HC Deb 26 November 2003 vol 415 cc8-117


Mr. Speaker

It may be helpful if I announce to the House that the proposed pattern of debate for the remaining days of the debate on the Queen's Speech will be as follows: Thursday 27 November—international affairs: Monday 1 December—local government, environment and transport; Tuesday 2 December—home and constitutional affairs; Wednesday 3 December—public services, health and education; Thursday 4 December—economic affairs.

I now call on Mr. John McFall to move the Address, and Mr. Parmjit Dhanda to second it.

2.38 pm
Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton) (Lab/Co-op)

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 and 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.

I am most grateful to be moving the Address, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda), and particularly proud since I am the first Member from my constituency ever to do so.

I have been a Member of Parliament for 16 years, but I can honestly say that when I emerge from Westminster underground on a Monday, I still experience the same sense of elation at the sight of Big Ben and the magnificent edifice of the Palace of Westminster as I did on my very first, nervous day as a Member of Parliament in 1987. Like every other Member in this august place, I have had my ups and downs and highs and lows, but I have never lost sight of just what a privilege it is to serve the people of the area where I was born and grew up, nor my sense of reverence for this place, which, down the centuries, has seen so many dramas enacted and crucial decisions taken that have helped to shape our nation.

One of the highs of my parliamentary career was the time I spent as a Minister in the Northern Ireland Office. No one who has served in that capacity has left Northern Ireland without the fondest memories of the place and the people.

After my departure following the establishment of the Northern Ireland Assembly, I was delighted to he invited back, as a Back Bencher, to address a conference in the Waterfront hall in Belfast. I was booked into the Hilton hotel. When I arrived a great fuss was made of me, just as it was at all times when I was a Minister there. I was surprised and delighted to find that I had been assigned a suite on the executive floor, but when I had been in my room for only five minutes there was a knock at the door. It was the bellboy, who asked "Is your name McFall?". I replied "Yes". There was a moment's hesitation before he said, "There is a bowl of strawberries and a bottle of water on the table." "Yes," I said. He said, "Can I have them back? I thought you were a VIP." They were meant for someone else along the corridor.

All ex-Ministers will recognise that instant when the trappings of office, however modest, slip away.

The Government are to be commended on their consistency, energy and commitment to making the peace process in Northern Ireland work. Past Governments of all complexions have failed to make progress because, all too often, there has been a presumption of failure. When difficulties have occurred, there has been a Micawber-like readiness to leave things for a while in the hope that "something will turn up".

We all know how far there is to go until we can be confident that a real and lasting peace has been achieved in Northern Ireland, but make no mistake: we have already travelled much further in that direction than many people thought possible a few short years ago. That is in no small measure due to the huge personal efforts of the Prime Minister, who, no matter what other pressing matters he has attended to—and there have been many—has never failed to give Northern Ireland the attention it deserves. Today, when elections to the Assembly are taking place, I am sure that the best wishes of all Members are with the people of Northern Ireland.

Like the Palace of Westminster, the Dumbarton constituency is redolent of history. It includes the town of Dumbarton, the ancient capital of the kingdom of Strathclyde—a kingdom of the Britons until the 11th century. It stretched almost all the way to Merseyside. I was greatly disappointed, when the devolution settlement was reached, that we did not take the opportunity to reclaim the territory we had lost. I think that Blackpool could have rivalled Edinburgh as capital of a devolved Scotland—and building a parliament there might have been a little cheaper.

Dumbarton castle sits astride a 500-ft volcanic plug, and has dominated the Clyde coast skyline since before the beginning of recorded time. Scotland's Braveheart, Mel—sorry, William Wallace—took control of the castle at the end of the 13th century. In fact he was later held there as a prisoner, before being transferred to this very Palace of Westminster to stand trial in Westminster Hall.

The first king of a newly independent Scotland, Robert the Bruce, had many associations with the town, and retired there. He began the 700-year tradition of shipbuilding in my constituency, which sadly ended with the demise of the world-famous Denny's shipyard in 1963. Bruce's heart was buried in the grounds of a church whose ruins can be seen in the local Levengrove park. As a child, Mary Queen of Scots resided at the castle as she waited to sail to the safety of our old friend and ally—France.

The history books record that in 1494 a certain Baldred Blackadder was appointed keeper of Dumbarton castle. It is open to question whether a cunning plan was executed to install him in that position. In more modern times, shipbuilding has shaped and energised the town of Dumbarton. It was there in Denny's shipyard that the fastest clipper ship of all time, the Cutty Sark, was launched in 1869. It is now a significant tourist attraction not in Dumbarton, but in Greenwich. Mr. Speaker, we would like it back. I implore you, as protector of Back Benchers' interests, to help in this matter.

The first helicopter capable of flight was also constructed in Dumbarton in 1909 and one of the greatest champions in motor racing history, Jackie Stewart, is a Dumbartonian and a friend. In the Vale of Leven area in my constituency, there is a small village named Renton, which has a proud history. In 1888, the greatest event in Renton's history occurred when the local football team won the first ever World cup, beating the then mighty West Bromwich Albion 4–1 in the final. I am told that that was an even more convincing victory than the only other time a British team won this particular competition, which I believe was around 1966.

Recently, however, a third world cup has come Britain's way, and I am sure that the House will join me in congratulating the English rugby team on their— [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] Take it easy. The English rugby team won a magnificent victory in Australia, and the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), the Leader of the Opposition, has also added his congratulations, singling out Clive Woodward as standing out above all, as he was written off completely just four years ago. We can understand why that particular comparison comes to his mind.

Tobias Smollett, the man generally acknowledged as the author of the first English novel, was a Renton man. A few years ago, I visited a primary school in Renton and a teacher asked the children if they knew who I was. "Yes," one child retorted, "he's John McFall, the Prime Minister of Renton." So my right hon. Friend, the real Prime Minister, should be aware that when he visits my area again it is I who will be primus inter pares.

A few miles from Renton lies the gateway to Scotland's first national park. For 16 years, I have had the privilege of working with the community to ensure that there is national park status for Loch Lomond and the Trossachs. The history associated with Loch Lomond is impressive, from the Viking invaders to the colourful Rob Roy, who lived on the lochside. Its beauty is famed world wide and it is developing its full potential as a tourist attraction, enhanced by the new £60 million Loch Lomond Shores development, which has already attracted 1 million visitors in its first year and is already in the top 10 tourist attractions in Scotland.

Further west lies the elegant seaside town of Helensburgh, renowned for its architecture. Famous names associated with Helensburgh include Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the world renowned architect; Henry Bell, pioneer of steam-powered navigation; and John Logie Baird, inventor of television. Indeed, Andrew Bonar Law, Conservative Prime Minister in 1922, lived in Helensburgh for 30 years. Following a funeral service for Bonar Law in Westminster abbey, Asquith bitingly remarked:

It is fitting that we should have buried the Unknown Prime Minister by the side of the Unknown Soldier

I welcome the 30 Bills—seven in draft—in this heavy legislative programme, and I am delighted to see in the Queen's Speech a Bill dealing with employment relations. The Bill rightly highlights the importance of management-worker relations in the workplace. This Government have always recognised the fact that employment is the key to both economic prosperity and a fulfilled life. It is to their credit that more than 1.5 million extra jobs have been created since 1997.

Only a few weeks ago, I was privileged to present a certificate of achievement to a young constituent, Paul Devine, to celebrate his success in obtaining full-time permanent employment through the assistance of the action team for jobs programme set up by the Department for Work and Pensions. Paul was the one thousandth action team client to be helped into employment in my area.

Paul had sadly become addicted to heroin when he was at school. Now, 15 years later, he is free of drug use and has launched a successful career in social work. He recently won the Daily Record/Sunday Mail Young Scot award for an outstanding contribution to his community. The credit for that transformation must go to Paul for his determination and effort to succeed. However, without Government initiatives, such as the employment action team, the prospect of such success stories would be slighter. Happily, in the past few years the scourge of youth unemployment has been almost eradicated in my constituency, thanks to the new deal for young people.

We all lose our way at some time or other, and we need a helping hand to guide us, to get back us on track and heading in the right direction. The late Cardinal Winning, of the archdiocese of Glasgow, could testify to that. A few years ago, he came to Dumbarton for a civic reception for a retired primary head teacher, Sister Julie Marie. He was informed that the event would take place in the Burgh hall in Church street. Unfortunately, he entered the building on the opposite side of Church street and found himself in the entrance of the Masonic lodge. There was consternation when the person to whom he introduced himself informed the brothers, as they were about to undertake their Friday evening rituals, that there was a cardinal in reception looking for a nun. However, their composure was quickly regained, and his eminence was soon redirected and sent on his way with the best wishes of the brothers ringing in his ears. There was even an offer for the cardinal to call in at any time for a pint. There is no recorded sighting of such an event.

As a former teacher, I am deeply interested in the Bill on education. One of my areas of specialisation was pastoral care and guidance for pupils. The main focus was on encouraging all young people to use their talents and to maximise their educational opportunities. Nothing is so gratifying to teachers as to know that those whom they have taught have gone on to better things. Sadly, that is not always the case.

In the mid-1990s, as Opposition spokesman for home affairs, I was invited to Barlinnie prison in Glasgow to open "Prisoners Week". There was a full turnout, not least because the prisoners had heard that sandwiches and delicious home baking would be available. A very large inmate said to me, "You'll have had your food, wee man?". On learning that he was inside for grievous bodily harm, I readily concurred.

On the way out, I witnessed a young man coming out of the back of a prison van, handcuffed to two policemen. The look of recognition on his face was followed by the shout, "John!". Surprised and pleased at what I took as a sign of my growing fame as a politician, I asked him, "How are you doing?". He cast a glance at his handcuffs, then back at me and said with incredulity, "How am I doing? How do you think I'm doing?". Hon. Members can guess what the omitted word was. As he was led away, he looked up at his guards, and gesturing to me with an obvious sense of pride said to them: "He used to be my guidance teacher". We all fail, and we all have to pick ourselves up and start all over again.

The child trust fund Bill is a welcome measure. It is an entirely laudable attempt to ensure that all young people are given a boost as they stand on the verge of adult life. The Chancellor is to be commended for this measure. I am sure that nowhere in his reasoning is the thought that a certain John Macauley Brown will benefit from the trust fund. I am also sure that, like a good parent, he will add what he can to the fund as the years go by. I should like to be there when young John reaches maturity to hear what advice his father gives him. I hope that he does not begin with a brief explanation of endogenous growth theory; or curb the young man's natural exuberance with warnings about adding to the fund by borrowing only if it is to invest; or, goodness forbid, set five tests before a decision can be reached to spend any of it at all.

There is so much to do and so far to go, but a lot has been achieved in the last few years in expanding opportunities and extending social justice. None of that would have been possible without the sound economic basis achieved by this Government, and the Chancellor deserves enormous credit for his part in that. As a Government Back-Bencher, it is my responsibility to do all that I can to ensure that the Government do not lose sight of the goals nor slacken their efforts to transform our society. The programme outlined today shows that they are as focused and as determined as ever to achieve their objectives, and I therefore warmly recommend this Queen's Speech to the House.

2.56 pm
Mr. Parmjit Dhanda (Gloucester) (Lab)

As the first English-based Member of Parliament to address the House in the new Session, and since my constituency includes Kingsholm—the home of rugby and of the cherry-and-whites, Gloucester rugby football club—I must congratulate the local boys, Andy Gomarsall, Phil Vickery and Trevor Woodman, and join my hon. Friend the Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall) in congratulating the other 27 players of Clive Woodward's squad, the new world champions, England.

I do not wish to be partisan—

Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North) (Lab)

Oh, go on.

Mr. Dhanda

Well, just for a moment and to please my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound). I believe it was Harold Wilson who said that we only win world cups under a Labour Government. I have got that out of my system now.

