity to put on the record what she knew about the circumstances surrounding the arrest of Damian Green. In my conversations with her, she has been very clear that she knew nothing. However, let us hear it not from me or the media but from her when she makes her statement tomorrow and, if she participates, in the debate next week. Let us keep those discussions for that debate while registering, as did the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border with the passion that he displayed, our grave concern as parliamentarians as to precisely what happened last week. I hope that we get an explanation from all those who were responsible. As for Officers of the House, for whom we have very high regard, I am sure that the inquiry set up by Mr. Speaker will take evidence from them.
When this story broke last week, members of the Home Affairs Committee were keen that we should investigate all or part of the circumstances. We will discuss the matter on Tuesday, when members will for the first time have an opportunity to discuss the events of last week. If we decide to move forward on this issue, that will be a further opportunity to do as the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border asked, which is to examine very carefully what the police have done. It affects not only Members of this House but every citizen of this country if they are allowed to go into the house or office of a third party without a warrant but with the consent of a third person. That will create a lot of problems. For example, what if someone is out on a particular day when the police want to search their property, and their landlord happens to be there? If they get his consent, is that enough in law?
The right hon. Gentleman makes a serious and important point. Many of us were astonished by what we heard from Mr. Speaker earlier. The right hon. Gentleman has a legal background. In his opinion, before what we heard this afternoon, would it have been right for a landlord to be able to give consent in such a matter?
Only if we regard the Serjeant at Arms as our landlord. The hon. Gentleman is right: what happened creates many precedents. I want to know the timeline—the moment the decision was made and when the Mayor of London was rung. It was odd to ring the Mayor of London, but not tell the Home Secretary. Perhaps the Mayor of London is normally rung about such matters and he knows about every arrest that is to be made in the Metropolitan police area. Who knows? The situation is new to us all and the story changed again only at 2.30 this afternoon. Life is sometimes stranger than fiction.
My intervention is designed to be helpful. We have heard from several people what they did not know. Would not it be good if someone at the centre of Government asked people what they did know, and put it on the public record? If, for example, the Cabinet Office was consulted about whether Ministers should be told and it decided that Ministers would not want to be told, that would cast much light on a murky area.
The hon. Gentleman is right, but I cannot speak for the Home Secretary. She will make her statement and someone will lead the debate on Monday—it could be a House matter, so the Leader of the House might lead it. If we find that questions have not been answered, the Select Committee will want to hear from the Home Secretary, because the situation might arise again. It is better to get everything straight and above board now. Let us wait for the debate and the Committee. We have no indication of when the Committee of the magnificent seven will report, but it will not be as quickly as the police, whose report will be published on
Let us move on to the Gracious Speech. First, I congratulate my right hon. Friend Mr. Clarke, who has doubtless departed for Coatbridge to hear his constituents' celebrations on his moving the Loyal Address. I also congratulate my hon. Friend Liz Blackman, who was my Whip in the east midlands for most of her time as a Whip. I am glad that she has not revealed to the House some of the things that I said to her when I was unable to serve on a statutory instrument Committee. I have known both colleagues for many years and they both made excellent speeches. It is a privilege to move and second the Loyal Address, and they did so with great dignity and wit.
I welcome the Gracious Speech and I am glad that Opposition Members and even the Leader of the Opposition welcomed many aspects of it. The right hon. Gentleman claimed most of them—all the good bits—as his ideas. That is a good sign. We shall have a quiet Session, at least in the Chamber—we do not know about our offices—if the Opposition support everything that the Government propose.
I want to highlight four matters. Policing is obviously an issue. The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border mentioned the police and reduction of crime Bill. I welcome the Government's desire for and commitment to greater accountability for the police. The Conservative party favours the election of commissioners—the chiefs of police in local areas. The Government propose elected members of the police committee. I have always said that the profile of local police committees should be much higher. I have no fundamental objection to their members being elected rather than appointed by the various political groups and others, but when the matter is discussed in Committee, we will have an opportunity to scrutinise the proposals. My hon. Friend David Taylor and I share a police committee, a chief constable and a police force. Sometimes we feel that there should be better accountability. We need to explore the best way of achieving that when the Bill is given a Second Reading.
My right hon. Friend and I do indeed share an excellent police authority that operates fairly well at the moment. Does he share my concern that in aiming to create popular policing, the measures, as we currently understand them, will risk creating populist policing, by having directly elected people on police authorities? The turnout for elections of that kind is not likely to be high, so are such bodies likely to have much legitimacy?
My hon. Friend is right; there are concerns. It has been put to me that holding such elections might mean that those on the far right will get on to the committees and therefore control police forces. However, in my view, the people will get what they vote for. There can be sufficient safeguards to ensure that such bodies represent the views of the public. Therefore, I support in principle what the Government propose. We need to deal with the issue by raising the profile of police committees. That will promote a better understanding of what such committees do, enabling people to call them to account in a way that was perhaps not possible previously. So, with the caveat about low turnouts that my hon. Friend mentioned, I think that people should know who runs our local police forces.
I welcome the Government's proposals on alcohol sales. The Select Committee on Home Affairs produced a major report, entitled "Policing in the 21st Century", in which we made a number of recommendations about police time. We felt that too much police time was being spent on alcohol-related crime. One in every two crimes in this country is in some way alcohol related. We felt that the real culprits were the supermarkets, by offering two cans of beer or lager or two bottles of spirits for the price of one and by reducing prices so much. That meant that it was easy for people to get pre-loaded before going out on a Saturday night. They then went out in our towns and cities, bought beer in pubs and caused even more disorder.
I am not making an attack on the alcohol industry, but it must be more responsible. If the industry is more responsible, a lot of the time that the police spend dealing with alcohol-related crime will be saved. If hon. Members go to any custody suite on a Saturday night, they will find it full of people who are drunk and who have committed violent offences or public order offences. That occupies a huge amount of the police's time. That is why it is so important not just to deal with what is happening in our supermarkets, but to send out a message to those running our clubs who offer happy hours, free drinks or two drinks for the price of one—anything to get people totally smashed, so that they do not know what they are doing. What we have heard today is a good sign that the Government are prepared to listen.
There is a commitment in the policing and crime reduction Bill to cut down even further on police paperwork. The Government's appointment of Jan Berry as the new paperwork tsar—she has not taken up her appointment yet—is a very good choice indeed, as she proved to be a very successful president of the Police Federation. As someone who has so recently served with the police at the level at which we as parliamentarians should deal with them—we need to deal not just with chief constables, but with custody sergeants and officers on the beat—Jan Berry will know where the red tape lies. When she makes her recommendations, which I hope will be in line with what Sir Ronnie Flanagan said in his report, I hope that the Government will slash that red tape, ensuring that what needs to be recorded can be recorded and that whatever is unnecessary is left to one side.
That is why we on the Committee called firmly for every police officer in the country to be given a personal computer. If they each had a BlackBerry or personal computer, they would be able to record what was happening at the scene of the crime, rather than inviting people to come back later. I do not know whether the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border considered such a proposal when he was the Minister with responsibility for policing—I am not suggesting that computers had not been invented then—but the technology has advanced much since, so let us use it.
When I was the Minister with responsibility for policing, I discovered that much of the information collected by the police was required by the Home Office because we in Parliament were asking questions about it. If we as parliamentarians are prepared to accept that we might not get to know the level of crime in a particular area on a particular Saturday night, the police will no longer need to collect that information. We would be slightly more in the dark, but police time would be greatly freed up.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right and makes a point that will greatly assist the use of police time. He asked earlier why they were not doing something else and why they could not find something better to do. We would like our police officers to solve crime at the local, neighbourhood level. That is terribly important.
Secondly, I welcome the equality Bill, for which we have been waiting for a long time. It is definitely the handiwork of the Leader of the House, the Minister for Women and Equality. The Bill will not introduce affirmative action, but it will deal with the remaining equality issues that we need to deal with, to ensure that our public bodies are accountable and transparent. It is good that we are going to put all the equality legislation of the past 20 to 30 years into one definitive equality Bill—one statute that deals with all the issues.
I hope that the Bill will also ensure that people feel that we remain a country of equal opportunity. Since
I have two final points, the first of which is about the banking Bill. I am sure that none of the right hon. and hon. Members in the Chamber this evening was around last Thursday when I discussed the 17-year liquidation of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, an issue in which I have been involved in for the whole of that time. Mr. Redwood was at some stage the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and I am sure that I had a meeting with him about the liquidation of BCCI in those 17 years. Hon. Members will remember that when BCCI closed and the Bingham report recommended better banking supervision, we were supposed to have very tight regulation, so that banks would never do the kinds of things that BCCI did.
As the House knows, 84 per cent. of the money deposited by BCCI's customers has been paid back, even though when the bank closed on
My final point is about immigration. We are promised another immigration Bill, but in the 21 years in which I have been in the House, we have probably had 21 immigration Bills. All were supposed to ensure that the immigration system was working adequately, which it clearly is not, as anyone who attended the Home Affairs Committee sitting just a couple of weeks ago, at which the Minister for Borders and Immigration spoke, will know. We still have a major problem with the immigration and nationality directorate. I do not think that introducing another Bill will make the system better. What we need is administrative action. We still have a huge backlog of cases, which, to be fair, we inherited from the previous Conservative Government when we took office in 1997. However, it is no excuse to say after 11 years that there is still a backlog. I have told successive Immigration Ministers that their place in history would be assured if they were the one to clear the backlog, but there is still a backlog.
The Home Affairs Committee recently went to Bangladesh and India to look at the points-based system. In Bangladesh, we were told that the Government were deporting 25 Bangladeshis a month, but that 36 were claiming asylum every month. That is a major problem. The only way to deal with a net inflow of asylum seekers from a democratic country such as Bangladesh is to look at one's systems, not to pass more laws or to say that anyone who wants to be a citizen will have to go out and do good works to get their citizenship. We must make sure that our administration runs properly. That is what the previous Home Secretary was saying when he said that the immigration and nationality directorate was not fit for purpose.
Other Members and I have large immigration case loads. Believe me, people come to me every Friday complaining about letters from the Home Office saying that they must wait until 2011 for a decision on their case. During those four or five years, some of them will meet other people and fall in love, and some will have children. Despite everything that the Minister with responsibility for immigration says about limiting the number of people in this country, we cannot stop those things from happening. I do not think that the Government have suggested that chastity belts should be issued to the public to keep the population below 70 million.
In wearily supporting another immigration Bill, I make a plea to the Government: if they want to pass such a law, they should do so, but they should remember that the way to solve the problem is to deal with the administrative issues. That is the way to get a proper and fair immigration system.
I remind the House that I am a company director, and that I have declared my interests on the register.
I echo the words of Keith Vaz about legislation often not being the answer to the pressing problems that confront the nation. Perhaps I should begin with a rare word of praise for the Government: the good thing about this Queen's Speech is that there is not too much legislation in it. I make two pleas, however. First, may we please have the time to debate, at length and seriously, the proposed legislation in it, in order to do it justice? If one legislates in haste, one repents at leisure and has to legislate again and again, as we have seen.
Secondly, may we also have more time in which to hold the Executive to account? What Ministers do when they spend money and when they lead or mislead their civil service teams, or do not lead them at all, is crucial work. Their implementation of programmes and their day-to-day work of judging cases and hearing representations is also crucial work. As a parliamentarian who would like the opportunity to have more sittings here that we could attend, I feel that we could profitably spend our time probing and discussing more of those matters. Sensible Ministers would welcome that scrutiny. As a Minister, I often found it good to have to explain to the House what I was doing. It made one marshall one's case and realise where one needed to raise one's game. Colleagues on both sides of the House made helpful points, sometimes in anger or desperation and sometimes as friends, and one would have been a fool not to take such points on board and to understand what the House was doing.
I want to speak mainly about the leading item in the Queen's Speech, which is reflected in some Treasury legislation: the need to create financial stability. I think that is the Government's phrase to mean that we need better economic policy so that living standards can start to rise again instead of falling, and so that we can do better by our constituents who face serious trouble. We see factory closure after factory closure and people going on to short-time working. Many people face having employment for only three or four days a week, some people are facing extended factory closures over Christmas and the new year and some people are facing redundancy.
All our living standards have been chopped brutally by the 25 per cent. fall in the value of sterling of the past four months. Most people's living standards have fallen in the past year because wages have risen less quickly than prices. Living standards are also falling because although the oil price has come down a long way in dollar terms, it has not come down so far in sterling terms because of the weakness of the pound. It certainly has not come down when one faces the gas or electricity bill at home. Practically everyone in the country, save those who have managed to get an extra job on better pay, is experiencing a severe squeeze on living standards.
When I made a non-party political point to the Prime Minister during the course of his remarks on the Gracious Speech, which was designed as a helpful suggestion to him to tackle the biggest problem that confronts us today—the lack of credit and money flowing through the banking system—I was treated to the usual, foolish political put-down, which was not even accurate. Apparently, the Prime Minister has nothing better to do with his time than to consider the latest offerings on my website. I am greatly flattered by this, and perhaps that shows his true sense of priority, but would he and his acolytes please read it carefully, because what it said was that markets and Government policy are forcing living standards down? That is what I have just told the House, but I have done so at greater length on the website. That is not what I want or propose or think a good idea. I have gone hoarse and have written a lot on the website in the past two years making sensible, serious proposals to try to avoid that calamity and to prevent living standards from falling.
I deeply resent the way in which time and time again I am told personally, and the Conservative party is told generally, that we in some way welcome a recession, that we want to do nothing about a recession, that we accept a recession, that we think a recession is good enough and somehow we like recessions. I loathe recessions; I have seen too many. Yes, they have occurred when different parties have been in office, but they have all been because major policy mistakes have been made. Every one of them has occurred in ways that could have been abated or ameliorated if different policy action had been taken. That is why I have spent the past two years trying to persuade the Government that they needed to take different action to avoid recession or, now that we are deep in it, to get out of it more quickly.
Did the right hon. Gentleman note that Her Majesty said, in the Gracious Speech:
"My Government will work towards European action on economic stability"?
Does that fill him with fear given that this country is a net contributor to the European budget and that we subsidise 20 or so other countries in Europe? Does he think that it will be a way out of recession for us to put more money into Europe to be used in its particular and peculiar way to tackle economic stability?
I welcome intergovernmental action of any kind that will address the banking crisis that runs across Europe and the United States of America. I do not take the hon. Gentleman's bait. He well knows that I think that a lot of money is wasted in the European Union, and that I should like it to have a much smaller budget and much less power. However, that is not the point of this debate. We are discussing the very big crisis that confronts a range of economies in the world.