The House will be aware of the campaign in the run-up to Saturday's final, urging us to "do the Jonny" as a gesture of good luck to the England No. 10. I do not have the space to demonstrate the Jonny here, but at the weekend I assured a group of my constituents that I would seek to emulate "Jonny." They did not realise that I was referring to my hon. Friend the Member for Dumbarton, who, as well as sharing his namesake's dapper build and winning smile, has demonstrated that he, too, is at the top of his particular field as a parliamentarian. I am delighted to pay tribute to him. I hope that he forgives the comparison with a Sassenach rugby player; I hope I pronounced that correctly.

The honour of commending Her Majesty's speech is an honour not just for me, but for the people of Gloucester, and one that, if I might say so, is long overdue—although not because of me, I hasten to add.

There is no recorded history of a Member for Gloucester playing a role in this unique parliamentary occasion, either as proposer or as seconder—ever.

In Gloucester, we have a theory, Mr Speaker; you might say it is something of a conspiracy theory. If anyone was ever worthy of the honour, surely it was my predecessor Lieutenant Colonel Edward Massey, who, in 1642, fought—literally—for the parliamentary cause at the siege of Gloucester. The honour never befell Massey. Instead, he had to settle for being knighted and becoming governor of Jamaica. Some people have all the luck.

On many a long evening in Gloucester's New Inn, the England's Glory and the Linden Tree, Gloucesterians have wondered aloud as to how they have been overlooked when Her Majesty has made her speech to Parliament. Perhaps it was all Massey's fault, they say, for fighting the parliamentary cause in 1642, rather than the royal one.

So I resolved to change all this. I had to make friends in high places: I needed to undo my predecessor's work and to get in with the royals. So, as many of my colleagues will be aware, I headed to Buckingham Palace last November. As the copy of The Guardian that I am holding shows, it was the day the Conservative party had to unite or die. Well, it did not unite, but as the front page of that paper also shows, there was the far more important story of my trip to Buckingham Palace to make new friends and influence people. That night, His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh and I had a chat. We talked about what each of us had done before our current roles in life. In the light of his time in the Navy during the war, and of my time as a student—doing not a lot—we struck up a real rapport. I would go so far as to say that we got on like a house on fire, regardless of what it said in The Guardian—and in the Daily Mail. And in Private Eye. And in Corriere della Sera. And in a Bolivian publication that I cannot quite pronounce. That goes to show that we really do live in a world of wall-to-wall media coverage.

Little did I know that so favourable was the impression that I left on His Royal Highness that he must have felt compelled to ring my Chief Whip himself to request that for this royal occasion, his old pal from Gloucester act as seconder—I stress, seconder—for the Queen's Speech. I hope that that clears up any confusion. I owe him a debt of gratitude for breaking Massey's curse for ever.

In making this speech, it is traditional to talk about one's constituency. But it is my constituents who make Gloucester what it is today, and it was for them that I said in my maiden speech that I wished to deliver a city fit for the 21st century. All Members of this House—on both sides—rightly consider their constituencies to be the best thing since sliced bread, but mine has been the hub of an unprecedented scale of investment in the past two years. A £30 million private finance initiative rebuild of the Gloucestershire royal hospital has allowed me to become the first Gloucester MP in a generation to open wards in Gloucester, rather than presiding over ward closures. But Gloucester has also received new money for a university campus, and we are working towards a new police headquarters, new road infrastructure and the best leisure centre in the region. In all, that is more than £100 million of capital investment in Gloucester, and more than 100 million reasons for me to be proud of the city that I represent.

In my first two years in office, I have realised that if you don't ask, you don't get. But so many times when I have asked on my constituents' behalf, the Government have given. I thank them for that, but that does not mean that I am about to stop asking.

My constituents will welcome the Government's measures to ensure that our people do not have to be of working age to earn security. Introducing baby bonds will ensure that all young families can be assured of a new level of security in life. Combined with the new measures to protect pensions, that reminds me of a phrase that first brought me into Labour party politics—for this is a Queen's Speech that improves the quality of our constituents' lives from the cradle to the grave.

Given that all news is local, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister may be aware of a campaign that was initiated by my local newspaper and me, and which is supported by the cross-party consensus of the 61 Members of Parliament who signed early-day motion 1811. That early-day motion supports the steps that the Government have taken to ease pensioner poverty, and urges my right hon. Friend to consider appointing a Minister with responsibility for older people, who would have the power to work across Government Departments in the interests of all our senior citizens. That said, I can reassure him that I am not trying to create a job for myself. Honestly.

I believe the Government deserve particular praise for introducing measures that trade unionists everywhere will welcome, by building on the Employment Relations Act. When people like my mum and dad came to this country nearly 40 years ago, to clean hospital floors, like mum, or drive heavy goods vehicles, like dad, it was not the Government of the day they turned to for help and support.

They had a lot to contend with, with people accusing them of coming here to nick British jobs. But as mum often tells me, there was no queue of people at Ealing hospital lining up to clean the toilets—only migrant labourers, invariably women, doing their bit to build our NHS. I salute them for the work that they did, and I salute the trade unions for sending them on courses to teach them enough English to be able to represent themselves in the workplace. They helped to create a generation of workers with the self-respect and determination to push their own children to make the most of opportunities in life that they themselves could only have dreamed of. Trade unionists everywhere will welcome these new measures enhancing employment rights.

In 1997 my seat of Gloucester was the key seat. Labour needed to win it to achieve an overall majority in the House of just one. When my predecessor decided after one term that politics was not for her, my local party and the people of Gloucester took a chance. They took a chance on someone who did not look or sound like a typical Member of Parliament, someone who did not have the traditional background to be a Member of the House. I told my constituents that, if politics is about changing things—and I believe it is—in 2001, in the key seat, the barometer seat, the people of Gloucester had the chance to show the world that my party was changing people's attitudes for ever. Gloucester led the way that day.

After Labour's six years in office, the Gracious Speech demonstrates that the Prime Minister still believes that politics is about changing things for the better. I urge him to continue to do so, and I commend the Gracious Speech to the House.

3.7 pm

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con)

I begin by paying tribute to Paul Daisley, who came to the House with a formidable reputation as a reforming council leader. Tragically, his election to Parliament was overshadowed by the diagnosis of his cancer. Obviously in pain, but with an equally obvious pride in his constituency, many remember the courage that he showed when he delivered his maiden speech some eight months later. I am sure that hon. Members throughout the House will join me in expressing the hope that his spirit will live on after him through the work of the Paul Daisley trust. His spirit lives on in another way, too. Paul campaigned vigorously for his predecessor, Ken Livingstone, to be readmitted to the Labour party, and it rather looks as though he is going to have the last laugh. On both sides of the House, we will miss Paul Daisley.

I warmly congratulate the proposer and seconder of the Loyal Address. The hon. Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall) spoke with passion, great humour and great wit. He always does speak with passion. In common with the Prime Minister, he long had a passionate and principled devotion to the cause of unilateral nuclear disarmament—despite the fact that Faslane and Coulport employ hundreds of people in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman's constituency is undoubtedly one of the places in the world where even the Prime Minister could find weapons of mass destruction.

The hon. Member for Dumbarton also serves as the highly respected Chairman of the Treasury Committee, where he has a fearsome reputation. When he recently asked the Governor of the Bank of England the same question nine times, he was compared to Jeremy Paxman. Let me assure the hon. Gentleman that nine times is easy. He should try 14; then he really could move to "Newsnight".

I am sure I speak for the whole House when I congratulate the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda) on his speech. He spoke with the eloquence that we have come to expect from him. But he must have been rather surprised to be asked to second the motion today, for earlier this year he voted against the war. His website diary gives a fascinating account of his private meeting with the Prime Minister hours before the crucial vote; it is full of startling political insights. The Prime Minister, the hon. Gentleman said, had obviously had a long and hard day. His shirt, usually impeccably pressed, looked slightly creased. But his eyes were bright, focussed and full of conviction. 'Parmjit,'

he said, We are where we are. The Prime Minister was clearly at his most persuasive. He continued: It's a far from ideal position, I know, but I need your support".

"A far from ideal position." I do not remember that phrase creeping into the Prime Minister's speech in the House that day. Could he just possibly have been saying one thing in public and another in private? Surely not. I hope that all this has not killed off the political prospects of the hon. Member for Gloucester, for on the basis of today's performance he has a great career ahead of him.

I, too, want to congratulate the English rugby team on their outstanding achievement in Australia; it is a great shame that the Minister for Sport was not there to see it. There are different accounts of his reaction when he was told to come back early. The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport said that that had always been planned, but the Minister's spokesman, when asked how he really felt, said, "I can't tell you. It's before the watershed". The Prime Minister was reported as being profoundly unimpressed by the Minister's reaction; indeed, a source close to the Prime Minister said of the Minister for Sport, "I think he may regret it." It may not be long before the Minister for Sport is proposing the Loyal Address.

Before I examine the Gracious Speech in detail, I shall mention certain matters that do not fall directly within the remit of the Government's programme. Today, the people of Northern Ireland go to the polls to elect a new Assembly. We support the Government in their efforts to re-establish devolution in the Province, and we hope that there will be a constructive and stable outcome to today's elections.

In Iraq, too, the Government are engaged in a commendable endeavour to replace tyranny and terror with peaceful democracy. The Prime Minister has shown political courage in standing shoulder to shoulder with our allies in America and elsewhere, and we support him. We must remember, in everything we say and do, that many British servicemen and women are demonstrating physical courage every day in Iraq. Their job is a dangerous one, and I am sure I speak for the whole House when I express my gratitude to them. In that context, I pay tribute to the two Members of the House whose duty as members of the reserve forces has taken them to Iraq—my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison), who, happily, has returned safely to rejoin us, and my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne), who continues to serve our country in Nasiriyah.

Many of us have constituents who have suffered the tragic loss of close family members in Iraq, and we owe it to them to ensure that their loved ones did not die in vain. The House will also wish to pay tribute to the three British citizens, including the consul general, who died in the bombings in Istanbul, and to the many others who so tragically lost their lives there.

We welcome a number of the measures in the Gracious Speech. We regard them as constructive, and we shall support their passage. We are pleased to see the Government turn their attention to child protection and domestic violence. We will study the draft disabilities Bill when it is published, and we hope that it will live up to the billing that the Minister for Disabled People has given it.

We also support the principle of a civil contingencies Bill. Those recent terrorist atrocities in Turkey and elsewhere require us to do everything possible to protect British citizens and interests.

The civil partnerships Bill aims to address some genuine grievances that are acknowledged on both sides of the House. I believe that we all have a duty to recognise and respect the fact that people in our society choose to live their lives in many different ways. I also accept that there are a range of sincerely held opinions on how the law should reflect that. Conservative Members will have a free vote on the measure and I hope that will also be the position for Labour Members.

Although we welcome some of the individual proposals in the Gracious Speech, the overall reaction to it—even, I suspect, on the Labour Benches—will be disappointment. That sums up the general feeling of disillusionment that has built up over the last six and a half years. The Government were elected with great promise and a sweeping mandate. They had the world at their feet and a vast parliamentary army ready to carry forward whatever measures they proposed—and what has happened? In the words of Paul Daniels, "Not a lot." We are, after all, about to embark on the seventh parliamentary Session since the right hon. Member for Sedgefield became Prime Minister. He has been in office longer than Attlee—what has he got to show for it?

During that time, we have had seven education Acts. In 1998, the Government promised to cut truancy by a third. What has happened? Truancy has gone up by 15 per cent. overall and by 25 per cent. in our secondary schools. What hope is there for our future if so many of our young people are not even going to school at all?

Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North) (Lab)


Mr. Howard

I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman. While he is on his feet, I hope that he will tell us where he stands on top-up fees. Is he in favour of the manifesto proposal or is he in favour of the proposal in the Queen's Speech? Is he in favour of the Chancellor's policy or the Prime Minister's policy? I hope he will deal with that.

Mr. Gardiner

The right hon. and learned Gentleman said that the Government had achieved not a lot. What does he consider the 91 per cent. drop in unemployment in his constituency to be? Is that not a lot?

Mr. Howard

I am very, very sorry that the hon. Gentleman was unable to enlighten us about his position on top-up fees— [Interruption.] I was only trying to help the Chief Whip; she needs to know the numbers.

Since the Government came to office, we have had five transport Acts. Yet we have more congestion, and twice as many trains running late as before. We have had 18 Acts from the Department of Health—18—but none will be of any comfort to the million people languishing on waiting lists. We have had no fewer than 30 pieces of legislation from the Home Office, yet crime is up by 800,000, gun crime has doubled and we have the highest level of violent crime ever.

Are the major Bills in this year's speech likely to be any different? The asylum Bill—the third immigration and asylum Bill—is merely the latest chapter in the sorry story of incompetence and irresponsibility that has marked the Government's attempts to deal with the problem. Almost five years ago, the then Home Secretary said that he was legislating to provide the United Kingdom with a modern, flexible and streamlined system". —[Official Report, 22 February 1999; Vol. 326, c. 50.]

Whatever happened to that?

The Government have wasted—

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney) (Lab)


Mr. Howard

I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman. I hope that in order to help the Chief Whip he will tell us what his position on top-up fees is.

Mr. Blizzard

I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for giving way. What the Chamber would like to know, in view of his comments on the asylum Bill, is will he and his party oppose the Bill?

Mr. Howard

I promise that I shall deal with that. This Government have wasted the past six and a half years reversing the measures brought in by the previous Government, and then reintroducing them.

Mr. James Plaskitt (Warwick and Leamington) (Lab)

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Mr. Howard

No, I am about to answer the hon. Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard). This time the Government have gone further than any civilised Government should go. Earlier this week, we read in our newspapers that the Government propose to use the children of asylum seekers as pawns to cover up their failure to get a grip on their asylum chaos. Children of asylum seekers are to be taken into care in order to force their parents to leave the country. The Prime Minister and the Home Secretary should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves. We shall oppose any legislative provision that seeks to give effect to this despicable proposal. I have no doubt that when we do so we shall be joined in the Lobbies by the many Labour Members who, unlike the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary, retain their self-respect.

Now, what about pensions? The pensions Bill will do nothing to tackle the main causes of the pension crisis. [Interruption.] The Home Secretary needs to contain himself. If he briefs newspapers so that they carry headlines such as we saw last week, he has only himself to blame for the furore that follows.

I repeat that the pensions Bill will do nothing to tackle the main causes of the pensions crisis. Without reform of the state pension and a reversal of the spread of means testing, that crisis will continue to get worse. Without new incentives to save, pension provision will continue to shrink.

What of the pledge in the 1997 Labour manifesto to make the House of Lords more democratic? We now know exactly what the Prime Minister means by democracy—one flatmate, one vote. While we are talking about manifestos, what happened to the pledge made in 2001, just two years ago? "We will not introduce top-up fees," it said—and there was more: the manifesto boasted that Labour had "legislated to prevent them."

When the Prime Minister gets up, perhaps he will say what exactly happened there. Was it a misprint? Was it the intention to say that the Government would legislate to introduce top-up fees, or did the Prime Minister simply miss that line altogether? Was it perhaps sneaked in by the Chancellor at the last minute? Is that why the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) has been brought back in to oversee the manifesto—to keep an eye on any last-minute changes by the Chancellor? Is it not extraordinary? It does not matter how many times that right hon. Gentleman is sacked from the Cabinet and forced to leave Downing street by the front door: the Prime Minister will always find a way to smuggle him back in through the back door.

Today, there was no mention of the phrase "top-up fees" in the Queen's speech. It is the tax that dare not speak its name.

Government plans for regional assemblies will take the number of referendums held by the Government to 37. However, the Queen's speech also refers to a Bill about a referendum that the Government dare not hold—the draft Bill for a referendum on the euro. There is one thing, surely, on which we can all agree. Since no one believes that the Government will call a euro referendum before the next general election, why on earth are we wasting any time on it?

On regional assemblies, we are being given referendums that we do not want. On the euro, we are being given a referendum that will not be called, but on the new constitution for Europe—a measure of the utmost importance—we are being given no referendum at all.

No one could say that the late Hugo Young was a Eurosceptic. Indeed, the Prime Minister recently paid a handsome and well-deserved tribute to him: but the Prime Minister would do well to listen carefully to Mr. Young's wise words. He wrote in July that this change in the shape of the EU is indeed constitutional, does mark something pretty big, and merits the thumbprint of the nation to endorse it. There is now total confusion at the heart of the Government. The Prime Minister said that the European constitution is good for Britain. The Chancellor says that it is bad for Britain. The Prime Minister has told us that the constitution is essential for enlargement. The Foreign Secretary has now said that it is not. That is why the Prime Minister will not hold a referendum, and why he will not even try to persuade the British people that the constitution is either good or essential. He cannot even persuade the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Foreign Secretary, so it is no wonder that he will not allow the country a say. After all, it is not as though the Government are against consultation. This evening, the Prime Minister will launch what he pretentiously describes as a conversation with the nation. It will not come as much of a surprise to the nation to learn that that conversation will be rather one-sided.

On Sunday, the Leader of the House was asked by Jeremy Vine what would happen if the people said, in the course of that conversation, that they did not want top-up fees. In reply, the Leader of the House said, Well indeed buter…well the point I'm making is that top-up fees are an issue which are current now, today, this year, in this coming year, in the coming couple of years.

That is all clear, then. What is the conversation with the nation about? Again, the Leader of the House was crystal clear. He said: Because, in the context of a long term future … that is, that was what the Prime Minister was talking about and not in respect of, you know, the need for reform.

So it was not anything to do with reform.

We all know the real conversation that the Prime Minister needs to have. He needs to have a conversation with his next-door neighbour. The current situation makes one wonder who is the leader and who is being led. Real Prime Ministers lead their Chancellors: he follows his. What is the Prime Minister's response? He cannot get his way on policy. He cannot get his way on strategy. All he can do is deny his Chancellor a seat on the national executive.

The Prime Minister may strut his stuff on the world stage, but when it comes to domestic policy, never in recent history has a Prime Minister been so weak, so feeble and so utterly unable to do what he wants, even though he has a huge majority in the House of Commons. How utterly humiliating for him—and how very damaging for our country. He has been "outmanoeuvred" by a "politically obsessed Chancellor". Those are not my words, but those of the right hon. Member for Hartlepool, who is probably the world's leading authority on their 10-year feud.

Is it any wonder that the Government have given up on delivery? The House need not take my word for it. We have it on no less an authority than the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. I am happy to see her in her place.

Andy King (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Lab)

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Mr. Howard

No, the hon. Gentleman should listen to this, because it is rather important. The Secretary of State has admitted that when we talked about delivery, that may have been something of a mistake … We are not in government in order to show that we can be more competent than the Conservative Party was. The right hon. Lady knows, as we all do, that Labour promised far too much and has delivered far too little. Labour Members know that they cannot deliver and they know that they are incompetent. They know that they have failed, and the Gracious Speech will do nothing to remedy that.

We could be doing so much better. We are the world's fourth largest economy. We are a nation of hard-working, enterprising, energetic people. We have great potential, but this Government—who promised so much—have let our country down. In the absence of real reform, their only answer is higher tax. When that fails, they turn to higher taxes still. They approach every problem with an open wallet and an empty mind. They are taxing and spending and failing. After six and a half years, the Prime Minister has lost his grip and the Government have lost their way. They are running out of steam, and they know it. We need better schools and the Government just give us top-up fees. We need safer streets, but the Government abolish the Lord Chancellor. We need improved hospitals but the Government give us legislation on the euro.

The Prime Minister and the Government are simply unequal to the task. They have run out of ideas, they have run out of money and they are running out of time. All they have to offer is open wallets and empty minds. [HON. MEMBERS: "You've said that."] And I will say it again, because it happens to be true.

This Queen's Speech should have included a programme that delivers real power to patients, to parents, and to front-line professionals. It should have included a programme that gives value for taxpayers' money and security for the national interest. But that programme will only be put in place by a different Government—a Government who boost the economy rather than chain it, who implement serious reform of our public services, and who give real power to people. That Government is the next Conservative Government, and the sooner it comes, the better life will be for the people of our country.

3.30 pm
The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair)

Let me start by remembering our colleague Paul Daisley, who sadly died in June this year. Paul had been a Member of Parliament for only two years when he died, but I know he made a great impact on both sides of the House and had many friends from all parties. As has just been said, his courage through his illnesses was remarkable, as was his service to his constituents both as a Member of the House and, prior to his election, as a councillor and, indeed, council leader in Brent. I know that the thoughts of the whole House are with his wife Lesley and his family.

Perhaps the House will permit me to express yet again our deep sorrow at the death of Gareth Williams, the leader in the other place. He was someone of quite exceptional ability, intellect and integrity, and I know that he, too, is missed on all sides of the political spectrum.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall) made an immensely engaging and witty speech, as we anticipated. I thank him in particular for his kind words on Northern Ireland and all that we have done over the past few years. I can assure him that we will carry on working for peace in Northern Ireland to the best of our ability, both now and after the elections today.

My hon. Friend is the well-respected chair of the Treasury Select Committee. [Interruption.] I am sorry; the Tories want me to say "Chairman". I thought they were getting up to date, but no. They could have a free vote on it maybe; I do not know. Anyway, my hon. Friend lists running among his hobbies. I understand that these two seemingly unconnected skills came together recently when, with just two minutes to go on the vote on paying Select Committee Chairmen, he found himself by mistake in the No Lobby. Who said Select Committees cannot move fast when they want to?

My hon. Friend has taken up many issues. I had occasion to read his maiden speech, which included an immensely powerful attack on the poll tax. I suspect that little did he know that, 16 years later, he would have the opportunity to move the Loyal Address, to be followed by Mr. Poll Tax himself—the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard)—so it is very much back to the future for him, and indeed for all of us.

As I am sure the whole House would agree, my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda) also made an effective and amusing speech. I am particularly grateful that he did not remind me that before I entered the House I was rejected as the Labour candidate for Gloucester; obviously, his qualities are far more appealing both to the party and to the electors there. The Gloucester seat was, as he explained, the first seat for which my hon. Friend had applied, and as he said rather movingly in his tribute to his constituency, the people of Gloucester showed by sending him to the House that all they cared about was his character, his commitment and his talent, and that is an example to all. How right they were can be seen from the fact that my hon. Friend showed very early in his parliamentary career that he was a politician who could spot the issues and priorities of the future. How else can you explain a new Member of Parliament who, within weeks of arriving in the House, starts a campaign to ensure that top-class international rugby is open to all television viewers? I am sure that all of us would like to be able to see the future with such accuracy.

My hon. Friend is, I am sure, at the start of a long career in the House, but I have no doubt that whatever else he achieves in life, he will be for ever remembered for a publication that he authored in 1993 entitled "Measuring Distances using a Gallium Arsenide Laser." I am afraid that there is nothing further that I can say—that is clean—about that.

We have heard two excellent speeches—self-deprecating, generous, forward looking and compassionate. Now, though, I come to the speech of the Leader of the Opposition. Free and fresh from his leadership triumph, the Conservatives are consulting the people—a contest in the best tradition of the politics of North Korea, I thought. Six years ago, of course, when he last stood for his party's leadership, he came a poor fifth out of five candidates; but here he is today. Why did his party believe in 1997 that he was the very last person who could convince the country that the Conservatives had something to offer? I think that we all know why—it was because of his record in office. No wonder the Conservative party did not want juries to know about previous convictions—he has got form as long as your arm.

In fact, on almost every occasion when there was a serious crime against this country, the right hon. and learned Gentleman was on the scene. Who was the Environment Minister who personally brought in the poll tax? He was. Who was Home Secretary when police numbers were cut by 1,000 after he promised to increase them? He was. [Interruption.] We are talking about his record in government. Who was the Employment Secretary when unemployment rose by 1 million? He was. That represents 1,300 people added to the dole queue for every day that he was called the Employment Secretary. Not even Paul Daniels could make that record disappear.