Britain happens to have one of the worst and most persistent examples of that crisis. We went into it quite early, with the collapse of Northern Rock, and we are now deep in it in a way that is not mirrored in China, Japan or Germany. Those countries are rather stronger when it comes to their balance of payments and financial position. Our position is closer to that of the United States of America, where similar policy errors were made to those that were made here.
Let us be under no delusion. We did not inherit this problem from the United States of America; we do not have it because something went wrong there. Our policy makers and authorities, using their powers, made similar mistakes to the American mistakes. They should have known better, and they should listen to those of us who can give some explanation as to what went wrong. They should listen to those of us who care so much about our country that we offer them good advice to get out of the situation.
This is a big crisis, and it is not something to play party politics with. I agree with that proposition, which some have advanced from time to time. Everyone knows that I like a good party political scrap, and that I am not afraid of a good argument, but on this occasion, the magnitude of the crisis and the way in which action has been ineffective so far should be of grave concern to us all. We should listen a little more carefully and think together a little more about how to get out of the situation.
Let us consider some of the mistakes that have been made. In August 2007, it was obvious to me, as a commentator, and to many people in the City, that the money markets were drying out, that the Bank of England was not supplying enough cash and that there was going to be a banking catastrophe. We warned the Bank and told it to supply more cash, but it failed to do so. We had lectures from the Governor and the Chancellor that it served the banks right, but shortly after those lectures, the run on Northern Rock began. Shortly after that, I am pleased to say, they reversed their policy and agreed that they had to do something and to put money in. Had the Government put in the amount of money in August that they had put in by the end of the year, Northern Rock would not have gone down. It was a totally unnecessary casualty, as a result of obstinacy, foolishness and the inability of the authorities to understand the state of the markets.
In my new-year message, and in other speeches, comments and articles that I wrote at the turn of the year, I told the Government that interest rates were far too high and that, because they were keeping them so high, we were going to have a very nasty and deep recession in a year's time. I said that if action had been taken to slash interest rates at that time—I suggested halving them, and that has now just about been done, nine months too late—some of the severity of the downturn could have been avoided. The Government decided, however, that they did not want to do that. They now have to answer to the House and tell us why they refused that well-intentioned advice, and why they could not see for themselves that interest rates were far too high and doing enormous damage, and that this was drying up credit in a way that was going to hit the jobs of their constituents as well as ours, in a way that meant that a lot of businesses were going to run out of cash and in a way that was bound to bring things down.
The Government have taken several famous lines on the recession. First, they have told us that they are on the side of everyone at this time. Well, I would hope that they are. We are all on the side of the people who are about to suffer; that is not something that creates a party political divide in this country. We are elected here to serve people, and I think that we all come here because we have a passion about the people we represent, and because we want them to have a better standard of life and better opportunities in life. That is not something that divides the parties, so it is quite wrong of the Government to go round suggesting that only they are on the side of the people.
The Government, unlike us, are in a very privileged position. We can suggest, propose and argue about what we think should be done to show that we are on people's side, but the Government can actually do these things. When they threw the challenge across to my right hon. Friend Mr. Cameron—who was in extremely good voice today—to name five things that he would do to help people during this very nasty recession, he reeled off five extremely sensible proposals that he and others on our Front Bench have been arguing for. He obviously took the wind out of the sails of that foolish attack.
The Government should stop playing trivial politics with this issue, and see that the loyal Opposition are on the side of the people as well, and that we have some proposals that the Government have not yet adopted and that could help a bit. They need to understand that what the people want more than anything else is not help when they have a repossession crisis, when they have lost their job or when they cannot afford to pay the gas bill, but to see the Government following an economic policy that will get us out of this situation. They want the Government to offer some real hope to show that they have got on top of the banking crisis.
In its early stages, the Gracious Speech referred to legislation for the banks. I have no objection to the Government wishing to put the banking code into legislation, and I understand that the banks have no objection either. The timing of the proposal is quite bizarre, however, because the Government are going to be legislating on banking conduct at precisely the time when a big chunk of the banking sector is coming under their direct control as a nationalised industry. Perhaps the Government do not trust themselves. Perhaps they suddenly see the need to have lots of banking regulation codified in statute because they are going to be the shareholder representatives, as well as choosing and getting rid of the directors and otherwise exercising some sort of control.
This brings us to an interesting dilemma that the Government now face, and which they need to resolve. Again, it would be helpful if we could have some intelligent dialogue on this matter, rather than silly yah-boo politics. Here is the dilemma. The banks were called in on one famous weekend and told that they did not have enough capital for their existing amount of lending, and that they had to raise large sums of capital very quickly to satisfy the Government and the regulator, who could then say that the banks were secure and safe. That was a rather odd thing to do in the middle of a very bad credit crunch. It would have been very good to have done it three years ago, before the credit explosion really got under way, because it would have taken some of the pressure out of the system and moderated banking conduct. It would also have been sensible to have done it in private, and not to have leaked it, so that the banks could have had a chance to raise the money from private sources without share prices being pushed against them by untimely and worrying leaks about how strong the banks really were.
If the Government are serious that this is the right time to demand so much more capital for the existing amount of lending, they have to understand that the banks are going to lend less. There are two ways in which banks can meet the new capital requirements. One is to raise very large sums of money, and they have done that a bit, to the extent that they and the Government think that they can. The other way is to lend less, which will result in the ratio improving—the ratio compares the lending with the amount of capital—and this is primarily why the banks are lending less. They have been told, by the Government's regulator, that they need to lend less, relative to the amount of capital that they have.
At the same time, however, the Government are saying that, now that the banks are coming under public ownership, it is terribly important that they should lend more. Are the Government going to adjust the capital ratio? Are they going to provide even more shareholder capital from the taxpayer? Or do they not understand that their statements are pointing in opposite directions and are contradictory? We need a better explanation from the Government of what they really expect from the banks. Do they want them to be super-prudent, now that they realise how imprudent the regulatory regime, the monetary regime—and, yes, banking conduct—were in the run-up to the credit crisis? Or are they now saying that they have probably overdone it, and they need the banks to lend more? If that is the case, they need to look again at the ratios and consider what they are going to do.
Of course, no bank of any major scale must be allowed to go down, and I am pleased that the Government understand that. They normally suggest that people like me would like to see that happen, but of course I would not. I have gone blue in the face trying to explain why banks need to be supported, and that they need to be supported in the right way. I think that they need to be supported by an intelligent central bank that will lend them short-term funds when they need them, and by an intelligent regulator privately telling them how much extra capital they need to raise and giving them the chance to raise that capital, either by selling assets, cutting costs and generating more profit, or by going to the market, if that option is open to them. There are many ways in which banks can improve and increase their strength and their capital base, but they were not given the chance to do that because of the damaging leaks that occurred over that fateful weekend, when they were called in by the Government and the regulator.
The subject of leaks is, of course, extremely topical, and I find it odd that such an asymmetric approach is being taken to the matter. A high-level inquiry is taking place into a series of leaks from the Home Office. There will be plenty of opportunity to debate that matter, and I do not wish to detain the House by talking about it now. We need to know more before we can have an informed debate. I find it odd, however, that the same level of interest was not shown in the leaks about banking share capital, which were highly price sensitive and market sensitive, and which got out through a well-known conduit when what should have been secret talks were taking place at the Treasury. That had a big impact on the handling of the banking crisis in Britain. It speeded up the decision making, which possibly led to bad decisions being made, and, for some banks, it ruled out going to the market in the normal way or generating profit in the normal way to meet the targets. The leaks will prove extremely damaging to the taxpayer, and the information was highly price sensitive. It is surprising that no one is taking a great deal of interest in those leaks.
The other day, we heard a statement that was meant to be the pre-Budget report. The pre-Budget report is quite rightly normally delivered as a statement, in which the Government revise their economic forecasts and give some background to the real Budget. On this occasion, however, the statement was not a pre-Budget report at all; it was a Budget. In fact, it was the biggest Budget that I have ever sat through in the House of Commons. It moved more money—in absolute terms, and as a proportion of the economy—than I have ever seen a Chancellor of the Exchequer propose to move. It was vast. It was a Budget that divided the House on party lines. The Conservatives rightly said that it involved the least sensible tax cut that could possibly be introduced, which would not have the desired effect. We also pointed out that the borrowing figures were so preposterously large that the Government would be running much too great a risk. The Government, however, believe that that tax cut and that amount of extra borrowing are the right way to handle the recession.
That was a perfectly good disagreement that needed to be exposed. It was worth a decent debate. However, we got a debate only thanks to Mr. Speaker and only after a lot of huffing and puffing. A Government who come to the House in the person of the Prime Minister to say that they believe in parliamentary democracy should automatically have tabled two or three days to debate that Budget. The Prime Minister should have been proud of it, for heaven's sake. If he really believes in his case, if he thinks that he is right to gamble with so much borrowed money, and if he thinks that an immediate VAT reduction is what is needed to get everyone feeling happy and spending again, and to open the factories and stop the job losses, he has every entitlement to hold that view and to come and tell us about it. Surely he must be proud of it. I think that proposal is completely wrong; I wish it were not: if there were a quick, easy fix and if I thought that taking 2.5 per cent. off VAT would suddenly turn the economy around, I would be encouraging my colleagues on the Conservative Benches—whether or not they agreed with me—to say, "Yes, this is exactly what we should be doing". Unfortunately, I do not think there is a prayer of it working. That is why it deserved a proper parliamentary debate.
That brings me to the concluding part of my remarks, which is about democracy itself. On this day of all days, we should be reminded of the mighty battles our predecessors fought so that this place could stand up for the people against an over-mighty Executive. Now the form of the ceremony handles the King or Queen as the possible aggressor: that was true 300 to 400 years ago, but it is not true today in an era of a wonderful monarch, who is a democratic one and does not interfere in the political process. Today, the power is on the Treasury Bench; today, the power is in ministerial offices; today, the power is there in the form of Ministers who will not tell us what is going on, who will not answer to this House, who will not answer questions and who will not hold debates on the things that really matter.
That is why Opposition Members—I think Liberal Democrats as well as Conservatives—are united in believing that the Government have to wake up and listen to those who say that we need a stronger democracy in this Parliament and that we will have better government if it is more accountable government. We will have better government if the Government respect the traditions of this place; we will have better government if Ministers try to answer questions instead of playing silly politics all the time and refusing to answer. It would not have hurt the Prime Minister to have treated my intervention seriously and answered my question about the £487 billion that he is spending on the banks and the banking sector. It is a colossal sum of money; I, of course, wish him well with it; I agree with all the £37 billion of it—but it is not working and it needs to be reconsidered. The Prime Minister needs to re-examine the package to get it working quickly for all our sakes; otherwise, we are simply going to have more factory closures, more job losses, more office closures throughout this country's constituencies.
If the Prime Minister cannot see that that is how he should conduct himself, it is going to be very difficult for him to make the difficult and important decisions he needs to make to start to get us out of this crisis. It is regrettable if he does not understand that most of the information handled in Government offices is not private information for Ministers to hoard and release to their favourite journalists when they choose, but public information that Ministers have a duty to release in due time and in the proper way to this House of Commons first. The privilege of belonging to this House should be that we get the information first and that we cross-examine the Government first. Why do we need that privilege? Because that is the way we do our job for our constituents. They expect to see Government policy and information tested in the furnace of the House of Commons first, not given to preferred journalists on the side and spun in favourable ways that do not allow the alternative case to be made.
Our democracy is at risk. We have gone from having twice-a-week opportunities to cross-examine the Prime Minister to having only one opportunity. We were told, "All will be fine, as you are going to get half an hour instead of a quarter of an hour", but that matters very much. It means that the Opposition have a chance of making the agenda only one day a week instead of the two days that we used to have with two 15-minute sessions. We have gone from a system under which most of the time most parliamentary questions got sensible answers in response to the question asked to a position today when most of written parliamentary questions I table get absolutely no answer at all. I am referred to a website or I am told that I have put the wrong question, that I have no right to ask it or that the issue I raised relates to a Government-owned bank or a quango and the Minister cannot comment on it. It is pathetic, Madam Deputy Speaker. The quality of answers to written questions is very low and we cannot have an informed public debate if the Government will not answer those written questions.
When it comes to oral questions, it is a remarkable occasion if a Minister actually knows the answer and shares it with the House. We have two sorts of Ministers: very clever ones who know the answer and will not give it away because they find it so embarrassing, and not-so-clever ones who do not even know the answer that they must not give away. It is high time that we saw some Ministers on the Treasury Bench who know their subject well enough and have enough confidence in their case to tell us what the facts are, put the spin they want to put on it and try to satisfy the more moderate-minded people on the Opposition Benches. There are some and they would be satisfied with that; others would still disagree, but do so over something that mattered and based on proper information.
When I was a Minister, before making major statements or announcements, I used to allow my shadow Minister access to civil servants because I wanted him to know quite a lot of what I knew so that we would not have a row or argument about the facts—the facts would be in common so we could have a debate about what the public wanted to hear, namely what interpretation was placed on those facts and what action had been decided on as a result of them. All too little of that happens nowadays. That is why people outside are frustrated with this place; that is why people do not think it is working as it should be; that is why people feel that all the spin—that the Government are on the people's side and the Opposition do not have a clue—is not actually working. People are hurting out there; they are losing their jobs; their living standards are falling; they are under pressure. It need not be like that: the Government should listen and they should, above all, become democratic.
I will not attempt to follow Mr. Redwood in the animated version of his website, fascinating as it was. It seemed to me that his speech was a pot pourri of ideas about banking and parliamentary reform, which somehow did not gel together. He told us that he had foreseen the crisis—well, congratulations on that—and that the Government's measures were wrong, but he never told us what he would do. He then launched into his diatribe about parliamentary reform. Perhaps he thinks that having an extended Prime Minister's Question Time is the answer for all those people out there who are hurting. Is that his answer?
I spent quite a lot of time on that. I explained that the Government needed to revisit the banking package to get the banks lending again. I said that they needed to look again at the regulatory framework for the banks so that credit could flow. I also explained that we needed lower interest rates. Those are all suggestions that I made.
I can agree with the right hon. Gentleman on that, but he did not say whether he welcomed the Government's putting money into the banks to improve their reserve ratios, which will get them lending again. He did not say whether he agreed with the Government's making liquidity available to the Bank of England, which will also help to get lending going again. He told us that markets were the answer, when it is markets that got us into this position in the first place. He criticised the failure to reduce interest rates, although he knows full well that those rates are controlled by the Bank of England, independently of the Government—a development that his party welcomed. I was pretty critical of it, but all that contributed to high interest rates, which he denounced as the cause of the problem.