It is no wonder that the Tories want to hide previous convictions. As the right hon. and learned Gentleman said when he was Home Secretary, "If you don't want the time, don't do the crime." His crimes were in government, and six and a half years in opposition is not long enough for him. Of course, we are told that he has changed. He stands before our wondering eyes the new born-again leader of the Conservative party, shedding all the earlier skins—something of the day about him. Along with the bright born-again leader comes a bright new born-again team. There they all are, the shadow Cabinet, facing tomorrow's challenges with yesterday's men—and one woman. At least the reshuffle has confirmed one thing: it takes two men to do one woman's work—two men trying to control the Tory party, but only half a man to run education and half a man to run our health service.

There are not just two party chairmen: the right hon. and learned Gentleman has also appointed three former Tory leaders and a former Chancellor as his personal advisory team. I can just imagine the discussion they will have. The right hon. Members for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) and for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) will keep telling him to turn right on every occasion. The right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) will want to turn left. The former Member for Huntingdon, John Major will most likely stop in a lay-by to consult the map. There has been nothing like that ominous presence in one group since the four horsemen of the apocalypse, but it is all a sham to let them concentrate on their real objective—and my goodness did we see it here this afternoon—to mount a ceaselessly negative attack, without anything positive to say about the future of this country.

I thought that it was the most predictable speech that we could have heard from the right hon. and learned Gentleman. He may want to pose as the nice Dr. Jekyll, but we know that, deep down, he is still the same old Mr. Howard—utterly negative. The NHS is apparently hopeless. The schools are all failing. The economy is on the road to ruin. It was straight out of the Saatchi book of negative campaigning. [HON. MEMBERS: "Labour isn't working."] Oh yes, they are remembered for saying, "Labour isn't working." That was when unemployment was 1 million and then the Tories trebled it—not once, but three times.

This Queen's Speech, by contrast—[Interruption.] Oh yes, we are going to draw a contrast between the measures for the future and the return to the past under the Conservative party. The Queen's Speech addresses the issues, even difficult ones, that allow us to meet the challenges for the future on the basis of opening up opportunity to all. First, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman talked about delivery, we must preserve our hard-won economic stability. This country has weathered the storm best of all G7 countries. We have the lowest interest rates for many generations, low inflation, low unemployment, the highest-ever levels of employment, and debt down from 44 per cent. of GDP to 32 per cent.

If we want to contrast what we have done in the past few years on delivery with what the right hon. and learned Gentleman delivered, let us remember the interest rates at 10 per cent. to 15 per cent., the 1.5 million fewer people in work, the boom and the bust and the borrowing at 8 per cent. of GDP. How did the Conservatives create that mess? They promised tax cuts and higher spending at the same time, which is exactly their policy now. Re-linking the basic state pension with earnings was described a short time ago by the new member of the shadow Cabinet who speaks on policy development as not affordable and…not…well targeted and a wild and uncosted policy". It is now their policy, however, along with 40,000 more police, extra spending on defence, farming and local government, scrapping university fees and their pensions pledge—which alone will cost about £8 billion over this Parliament—all at the same time as promising to cut taxes.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con)

The Prime Minister has alluded to defence expenditure. How can the Government introduce a cut in defence expenditure of £500 million a year after he has taken the country to war five times in six years?

The Prime Minister

Defence spending is rising in real terms for the first time in many years. As we are declaring the contrast between the two parties, some of us remember defence cuts of 30 per cent. when the hon. Gentleman's leader was in office. We will therefore take no lessons in support for our armed forces from the Conservative party.

Secondly, as well as preserving stability, we must continue the investment in and reform of public services. Let us never forget that in the years before we came to power, hospital waiting lists rose by 400,000. Over six years, that has been reversed—they have fallen to their lowest level for over a decade. In 1997, for example, 30,000 people were waiting for more than 12 months—now the figure is 114; 118,000 were waiting over nine months—and now it is 42,000. By mid-2005, we will have a maximum waiting time of six months, and by 2008 that will be down to three months. In 1997, we inherited 70,000 out-patients waiting more than 26 weeks—now the figure is 700. The Leader of the Opposition says that we have wasted money, but that is where the money has gone. It has gone into 55,000 more nurses; 14,000 more doctors; 24 major new hospitals; 180 accident and emergency departments that have been or are being modernised; the NHS Direct helpline, which takes half a million calls per month; 42 walk-in centres; 23 diagnostic and treatment centres; 300,000 more operations a year; almost a million more elective admissions; cancer deaths down by 10 per cent.; and heart disease deaths down by 23 per cent. Yes, there is a long way to go, but let no one pay any attention to the Conservative party's campaign claiming that nothing has happened in the past six years, because it simply is not true.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con)

Will the Prime Minister tell us why his Government are running down and partially closing the cancer centre at the Kent and Canterbury hospital—the first cancer centre in a generation to be threatened in this way?

The Prime Minister

We are improving cancer services throughout this country— [Interruption.] Yes, there will be changes in the service. We are putting almost £600 million into cancer in this country. The number of cancer deaths is down by 10 per cent. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman and other Opposition Members talk to people in cancer services, who will tell them that they are improving as a result of the extra investment.

We know what the strategy of the Conservative party is. The new Conservative chairman outlined it a short time ago. These are chilling words for the country to remember: The first" — phase— is to persuade the public that the NHS is not working. The second is that it 'won't work' and 'can't work'. The final stage would be details for the manifesto, 'ultimately the most difficult phase"'. He is right there. Foolishly, however, the Conservative party has made a specific policy commitment—that patient's passport is an iniquitous proposal that will subsidise people to go out of the NHS but only to the tune of 60 per cent. of the cost. The other 40 per cent. must be paid by the patient. It is not just the unfairness and the dead-weight cost that would rip more than £1 billion out of our health service. It is not a policy that is designed to improve the health service, but one that would allow a small number of people to escape it. That is typical of Conservative policy and would simply take this country backwards. Pensioners and others would have to pay 40 per cent., and the cost of some operations would run into literally thousands of pounds for those people.

Mr. Howard

If the Prime Minister affects such anger at that, how can he condone the fact that the number of people without any kind of private medical insurance at all, and who leave the health service and pay for their own operations because they are so appalled at what they find, has tripled under his Government from 100,000 to 300,000 a year?

The Prime Minister

I do not believe that people are appalled at what they find in the national health service. The reason that we have been able to reduce waiting times—every single one to below what we inherited—is because of our investment. There we had another typical example. The right hon. and learned Gentleman stands and says that the national health service is failing people in this country. That is simply not true. The fact is that he wants to tell people the health service is failing because he does not believe in it, never has believed in it, and wants to get rid of it.

On the issue of schools, again the right hon. and learned Gentleman said that we have made no progress at all, but this is what the chief inspector of schools said a few weeks ago when discussing schools policy: Government policies are rightly focused on raising standards: it wants more and more young people to achieve more and more. Our Annual Report shows clearly that these policies are bearing fruit.

The Ofsted report went on—this is what the right hon. and learned Gentleman should remember, because it offers a contrast to what used to happen—to say: Standards of attainment are rising in England. We can look at improvements in National Curriculum tests and public examinations. In 1996, only 57 per cent. of pupils in their last year at primary schools reached level 4 or better … Six years later that figure stands at 75 per cent … A similar story can be told about mathematics. In 1996 only 54 per cent. got those results. Now, three-quarters get the right results. That is what delivery is about for people in this country.

We are increasing nursery provision and expanding sure start, with 400,000 children benefiting. Yet again, if we want a sign of what would happen if the right hon. and learned Gentleman got his hands on power, the Conservative party has consistently refused to support the sure start programme. It delivers an immense amount of benefit to people. There are 200,000 modern apprenticeships. We know, however, that we have to do more. Education through life is now the key.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) (SNP)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

The Prime Minister

In a moment.

The vast bulk of the jobs of the future—certainly those with career prospects—require higher degrees of skill and learning, so we have to give greater access to higher education and skills and fund it fairly. I believe strongly that the proposed reforms on university funding are vital for the future of this country. They are vital to keep Britain at the top economically and not to put all the burden on the general taxpayer; they are vital to open access to university education for more and more children; and they are vital to preserve and enhance our universities as a great British asset. I believe that it is essential that we carry this through.

Mr. Robert Jackson (Wantage) (Con)

Does the Prime Minister recall the all-party support for the Dearing's committee report on higher education a few years ago? Does he agree that it would be better to continue with the policy of all-party support for these important reforms that the Government are now implementing?

The Prime Minister

I thank the hon. Gentleman, who has long experience in these matters, for those sensible words. We all agree that universities need more money and, at least on this side, we believe that the idea that we have too many people going to universities or that there is some limit on how many students should go on to higher education is elitist nonsense. Many countries have 50 per cent. or more young people at university.

One thing is for sure—we cannot raise all this money from the general taxpayer. Over the past 25 years, with rising numbers of students, funding per student in this country has halved. That is simply unsustainable. Our proposals would abolish all up-front fees—no family, middle class or poor, would from then on be asked to find money for fees— they would ensure that repayment occurs on graduation; they are more generous than the present loans system, and payments would be linked to ability to pay. For example, someone on £18,000 a year would pay just £5 a week, not £13 as at present. As Ivor Crewe, president of Universities UK, said: We need to make sure politicians understand just how serious for universities it is to lose the additional income offered by variable fees. There will be fewer student places, important subjects will not get taught and the quality of provision will be under threat.

I think we should at least pay heed in this House to his words.

Mr. Salmond

Will the Prime Minister give way?

The Prime Minister

In a minute.

Of course, there are two alternatives—

Mr. Salmond


The Prime Minister

I shall give way in a moment.

There is the Liberal Democrat alternative. The Liberal Democrats agree that universities need more money, but all of it is to come out of a 50 per cent. top rate of tax. Some time previously, I totted up for the House their 70 spending pledges. They now have an alternative Queen's Speech with 40 measures, 34 of which are spending commitments. It is fair to say that there are very large sums of money, but nothing is too small for a spending commitment. This one in particular caught my eye the other day: spending on supplementing home composting with doorstep collection of organic waste, subject to appropriate safeguards against contamination, and establishing a network of local closed vessel compost plants".

A fresh one just in from the Lib Dems is compulsory cod liver oil for everybody in England.

Mr. Salmond

Will the Prime Minister give way?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman is from Scotland; this is about England.

Mr. Salmond


The Prime Minister

I meant, of course, the cod liver oil.

Mr. Salmond


Mr. Speaker

Order. The Prime Minister is not giving way.

The Prime Minister

I shall give way in a moment. It was the cod liver oil, of course, to which I was referring.

There is an alternative, of course, from the Conservatives as well.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South) (UUP)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You may not have heard it, but the Prime Minister said that this was about England, not Scotland. I understood that the Queen's Speech dealt with the United Kingdom. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]

Mr. Speaker

Order. I think that it was a slip of the tongue by the Prime Minister.

The Prime Minister

I was actually referring to cod liver oil, but I am very happy to pass on the comments that have been made to the Lib Dems; no doubt they will seek to make it compulsory in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales also.

Mr. Salmond


Mr. Speaker

Order. I call again for some calmness, and I tell the hon. Gentleman that the Prime Minister is not giving way.

Mr. Salmond


Mr. Speaker

Order. The Prime Minister is not giving way and that is the end of the matter.

Mr. Salmond

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

I hope that it is a point of order.

Mr. Salmond

A few moments ago, the whole House heard the Prime Minister indicate that he would give way to me in a few seconds. Is this another broken promise from this man?

Mr. Speaker

That is not a matter for the Chair.

The Prime Minister

There is an alternative from the Conservatives as well— to abolish fees now. That is a £430 million cut from university funds, which would mean 100,000 fewer students at university. A further £740 million would be denied through the scrapping of variable fees. In total, there would be a quarter of a million fewer places at university. That is the real alternative posed by the Conservatives. It is hard to think, even from them, of a more reactionary, regressive and muddle-headed policy.

Mr. Salmond

Everything comes to he who waits. As the Prime Minister knows, every party in the Scottish Parliament, including the Labour party, opposes top-up fees, so they will not happen in Scotland. The Prime Minister should also know that almost every higher education institution in Scotland opposes top-up fees south of the border because of the knock-on effects in Scotland. Under those circumstances, how does the Prime Minister justify dragooning Scottish Labour Members of Parliament into the Lobby to vote for top-up fees in England?

The Prime Minister

Under devolution, Scotland is perfectly entitled to have its point of view. However, I shall tell the hon. Gentleman why I believe that all United Kingdom Members of Parliament should have a vote in the UK Parliament: it is the nature of the United Kingdom. It does not surprise me that he does not understand that.

The Queen's Speech also contains measures to continue the fight against antisocial behaviour and improve our criminal justice system. From February next year, there will be sweeping new powers for the police and others—

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab)


Hon. Members

Give way.

The Prime Minister

In a moment. The police will have sweeping new powers to shut down drug houses, close pubs that are causing a nuisance and introduce on-the-spot fines for antisocial behaviour, including fining the parents of youngsters who engage in antisocial behaviour.

The Queen's Speech adds measures to license private landlords where persistent antisocial behaviour occurs and outlines new measures to tackle domestic violence, provide more support for victims of crime and establish a supreme court of justice.

The Queen's Speech signals yet more measures to curb the abuse of asylum. The problem is not confined to the UK, and we welcome the contribution that lawful migration makes to Britain. The proposed legislation will build on the previous Act, which cut asylum applications by more than half in one year. It will strip out the multiple tiers of appeal, make a presumption against asylum seekers who have destroyed documentation and extend the categories of those who will be subject to non-suspensive appeals and therefore fast-tracked. I am confident that it will continue to bear down on the problem. At least it is a serious proposal.

Now that we know from the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe that the Conservative party opposes our policy, what is the Conservative proposal? The right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), who is now shadow Chancellor but was shadow Home Secretary a few weeks ago, gave an explanation. It is worth telling the House about it. A few weeks ago, he was interviewed by Andrew Neil, who asked: This idea that you launched yesterday … that asylum seekers would now be shipped off to an island somewhere … You can't give us any idea what sort of island this would be"? The right hon. Gentleman replied: I have no idea where the island is at the moment". The interview continues thus. Neil: Well give us an idea of the kind of idea. Letwin: A place a long way away, that's poor. Neil: Is it the Cayman Islands, could it be Bermuda, how about the Pitcairns, how about the Isle of Wight? Letwin: It's very unlikely to be somewhere like Bermuda because it has to be somewhere almost certainly that is very poor. Neil: What about St. Helena, we used to keep Napoleon there"?

Letwin: I don't know why you're trying to tempt me into talking about places when I've said to you perfectly clearly, I don't currently know where it will be. But I believe that the British Foreign Office has the capacity to negotiate with some impoverished nation to allow us to go there. That would be an interesting conversation. The British Foreign Office: "Hello, are you a very impoverished nation? You've got to be really impoverished. How do you fancy a few thousand British asylum seekers?" A piece of cake. That is not fantasy island but a fantasy policy that shows that the Conservatives have no genuine policy agenda. Moreover, the right hon. Member for West Dorset claims that the Conservative policy would save £1.4 billion. The truth is that we need a new system and we are developing it.

We also need to confront the future challenge of a viable biometric identity card. Legislation will allow us to develop such a system while keeping the final options open until cost and technology issues are bottomed out.

The Queen's Speech includes essential reforms to promote a fairer society. The child trust fund will give each child a nest egg to which parents, families and friends can contribute tax free. It will help those from poorest backgrounds most. A children's commissioner will look after children's interests. A pension protection fund will help to guarantee against the collapse of a pension fund—that reform is long overdue. New employment rights will protect people at work and give them greater consultation rights. There will be recognition of the commitment that same-sex couples can give each other through civil partnership registration.

I want to make it clear that we intend to extend the new deal for the unemployed, not scrap it as the Conservatives want.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC)

Will the Prime Minister give way?

The Prime Minister

In a moment.

Just a few weeks ago, the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe described the new deal as an expensive failure. Eight hundred thousand people have been helped by the new deal. No wonder the right hon. and learned Gentleman thinks it does not work, for he is the man who told us that the minimum wage would cost a million jobs. He is the person who said that the social chapter would cost a million jobs. Since then we have seen an increase in employment and a reduction in unemployment—now that the right hon. and learned Gentleman's party is no longer in charge of this country.

Mr. Llwyd

On the subject of employment rights, will the Prime Minister tell us whether his Government will do away with the iniquitous eight-week strike rule?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman will have to wait for the details of the Bill, but no, we will not do away with it altogether. It is important for us to keep our labour laws and labour markets flexible, and also to ensure that when we make changes to employment rights we do not prevent companies from operating effectively.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab)

My right hon. Friend has covered a lot of issues, but he has not mentioned a ban on fox hunting. Will he give the House, and in particular Labour Members—400 of whom have voted to ban fox hunting in the past—a guarantee that we are going to get rid of it before the next general election, possibly in the current parliamentary year, and certainly before the Tories appoint another new supply leader?

The Prime Minister

I have nothing to add to what the Leader of the House has already said. We have said that we will resolve the issue during this Parliament, and so we will resolve the issue during this Parliament.

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey) (LD)

On the domestic agenda—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. The House must allow the hon. Gentleman to speak.

Simon Hughes

On the domestic agenda, the one issue that the Prime Minister has not mentioned is housing. Are the Government committed to doing what they have not done in any of the years during which they have been in office—significantly increasing the amount of affordable housing in this city and elsewhere, so that the present housing crisis can be dealt with not in never-never land but in the immediate future?

The Prime Minister

We have actually put billions of pounds extra into social housing. The largest social-housing programme for many years is currently under way in this country.

It is no use the hon. Gentleman's lecturing me about never-never land. He is the person who represents the party of never-never land.

Mr. Gordon Prentice

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

The Prime Minister

No. Sorry. [HON. MEMBERS: "Give way!"] I am sorry, but I must make progress.

The Queen's Speech will allow us to put in legislation the outcome of the intergovernmental conference in a few days' time. I assure the House that in that negotiation we will rigorously protect Britain's vital interests, while playing our full part in shaping Britain's future in Europe. Let me say also that we will continue to work for peace, stability and democracy in Iraq, and that we will stay there until that job is properly done.

Two themes run through the Queen's Speech, the future and fairness. The first means that we must continue the reform programme in the health service and schools, and extend it to universities and skills. It means that we must change outdated planning laws, introduce still further measures on asylum and push forward the development of a British identity card. The second—fairness—makes us tackle domestic violence, protect children, help the poorest pensioners, give our work force new employment rights and bring an end to discrimination. Both—the future and fairness—mean our finally ending, once and for all, the absurdity of hereditary peers in our House of Lords and establishing an independent statutory appointments commission. If the Conservatives wish to challenge us, let them try and win a general election, rather than using the House of Lords as an unelected weapon to frustrate the business of a Government who were elected.

The future and fairness: let us contrast that with the negative destruction campaign waged by the Conservative party. The Conservative party is desperate to return to the past, and desperate to conceal it. There is a new driver, but it is the same old clapped-out Tory banger.

This country is better than it was six and a half years ago, after 18 years of Conservative government. A future of rising prosperity, quality personal services and high levels of education and skills, open to the many not the few: that is what the Queen's Speech provides, and that is what I commend to the House.

4.4 pm

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West) (LD)

It is a pleasure to join in the deserved compliments that have been paid to the hon. Members for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall) and for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda) for their highly successful speeches in moving and seconding the Loyal Address. As one Scot to another, I say to the hon. Member for Dumbarton that, in days gone by, and he alluded to this, he was affectionately known as the unilateralist MP for Trident. It is quite an achievement to square such a circle.

Professionally, the hon. Gentleman has been an educationist—a teacher, and a senior one at that—and he remains a devoted educationist. Given the education content of the Queen's Speech and the controversy that we all know is heading inexorably in the House's direction over coming months, perhaps it was brave of the Government to allow him out to express his views this afternoon.

Talking of brave choices, it is appropriate that the hon. Gentleman is here, as he served in Northern Ireland. A brave choice is being made there today, and I know that he would be among the first in the House to say that, whatever the outcome of that democratic process, let us all hope that the peace process and the work of the Assembly can be re-established and put back on track.

The hon. Member for Gloucester did not refer to what is—not least for the parliamentary Labour party, never mind the rest of us—the most controversial issue in the Queen's Speech. The publication Red Pepper offered him the ultimate accolade when it described him as seen as reliable by Millbank That must single him out in the ranks of the parliamentary Labour party; indeed, these days it might even single him out in the ranks of the Cabinet. We congratulate him on his speech. It was a fine contribution and it was much appreciated in all quarters of the House.

At the last general election, it is fair to say that many of us experienced, not just at the outcome, a sense of disappointment that had taken hold after four years of a Labour Government who had a benign economic inheritance and who were bolstered by a big, three-figure parliamentary majority. Many of us would have been more ambitious over those four years had we been swept to power in such circumstances.

Since then, the sense of disappointment felt by those who hitherto have been Labour supporters, never mind those of a different political persuasion, be they Conservative, Liberal Democrat, nationalist or otherwise, has increasingly turned to one of despair. The Queen's Speech offered little to reverse that feeling—that mentality—that any people share in this country.

Indeed, it was reported a number of years ago—I do not know whether it is true, but it had the ring of truth about it—that former President Clinton once remarked to our Prime Minister that, whatever else he did, he should not make the mistake that President Clinton had made, which was to squander—[Interruption.] In world affairs there is perhaps more than one mistake that should always be avoided—one politician listening to another—but the mistake in question was the squandering of his second term. We are far enough into this second term for the Government, again bolstered by a big parliamentary majority, to say on what vital issues of the day, such as domestic public services and the international situation, they have delivered. An awful lot in the Gracious Speech will pass the vast majority of citizens by.

In the Prime Minister's first address to Labour MPs the day he was elected, he said: We are not the masters. The people are the masters. We are the people's servants. Forget that, and the people will soon show that what the electorate gives, the electorate can take away. Those words may have a more and more telling prescience. The international scene has overshadowed events inside and outside Parliament over the past 12 months or so, and the servant-master relationship that is necessary between an elected Government and a parliamentary democracy such as ours has become skewed.

There were sincerely held differences of view on that big issue among Conservative and Labour Members, such as the former Chancellor, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) and the former Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), with whom many Liberal Democrats made common cause. I thought that mutual respect was a feature of the House of Commons throughout that difficult period of strongly held differences of view on the war, but there is now an insidious attempt in certain quarters to try to cast those of us who opposed the decision to engage in war as soft on the international scourge of terrorism. That is unworthy.

I remind the House of the Joint Intelligence Committee's assessment at the time, before the war was launched. It was revealed during the Hutton inquiry. A1-Qaida and associated groups continued to represent by far the greatest terrorist threat to Western interests … That threat would be heightened by military action against Iraq. It is worth reminding people of the clear facts of the matter, what was said at that senior level and what should be respected as events unfold.

The war has helped the terrorist cells of al-Qaeda and others to recruit new misguided terrorists into their ranks. It has also been unhelpful because, as we have seen again with the welcome visit of the French President this week, it has caused difficulties with those who should be our main European allies. If we do not pull together, Europe's capacity to conduct its important role in the fight against terrorism will be impaired.

In a few months or weeks, we will hear the outcome of the Hutton inquiry. There is no need for any of us to prejudge that now. If there is substantial criticism of the Government's behaviour at any level, we should expect the doctrine of collective responsibility to apply. That will be a test of the Prime Minister's view of integrity in public life.

Alternatively, if Lord Hutton interprets his remit, which was set by the Government, to inquire into the circumstances of Dr. Kelly's death narrowly and strictly, many important questions may remain unanswered, and more than a few of us in the House will demand, as we did earlier in the year, a fully independent judicial inquiry into the events leading up to the war.