The right hon. Gentleman, in his eagerness to criticise what the Government are doing, did not give us an answer. He might have been referring to the economics of Montagu Norman and Otto Niemeyer; I do not know. Perhaps that is the source of his website information, but there was no answer in the right hon. Gentleman's speech, apart from having an extended Prime Minister's Question Time. Marvellous, but that will not help all the people who are hurting in the country at large. What we need is concrete measures, which I will come to in a little while. I have no doubt that the right hon. Gentleman would disagree with me on the sort of measures that I believe are necessary, but I am surprised that a very short Queen's Speech—a very short one indeed—has brought about such a flood of indignation and complaint.
I was even more surprised to find that both the Conservative leader and the leader of the Liberal Democrats said that most of the measures in the Queen's Speech had been proposed by them in the first place, only to go on to denounce them and say that they would not work. That criticism seemed a little contradictory to me. In fact, Mr. Clegg was even more critical of the Queen's Speech than he was of his own Front Benchers when he was on his plane flight. I wish that flight had been a little longer, as we might have heard what he thought about the entire Liberal party. That might have been fairly damaging, but my point is that he was not at all supportive of the important measures that the Government have taken or of the further measures that they are proposing.
It was a short Queen's Speech and ritual indignation was in inverse ratio to the length of it. It may well be that we will have a lighter legislative load in the Session; I hope we do. I hope that the proposals put to the Prime Minister earlier by Dr. Harris for better Report stages are followed up, so that we can actually get to grips with all the amendments, including the Government amendments. We need more serious consideration of the basis of a Bill on Report, and I hope that that will be a product of having a lighter legislative load. I imagine that the Daily Mail will demand that our expenses be cut appropriately to reflect the lightness of the load.
It is a light speech and a light load because we are clearing the decks to deal with the economic situation. The speech says:
"The Government's overriding priority is to ensure the stability of the British economy during the global economic downturn."
That is the basis of the Queen's Speech, and of my own. I was a little distressed to see a vestige of new Labour in the speech, one of whose provisions was a Bill to reform the welfare system
"to improve incentives for people to move from benefits into sustained employment."
If that is to work, there has to be sustained employment available and jobs for people to move into. My worry is that we will be pressuring people to move into jobs that are not there as unemployment rises.
That is a last vestige of new Labour, but I want to argue today that new Labour is a dead parrot so far as economic management is concerned. New Labour was an approach geared towards the economic management of good times and of steady growth, which we have had. We tend to forget it, but we have had long years of continuous growth that have made everybody in this country better off, improved schools, hospitals, public buildings and the centres of our cities. We should not forget that but we are now in a different situation; we are in a recession, a more difficult situation.
I am speaking today to bury new Labour, not to praise it. It does not deserve the kiss of life that Lord Mandelson has been trying to give it. It was economics for another time and it has been killed, effectively, by the bursting of the bubble; a bubble based largely on increasing house prices, as a result of which everyone got optimistic and borrowed more. People felt able to borrow more and the banks felt able to lend more on the basis of increasing house prices. There is a simple law of economics, which is that if a thing cannot go on for ever, it probably will not, and it did not. The bubble burst and we are now in a new situation, one in which, I must tell the right hon. Member for Wokingham, we are all socialists now; even George Bush. What King Edward VII said at the start of the last century is appropriate now; "We are all socialists."
Only the state has the power and the strength to deal with the situation, to recapitalise the banks and to push them into lending. As the right hon. Member for Wokingham said, they need to lend more to small businesses and individuals, but only the state has the power to give them the money and to push them into doing that. Only the state has the power during a recession to maintain a policy of fair shares. Only the state has the power to protect the individuals hit by the recession, as the Prime Minister announced today we are to do by strengthening the position of people who face repossessions; an important step in these economic difficulties. Only the state has the power to re-regulate in the way that the right hon. Gentleman clearly wanted. I agree that we have to re-regulate, but only the state can do it and counteract the market by those regulations.
This is a new time and a new age in which we need new policies for companies that are over-leveraged and weighed down with debt. The problem now is not inflation, which has been the main problem over the long period of steady growth; it is deflation and lack of demand. That is causing the problems and it is vital to break that downward spiral and to boost demand.
I see here a contrast emerging between what the Government will do and what the Conservatives would do. We do not need to look into the oracle; we can see it in the history of the last Conservative Government, who dealt with two recessions by measures of deflation—cuts, unemployment and high interest rates, reaching 15 per cent. at one time. That is the Tory answer to recession; it is not the answer from the Labour party and it is not the answer that will work. What will work is a policy of boosting purchasing power and consumer demand by a policy of spend, spend, spend. To spend, the Government have to borrow. We must borrow more and we must spend it.
The right hon. Member for Wokingham was a little sarcastic about the cut in VAT. I would join him in that because a better use for the money would be to pump it out into the community to spend rather than cutting VAT. When sales with discounts of 10, 20 and 30 per cent. have become a way of life in the high street, a cut of 2.5 per cent. in VAT makes no difference at all. As a camera fanatic, I shall finish my speech early so that I can get to Jessops to get 10 per cent. off its prices. Unfortunately, I see that it will be closed so my speech can extend to its natural length.
But the money could have been better directed at taking people out of the tax net altogether. We still have to deal with the 1 million or so who have not been compensated yet for the abolition of the 10p rate. Going by the mail I get, half that number appear to live in my constituency. That has to be dealt with. It is more sensible to take people out of tax altogether by raising the allowances and to help people by increasing benefits. Why not double the winter fuel allowance? Fifty pounds on the winter fuel allowance, which is now £250 or £400, for those over 80 is not adequate to deal with the huge rise in fuel bills people are facing this winter. Double it; increase benefits; and increase tax credits for working families. That directs the money straight at the problem of child poverty that we pledged to deal with.
The aim of policy should not be to cut VAT by 2.5 per cent., but to put money not into the pockets of the rich but into the pockets of the less well-off and the people who go out and spend it. We want them to spend and buy; we want consumer demand to increase. The increase in the top rate of tax to 45 per cent. was welcome to me, but it should have been 50 per cent. and I think the community would have accepted that. There is a feeling that people who benefited so richly in the good years should now help to pay their share in the period of difficulty. Increase the top rate of tax next year; not now as we do not increase taxes in a recession. But the bottom 20 per cent. of the population pay about 40 per cent. of their incomes in direct and indirect tax whereas the top 20 per cent. only pay 35 per cent.
Therefore would not it have been sensible to raise the threshold to take what the hon. Gentleman describes as bottom earners out of income tax? I understand that that would have cost £2 billion, a sixth of what the VAT fiasco has cost.
Exactly. I was about to propose that and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for taking the words out of my mouth and using them more eloquently and articulately than I ever could. That is what we should have done; take people out of tax altogether. We could have taken a large number out of tax by raising the allowances.
Apart from spend, spend, spend, which has to be the economic norm in a recession, the second approach in good old Keynesian fashion is to build, build, build. It is by building that we put people back into work. Was it Keynes who said that if we employed people to dig holes in the road, they would be receiving a wage and that would stimulate the economy? But we can more easily employ people to build houses, in particular, but also schools and all the other things our communities need.
Housing is a particular problem. Unfortunately, we are obsessed with ownership, and I think that that obsession has led us into having a real problem, because the rate of building of public housing for rent has been far too low. Unless the building of public housing for rent is kept pari passu with private building, there will be two developments: first, a bigger price increase than would occur if there were more public housing available for rent; and, secondly, people pushed into ownership who cannot sustain that. That is why we are now facing a repossessions problem.
We must have a big-scale building programme of public housing for rent. The housing associations will play their part, and we are giving them money, which is very welcome. Housing associations are comparatively slow to build, however. They also have their own financial difficulties at present, and they have difficulty in raising credit in the current tight credit market. Building can best be boosted, therefore, by bringing councils back into building. It is an appalling fact that whereas in all the other big Labour building drives—those of the 1960s and 1970s—the rate of council house building kept up with that of private building, in the last year for which figures are available we built only 300 council houses. There are 2.8 million council houses in the country, and they require renovation and repairs, and their estates need upgrading and developing. We must allocate money to the councils to enable them to build again. It is no use our saying, "We'll wait for the housing revenue account review that is now taking place." That will not be completed until May next year, and it cannot be implemented until May 2010, which is, in my view, a good month for an election. We should put money into the councils now, or stop taking as much out of the HRAs, and then the councils will build. The councils can put builders back to work if they are given the power and the money to build. That is the only way forward if we are to get the housing drive we need to stimulate the economy, and if we are to achieve the target, since demoted to an aspiration, of 3 million houses by 2020.
There are 1.6 million people on council house waiting lists, and that figure is rising. They will have no chance of getting a house unless councils are allowed to build again. This is what we should do: large-scale building of council housing, because we have put too much emphasis on ownership and the ownership streams have not worked—the numbers taking them up have been comparatively small. Affordable housing has turned out to be not very affordable, and shared purchase—part-purchase from housing associations—is not particularly popular either. Why should people take on the burden of doing repairs as well as paying the rent and the purchase price of part-purchase? We should provide the money for such building to take place.
I agree with the right hon. Member for Wokingham that we should have reduced interest rates months ago. The Bank of England has now been more or less coerced into making the 1.5 per cent. reduction of last month, but we should consider the pressure that was required, and the representations it had to endure from so many organisations in industry and business and from all the economic pundits writing in the papers crying out for interest rate reductions. It eventually did cut them. In my view, rates will have to be reduced further, because we need to get them down to the American level to stimulate the economy. That is the best means of making money available, stimulating the banks into lending, and bringing down costs, because interest rates are a cost on everybody. Our country is burdened with debt, and it needs lower interest rates if it is to come through and start spending.
We should think about changing the rubric for the Bank of England. I argued for that at the time of the Treasury privileges inquiry. Our Bank has the rubric of only needing to maintain inflation at about 2 per cent. The Fed has a double-header ruling: to deal with inflation and to maximise employment. That is far more sensible, because it gives greater leeway to reducing interest rates and to matching them to the needs of the economy.
We need the value of the pound to come down. It has been too high for too long, with the result that it has not been profitable to produce in this country. We should make it profitable to do so by means of having a more competitive exchange rate. The value of the pound is coming down. It has now reached about the level it was after the Tory 1992 devaluation, when we left the exchange rate mechanism. In my view, it needs to come down still further, but let us look at what that fall in the value of the pound in 1992 did for growth in this country; it immediately produced growth without the feared inflation. We need that effect again.
A fall in the value of the pound will not only help industry to export, but it will help to adjust the balances in our society, which have been tilted too far in favour of finance and the City of London, which do not produce jobs—although they do produce high incomes and bonuses for the comparatively small number of people who work in those sectors. We should tilt the balance back towards manufacturing. We have to pay our way in the world. The oil contributions are going to fade away, and unless we produce in this country, we cannot pay our way in the world or provide our people with a good standard of living. The fall in the value of the pound is a major step in the direction of rebalancing the economy.
A banking Bill is promised, and we must re-regulate the banking system. I hope the Bill will go some way towards doing that. New duties must be imposed on the banks, and they will be, because the banks have failed us. We need to control their use of derivatives and off-balance sheet accounting, and to require them to register derivatives and special purpose vehicles. Registration implies a charge for the creation of the SPVs, which have been a form of gambling, but it could also ensure that the contracts arrived at are not legal unless the products in question are registered. That would be a convenient method of getting revenue and controlling that situation.
The Government are moving in the right direction on all these issues, and making substantial progress. We need the strong and experienced leadership our Prime Minister is providing, and can provide for us to see this country through. On all these issues, the Conservative party's answers are, however, pathetic. What was announced last week is piggy-banking economics. It is no answer to a recession to put people out of work and to demand cuts in Government spending and less borrowing. We have to borrow to expand the economy. Because of the position taken by the Leader of the Opposition last week on all these issues, the Conservative party has wrong-footed itself. Clear red water is opening up between the Government and the Opposition, and I and the Government are on the right side in using the power of the state to deal with the recession rather than using the Thatcherite processes that were employed in the recessions of the 1980s and 1990s. It falls to Labour to deal with this situation, and we are taking the right approach.
My hon. Friend referred to the 1980s and the implementation of monetarist policy. He will recall that in that period £100 billion of oil revenue was spent on unemployment benefit, instead of going into the infrastructure of the country, which would have put us in a better position today.
My hon. Friend, whose experience in that area goes back a long way, is exactly right. The oil revenues, which the Labour Government of the 1970s had looked forward to as a means of rebuilding, expanding and improving this economy and providing a bonus for the people, as they should have done, were used, in effect, to smash British industry under the guise of modernisation and to break the power of the unions through high unemployment and stringent economic conditions. The revenues were used by the Government to fight their own people. That is what they were doing in the early '80s, and it was a crime against the economy and against the British people. We cannot go back to those methods of dealing with a recession now; we have to move forward. We have to use the methods that the Government are using, and will develop over time, of expansion, growth, Keynesian economic management and re-regulation, so that this situation does not happen again.
On the night that Mr. Mitchell was elected, Labour lost a mining constituency in the midlands because almost every miner there hated the then Labour Government for the things that they had been doing. From his election to this House to the 1979 election there was industrial unrest, with people fighting the police in the streets; life was not the cosy little life that we are led to believe we have under Labour.
Many in this House think it will be up to the Conservatives, when we come to power, to put right many of the things that have gone wrong under the Labour Governments. Not everything that they have tried to do is wrong, not everything that they have done is wrong and not everything that they propose in this Queen's Speech is wrong, but the idea that on the red side it all goes well and on the blue side it is all wrong is a total misreading of things. Someone examining the condition of people's lives between 1979 and 1997, especially in the five years after 1992, when the years of continuous growth started, could look at the record and say that there was good to be said about both sides and things that each party could have done better.
I want to turn to the pressing problem of what will face our constituents in business and in their personal lives during the next year or so, and perhaps even after that. Even when we start to come out of the recession, many in the churn will lose their jobs and will face insecurity where they thought they had security. I shall not spend my time discussing the changes in the pension arrangements that the former Chancellor, now the Prime Minister, brought into effect, because there are other times to discuss those.
I wish to discuss two examples in the world of business. We have heard a lot of talk about banking, in terms of both the Bill that is to be introduced and the Government's involvement in the banking industry during the past few months. Let us pretend that I am in partnership in a good business where my partner and I work hard, produce a stream of revenue and have been paying back the bank loans for our premises. Let us suppose that we have done those premises up and, by doing so, we have provided building work and helped the economy to move around. Let us suppose that my partner wants to retire and that I made an application to a bank less than a year ago, telling it that buying out my partner would cost a certain sum and asking whether we could negotiate a loan. Let us suppose that the bank said yes in principle, but when I wanted the money six months later, because I plan in advance, the bank just flatly said no. I pursue it, but the bank sends another letter saying that things have changed.