On the specifics of the Queen's Speech. Liberal Democrats would obviously be expected to say that they would have liked it to contain a dose of liberalism. There is a danger that, on certain issues, the Government are displaying even more instinctive illiberalism than did their Conservative predecessors, which is a sad irony indeed.

In the previous Session, civil liberties were threatened by the proposals on jury trials. In the forthcoming Session, there are several new threats to civil liberties that, as a House, we must resist. As a party, we are determined to do so as strongly as we can.

There is one measure for which I give credit to the Government—the proposed Bill on civil partnerships, which is overdue but very welcome. We take a particular pride in the fact that it is modelled on a Bill drafted and proposed in the House of Lords by the Liberal Democrat senior judicial peer, Lord Lester. I am glad to see Anthony Lester's work finding fruition in the content of the Queen's Speech today.

Other proposals are extremely disappointing. Clearly, crime is a huge worry to some people. It is rising, and rising in tandem with the prison population, which is heading for record levels. We do not seem to be making sufficient progress on either front. Surely at some point we have to stand back and ask ourselves whether there is a better way of going about things.

First and foremost, people want a greater police presence on their streets and in their communities. All of us know from our dealings with the police locally that they would be delighted to deliver that, but they are bogged down by paperwork, bureaucracy and performing their day-to-day tasks. A lot more imagination could be applied; for example, people who have served in the police and who do not necessarily want to retire could be used. They might not be physically capable any longer of carrying out community policing, but their experience could be brought to bear in doing some of the work that currently ties up younger officers in local police stations. That should be a priority, rather than the type of issues that are being proposed.

That leads me to the emotive issue of asylum seekers—one of the central issues of the Queen's Speech. There is more than a hint of cheap populism here. I agree entirely with the sentiments of the leader of the Conservative party, who pointed out that it would be quite wrong for the children of potential or actual asylum seekers to be used somehow as bargaining chips. However, I never thought that I would see the right hon. and learned Gentleman suddenly emerge as the friend of the asylum seeker, let alone of the children of asylum seekers. I say gently to him—we enjoy a friendly relationship, and I congratulate him on his election—that I am aware that the identity of the island in the Conservative proposals remains unclear. I represent the Isle of Skye, and he need not look in that direction.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab)

The right hon. Gentleman is making assertions about what is and is not in the Queen's Speech. In this case, he is talking about asylum seekers. Does he not mean failed asylum seekers? Would it not help the debate if he got his facts right? [HON. MEMBERS: "Read the Speech."]

Mr. Kennedy

As my right hon. and hon. Friends are saying, the hon. Gentleman should read the Queen's Speech and the briefing that has accompanied it. There will be a big debate on that issue in which we will take part.

Reform—if that is the right word—of the House of Lords has to be a prime example of the political reformist fatigue that has set in the Government. Indeed, it was the former Labour Foreign Secretary and Leader of the House who wrote recently with characteristic clarity that Modernisation is to be limited to moving from the 15th century principle of heredity to the 18th century principle of patronage". As things stand, that is pretty much it in a nutshell. The Government cannot count on our co-operation if they eventually decide to proceed in that way. In the 21st century, there has to be a substantially democratic House of Lords. A Government with a majority of this scale, and with the political co-operation that would be open to them, should waste no further time before moving in that direction.

As we know, on the domestic agenda it is the education measures that will probably prove the most controversial. I suspect that as we discuss these matters in the coming weeks and months, Liberal Democrats will speak for a number of Labour Members—perhaps including Ministers—who feel unable to speak out in public themselves. We should remember the survey recently completed by Barclays bank, which estimates that if the proposals on tuition fees and top-up fees go through, by 2010 the average student who—if they are lucky—gets a degree will have £33,000 of indebtedness wrapped around their neck. In Scotland, where the Prime Minister's party and ours have co-operated under a different system, there has been a 10 per cent. Increase in potential applications to universities. In England, the equivalent figure is 1 per cent. People cannot tell me that the two different systems are unrelated, given the impact on students.

The Conservatives take a different approach that is equally unappealing. They favour the scrapping of fees, which is all well and good, but they would fund the deficit by cutting large numbers of university places. Indeed, the experience in Scotland was that in order to maintain the base of opportunity, one had to be willing to put more money into the system, as well as to implement a different policy. That experience has implications. I know that, of late, the Prime Minister is very fond of rubbishing Liberal Democrat economic approaches—in fact, he has been at it for years: he rubbished them when my predecessor was leader—but at least we are honest enough to say, "The very best off in society should incrementally pay that little bit more, but here are the priorities that it will be spent on." I offer the Prime Minister a deal; indeed, I offer it to the Conservative leader as well, with a view to the next general election. As we have done in the past, we will submit those proposals to public scrutiny by the Institute for Fiscal Studies. I wonder whether the other two are willing to do the same.

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab)

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that a review of the Barnett formula might finance the removal of top-up fees from English universities?

Mr. Kennedy

Our party has argued for many years that there should be a review of the Barnett formula. We want a needs-based formula that is transparent, but that is not how it works at the moment. For example, we currently try to compare the provision of education services in Cornwall with the amount of money that can be put into policing inner-city Newcastle. The formula is opaque, controlled by Whitehall and not subject to the level of regional negotiation that is the norm in Germany, for example, with its Länder system. We want more movement towards regionalism and decentralisation, and the fairer funding that goes with it. That is the way to win public consent for the important changes that need to be made.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Kennedy

I am sorry, but I want to conclude my remarks.

Obviously, our approach would have been very different. We would not have paved the way for top-up fees. We would have implemented the measure used in Scotland, through which the abolition of tuition fees has been achieved.

At the other end of the age spectrum, which is equally important, we would have introduced free personal care for the elderly. The Sutherland report recommended it, and one part of the United Kingdom demonstrated that the political will exists to implement it. There is no reason why that political will cannot find a similar reflection at Westminster, and no reason for it not to be delivered in the rest of the UK.

We would also want to abolish the council tax, which is increasingly unfair to people on low incomes, particularly pensioners. It is high time—

Mr. Redwood


Mr. Kennedy

No, I am not giving way. It is high time that we replaced the council tax, which is regressive and unfair, with a local income tax based on people's ability to pay, which would be cheaper to collect. We need a fairer tax system and I have suggested how people at the better-off end of society could make a graduated contribution. We also need cuts in red tape and less over-centralisation in Whitehall, which we believe could release significant savings to put into improving front-line services, which would benefit people in the country as a whole.

Mr. Redwood


Mr. Kennedy

No, I am coming to my final sentence.

There is a great absence yet again from the Queen's Speech. Governments are busy institutions, but the criticism applies to many Government statements. Successive Queen's Speeches have failed to advance the environmental agenda. That tells us a lot about the level of priority of the Government of the day. If we could, we would certainly introduce measures today to enhance environmental protection and sustainable energy.

The new circumstances of British politics in this new Parliament offer people a genuine choice. The divide or choice in British politics is increasingly between adopting a more liberal approach to politics and policies or an increasingly instinctive illiberal approach. I certainly know what side of the fence I feel most comfortable on. Increasingly, that is the side of the fence to which the British public are warming.

4.27 pm
Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East) (Lab/Co-op)

While Members leave the Chamber, I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall) and for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda) on their excellent speeches in the finest tradition of the House.

I want to welcome the Queen's Speech, which provides the final opportunity for the Government to complete a full programme in advance of the next general election. It is exceedingly important that the measures introduced will be readily understood and identified with in the country—in other words, strike a chord with people's feelings about how the country is currently governed, about the conditions under which people go to work, and how they are educated in their schools and colleges, as well as about how they live generally.

The Labour party is about to embark on a perhaps historic enterprise—checking with the people of this country what should form the basis of future policies. I hope that those policies will provide a basis for the next Labour Government. Today, those privileged to be in the House can take the opportunity to set out some of our ideas, views and thoughts in advance of the so-called consultation programme.

I feel that the Labour party in government has made some significant advances for people who are less well off in this country. Redistributive policies have assisted families considerably. Our policies on education and health have improved immeasurably the services that we enjoy. They are now better than at any other time in my life.

I was born before the second world war, and I remember going to the local doctor and mother or father paying five shillings for tablets. I have grown up with the health service and the welfare state, and I have seen the many faults that the welfare state has developed over the years, dependency being perhaps the most problematic Those of us with a soft heart—I am one of them—believe that we should do the best for people in all circumstances. Unfortunately, not all the people for whom we wish to do the best respond in like manner, so we need a tough as well as a tender approach to the modern world, to the place that people inhabit, and to their mores, their habits and their culture.

The improvements have been profound, though. After six years of Labour rule, things are by no means perfect, but progress has certainly been maintained, and has been speeded up in some ways. However, the light has often been hidden under a bushel. I have knocked on doors and asked young women with families whether they are doing well, and heard them respond, "Not too bad." I ask them whether they are getting family support through the income tax system and they say, "What's that?" I ask them whether their earnings have gone up recently, perhaps by £30 or £40, and they answer, "Oh, yes. I'm getting £70 more." When I ask how they think that came about, they reply, "It's in my salary cheque." They make no connection between the welfare of individuals that they have earned through their efforts at wealth creation, and the welfare for which the Government may be responsible, through the creation of the environment, systems and circumstances that benefit people who are not well paid.

That is not true of the Labour party alone; I can tell Opposition Members that with their parties, too, there is a disconnection between what politics does and what people understand and experience. We have to make that connection again, in all circumstances. We must ensure that people are inspired, not turned off, by political parties, yet we—both the Government and the Opposition—seem unable to get across the simplest messages. It does not concern me much that the Opposition's message does not get across, but in the great scheme of things, it is important that people understand the nature of politics and the difference that it can make to the society that they inhabit. Without that, the democratic process will not be enhanced. Indeed, it will begin to fail, as to some extent it already has.

I believe that democracy is the greatest force for progress that the world has ever known or ever will know. When people want to know more, when they are curious and interested, they are at their best. That is when they drive on the process and, ultimately, take care of their own welfare through their own efforts.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con)

The hon. Gentleman's point about the pervasive cynicism about politics and politicians is well made and well taken. However, he is developing a novel line of argument when he suggests that the Government have understated their case. Can he explain, for my benefit and that of the House, why the massive increase in expenditure on the health service has not been matched by a corresponding increase in clinical activity?

Mr. Purchase

We have heard, both today and on previous Wednesdays, the Prime Minister setting out the figures line by line, and I shall not repeat them today. The increases in clinical activity have been set out, too, and are clear for all who use the health service to see. No matter what politicians tell people, in the end it is the evidence of their own experience and their own eyes that counts most. My constituents certainly recognise that the health service in Wolverhampton has improved, is improving and is likely to continue to improve. More people are receiving treatment more speedily. Episodes are not recurring as often as previously and infections are down. It is extremely important that people are not sent home from hospital too quickly, otherwise another episode follows. Real improvements have been made.

I repeat that throughout my life I have seen improvements in the health service every year, some driven by medical technology and improved medicines. That must be matched by the political will to see the advances in technology incorporated in everyday medicine in our national health service. The question put by the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) is answered in full, and he can look forward to that answer being given again, again and again. He need have no concerns.

Even under the Conservative Government, advances were made in the national health service. Regardless of Government, there have been advances in terms of the will, the understanding and the hard work of the people who live in this country. I am proud to be part of that. Politics can drive things on faster to produce better quality all round.

There is another reason why it is important to re-establish such connections. Hon. Members may have read a newspaper article about the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman), who is not in the Chamber, where a little vox pop was carried out. It showed that, despite an improving built environment, people made no connection between that and the tens of millions of pounds from the Government, through capital permissions, credits or investments. They made no connection between their improving physical environment and the work that their money —from their taxes—was actually doing for them. At one time, those connections were strong, but they seem to be getting weaker and it is important that we strengthen them.