Someone in such a situation was told that
"there has been a dramatic and unforeseeable change in the financial markets and this has changed the Bank's lending criteria. Regrettably we are no longer in a position to consider your request."
If one of the major banks in this country says that it is not prepared to consider a request from someone in a business that has a good future, a good past and a good present, what chances do businesses that are less likely to put forward such a good, bankable case have? The person involved in the case I mention was also told that they could complain to the Financial Ombudsman Service if the bank had not given them satisfaction. No one wants to go to the Financial Ombudsman Service for that; they want to have banking arrangements in this country which mean they do not just get sent a letter.
The person involved in this case wrote to me saying:
"I had a meeting with another bank manager today, who stated that the government is asking banks to lend at last year's volume...how are the Government policing this? I still think that as a small business if I am not helped, who will be? Due to the predicament we are in at present we are doing everything to rein in spending, both as a business and at home."
That is the only other way the money could be found. The letter continued:
"If this is the general case for all small businesses how is that going to help the economy?".
I invite the major banks that wish to consider an application in this instance to let me know, and I shall pass on the details to the people who are really experienced in this area.
I turn to another, larger example. Let us consider a business where there was a management buyout in 2002. Let us suppose that I and my fellow shareholders borrowed £1.4 million and that over the past six years we have not only paid back as we said we would, but we have paid back the loan notes in half the time that we originally agreed. In such a situation, we would not only have been meeting our obligations month by month, but we would have been doing better than that. Let us suppose we face the problem of losing a month's cash flow because of the Government-imposed and Parliament-imposed regulation and we subsequently decide to expand our premises and take out another loan for that. Let us suppose that we make every single payment on time, be it for the management buyout loan, the regulatory changes loan, the loan notes loan, the moving loan or the computer equipment loan.
Let us suppose that there is no problem, but the bank then changes its approach and for several months this year it stalls and on the day of the news of the banking crisis, the account manager says he is leaving and the credit department says no to a request of ours. Let us suppose that when the business tracks down the replacement, they say that their predecessor never even made a request—presumably, because they had been told by people higher up that there was no point in their doing so—and there was no record of our dealing with him. Let us suppose the business resubmits the request and is messed about for a few more weeks, and that when it subsequently makes contact, a director of the bank tells the business he is sorry for what has gone before but the case is going through the formal complaints procedure again and the request would be expedited. Let us suppose that that was four weeks ago, and when contact was made again very recently the bank said that it had no money as the funding from the Government was conditional upon something that was not happening until the new year.
I know of a business in such a situation, and it told me that
"the account manager contacted us to say that not only was our request...turned down, our secondary request to restructure our existing loans was also rejected and as a sting in the tail our accounts were being passed to their 'intensive care' department."
That has happened to a business that wants to continue expanding. We know what the result will be: the business will have to reconsider the number of staff that it employs and whether to spend money on the refurbishment—a business that is profitable and doing well. That situation has happened several times in my constituency, and that can be multiplied by 630-odd constituencies around the country. Until that sort of thing stops happening, and until banks start saying that they want to take on bankable propositions, the liquidity squeeze will continue, and it will do as much to put people out of work as any major restructuring of the economy.
The hon. Member for Great Grimsby was right to say that many industrial changes have taken place during his time in Parliament. One has been the taking of a lot of infrastructure spending out of the hands of the Government. For example, the privatisation of British Telecom led to a massive investment in the telecoms infrastructure and to competitors coming in. The privatisation of ports led to this country's ports being resuscitated; that was the case not only for the non-public ports, but for the former public ports. The same thing happened to British Rail's hotels, to the British Airports Authority and to British Airways itself. Leaving people free to do their own investment can lead to greater infrastructure spending and the benefits that we want. Deregulation that takes the hand of central Government away can do a lot of good.
This is the sort of speech that the hon. Gentleman would say did not have a theme, and he would be right. Let me turn to one little bit of good that we can do immediately in this Chamber. We could consider the welfare of the officials—the civil servants—who are stuck for hours in the officials' Box. I do not think this has been considered by Members, because we have not tried sitting there for four hours during a debate with no knee room and no glass of water—they have nothing at all. The House authorities should consider whether they can do something to help those in the Boxes. We should consider whether they could have some more knee room and whether they could have a glass of water to keep them going while they listen to us.
I turn from that subject to the delicate issues relating to what has been referred to by somebody as the case of the Ashford One. I am talking about what happened when the police made a request to come to a Member's office. My view is that the House made a mistake—I think that the other place may make the same mistake—of implementing the Tebbit report, which led to the Serjeant at Arms being brigaded not under the Clerk as before, but under the No. 2 Clerk. Most of the time, to most of us, the Serjeant at Arms was independent, having been appointed by the Queen. The new arrangement provides a much bigger gap between the exercise of authority and judgment.
If I may refer to something that I have read in the papers, Black Rod was reported to have had a stand-off with No. 10 about the Queen Mother's funeral arrangements. I would like to think that Black Rod and the Serjeant at Arms—whoever holds those posts and at whatever grade—have the authority to be able to say, "No, that isn't right" or "You should think about that again." That requires playing a role rather greater than that of facilities manager. The role of the Serjeant at Arms is important for this House, as is that of Black Rod in the other place.
I do not say things in private that I would not say in public, and I have not said in either a word against Mr. Speaker during the years that he has been in the Chair. None of us is capable of getting everything right, but he is an honourable person who does a good job, and we can be proud of the way he does it. It may be different from how others might do it, but we should not focus our attention on the occupant of the Chair. Instead, we should have a system whereby everyone presumes—unless there is evidence of a really serious crime or a court order that cannot be resisted—that people in Parliament have a privilege on behalf of the public and that matters to the public. It does not matter to me a great deal if I am arrested, but it matters a great deal that everybody in my constituency has confidence that they can come to me—be they a serving police officer, a civil servant, working in a bank or the health service, or unemployed—and say, "I think you and others should know about this. What should be done about it?" That is not being an alternative news service to the Government or the health authority; it is about people having the confidence to come to me, my predecessor or my successor, whoever they may be. It is about how this country works. It is not formal British constitutional theory; it is what should happen, and people should know that it happens.
Someone asked me what I do in Parliament, and I said that I spend quite a lot of time trying to anticipate problems and giving people warnings about them. Two years ago, we revised the law on the health service and changed the system of public involvement in health. Community health councils had been abolished, and the system has been changed four or five times by the present Government. It is still not right, and I think it would have been better if we had kept CHCs, as has happened in Scotland and Wales. There are no particular problems there, and there would be none here.
Another health service issue is the training of doctors and what this House allowed the Government to get away with in that sphere. Many doctors and some Members, including me, tried to tell Ministers that modernising medical careers, and the computerised application service, would have perverse results. Ministers said that everything would be all right, but we ended up with a system in which a clinical PhD in a relevant subject was worth less than 150 words written on leadership—which was probably downloaded from a website in any case. It was a disaster and remedial action was required, but we cannot yet be sure whether that has worked reasonably well.
Several people warned of major problems with the NHS IT system, although some can be put right. In Worthing, our hospital was forced to have a system that meant that, up until two or three weeks ago, relatively simple things could not be done. A consultant could not, for example, transfer a patient to another consultant without wiping all the data and having to re-enter them. Lists of patients could not be printed for shift hand-overs three times a day by condition, by doctor or by bed—three simple requirements. It took a week's programming, and it took a year to get it agreed. Once it was agreed, it was at least done fast.
We need a more reactive system. When people provide warnings, they should be heeded. When they suggest ways to help, they should be taken up fast. Our system should work through the interaction of the experience of MPs, Ministers, civil servants, administrators, computer experts and the like. We could reduce avoidable waste and increase well-being by making systems work. Legislation can help, but it is not always the answer.
My wife would call my next point an example of my "me, lovely me" approach, but I recall starting a programme to cut road deaths, which has worked very well—although not well enough. They are down from 5,600 a year to under 3,000. Welcome progress has been made, including during the past 11 years. However, we could save three times that number a year through abdominal aortic aneurysm screening. If men—it is a male problem—were screened at 60, we would know who had a problem and who would be clear until they reached 75. That could save 7,000 unnecessary deaths a year. Ministers rightly reacted when they saw a demonstration from the Vascular Society, and the faster progress is made, the better. We should have such screening within a year for everyone who qualifies and is willing to take it up.
The Queen's Speech should have included the revision of freedom of information and data protection. If I were a diabetes doctor working in a hospital and seconded to a community education programme, funded by the primary care trust and subject to the NHS confidentiality agreement, I should be able to invite patients to it whom I thought would benefit—perhaps from a particular ethnic group—without being disciplined, sacked or referred to the General Medical Council for taking a list of names, addresses and telephone numbers and asking my secretary to ring those patients and invite them. That is the kind of disproportionality that gives data protection a bad name. I ask the health service, Ministers and all Departments, if they find examples of such disproportionate action, to send them to the Information Commissioner. We need more guidance on this, or a change in the law that would give people protection when they are trying to do something clearly in the public good but have made a technical slip. Such people should not be exposed to the worst kind of crisis.
My final point relates to the marine and coastal access Bill. We established a basic right to roam through recent legislation but, because of a court decision perhaps a hundred years ago, we do not have a right to use rivers. We have a right to use inland waterways and canals, but I cannot take my canoe on some rivers without getting the agreement of every person with an interest in the land on either side of the bank from the beginning to the end of my journey. It is not an issue of how I gain access to the water, but of passing down the river. It is as if I could take my horse on to a bridleway only with the permission of the people who owned the land on either side of it. We would regard that as ludicrous, although my horse might disturb birds. We accept people using bridleways and footpaths, and we are likely to accept coastal access rights. We should therefore introduce the same rights to the use of rivers in England as exist in Scotland.
I went to Scotland with the British Canoe Union and the Scottish Canoe Association and spoke about negotiating with landowners to obtain access to the water. Most canoeists are careful about spawning grounds in rivers and about anglers' interests. We could incorporate access rights in the Bill, and if there are anglers who think that that would lead to serious problems they should talk to Scottish anglers about their experiences. We need to get rid of that prohibition, which is relatively recent, and give people the rights that they should have.
I agree with the comments by Peter Bottomley about Mr. Speaker, although on the economy I am nearer to the position of my hon. Friend Mr. Mitchell than that of the hon. Gentleman. As we have moved from a Milton Friedman approach to Keynesianism, there are new opportunities. As we seek to build on the stabilisation of the financial sector, we need more investment. In making that investment, we need to think carefully about the technology and to relate it to larger projects. I am talking about carbon capture and storage. It is a pity that the Government have not moved as quickly as they could have done on carbon capture and storage.
As my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who is sitting on the Front Bench, will know, the Government have already selected four projects that might become eligible for Government funding, but we will not choose the one company that we will fund until next autumn. That is much too late, because we have allowed others to get in front of us. The Chinese are already working on carbon capture and storage, as are the Americans and some Europeans. Our failure to move speedily—I believe that, had we had the will, we could have had a small carbon capture and storage unit running in 2003—means that we have lost the opportunity for exports. Nevertheless, we cannot ignore the technology, because we require it for the future. We need to combine it with a grand scheme, and that is why I want the Under-Secretary to ask his colleague the Energy and Climate Change Minister to consider a project proposed by Yorkshire Forward.
Yorkshire Forward has a plan to develop carbon capture and storage on a grand scale. The project would capture all the CO2 from the power stations in the region and from large industry and it would then be pumped out in a series of pipes to be stored in the oil wells in the North sea, which are the nearest oil wells to the Yorkshire coast. I understand that Yorkshire Forward has been refused Government aid, yet the project would create some 50,000 jobs. It would stimulate the steel industry and the engineering industry in Yorkshire, and would give great opportunities to new apprentices, offering the kind of apprenticeships that we want. In developing that technology and relating it to the project proposed by Yorkshire Forward, we could stimulate employment in the Yorkshire region. I hope that the Under-Secretary will urge the Energy and Climate Change Minister to consider the Yorkshire Forward project.
A little earlier, we heard a good speech, which I did not agree with, from Mr. Redwood. I thought that it was a passionate speech, even though I did not agree with the economic analysis. Nevertheless, what he had to say about small and medium-sized industries was correct. On Friday, I visited such an enterprise in my constituency. It was a print works—Print City, which employs some 50 workers. I was told by the management that there are difficulties with the banks, particularly in relation to overdrafts, but the company basically works for the banks. Most of its printing is for the banks; for example, it prints the forms that they use. The managers told me that the order book goes well into the future. Business is coming in from the banks, and the only thing not coming in is the credit from the banks to facilitate the company.
Ensuring that the credit is available from the banks for small and medium-sized enterprises is important, and the Government must take up that issue. If they do not, small and medium-sized enterprises will close, and we have already been given examples from some constituencies. The hon. Member for Worthing, West referred to the closure of some factories in his constituency. We cannot afford that. Our economy has moved towards small and medium-sized enterprises; 60 per cent. of gross domestic product comes from such enterprises. It is essential, therefore, that we get an understanding from the banks that the credit must flow towards industry.
Let me move to the issue of protecting the public. I refer my hon. Friend the Minister to recycling projects around the country. As we move towards greater recycling, we find that there is no process that has really been thought out. In my constituency, and in a number of constituencies represented by hon. Members from all parties, we see windrow composting, where green waste is set out on a concrete base in lines to rot in the open. It is turned from time to time, and as it is turned organic dusts—or bioaerosols—tend to be released. Those bioaerosols can be quite dangerous to communities that are near at hand.
The Environment Agency sets a general rule that windrow composting should happen no less than 250 m from the nearest residential dwellings. Research that I have seen and that I have had carried out suggests that the distance between the composting process and the nearest dwelling needs to be far greater. In fact, the most up-to-date study that has been done, which was produced at Giessen university in Germany, suggests that the composting process should be at least 500 m from the nearest dwellings.
That problem is not the only issue to do with composting. We need to move composting to a vessel-type system rather than leaving it in the open, where bioaerosols present a problem to nearby communities. We need DEFRA to ensure that in protecting the environment and the public, particularly in rural communities, it considers whether we should use a completely different process. I refer the Minister to a process that is considered safe: anaerobic digestion, which treats biodegradable organic waste in an enclosed vessel using bacteria in the absence of oxygen. The process breaks down the waste, generating usable products that include biogas, which can be burnt to produce energy, fibre for soil conditioning and a liquor that can be used in a liquid fertiliser. We would be recycling in a meaningful and productive way.