I want to deal with only two or three of the measures in the Queen's Speech, as I realise that others want to speak. The first is employment. With the indulgence of the House, I shall read from an email sent to me by one of my constituents recently: I was working as an inspector at a company … situated in Willenhall"— which is adjacent to my constituency— and was informed that redundancies were going to take place, at a meeting on 30th September. Then on 2nd October we were given the criteria for selection for redundancy. I and three colleagues were made redundant. On 7th October we had three and half working days till I was made redundant … no formal consultation on any aspect of the process and no factual evidence was put forward … over criteria … no discussion with respect to how … people being made redundant could be redeployed and no elected representative was invited to discuss those matters.

The year is 2003, and we have had no end of industrial and employment relations legislation, so how can a man—I know him personally—with 30 years in industry, a skilled craftsman, be dismissed in such appalling circumstances? In part, it is because the company was small: it had fewer than 20 employees, so it did not have to give notification, as only a small number of people were being made redundant. However, if our Government—my Government—are to introduce more legislation on employment relations, provisions on such matters should be an important aspect of it.

I can recall many arguments in this place about small companies. I am a champion of small companies and understand the need for them to prosper without being burdened by red tape and difficulties, but to dismiss someone with three and a half days' notice is no way to treat a man or a woman who has been employed for such a long time.

Mr. Redwood

Does the hon. Gentleman think that his proposal should extend to Ministers of the Crown? Perhaps there should be a yellow card system, and perhaps the Prime Minister should not have the right to sack Ministers for a first offence.

Mr. Purchase

The right hon. Gentleman makes his point in a gentle way, and I am grateful for that. Hon. Members come into the House knowing that the rules of the game mean that our leader can dispense with our services very quickly. However, we are not dismissed from employment. We remain in employment until the great electorate say otherwise. Ministers get top-up fees, if I may use that phrase, but that is of secondary importance, as our main job here is to represent the people of our constituencies. Ultimately, they alone have the right to dismiss us as party representatives. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for making that point, but I believe that I have rebutted it quite well, as I often do.

Mr. Redwood

That is for us to decide.

Mr. Purchase

Yes, of course.

The question of employment should exercise all hon. Members. The country depends on the efforts of people who go to work and produce the money that the Government can tax to meet the costs of vital services. We cannot do too much for the workers: that old saying remains true. I urge the Government, in respect of the employment relations Bill, to take the needs of workers in smaller companies fully into account, as well as the needs of people whose employment prospects are treated somewhat roughly.

I turn now to housing. My local council is currently recommending that its housing stock be transferred to what is called an arm's-length management organisation. That may be all well and good, but I cannot find out what real benefits ALMOs provide. I have asked many questions of Ministers, but their answers are all equally difficult to understand. I cannot determine whether council house tenants who vote for their homes to be transferred to an ALMO will get any long-term financial benefits.

This is a very important matter, because local authority housing at not-for-profit rents has formed the basis of public health in this country since the first Act passed after the end of the second world war. For the first time, the Government were prepared to build houses for general need and not just for the working classes.

Council housing has made an enormous contribution to the public health of this country. It must not be cast aside lightly. Any improvement is fine, but we need to know that ALMOs and housing stock transfers, for instance, will bring benefits. We also need to know whether such innovations meet the demands of ordinary tenants who want to be able to live their lives peacefully in the comfort of their own homes. They want rent collection or payment to be convenient, and to have their houses repaired when necessary. When they need to move house, they want to be able to do so.

Those are the basics, but the transfer of housing stock to ALMOs—whose managers will be people who have transferred from local authority housing departments—will not bring obvious material benefits for tenants. From the answers that I have received from Ministers, I do not believe that there will be long-term financial benefits, either.

Although top-up fees are bound to be controversial, I found no other reference in the Queen's Speech to education in general. I am especially concerned that secondary schools should be developed within a comprehensive framework. I am not sure that my Government continue to share the comprehensive vision for secondary education that has long been Labour party policy. I hear what is said—that it is intended to extend and widen opportunity for greater choice in secondary education, but it is schools that exercise choice, not the parents and the pupils. Children must pass the 11-plus—we still have it in my area—for the girls' high school, which is a very good school with excellent results, or the boys' grammar, which is independent and also has excellent results, but it is the schools that choose the students, not the parents who exercise choice. We have not widened choice but narrowed it, and that has built on the work carried out by the Conservative Government in their final term of office.

I want to see a return to Labour values, with equal opportunities for all secondary education students to take the subjects that suit them, at a time that is right for them, bearing in mind the fact that the maturation of young men and women occurs at varying rates, depending on the individual. We need appropriate education in a comprehensive setting, in which children who push ahead or fall a little behind receive an appropriate education in an all-in school. I am not sure that the Labour party that I joined, which had high hopes and broad visions for secondary comprehensive education, is the same party any more. We have to address the issues raised by the introduction of specialist schools and more and more testing, and the suggestion that teachers cannot be trusted. I want Labour to form the next Government. To do that, we will have to have the trust of teachers, parents and students, many of whom will be voters in the next general election. We need to rethink how we structure secondary education, because that is vital for our future.

Overall, the programme that we have set out will be a good one. We need to prosecute it properly and ensure that people understand it. That will mean using language that is accessible. By attending to some of the crucial issues that I have raised—other hon. Members will know of others from their constituency experience—we may yet win the trust of the people and re-engage them in the political process.

4.47 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)

I wish to make a few remarks about choice, local decision making, markets and minimal state interference. I hope to carry both sides of the House with me on at least some of those issues. I appeal to those on both Front Benches to set those issues in the context of post-18 education and hope to persuade them to think a little more radically about the direction for post-18 and lifelong education.

I start with choice, because it always puzzles me that the debate is so patronising to those who are, by our definition, adults who have—we assume—the ability to make responsible, adult choices. After all, not only are they fully capable under the law of taking out loans and mortgages, but we give them the vote. It is patronising to say to people over 18 that we do not think that they are capable of making mature decisions about their education. We should adopt a system that gives maximum choice and responsibility to individuals for their own education, once they have completed their schooling. However, no one seems to want to do that. We remain hide-bound in an environment in which people are given the least possible choice and control over their educational destiny. I hope that we can make some progress towards allowing people to make their own choices and take responsibility for their own education.

We in the Conservative party sign up to local decision making, and the Government talk constantly about it. How about giving educational institutions local decision-making capabilities, not just on their courses and their admissions but, crucially, about what they charge people for those courses? We should give all post-18 educational institutions complete freedom to decide what to charge for the different courses that they offer, so that students can make an informed and responsible choice about what to study, and make a judgment about the value to them—the student—of that course of study.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone) (Lab)

I am listening with great interest. The right hon. Gentleman was talking eloquently about choice but then he started to go into the issue of the market. If we have the market, is it not evident that some people will be unable to exercise the choice that he talks about?

Mr. Forth

I will come to that in a moment. It is a concern that many people have. I want to set the background, if I may, to try to make the case for educational institutional freedom, individual mature responsible choice and individuals taking responsibility for what they choose to study. At the moment, we pay lip service to some of those things but deliver none of them, because we kid ourselves that we have educational freedom in higher education in this country. We do not. Sadly, higher education is completely at the mercy of the Government of the day, because the Government dispense taxpayers' money to institutions. and the Government employ institutionalised interference through quality control and admissions policies. We have the reverse of educational and academic freedom in our higher and further education. I am making a plea for us to have that genuine freedom.

Rev. Martin Smyth

Would it not be to the advantage even of the universities if students were allowed the freedom of choice to go to courses in other establishments, just as happens in Germany and other places, so that students could pick the courses that would help them advance in their own careers?

Mr. Forth

Yes, I would hope that would be so. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning that, because in an ideal world I would like institutions to structure their offerings in a way that they choose and think best, and I would like students to make those choices, backed possibly by employers or, crucially—here is one of the answers to the question that the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) asked about affordability—by scholarships and bursaries.

I make no apology for the fact that I look to the United States as the model for much of what I am arguing. There, a wide range of courses are offered by a wide range of higher and further education institutions, paid for by students who work while they go through their education, which is a very good thing in my view, and who take out loans, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Also, crucially, the institutions offer scholarships to bright young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to allow them to take advantage of the courses on offer. So the market approach can be tempered by institutional support, but it can also be supported by a discretionary financial support mechanism offered by the Government of the day.

I believe that it is, in itself, a good thing that young people should be expected to take out loans to pay for their education. I have never believed that getting something "for free" is necessarily a good thing, because usually we do not greatly value things that we do not pay for. One only has to ask oneself why so many people do not turn up for a surgery appointment with their doctor to realise that if they think it is free, they do not value it enough to take it very seriously. I suspect, sadly, that if educational courses are offered free, many students do not fully appreciate what they are getting. Therefore, I do not shy away from the idea that students should be expected to pay a proper price for the valuable education that they are offered. That price will vary depending on the course and the institution, and students will make their own judgment about it.

I want to make another crucial point. I believe that the students should be the ones who make the distinction between what we now rather loosely call higher education and all the other sub-degree vocational and specialist courses that are and should be on offer. We should not have in our minds some arbitrary figure about how many or what proportion of people should go into higher education. A degree is what the institutions say that it is at any given time. This country is not crying out for more social workers and people with psychology degrees or whatever. It is crying out for people with valuable, relevant vocational qualifications, which we may not call degrees, but which will be very much more useful to society in the foreseeable future. That is where we risk falling down.

We have an obsession with something that we choose to call higher education. We are in great danger of missing out on and discouraging people from looking for valuable vocational sub-degree qualifications of the kind that our excellent polytechnics used to deliver before we, mistakenly in my view, abolished the distinction between polytechnics and universities. Frankly, that was one of the most ill-judged things that we did when I was in Government, and I look back on it with regret. If I thought that we could turn back that clock, I would argue for doing so, but that is probably now unlikely.

The institutions should distinguish between themselves, and those distinctions should not be deemed by Government or controlled by some sort of quality control mechanism; they should be judged by students, employers and institutions, thus producing much greater freedom of choice. That is my plea for education, so that it can break out of its straitjacket and so that we can break away from a sterile debate in which both the Opposition and the Government have become bogged down in top-up fees, arbitrary limits and whether this or that educational institution may be justified in charging this or that fee. We should allow the institutions to make the difficult choices about what they offer and what they charge, and let them justify those choices by attracting students who are prepared to make the sacrifice to pay.

Mr. Redwood

I have declared my interests in the higher education sector in the Register of Members' Interests.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that we have a very strange system in Britain? We have nationalised, price-controlled, managed and regulated system for British students, but a rather more open, market-oriented approach for overseas students. The danger is that universities would much rather offer places to overseas students than domestic students because of the imbalance in their freedom to attract overseas students and to charge differently and finance their courses differently.

Mr. Forth

My right hon. Friend makes a typically incisive point, and we should bear it very much in mind. There is now a global market for quality education, and we should be in a prime position to compete in that marketplace. If we do not allow our foremost educational institutions the freedom to charge fees domestically and in relation to the global market, the great risk is that we will lose our attractiveness and our competitive edge in that global market, and we will all suffer in the long term. So, there is my prescription for education. I suppose that I will almost certainly vote against the Government's Bill because, in a sense, they are not going far enough. They still seek to take us in the wrong direction, and I like to think that the Conservative party will take another look at this and think again.

Mr. Miller

I am intrigued by the right hon. Gentleman's approach to a market-driven education mechanism. What sort of mechanism would drive people away from, for example, an MA in politics and economics, which he took, towards something that he regards as perhaps more socially useful? Why was the degree that he chose so useless, according to his own analytical view?

Mr. Forth

My degree is a master of arts in politics and economics. Here I am: I rest my case. The one-word answer to the hon. Gentleman's very fair question is employability. It is for students to judge the relevance of their courses to their future and whether they are likely to be employed. Whether they do archaeology or electronics, or whatever, is for them to judge. They will look for the appropriate course, in terms of its content, duration, reputation and cost, and they will make their judgment on that basis. That is my plea.

Norman Lamb (North Norfolk) (LD)

The right hon. Gentleman appears to be making the case for top-up fees without any limit—simply a market-oriented approach. With that approach, would we not inevitably see a widening of the gulf between access for students from poorer families and those from richer families? Surely the fear of debt, according to all the evidence, will put off students from poorer families from going to university, and bursaries simply would not be enough to cover the gulf.