Some of the windrow composting around the country to which I have been alerted produce a nauseating smell that, in some places, has caused the Environment Agency to intervene to close down the scheme. There is a danger that unless we grasp the issue, in two or three years' time we could engulf the country in a nauseating smell that comes from recycling. We must grasp the nettle now and we must ask the Environment Agency to work with the Health and Safety Executive to decide on a process—I suggest the anaerobic digestion process—that will ensure public safety.
The Gracious Speech contains some very helpful proposals. One of them is the justice Bill, whose most important changes for my constituents will be the improvements to the coroner service and the process of death certification. The British Lung Foundation produced a report in 2007 entitled "An Unnatural Death", which highlighted the problem that deaths as a result of mesothelioma cancer caused by asbestos are referred to as unnatural.
When a person dies in that way, there has to be a post-mortem investigation and a coroner's inquiry. Often, that means that uniformed police in marked cars turn up at the home of an elderly lady because the gentleman who also lived there has passed away as a result of mesothelioma, and such visits can cause great but unnecessary concern. However, although coroners in England, Wales and Northern Ireland respond to mesothelioma cases and unnatural deaths in the way that I have described, the system in Scotland is different. There, people whose medical records show that they suffered from mesothelioma cancer are not considered to have died unnatural deaths. The fact that their deaths are considered to be natural means that the procedures that have to be followed are different from those in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
In a previous life, I worked as deputy head of compensation for the National Union of Mineworkers. The process that applied then was very similar to the one that we have now. When a person died whose disablement assessment showed that more than 50 per cent. of his disability was caused by pneumoconiosis, it was accepted that the pneumoconiosis would have contributed to his death. That meant that the usual procedure would have to be followed: a policeman would visit the family and a short investigation would take place, after which there would be a post mortem and the coroner's inquiry.
However, the union had a relationship with the coroner's officer, who would telephone me when his office was alerted to a death through pneumoconiosis. He would tell me where the death had occurred and when the visit would take place so that I could arrange for the family to be told that they were going to be visited. If the people being visited were elderly parents, I would arrange for younger family members to be present. That helped enormously.
The measures suggested by the BLF need to be implemented in the justice Bill. In that way, we could ensure that we have a coroner's procedure that follows best practice and is the same, without variation, right across the country—in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.
Finally, there is an important omission from the Gracious Speech, which proposes no legislation to overturn the Law Lords' decision of
It has been suggested that when the public consultation exercise ends, we might get a proposal for a no-fault liability scheme. I believe that such a scheme would be detrimental because, before the Law Lords' decision of
If a no-fault liability scheme is introduced and the Law Lords' decision is not overturned, the question of liability would not be decided for the men and women who receive compensation. Consequently, they would be able to start to deal with the question of liability only if their condition worsened into mesothelioma cancer. That might be 20 or 25 years after the original compensation claim was upheld, with the result that the relevant documentation needed to substantiate liability might no longer be available.
That is why I believe that we need legislation to overturn the Law Lords' decision. I hope that the Minister who is listening to this debate will make the Department of Justice and the Secretary of State aware that we need legislation to overturn the Law Lords' decision, rather than a no-fault compensation scheme.
It is always a pleasure to follow Mr. Clapham in these debates. I do not want to appear patronising in the least, but he always makes a thoughtful and useful contribution. He is an expert in the matters that he raises, but he is also practical in what he says, and it is a great pleasure to listen to him.
I do not propose to dwell overmuch on the so-called "Ashford One" matter, other than to say that three or four years ago I was visited by the good men and true of the Met's SO11 unit. I was not arrested, nor interviewed under caution, but the visit happened because the police alleged that I had documents about the Iraq war. I did not allow them to search my premises or interview my staff, and I said that I had nothing to tell them. The officers went away again, and that was it.
The difference this time is quite marked: we talk about sledgehammers and nuts, but my goodness me—for all I know, the document about the Iraq war that the police said that I had could have been damaging to security if it had emerged into the public domain but, although this latest incident does not seem to have anything to do with security, the police still acted in the way that they did.
The Met have been around for a while. Today, I was running along to make a small, amateur contribution to the BBC's "World at One" programme, and I was confronted by a police officer as I tried to cross from Parliament street to the House of Commons. He said, "I'm afraid you can't cross this way." When I asked why, he said that a cordon sanitaire had been set up. I showed him my pass and said, "I'm sorry, I've got six minutes to get to Millbank to do a piece on the "World at One"," to which he replied, "I'm sorry, you can't."
I pointed to a lady and a young woman with a pram and asked the officer why they were able to walk through the restricted area. He said, "I'm sorry, sir, you can't." Next, a Minister appeared and the policeman tried to stop him too. I was so frustrated that, in the end, I made my feelings clear and the officer said, "I'm sorry, sir, but I'm going to have to take your name." At that, I gave him my card. What I am trying to say is that, if I am arrested tomorrow morning, I hope that someone will pay my bail, because things have not been so good in Wales recently.
I do not know whether there is a souring of relationships or whatever. I am not anti-police. My late father was a police officer. My brother and my cousin are police officers. Everyone is police officer, apart from me. But there seems to be something going on, and I hope that I am wrong in saying that.
The Gracious Speech has some good things about it, and hon. Members would expect me to say that there are some perhaps not quite so good things as well. I intervened on the Prime Minister about the credit guarantee issue. The response was that about £1 billion has been put in, exactly for that purpose. Last weekend, I visited a company in my constituency, and its representatives told me that one of the biggest problems that they now have is that the people who normally guarantee their credit are not prepared to do so. They named two large retailers that they supply. I will not name them in the Chamber, because I do not want to create a panic, but I was really panicked when I heard who they were.
What we need is an accessible, easy system, underwritten by the Government, as is now happening in France, to ensure that the economy goes round and that companies can deliver their goods. The company I visited is in a bad position because 18 per cent. of its turnover is with Woolworths. If that is not bad enough, it has delivered £585,000-worth of goods recently to Woolworths, and because those goods have been delivered, the proprietary interest has moved to Woolworths and the company is getting not a dime for all that work. It is an old family concern in my constituency. The managing directors—two brothers—are friends of mine. I am deeply concerned about them.
We are talking about the Queen's Speech and financial stability. I hope that, when we get to look at more detailed Bills, we will consider how it can be that that small company, having produced £585,000-worth of goods and delivered them to F. W. Woolworth, is now told by the administrator, "Sorry, lads, you not getting a dime for it." At the same time, the administrator is doing his best to sell off the goods. He will undoubtedly sell them between now and Christmas, if not well before then.
I am a lawyer; I do not use the phrase "legalised theft", because it does not make sense, but it does make one think, does it not? As soon as those goods are delivered, any hope of being paid seems to go completely out of the window. The only saving grace is that other goods are on their way, and the administrator has said that a discounted sum will be paid for them. That is one good thing. I am mindful of the fact that we have only just had an insolvency Bill, but do we need to think again about looking at the insolvency legislation to provide for that kind of situation, so that the administrator could pay perhaps not the whole £585,000 but a good chunk of that money to keep that company going and continuing to trade.
I understand that there is a plan for Woolworths to trade until Christmas. I am just making a point about whether we need to look at that situation. I am not sure whether the American model of protection under chapter 11 or some sort of abridged version of it might help. I am no expert in that, but I hope that others who are more expert in the field who may read the report of the debate might be able to assist in due course.
I hoped that the abolition of stamp duty would have been included in the Queen's Speech. That would have been one way to kick-start the economy. Stamp duty is a pernicious tax, and it has become more and more pernicious because it has not been uprated in the right manner, year on year, or Budget on Budget. Today, the Prime Minister mentioned the protection for those who face repossession, and I welcome that part of his speech very much indeed.
Her Majesty the Queen referred in the Gracious Speech to her Government continuing to work closely with devolved Administrations. I am pleased to say that, on
Another thing that I should have liked to see is some form of reining in of the energy companies. It is all very easy to say, "Let's have a windfall tax." It is almost a totem that we have got to say, "Windfall tax." I do not really disagree with that, but I will not propose it this evening. However, I should like greater powers to be given to Ofgem, so that it intervenes and is proactive, not reactive. I believe that we should reintroduce price controls on gas and electricity. Hon. Members will know of course that we had them until 2002, but in the guise of light-touch regulation of the market that new Labour has apparently embraced, we allow Ofgem to have a brief—
The hon. Gentleman is quite right. It went earlier this week, so perhaps we can therefore see a swift reversal in the way that we deal with that regulator. Let us see. However, with such an important regulator, such a light-touch approach is not what is required.
We also need to consider why people who use prepayment meters are being over-charged. They are the most vulnerable people in society, and we are unable to do anything about them. I hope that, somewhere during the next round of legislative proposals, we can really get to grips with that. Can we not abolish VAT on electricity and gas, at least for the time being—a simple point—bearing in mind that an attempt has been made, via £12.5 billion-worth of VAT, to spark the retail market? As Mr. Mitchell said, that is not going to work. It has not a chance of working when stores are discounting by 20 or 30 per cent. already. I would have thought that it would be far more effective if we were to alleviate the problem suffered by those people who are unable to afford to heat and light their premises. That must be our No. 1 priority in all this.
Frankly, to be fair, the Government had to bail out the banks. I cannot see that anything would have remained if they had not done so; we would all have imploded if something had not been done. It might have been done earlier—we can argue about that—but it has been done; it has cost a lot of money; and we will have to pay for it at some future date. All that I understand, but I also understand that something had to be done. However, I believe that now is the time that we should look again at the way in which the banks work, bearing in mind that some of them are part-nationalised and others have been nationalised. We should tell them, "Look. We expect you to start lending to one another," in order to deal with the examples that we heard from Peter Bottomley about firms and companies with good trading histories being denied assistance. That is absolutely appalling. Whether that is to do with the gearing of their assets to lending, as Mr. Redwood said, or whatever the cause, we are all aware, as Members of Parliament, of many similar examples.
I know of an example where a chap has an overdraft of about £50,000. He has never gone above £15,000, but the bank has said that it can still offer him £50,000, but it will charge him as though he had taken out £50,000. That is absolutely wrong. It is usury, to use a Biblical word. It is absolutely foul. We all know of such examples. We talk about trying to get the economy back on its feet, but the ability to borrow is fundamental. I know that Mr. Fallon, who is a member of the Treasury Committee, and others know more about that issue than I do, but even I have noticed the problems. There should be some measure in the Gracious Speech—a responsible lending Bill—to get to grips with that. I do not know whether we need regulation or a Bill.
We are now seeing an increase in door-to-door lenders and lending at massive interest rates. Only last week, during a debate, someone mentioned that an interest rate of 350 per cent. was being charged. I believe that charging such rates should be a criminal offence. It can be dealt with in the civil context. One can take the matter to a county court. If the interest rate is unconscionable, one has to prove it before a judge. Lawyers such as me can do that, but an individual who cannot afford a lawyer and will not get legal aid is expected to go along and argue that the rate that they agreed is unconscionable. That legal tool cannot be reasonably used. The only way forward is to criminalise such activities. I know that some people rely on that kind of credit, but heaven's above—to make someone pay 350 per cent. interest is appalling.
I give another reason why we are in a pickle at the moment. I came across it when I spoke with an ex-regional director of one of the four big banks who told me that the various bank managers had targets that they had to meet on the number of mortgages that they gave out each month, or whatever it might be. He told me that, if I went to them saying that I would like a mortgage of, whatever the amount might be, and my accounts were not okay, nine out of 10 of those managers would say to me, "Go back, inflate your figures by 20 per cent., come back next week and I will give you the mortgage." In fine weather, that is lovely. The same goes for 120 per cent. mortgages on premises. But when it starts to rain, the roof leaks big time, to coin a phrase. That is such a common practice that that ex-regional director even referred to them as "liar loans". The bank manager ticked the box, the customer was happy during fine weather and everyone seemed to be happy about that rosy boom, or whatever we might call it. That is part of what has been going on and someone at some point will have to account for it.
On the crime and policing issue, I do not see the need for elected police authorities, because there is a danger of politicising the police—if we have not reached that point already, given what was said earlier—and making that happen Britain-wide, rather than Met-wide. If the vast majority of those on police authorities are elected councillors, there is democratic accountability and transparency already, so I do not necessarily think that directly elected police authorities will take us much further.
I appreciate the continued reference to eradicating child poverty by 2020. I am pleased that that target is in the Gracious Speech. I am also pleased that there will be a Bill to fight discrimination and to bring equality to the workplace. That is very good indeed.
On training and apprenticeships, which I have been banging on about for years, let us see the detail, but I am sure that we can all say that that will be a good thing if it is properly done. One of the problems that we have had of late is the target to have 50 per cent. of young people at university while a good percentage of those young people have no commensurate jobs to go to. I know that it is a difficult political issue to discuss. Whenever anyone mentions it, people say, "Well, you went to university and you want to drag the old ladder up and to hell with everyone else." That is not the point. Is it wise to tempt youngsters into obtaining a degree that might not be all that useful in the workplace and then expect them to carry a £30,000 or £20,000 burden? They may end up stacking shelves in Tesco.
It would be much better if we fostered the old idea again in our schools that vocational work is as good any day as work that one might obtain after going to university. Often, it pays better—think of plumbers and electricians, and good luck to them. We need to consider that option. However, we must have a properly structured apprenticeship scheme, so that people come out fully qualified and we do not have a six or nine-month affair that gives them one piece of paper that needs to be added to later, but which cannot happen because they cannot access further training. I am sure that all those points can be dealt with in due course.
With the Gracious Speech, the old curate's egg comes in: there are some good parts and there are some not so good. I am slightly concerned about the reference to people moving from benefits. I hope that there will be greater support and choice for those people and that they may exercise some control. I also hope that they will be offered incentives; if there is to be a carrot-and- stick approach, I hope that the emphasis will be on the carrot, and not necessarily on the stick.
Parts of the Gracious Speech are very good, parts of it are not so good. I give a broad welcome to several parts of the speech, and I look forward to seeing the detail of the Bills as they come through. It is a short Gracious Speech and it has to be said that there are some rehashed statements within it—things that we have heard announced before. That said, it contains some useful measures as well. We should all work together, especially on the economic front. As the right hon. Member for Wokingham said, at a time when there is a crisis—let us not beat about the bush, as it is a crisis—it behoves us to work together. The monopoly of wisdom is not always on the Government side of the Chamber.
I remind the House of the interests recorded in the Register.
I join Mr. Llwyd, the leader of the Welsh Nationalists, in welcoming a large chunk of the Queen's Speech. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition said earlier, a number of its proposals—for an independent exam regulator, stricter border controls, welfare reform, a proper constitution for the NHS—were Conservative proposals. It is good to see them in the Queen's Speech and I am sure that my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench will support them in due course.
Other proposals in the Queen's Speech seem rather peripheral—for example, the proposal to crack down on lap-dancing clubs. Hundreds of thousands of our constituents may be put out of work in the next few months or lose their homes, so it seems rather odd suddenly to concentrate on lap-dancing clubs.
The most revealing thing that I read about the Queen's Speech was the leak last weekend—another leak—from the Prime Minister that he was revising the entire speech to make it more recession friendly. That was revealing. It is his mistake that he did not prepare us earlier. It is a bit late now suddenly to start making everything recession friendly.
For example, 16 months after the collapse of Northern Rock, we still do not have a proper system of depositor protection for our constituents who have bank accounts. We do not have the reserve powers that the Governor of the Bank of England has said for months that he needs. They are in the Bill, which is winding its way slowly through Parliament, but 16 months have elapsed since the crisis and, time and again, the Government have been caught behind the curve, moving too slowly, making mistakes. Much more needs to be done, as several hon. Members, including my hon. Friend Peter Bottomley, have pointed out. We are seeing a dramatic shrinkage in credit across our businesses—small and large, including shops. A lot more needs to be done. I claim no prescience for my warning when I spoke on the banking package:
"I fear that some of the measures taken by the Government last Wednesday and yesterday may not go far enough. The package is necessary, but it may not yet be sufficient."—[ Hansard, 14 October 2008; Vol. 480, c. 731.]
My right hon. Friend Mr. Cameron has put forward a sensible proposal on credit insurance, and that and other measures are certainly needed now. We need to re-examine the rules on capital adequacy and consider whether the Financial Services Authority is applying the rules evenly across the banking sector. We also need to consider other ways of improving liquidity throughout the system. This may not be a popular suggestion, but I suspect that sooner or later the Government must address some of the toxicity within the system—the non-performing loans that are undermining confidence between the banks and that are, in the end, making it more difficult for banks to trust each other and return to the levels of lending that we all want to see.
I want to make three points about the Queen's Speech. My first point directly relates to the earlier comments by Sir Stuart Bell on how to address the banking decisions that will be taken. We are in a new era of state banking—we own or part-own five of our 10 major banks—and we need some rules. A body called UK Financial Investments has been set up, and the Queen's Speech should have included a legislative framework for it. If we leave such decisions entirely to ministerial discretion, credit will be rationed by lobbying. There is nothing wrong with lobbying, and hon. Members fight for their constituency interests, but it concerns me that those who shout loudest and who get closest to Lord Mandelson will get the finance that they need, whereas small businesses, such as shops and tiny family firms, that do not have the clout and regional power of, for example, the car industry or the aviation industry will lose out. It is always tempting in this House to focus on a factory or firm that employs 500 people, which is a huge number of people suddenly to be thrown on to the scrapheap, while perhaps neglecting 50 businesses that all employ 10 people, that do not get such attention and that may shut their doors in silence.
UKFI will be with us for years. It is very powerful—it owns or part-owns at least five of our 10 banks—and it is already preparing to intervene in a range of matters, such as remuneration, the appointment of directors and levels of lending. We need to be sure that UKFI is put on to a proper basis at arm's length from Ministers and that it is accountable to this House. The chorus of disapproval about bank bonuses and the frustration that we all share about the shrinkage of credit should not bind us to the dangers inherent in state-directed lending. I am looking for reassurance—we want lending to flow again, but we also want it to be as commercial as possible—and therefore think that the opportunity should have been taken in the Queen's Speech to put UKFI on to a properly accountable basis.
Secondly, the Queen's Speech pays no attention to the growing disparity between pensions in the public sector and those available in the private sector. The collapse of stock market values is widening the gap between the quarter of the work force who work in the public sector, who will retire with an average pension of around 21 per cent. of final salary, compared with the remaining three quarters of the work force out there in the private sector, who will retire with an average pension of only 7 per cent. of final salary and who, through their taxes, must meet the cost of funding public sector pensions.
Yes—I was about to come to that point.
The problem is not only the lack of equity, but that the gap between the two kinds of scheme is growing, which is a moral issue that must be addressed. Of course, some measures need to be introduced on private pensions. I have no difficulty with introducing an element of compulsion as far as the second state pension is concerned, but we need to tackle the public sector schemes, too. If we accept, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition accepts, that our own scheme, for example, should be closed to new entrants, we are recognising that something is wrong with our current system.
We need to tackle the various inequalities. The issue concerns not only the disparity between final salary retirements, but other differences. Those in the public sector can largely still retire and take their pensions at 60, whereas others must soldier on for much longer. In a previous incarnation, the Health Secretary said this on
"For us to say to the private sector you have to work longer and save more money, and to the public sector you stick with your retirement age is impossible."
It seems to be impossible, because the Government have not addressed that particular disparity.
To refer directly to the intervention by Martin Horwood, it is not possible for us to persuade nurses, firemen, teachers or police officers of the need for change unless we are prepared to address our own particular scheme. Under our scheme, if hon. Members put in a decent number of years in this House, they retire not on 21 per cent. of their final salaries but on half their final salaries. It is even possible for Members to retire on two thirds of their final salaries on a contribution of either 6 or 10 per cent. That must be addressed sooner or later, and I suggest that that contribution will probably have to be raised. We certainly need more debate and more transparency about the cost in the public sector. The private sector must comply with FRS 17, whereas the public sector still hides behind cash accounting, so the real annual cost and future liabilities are hidden off the public balance sheet.
Finally, the Queen's Speech included no measures to address the growing imbalance between Government and central institutions and what is happening locally. The Queen's Speech includes a curious pledge
"to create greater opportunities for community and individual involvement in local decision-making."
I have no idea what that means. Surely we should be creating greater opportunities for local decision making by our elected local councillors.
Time and time again in dealing with constituency issues, I have been told that something cannot be done because of national criteria, national guidance, national rules and regulations or national standards that cut across decision making by elected councillors, and I shall provide three brief examples to illustrate that point. First, a recent parking review in Sevenoaks and Swanley resulted in our being told that every parking bay must have its own separate notice on its own separate post, irrespective of the characteristics of that road or avenue.
Secondly, on licensing, the secretary of the Underriver village association has written to me complaining about not only the cost—£21 a time—of obtaining a temporary events notice for the village hall, but the mechanics of going through the process, which do not allow for local common sense. She can fill in the application online, but she cannot apply online, which means that she has to print 24 separate pages of A4. One can avoid that process by obtaining an annual licence, but that involves 33 pages of forms and notes. Why is that matter not simply left to the common sense of local officials?
Thirdly, like any housing association, the major housing association in my area, West Kent housing association, sets out its various points policies—the priority that it accords in housing people on its waiting list. However, it must also follow national priorities so far as homelessness is concerned and various other criteria laid down centrally by the Government. That discriminates against, for example, the need to give higher priority to those who are actually born and bred in the particular town or village rather than those who have come into it.
In all three cases, there is a strong argument for allowing councils more discretion—indeed, for encouraging different practices to ensure more competition by emulation, which in some more federal systems is a huge source of renewal in public policy. I would like there to be a Bill for presumption in favour of the local, so that local councils could decide such things for themselves whenever possible.
The hon. Gentleman's points are reasoned and reasonable. However, surely he acknowledges that the United Kingdom is more than an archipelago of 300 or 400 district, borough or city councils; he was talking about housing associations, but the same point applies to the 300 or 400 local authorities with housing responsibilities. There has to be some mechanism for addressing county, regional and national priorities, whether for the homeless or some other section of the population. The bottom-up approach that he suggests would never address such issues.
The hon. Gentleman's point of view is perfectly reasonable, but I do not agree. We are nowhere near being, so to speak, an archipelago of 300—or whatever the number is—different islands. We have a highly centralised system that frustrates our elected councillors; the decisions that they make are simply contravened by national legislation, and they cannot exercise the power entrusted to them. I think that the balance has gone too far the other way.
Others wish to speak, so I will conclude. Some of the measures in the Queen's Speech are welcome. Some will improve the security of our country. However, an awful lot of them do not tackle the economic crisis that we face. They give us no confidence that our homeowners and small businesses will get through this recession unscathed. They will not help people through the recession or provide the reformed, locally accountable services that they deserve. That task will fall to the next Conservative Government.
The background to this year's Gracious Speech is different from that of last year's; it is as if we live in a different country and a different world. Earlier today, I spent time with a former great parliamentarian, Sir Albert McQuarrie, who is now 90, and his wife Lady McQuarrie. We were discussing the state of the British economy. He felt that the British people had not realised how serious the situation is at the moment.
I wish that Mr. Clapham were still in his place. During his interesting speech, he told us of the danger of a nauseating smell that could be consuming the country. He is right—it is the smell of this rotten Government. They are falling apart in front of us. They have not got a clue how to deal with the current situation, and the Gracious Speech does not address its seriousness.
I want to draw the House's attention to a few points in the Gracious Speech. It opened by telling us that the
"Government's overriding priority is to ensure the stability of the British economy during the global economic downturn."
It went on to say that the
"Government is committed to helping families and businesses through difficult times. The strength of the financial sector is vital to the future vibrancy of the economy. Therefore, legislation will continue to be taken forward to ensure fairer and more secure protection for bank depositors and to improve the resilience of the financial sector."
What we have seen from the Government so far will simply not do the trick. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition was in splendid form today. As was mentioned earlier, when a Labour Member intervened on him and asked for five points, he was immediately able to list them. The Prime Minister was Chancellor for 10 years and got us into this mess. The British people are not going to wear any of the nonsense about this being a world situation that is really all the fault of the United States of America. As my right hon. Friend said, if Labour thinks that the British people are silly, it is in for a rude awakening at the next election.
In 1997, when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Prime Minister was responsible for the system of regulation that has failed at its first hurdle. It was he who removed the power of the Bank of England to regulate the amount of debt in the economy and its responsibility for regulating banks. In place of that power, the Prime Minister set up a new, tripartite system under which no one was in charge. As a rather famous person was reported to have asked not so long ago, did no one notice what was happening? No member of this Government is responsible for anything, so clearly none of them did.
The result has been the first run on a British bank since Victorian times. The British taxpayer has already spent more than £3 billion as a result of exposure to the nationalised bank Northern Rock. The Prime Minister knew that nationalisation would lead to taxpayer loss, and that nationalised bank has made a loss of nearly £600 million so far this year. My party was right to say that nationalisation would be a bad deal for the taxpayer, because that is how it has turned out. The quality of the Northern Rock mortgage book has deteriorated 16 times as fast as the industry average.
I am not going to revisit the argument about what we should have done. The Leader of the Opposition made clear what we would have done, but the reality is that if there had been a Conservative Government, we would not be in this mess now. We would not have taken the power away from the Bank of England.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. As he knows, I admire his many admirable qualities, although his political judgment is not one of them. He said that if the Conservatives had been in power, none of this would have happened. We shall never know that. However, in an interesting speech, Mr. Redwood, one of the soothsayers and thinkers on the right of the Conservative party, was advancing the ideal of a derestricted mortgage market and lessening the controls. Is the hon. Gentleman attracted by that idea from his fellow thinker of the right?
My right hon. Friend is not here to defend himself. I have the greatest admiration for David Taylor, and I am sorry that he is not standing at the next election. However, he will not tempt me to fall out with a colleague for whom I have the highest regard.
The Gracious Speech also stated that the Government would
"bring forward legislation to promote local economic development and to create greater opportunities for community and individual involvement in local decision-making."
As I should have said at the start, there has never been a state opening of Parliament as late as this year's. The Gracious Speech was full of jokes—every comic should get their hands on it. The Government talk about local decision making, but ever since 1997 they have undermined local government. There are now cabinet members and people with other fancy titles in local government, but all their power has been taken away. The country is run by quangos. When this was the mother of Parliaments and we had great powers, on the first day of the debate on the Gracious Speech the Chamber would be packed, particularly with Government supporters. Nowadays we have been dumbed down and no one bothers to listen to what we say. We have no power. This Government have taken power away from local government. They say that they are going to introduce a Bill to give power back to local authorities, but I shall believe it when it happens—that will be up to an incoming Conservative Government.
The incoming Conservative Government may still be seven, eight or nine years away. The hon. Gentleman is a keen defender of the system of county government, and I think he has represented part of Essex for quite a long period. As a keen student of political affairs over the past 35 years or so, does he recall the local government reorganisation that led up to the major restructuring in 1973-74, which was of Conservative inspiration, and the major reorganisation in 1996-97, which took place in the later years of the Major Government? That reorganisation restricted the powers of and weakened local government, and was, in most cases, done in the face of resistance and hostility from the bodies being reorganised. I am sure that, as a fair man, he would acknowledge that.
I am afraid that I do not accept what the hon. Gentleman says. For what it is worth, I was a Parliamentary Private Secretary in the Department concerned when all those negotiations were going on, and my recollection of those decisions is completely different from his. However, I will not be tempted to go further down that road.
Next, the Gracious Speech tells us:
"A Bill will be brought forward to increase the effectiveness and public accountability of policing, to reduce crime and disorder and to enhance airport security."
I get the impression that there is shock in all parts of the House about what has recently happened with a colleague's office being raided. Well, I am not shocked, because I have privately been in despair about what has been happening to our police force since 1997. We used to have the finest police force in the world. Now, thanks to Labour, we have a police force that is similar to many others throughout the world, and I greatly regret that. I have had a number of dealings with the police over all sorts of highly sensitive and serious matters, and I have found their behaviour, without question, to be absolutely unacceptable. I am in despair about what has happened. I will not go into detail about those matters, but merely point to one occasion when I happened to need the assistance of police officers. Two turned up, and their behaviour and response were an absolute disgrace.
Because of the way this Government run things, we now have a Home Secretary who does not seem to be responsible for things and it is supposedly acceptable that she has not been told about them. Earlier today, I was chatting to two former Home Secretaries. The idea that they would not have been in the loop is absolutely crazy. Sir Ian Blair would not have lasted two minutes. Who is wagging the tail? This is the mother of Parliaments. This is where we make the law—it is not the other way round. The police are no longer accountable to anyone. I fully back the Independent Police Complaints Commission and its chief executive. It does a splendid job, but this Government have not given it the necessary power or teeth. My constituents have to go through so-called local resolution, which we have for the health service and for the police, and when they have done that and eventually get to the IPCC, it is like a war of attrition. The police never apologise for anything, and it is one law for them and another for us. In the light of what has happened to a colleague, this is a tragedy, and we cannot leave it like that. For once, Members from all political parties must unite to restore the sovereignty of this place. I listened carefully to what Mr. Speaker said earlier, and I think that we were all heartened by that measured statement. He said that he will look very carefully at the wording of the motion that the House debates on Monday.
We have these organisations called police authorities, but I find over and again that if I take a problem to Essex police authority it seems to have no power to do anything, so what is point of them? It is interesting that the Government say that we are going to have yet another Bill, but it will be up to the incoming Conservative Government to restore the police service to what used to be the envy of the world.
The next part of the Queen's Speech that I want to refer to says that the Government
"is committed to ensuring everyone has a fair chance in life."
We all agree with that. However, under Labour this has become a very unjust country in which to live.
Then we are told that because
"the health of the nation is vital to its success and well-being, a Bill will be brought forward to strengthen the National Health Service. The Bill would create a duty to take account of the new National Health Service Constitution that will set out the core principles of the Service and the rights and responsibilities of patients and staff. The Bill would also introduce measures to improve the quality of health care and public health."
Yet if one looks at the detail of the Bill, a vital element—a clear statement of NHS values—has been completely left out. I served on the Health Committee for 10 years, and by the end of that time I found that we were going round in circles examining the same things that we did when I first joined it. The last thing that the health service wants is yet another reorganisation. Whether it is GP fundholding or independent hospitals, we are going round and round, and if anything would demoralise staff, it would be further upheavals.
Then we are told that the Government
"will bring forward a Bill to reform education".
We all welcome the appointment of a new independent examinations regulator, which the Conservative party suggested. It is important that that regulator upholds the integrity of the exams system, which regulation has so far failed to do. However, the rest of the Bill is full of meaningless things. It goes back to when Tony Blair was talking about "education, education, education" and being
"tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime."
I wish that this House had been able to take forward the motion, which some of us supported, to impeach Tony Blair. Of all the things that he has been responsible for, perhaps the biggest crime of all was the downright lie that he told the House of Commons about the war with Iraq. I look to my hon. Friend Mr. Baron and say that I wish that I had had the guts that he showed, together with his 17 colleagues, in voting against the war with Iraq, for which I will never forgive Tony Blair.
The Gracious Speech also tells us that the Government
"will continue to take forward proposals on constitutional renewal, including"— this is the biggest joke of all—
"strengthening the role of Parliament".
Since they won in 1997, the Government have done everything possible to weaken Parliament. They have undermined the work of Members of Parliament and destroyed the basis on which this place operates. It is an absolute disgrace. They created that nightmare, but we are now told that they will strengthen Parliament's role. This morning, when I heard Lord Mandelson on the radio giving advice about a Member of Parliament's office being raided by the police, I did a double take. That noble Lord resigned from the Cabinet not once but twice, yet he now lectures us on dealing with a serious matter. He is the last person from whom I would take advice. It says it all if he is the cheerleader for Her Majesty's Government.
The Gracious Speech contains one a measure I am pleased about—that to protect the environment for future generations. The speech reads:
"A Bill will be introduced to manage marine resources and to create a new right of public access to the coastline."
The marine Bill is important. It will protect marine species and habitats—a complex task, given the sheer size of the eco-systems involved. The terms of international maritime conventions have to be fulfilled and environmental management arrangements must be introduced. It has not been fully appreciated that Britain's seas are surprisingly crowded. The Bill needs to manage those pressures carefully, and it promises better opportunities for all stakeholders to help to shape the way in which our seas are managed. The question is whether their respective voices will be heard as the Bill works its way through Parliament.
The Government are rotten and have failed deeply. They are running out of time and options. I hope that the Gracious Speech is the last that we hear from a Labour Government and that the incoming Conservative Government will be responsible for the next one.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate on the Queen's Speech and highlight the issues that concern my constituents. It is always a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Mr. Amess and to listen to his views. I also commend the comments of my hon. Friend Mr. Fallon, who is experienced and knowledgeable about finance and economic matters. His speech gave us much food for thought. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, who was in robust and dynamic form, made an excellent speech.
In my area, there is fear and fury about the position in which our country and my constituents find themselves. They largely blame the Government for failing to deal with the real issues in the past decade. People in my constituency do not believe that all our economic and financial problems started in America. They are worried that, as our country goes into recession, we will be hit harder than other western European and other countries. Why are we in that position? It is possibly because in previous Queen's Speeches, legislative programmes and decisions for which the Government were responsible, the wrong policies were implemented at the wrong time.
People in my constituency are hurting today. We will all judge the Queen's Speech and the recent pre-Budget statement against that background to ascertain whether either or both will address the serious financial and economic problems that our country faces. At first glance, it appears that they will not and that they represent yet another missed opportunity by the failing Labour Government. My constituents will judge the Queen's Speech on two counts: whether it helps resolve the mess into which the Government have got us on so many fronts and whether the measures are fair.
To me, the Queen's Speech represents the dying rites of a tired and bankrupt Government. They claim that Britain should be fairer, but Labour policies have caused greater unfairness in our country in the past 11 years. People are fed up with the Government treating them unfairly on tax, benefits, housing, health, education and so on. It is laughable for the Government to have the audacity to take fairness as their theme for the legislative programme. In my constituency, the three top priorities are the economy, crime and health. I shall concentrate on them in my speech.
Some measures in the Queen's Speech are welcome—for example, the marine Bill, which my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West mentioned. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition said, some of the proposals were originally Conservative and the Government have now adopted them. We always welcome the Government Front-Bench sinner who repenteth.
The content of the Queen's Speech is slim and it has no overwhelming vision for the future. It worries me that it is without vision or direction. The Government appear to have run out of ideas and do not know which way to turn. Our society is broken and the Labour Government have no idea how to mend it. One or two Government Members have said that new Labour is dead, and they are probably right.
For all of us—young or old, with families, in work or on benefits or pensions—the economy is the overriding priority. Jobs, money, taxes, housing, mortgages and rents genuinely concern many people throughout our country. The Government talk the talk, but do not seem to understand or empathise with those truly worried people.
No, the hon. Gentleman has just come in and I want to continue.
The Government have done too little, too late about the economy. Of course, we welcome the proposed Bill to introduce a framework to protect bank depositors. The measure will allow the Bank of England and other authorities to intervene when a bank gets into severe difficulties, and that is welcome. We are also pleased that several banks, including the Royal Bank of Scotland, will not move on repossessions for six months. That will provide some help for some people.
However, people are genuinely fearful that they will be out of a job or unable to meet their mortgage payments, yet they have been highly taxed by the Government, who wasted money and did not put any aside for the future and the bad times that have now arrived. They taxed and spent and did not look to the future and save, so that, when the recession came, they could do something with existing resources.
The economy is the big issue. There are businesses in my constituency that are struggling. Some are fearful of the new year. We need action to help to improve their cash flow, reduce their taxes and cuttheir national insurance contributions. Thousands of businesses are threatened with going bust and thousands of people will lose their jobs. The 2.5 per cent. VAT reduction was not a sensible move to kick-start our economy, as will be proved in time. The Government need to do more, but I do not think that they have any idea of what to do.
The second issue that I wish to highlight is crime and antisocial behaviour. It is interesting that the Government's policing and crime Bill concentrates on the accountability of the police through directly elected representatives on police authorities. That is another Conservative proposal. As I have said in the House before, my constituents want to be able to walk the streets in their neighbourhoods and town centres without fear. Regrettably, there has recently been a considerable increase in burglary across my borough. Some people do not even feel safe in their own homes now. Constituents feel that the Government and the police do not devote enough time or manpower to the problem of burglary.
There is also concern about the licensing situation and alcohol-induced crime. The Government liberalised the licensing laws. I very much regret the move to 24-hour drinking and believe that it has been a great mistake. The Government have looked at the issue again, but have still done nothing to address it—indeed, they have not even proposed anything. Around the Broadway square in Bexleyheath, there are three large-volume licensed premises that can contain up to 2,500 people on a Friday or Saturday night. Police data show that the area has been a hotspot for violence against the person offences and for criminal damage. Between 2002 and 2006, alcohol-related disorder in the area rose by 43 per cent.
Evidence showed that the incidence of alcohol-related crime, disorder and public nuisance in Bexleyheath town centre was increasing, despite the use of mechanisms outside the licensing regime, such as designating the area an alcohol control zone and a dispersal area. The Major of London has recognised the problems caused by alcohol in public places. He took immediate action on taking office to ban the consumption of alcohol on public transport in London, and he backed that up by putting more police on public transport.
Can the hon. Gentleman tell me why my Conservative council will not ban street drinking in local town centres, even though, as he says, the powers are available and there is enormous pressure from the local community to do so? The point is not about 24-hour drinking, because people purchase alcohol in supermarkets and then drink it in local town centres. Why will my council not do anything about that?
I cannot speak for the hon. Gentleman's local authority, but Bexley, which is under an excellent Conservative-controlled council, is taking those sorts of measures. We all need to unite to deal with alcohol-related crime, but the Government have not taken it as seriously as they could have done. However, I welcome those steps that the Government have taken and hope that the policing and crime Bill will move us in that direction.
The third issue that I want to raise is health. The Queen's Speech says that an NHS constitution will be established outlining the rights and responsibilities of staff and patients. That is another Conservative policy and it is welcome indeed. We are looking forward to some positive moves by the Government. However, on the other side, my constituents are concerned about health care and the availability of services locally now.
We in Bexley are still campaigning against changes to downgrade or cut services such as accident and emergency, and maternity services at Queen Mary's hospital in Sidcup. The campaign has brought together thousands of people from across the borough and beyond who are concerned about the future of the health services that they can access if the changes go ahead. One of the problems with the Government is that they make too many top-down decisions without looking at local need. The proposals in Bexley have now been referred to an independent review panel, which will look at them again. We eagerly await its recommendations and the Secretary of State's decision.
The Government's proposed national health service reform Bill is one step behind, although the main proposals in the Bill are encouraging. We want patients to have a greater say about the care they receive, and we want PCTs to be more responsive to local communities. We also want to strengthen public involvement in commissioning. Those positive steps are very welcome, but my constituents are greatly concerned about polyclinics. There is fear that the hospital will be downgraded to become a large polyclinic if the downgrades go ahead.
Despite the Government's claims that polyclinics will not be imposed on communities, half of all PCTs do not plan to consult local people about whether they want one in their community. People in my area are concerned that family doctor surgeries will close and that impersonal polyclinics will be introduced, with patients being lucky to see the same GP regularly and perhaps having to travel much further. The proposal for the new constitution is good, but many Conservatives are concerned about the delivery of services on the ground, and about the downgrades and cutbacks that have occurred, because if the Government have more financial difficulties, there will be real problems.
The hon. Gentleman was a Member of this House in the pre-1997 period, representing much the same area that he represents now, so he will have been part of, or at least a supporter of, a Government whose expenditure on the NHS was going backwards. Does he welcome the fact that in the almost 12 years since 1997 the gross amount being spent has more than tripled to well over £100 billion a year? Even allowing for NHS inflation, there has been a doubling in real terms as an effect of that. Had the Government whom he supported continued from 1997, the NHS would be nowhere near as strong as it is now.
There are a couple of points to make on that. Of course we welcome the resources that have gone into the NHS, but the issue is how efficiently that money has been used. I am afraid that much of it has been wasted, and has not been used efficiently for patient care. Too much has been spent on bureaucracy and administration, and not enough has been spent on front-line care. In the 1990s, productivity was going up considerably, and when we look at waiting times now, we see areas of concern for the future. We welcome the increase in resources, but we want them to go to front-line services, so that the medical side gets them, rather than the administrative side.
Other measures were mentioned in the Gracious Speech. We are to look at education, yet again, as well as training and apprenticeships. We want excellence in education and of course we want the best opportunities to be available for every child, so that they can develop themselves and maximise their opportunities in life. However, some of the figures for exam results and for the number of people leaving school without basic qualifications, or five GCSE equivalents, make us worry that although money has gone in, the output has not been as good as we would have liked. On apprenticeships, we have a desperate need for more trained apprenticeships and for more skilled 16-plus students, but, regrettably, there has not been as much success in that area as we would have liked.
Many areas that were mentioned in the Gracious Speech need to be improved, so we look forward to the introduction of various Bills, and we will argue our case on each of them as they go through the House. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West, I hope that this will be the last Queen's Speech of this fading and discredited Government, who have no future and no vision. It is time for change; the country needs it and the people want it, so we want to bring it on.
It is a pleasure to take part in this debate, and particularly to follow my hon. Friend Mr. Evennett, with whom I have had the pleasure of working closely in the past. He is a fine man, and his constituents are lucky to have him looking after their interests.
Today started with a statement from Mr. Speaker. I do not want to go over the various points that have been made today, but they are important and they matter to our constituents, because the relationship between a Member of Parliament and his or her constituents is important. It needs to be confidential and should always be conducted through open channels of communication. We know that that did not happen in the case of my hon. Friend Damian Green last week.
The offence of aiding and abetting misconduct in public office—or being charged on suspicion of having committed such an offence—has been used not only against a Member of Parliament. It was used recently against two of my constituents: a local investigative journalist and a former detective sergeant in the police force. They were charged with that offence and brought to court fairly recently, but I am pleased to say that the charges were thrown out because the judge found errors of law and of fact in the case that was being brought against them.
When people look at the debate that we had earlier today on the events of last Thursday, they might think that it simply involved MPs being concerned about their own privileges. As I have just said, those privileges matter, as far as our constituents are concerned, but such charges—which are common law charges, not criminal charges, as I think was suggested earlier—are also being used against journalists, police officers and others in our constituencies. We need to bear that in mind as we discuss these issues.
Today's debate has so far quite properly focused on the economy and on the difficult situation that many of our constituents face, and it is on those issues, at national and local level, that I wish to speak first. Many Members, especially on the Conservative Benches, have asked whether the huge sums—£487 billion has been mentioned—that the Government have put into the banking system, either as direct capital injections or as guarantees, are giving us value for money. There was rather more discussion in the US Congress on these matters than I have heard from those on the Government Benches here. Congress debated whether the American public were getting value for money from what the American Government were doing, and whether main street or Wall street would be the beneficiary.
I am glad that, at last, questions really are being put to the Government, and that they are under pressure to tell us whether the huge amount of public money that has gone into the banks is really getting through, whether the credit is starting to flow to small businesses, and, in particular, whether people are able get mortgages. We must not forget the people who have been priced out of the property market for many years by ever-rising prices. The tragedy now is that, at a time when property prices are starting to come down and there is a hope that homes might become affordable, many of our constituents—especially the younger ones—are going along to their bank or building society only to find that they are unable to get a mortgage. We need to look at that matter urgently. Lending needs to be done sensibly—we do not want people to be offered six and a half times their income; such ratios have got people into difficulties in the past—but I hope that Ministers will urgently address that issue, and that of looking after small businesses.
I was disappointed that there was no mention in the Queen's Speech of Equitable Life. The Government have gone against the findings of the parliamentary ombudsman in the past at their peril, and, certainly in the case of failed pensions, have later had to recant—as it were—and reverse their position. The Prime Minister promised us a statement on this matter before the House rose for the Christmas recess. I hope, on behalf of Equitable Life policyholders and all people who save for the future, that there will be a fair resolution to the issue. The savings system in this country is in a bad way, and if people are to be encouraged to make reasonable and responsible provision for the future, we need to clear up this matter and give people confidence in the future of their savings.
The hon. Gentleman is well known across the House as a decent, fair and reasonable individual. Would he accept the widely recognised view that the roots of the Equitable Life saga—I guess that it is rather more than that—go way back beyond 1997? Does he acknowledge that there is a shared responsibility between the previous Conservative Administration and this Government, and that it would be premature to allocate responsibility as though the problems started only in 1997, as they clearly did not?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, for whom I have a great deal of respect. I was not really seeking to allocate blame as such, but the fact is that the hon. Gentleman's constituents and mine have been pretty badly let down through no fault of their own. That is a matter on which the parliamentary ombudsman—an Officer of this House, Mr. Deputy Speaker—has spoken very clearly to the Government. The hon. Gentleman's party is in power at the moment and that happened under his watch, so it falls to Government Ministers to come up with a fair and reasonable solution, notwithstanding any points about how those events have come to pass. Our economy does not need the vision set out by the Government, which will plunge the country into really frightening levels of debt for the future that our constituents will have to pay off with increased taxes for many years to come.
I look forward to seeing a freeze on council tax for the first two years of a future Conservative Government. Only this week I had e-mails from a number of constituents who were deeply concerned about future council tax increases. This is a tax that hits poorer people and pensioners, for example, particularly hard, so many of our constituents will find that any small cuts in VAT will be hugely outweighed by such increases.
I would also like to see employment costs for small businesses reduced by cutting national insurance and providing a tax break for jobs, which my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has already outlined. We desperately need to get credit flowing to businesses with the sort of insurance scheme that guarantees commercial lending in the same way as does the scheme for inter-bank lending that the Government have already put in place. This is not state interference in decisions properly taken by banks, but amounts to standing back and providing an insurance-based guarantee that is already happening in parts of the financial system. That brings me back again to the issue of whether, when it comes to supporting our smaller businesses, we are getting value for this huge amount of taxpayers' money.
I also want smaller businesses helped with their cash-flow problems by delaying their VAT bills for six months. Over the weekend, I spoke to a business man who employs between 30 and 40 people and he told me that that sensible and practical proposal would really help his business. As Mr. Llwyd said earlier, we need the introduction of some form of American-style chapter 11 proposals. That idea has been put to Ministers time and again, yet they continue to resist it, claiming that previous legislation has done all that needs to be done. We are reaching a position that none of us wants to see, whereby businesses that are fundamentally sound risk going out of business for want of such chapter 11-type protection as is available in America, but not in this country.
I was also alerted over the weekend by a Dunstable accountant—I am grateful to him for the information—to the fact that evidence from his clients suggests Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs is taking between two and five months to repay money it owes to small businesses. In these times of great cash-flow difficulties, it is incumbent on Treasury Ministers to ensure that their Department does its bit to ensure that money owed to businesses and individuals is actually paid back far more promptly.
Mr. Mitchell mentioned earlier that he welcomed the falling pound and hoped that it would drop further. I wish I could introduce him to a small business man in Dunstable whom I had the pleasure of visiting earlier this year. He is a talented and ambitious young man who runs a small, but growing business. He faces problems largely because of the fall in the pound by about a quarter of its value over the past few months. That is causing tremendous difficulty for his business as the cost of what he imports has gone up. We need to remember that.
Locally, there is an onus on local authorities to do what they can to help businesses get through these difficult times. It will be for each local authority to see what it can do; it may have to look at parking charges in some areas. In my constituency, the one thing that would help our local economy, encourage businesses to stay and new businesses to come would be to get a key by-pass built north of Dunstable, now known as the A5-M1 link. I very much hope that that will happen sooner rather than later, as I understand that the difficulties formerly identified by the Government are now being overcome.
I am concerned about what happens to constituents who fall through the net, whose eligibility for different types of benefit is questioned and who suffer delays in processing their claims. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions made a statement to the House on work and welfare recently in which he said—I thought slightly complacently—that the current system was working well. I have experience in my constituency, as I am sure hon. Members on both sides of the House do, of people who have fallen through the net. When the Jobcentre Plus office closes at 5 o'clock on a Friday night, those people have no money. They have not been able to get through to the social fund and they are not even going to be able to eat over the weekend. I call on the Secretary of State to undertake an urgent review of Jobcentre Plus, district by district across the country, as to what arrangements are in place to help people in those situations. We are not talking about huge numbers of our constituents but it matters desperately and it is a shame on our country that in Britain in 2008 we have people who fall through the welfare system. I know of instances where charities have had to take food round to people who would not have eaten over the weekend. I will say more about the people who did that later in my remarks.
There is a proposed Bill in the Queen's Speech entitled apprenticeships, schools and children's services. Education is a passion and an interest of mine. I serve as a governor in a local school and I pay tribute to the dedication of teachers in our country, and to the work of school governors, which is unpaid, voluntary and involves a great deal of time. We are blessed in this country with people within our education system who are extremely dedicated, but the fact that half of the children in the country are still not getting five good GCSEs, including English and maths, should shame us as a country.
I know that there are problems with discipline in many schools. I am grateful to one of my head teachers for a thoughtful and considered letter that I received last week, explaining why he had been unable to exclude a child from his school who had perpetrated a violent assault on another pupil. He went through carefully all the reasons as to why he could have been overruled and why that would have made the situation more difficult within the school had he been second-guessed, which he thought he was in great danger of so being.
I put it to Members that that is not a good situation for head teachers in schools up and down the country. We need urgently to give more power and more responsibility to them. They only reach that position after a long time in the teaching profession and through proper assessment as to their suitability for that role. It is time to trust the judgment of our head teachers more.
On exclusions from schools, in my constituency a few years ago—before I was elected—a child who had assaulted a classroom assistant was excluded from school but then reinstated by an appeals panel. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we must have no tolerance of violence in schools?
There should certainly be no tolerance whatever of violence in schools. Schools should be places where the children of our country can go in complete safety and security to learn. That is what they are there for, and the idea of violence in schools is as abhorrent to me as I am sure it is to every Member.
Moving from schools to skills, I was horrified to learn recently when the Government brought out their climate change report that the major constraint on building more nuclear power stations—regardless of our views on whether to do so is right or wrong—is that there is a shortage of suitably qualified engineers to build the nuclear power stations that we may need to keep the lights on and to keep us in business in this country. Sadly, in some parts of our country, engineering training is not all that it could be. Some local businesses have reported to me experiences that do not reflect well on the engineering training that certain of their employees have received. I also recently learned that in three major local education authorities—Blackpool, Darlington and Islington—not a single child took one of the three mainstream sciences at GCSE in 2007. I am shocked by that. Are we really saying that there are no children with any scientific ability in any of those three boroughs?
If we are to diversify our economy—as thinking Members in all parts of the House realise we need to do in order to get away from our over-reliance on financial services, property and public spending—we need engineers for the future. We need people with a grounding in science so that if we require nuclear power stations in future so that we can keep warm and keep the lights on, we have skilled people who can enable us to provide that. We need to look urgently at our science base. People cannot go on to be more skilled engineers and scientists later on at A-level or university or in further study if they do not have the GCSE base. We must look into that.
A number of my hon. Friends have commented on the Government's local economic development and democracy Bill, which was mentioned in the Queen's Speech. I view that Bill with a little incredulity given the experience of my constituents in recent years, who have had major decisions on housing growth, and especially the number of local jobs and the transport and infrastructure links that must go alongside that, taken out of their hands and appropriated either to regional bodies or back to Government Departments.
I strongly echo the remarks of my hon. Friends the Members for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) and for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), who called for more powers and discretion to be given back to our local councillors. I am worried about the regional spatial strategy approach of the Government. If we are going to ask our constituents to go out to polling stations on wet Thursday afternoons to vote for local councillors, then those men and women who are duly elected by proper process, as we in this House are, need to have the power to take decisions locally, and also to be accountable for them so that if they muck up—if they are not building the houses an area requires or meeting the needs of the community—they can be voted out and a new lot of councillors can be allowed to try to do better. That is the basis of our democracy, and we undermine that locally at our peril. The value and worth of our democracy in this House is intimately linked to the value and worth of our democracy at the local level.
I want to move on to another area that is not touched on in the Queen's Speech: family stability. This has some tangential relevance, because a child poverty Bill was announced in the Queen's Speech. I was pleased to hear that, not least because I am likely to be leading on it for the official Opposition. I very much look forward to that Bill. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition committed us to supporting it, because we, too, want child poverty to be eradicated.
I mentioned family because, sadly, we know that a child whose parents separate is twice as likely to end up in poverty as a child whose parents stay together. Earlier this year, Mr. Justice Coleridge, a man with 37 years' experience of the family courts in this country, told the national conference of Resolution, the family lawyers' association, that he believed that restoring family stability and doing something about family breakdown needed to be at the top of the Government's agenda. His remarks were prescient, and Members of this House should listen to a man who has 37 years' experience of this country's family law system. The events involving baby P, which shocked all in this House, are a tragic reminder of what can go wrong when families break down in a truly shocking way.
We learned today from a report in The Lancet that 10 per cent. of children suffer some form of ill treatment every year in our society. That figure is far too high, and I want us to spend more time focusing on prevention, rather than on cure. There have rightly been cries for more inspections of social services and so on, but where is the focus, the vision and the determination from those on the Government Benches to give our constituents the skills and support to make a success of this area of their lives in the first place? Right relationships, responsible fatherhood and motherhood, healthy marriages and positive parenting are some of the most important things in people's lives, and we all pick up the pieces and pay for the consequences when those areas go wrong.
I wish to pay tribute to Cambridgeshire county council—the neighbouring authority to the county of Bedfordshire, which I represent. Its "Vision For Cambridgeshire" has committed to reducing the amount of family breakdown in Cambridgeshire—that is doing something positive. I am in discussions with the new shadow Central Bedfordshire authority to see whether my local authority can commit to doing something similar.
Although we do not have a Bill on this subject in the Queen's Speech, I want to discuss a slightly different area in the final part of my remarks. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition asked the Prime Minister what had happened to the Government's intention to do something about British values—I think he mentioned the British day and the Government's paper on Britishness. My right hon. Friend's questions were well put, because I am sometimes saddened by the lack of focus on what binds together our diverse country, which has people from many different backgrounds and races, and in many parts of which there are segregated communities. When the Queen arrived in Parliament today, we saw her ability to be a focus of unity for the whole country. My right hon. Friend has suggested a national citizen service as another thing that could help to bind us together. I say to Ministers that there needs to be more thinking about what draws us together, whatever our background and racial origin, and whatever part of the country we come from. We need to spend more time focusing on the things that unite us.
In the closing minutes of my address, I wish gently to rebut some comments made by certain Ministers over the past year or so. They have said in various media interviews that Britain is a secular society. That is part of the whole debate about Britishness and British values, and I disagree that ours is a secular society. It is a very diverse society, made up of people who are secular and people of very great faith, and many people at various points in between. I do not want to live in a theocracy, but nor do I want to live in a secular society.
I understand that in the last census, some 70 per cent. of people said that they were Christian. Some 1.7 million Anglicans visit church every Sunday, and Church membership is actually growing, as are other faith communities in our country. By contrast, the membership of the British Humanist Association is some 5,000 and that of the National Secular Society around 3,000. So when Ministers—and the chief executive of a Government agency whom I heard the other day—state confidently that we are a secular society, I would say that that does not tell the whole story. A political system with real plurality is surely based on the biblical injunction to love your neighbour as yourself.
I shall give two examples of why I think Britain would be much worse off if we did become a secular society. I wonder whether hon. Members remember the mass of protestors who went to Edinburgh as part of the Make Poverty History campaign before the G8 summit there. We all received the postcards about that. It is not generally known that some three quarters of those who went were from Churches and faith communities up and down the country, and their disproportionate influence in that campaign should not be forgotten.
I mentioned that sometimes some of my constituents literally have no food or money on a Friday evening, because the Jobcentre Plus office closed at 5 pm and they have not yet got their benefit. When that happens, I am so grateful that I have two Salvation Army centres—one in Dunstable and one in Leighton Buzzard—that I can ring and know that they will take food round so that that family can eat over the weekend until the Jobcentre Plus office opens on Monday. That is immeasurably important to me, and we should remember the work that such organisations and faith groups do on behalf of our constituents.
It is a pleasure to follow Andrew Selous. For four years, we sat next to each other in the Work and Pensions Committee, so I know his views well. I do not agree with him in all cases, but we share an agenda in many areas, especially the ending of child poverty. There is much to welcome in the Queen's Speech, especially the Bill to enshrine in law the Government's promise to end child poverty by 2020.
I also welcome the Bill on welfare reform, which I hope will take the welfare debate on a stage or two. I give credit to the Chapel street Jobcentre Plus in my area, which has been given a reprieve thanks to the announcement last week by the Secretary of State. It will remain open because of the likely rise in unemployment, although I hope that that rise is not too great. In Aberdeen, we have been relatively insulated against the effects felt in the rest of the country from the economic downturn, partly because of the continued high price of oil and the fact that we have a labour shortage in the area rather than a jobs shortage. That is not to say that people are not losing their jobs. Obviously, with the normal turnaround and with people moving in and out of work, it is important that Jobcentre Plus is sensitive to that.
Our local jobcentre and its staff have been very good at stepping up to the plate when there has been a crisis. When factories close, as one did a few years ago, the staff have been prepared to come in on a Saturday morning to interview people and to ensure that they get the emergency money. The local manager was willing to go beyond his obligations to ensure that the redundancy payments were in plac