Mr. Forth

That is a traditional patronising attitude that is somewhat old-fashioned now. At a time when we are told that debt is an increasing problem right across the social spectrum, I am not sure that the argument about fear of debt is valid any more. In any case, it does not have relevance, because if it were demonstrated to be a problem, which I am not sure that I accept, bursaries and scholarships are one approach, but there is another—the Government of the day can make financial provision through grants or loans skewed in the direction of able people from disadvantaged backgrounds who have some fear of indebtedness, if that is perceived to be the problem. If it is a problem—I am not necessarily convinced of that—it is eminently soluble through a whole battery of responses. What we must not do, however, is reverse matters and try to solve the problem from the other end. Incidentally, I am not making a plea for top-up fees; I am making a plea for fees full stop—full-blown, full-on, frontal fees, judged by the institutions themselves.

I have not done research in any detail, but I have probably not spoken in the House on Europe for something like 15 years. I have quite a lot to get off my chest, therefore, but I am watching the clock and shall try to speak as briefly as possible, because what I have to say probably will not—if I may put it this way—resonate in all quarters. We are often asked, are we not, to have a mature debate about Europe? We are to have a conversation led by the Government. Even the Opposition are occasionally invited to have a debate, although it does not last very long, because what usually happens is that the Euro-enthusiasts are encouraged to speak out, and us sceptics are asked to keep quiet in case we are deemed to be divisive. As a sceptic who is now in a position to speak out, I will say a few words to tantalise the House and will return to the subject in more detail subsequently.

My serious point is in the context of both the euro referendum. Bill, which was referred to in the Queen's Speech, and the important issue of the EU constitution that now confronts us. The issue is becoming this: how do we as a people regard ourselves as a nation? Is our nationality important to us any more? What do we think should be the relationship between our nation and country and the European Union of which we are a member? If we look back at the argument for joining, and the referendum that was held in the 1970s, in which I voted yes—I had my eyes opened when I became a Member of the European Parliament in 1979 and rapidly became a sceptic—we see that all those questions have not been asked very much, because they have been discouraged in all political parties. The Liberal Democrats are Euro-fanatics, the Labour party has moved from scepticism to dewy-eyed enthusiasm and my party, it is fair to say, has moved from enthusiasm to scepticism.

At no time, however, have we been encouraged to debate whether we are satisfied about the way in which the European Union is developing, and, crucially, about our relationship as a country to that European Union. That is brought into focus by the extent to which, increasingly, decisions that affect our citizens and our voters are taken by institutions outside our country. In that crucial respect, the very democracy of which the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase) spoke with such pride is being undermined. His democracy, I suspect, is based in Wolverhampton, of which he is rightly proud, and in his country, the United Kingdom. I wonder how often Members of this House give serious thought to the extent to which more and more decisions that affect our citizens, taxpayers and voters are taken by bodies on which we, the British, have less and less of a view in the expanded European Union.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab)

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that those powers were transferred not under the Liberals or the Labour party, but under Conservative Governments?

Mr. Forth

Yes, I do. I regret that very much. One of the biggest mistakes that was made—I thought that I would never hear myself say this—was in 1985 with the Single European Act. I regret that very much too. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that he has just scored a bulls-eye in getting me to admit a mistake, let me tell him that one of the benefits of being in this place for a while and of being in and out of the Government is that one learns the occasional lesson and to regret things that are done. I regret what happened on that occasion; I do not deny the process.

In the context of the EU constitution that is facing us, the Government, Parliament and the nation will have an opportunity to look the issue in the face and to ask ourselves seriously what we want of our membership of the European Union. Is our membership beginning to damage this country rather than to benefit it? We were told back in the 1960s and 1970s that one of the principal reasons for our joining the European Union—the EEC, as it was at the time—was that it would benefit this country and its citizens. If we reach the stage at which we judge that the EU is developing in way that has potential to damage this country and its citizens, we have the right to ask serious questions and to take serious positions.

I challenge not just the Government but my colleagues on the Opposition Front Bench. We have a duty to know what we will do in response to the constitution when we are faced with it. We in the Opposition have a duty to know how we will respond if the Government erroneously—fatally, in my view—sign up to the constitution and we subsequently find ourselves in Government. We must know what we will say to the country, and I do not think that we are quite there yet.

These questions are of the greatest seriousness and import. I am very conscious of them. They worry me enormously, and I hope that we will be able as politicians to speak out on them frankly and to have the debate and discussion that I would welcome so that we can make it absolutely clear to our fellow citizens where we are taking them and what our membership of the European Union means. We must explain where decisions are increasingly being made on their behalf and how they are less and less able to control them. That worries me, so I want to hear a debate. I look forward to it.

5.6 pm

Mrs. Barbara Roche (Hornsey and Wood Green) (Lab)

It is of genuinely great interest to follow the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), but may I offer him a small piece of advice if he does not think that too impertinent? The next time he addresses the House, he should really say what he means; he should not be so mealy-mouthed. We should be left in no doubt.

Mr. Bercow

My right hon. Friend is far too reticent.

Mrs. Roche

The hon. Gentleman is right. However, it is good to discover that I have something in common with the right hon. Gentleman. One of my very first votes was in 1975 when I voted yes in the European referendum. We are similar, given what we did in that important vote.

I believe strongly that the Gracious Speech marks an important point for the Government and the country. Since 1997, the Government have had a record to be very proud of, and I am pleased to have been able to support them as a Minister on some of the issues with which I am very proud to be associated. For example, the minimum wage and the working families tax credit are two measures out of many that have immeasurably improved the lives of many people and certainly many people in my constituency.

I am pleased to see in the Queen's Speech reference to measures for a child trust fund. I know from my background that there is no doubt that one of the big issues that separates many of our citizens is their power to acquire capital. Many children from poor and deprived homes have ability, dedication and the desire to work hard but, because of their family backgrounds, they will never be able to acquire the capital necessary to buy their own home or start a business. They will be unable to start married life with any capital behind them. The child trust fund will be important in that respect.

Norman Lamb

Is the hon. Lady concerned that Treasury officials revealed in evidence given to the Treasury Select Committee that no modelling had been done to determine whether the aspiration of the child trust fund would have the effect that the Government want to achieve? In fact, the people who will gain most are the middle classes, who will have the ability to make the top-up payments and gain the tax benefits.

Mrs. Roche

As a former Treasury Minister, I have the greatest respect for Treasury officials. I am sure that, when we see the detail of the legislation, the modelling will have been done and the measures will have been drafted to ensure that they help the children whom the policy is primarily designed to help. We know that the path that many children follow in the first 22 months of life is, through no fault of their own or of their parents, inextricably linked with unemployment and low achievement, and sometimes an inability to succeed in society. I therefore believe that the proposed legislation is of prime importance.

I wish to concentrate on a number of measures and indicate some areas in which I think that the Government need to move forward. I believe that we need to advance in a way that builds on the work that we have done already. I also believe strongly that the Government need to use much more of the language of equality and social inclusion. The notions of equality and social inclusion are not merely nice things that we do for other people, but are about the welfare and competitiveness of our country as a whole. If we have a country that does not include everybody because of a lack of social inclusion or equality, we will exclude people from the labour market, and we will exclude people who could make a significant contribution to our society.

I want now to concentrate on three measures outlined in the Gracious Speech. First, I welcome the registration of civil partnerships for same-sex couples—a proposal that I strongly advocated in government. It is now almost la year since I said that there were powerful reasons for civil registration. Many gay and lesbian couples have lived together for years as families and supported and looked after each other in sickness and in health, but have been affected at difficult moments of their lives, such as when a very valued partner has been unable to attend at the bedside in the event of a terminal illness or to have a say in funeral arrangements, when their relationship has ended because of death, simply because their partnership has not been recognised. Indeed, many same-sex couples who have built lives and purchased houses together see all that destroyed when inheritance tax comes into play, even though they have gone through life working hard, paying their taxes and participating in civil society. The measure is long overdue, and I warmly welcome it.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con)

The hon. Lady said that she was proud of the part that she has rightly taken in this process. When she was investigating the issue, did she consider what might happen when two sisters have lived together for a good many years? Does she anticipate that the legislation will also cover situations in which two sisters or brothers have lived together for a good part of their lives? Will the inheritance tax problem, which she rightly mentions, be recognised in respect of them as well?

Mrs. Roche

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point that hon. Members of all parties made in another place when the subject was debated there a little more than a year ago. I understand his comments. Not only the Government but other European Governments have considered the matter. Several European Governments and countries as well as states in the United States of America and in Canada have civil registration schemes, but I know of perhaps only one with something that would cover two sisters or brothers. People believed that such provision would be too complicated. The position is different from that of same-sex couples in a relationship in which they have dedicated their lives to each other in exactly the same way as heterosexual couples. There is an issue for the Law Society to consider in the case of two sisters or brothers, and it is one of property rights, but it is separate from the proposed legislation.

Mr. Bercow

The hon. Lady deserves credit for the groundwork that paved the way for introducing civil partnership registration legislation. Does she agree that, in introducing proposals to tackle the multiple discrimination from which gay couples undoubtedly and unjustifiably suffer, the issue and principle at stake is not political correctness but personal decency and equality before the law?

Mrs. Roche

I agree. I wrote an article that used a similar phrase. I thank the hon. Gentleman and I do not think that it will embarrass him if I say that he and I had several discussions about the matter. There is great sympathy for the proposals in all parties and I am grateful for the support of hon. Members who have contributed to today's announcement in the Gracious Speech.

I want to consider a related matter. Next month, the House and another place will incorporate in British law the European directive that will make it an offence to discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation and religious belief in employment and vocational training. Many people are surprised that such provision is not already enshrined in law. The legislation will not extend to goods and services, which will not be protected. The directive does not oblige the Government to extend the law to goods and services but nothing prohibits them from doing that. As part of the striving towards social inclusion and equality, the law should be extended to goods and services.

Let me give some practical examples of discrimination. I pay tribute to Stonewall, which is one of the best campaigning organisations in the country. It records cases of same-sex couples who have been turned away from hotels. Even though the civil partnership proposals will be introduced and we shall have legislation as a result of the European directive, overt discrimination can continue. I shall provide another pertinent example. In the middle of November, when it rains all night and all morning, many people's thoughts turn to warmer climates, perhaps a holiday at Christmas, Easter or in the summer. We may consider a place in the sun, such as the Caribbean, for a holiday for ourselves and our families.

I was recently looking at a brochure from Sandals Holidays, which advertises holidays in the Caribbean— and very nice they look too: very romantic for couples. Indeed, the brochure mentions holidays for couples. However, when I looked at the website and the small print in the agreement, I noted that same-sex couples were banned. They would not be able to book a holiday. That is disgraceful, but the law can do nothing about it. Here is a golden opportunity for the Government to show their mettle, and extend the directive to goods and services. I look forward to hearing their response.

I congratulate the Government on what they have done so far in regard to domestic violence. When I was 22 or 23, I had just qualified as a barrister. I apologise for mentioning what is probably the most unpopular group in society: perhaps only politicians and journalists are ranked lower.

Mr. Miller

What about estate agents?

Mrs. Roche

I forgot about estate agents.

As many Members will know—some distinguished members of the legal profession are present—during the first six months of apprenticeship, or pupillage, trainee barristers earn no money. Things may have changed slightly, as there are a few more bursaries now. During the second six months, they are allowed to earn some money. During my second six months I was allowed to earn some money, and did so mainly by representing women in domestic violence cases. Interestingly, chambers would send the most inexperienced, rawest barristers to represent women in such cases because they did not consider such cases important. The police did not take domestic violence seriously, nor did the courts, and, if we are absolutely honest, we must add that the House did not either.

My experience then made me determine that if I were ever lucky enough to be elected to Parliament, I would try to do something about the issue. Having been elected in 1992, I became a member of the Home Affairs Committee, and in the same year I persuaded it to produce a report on domestic violence. I think that the other Committee members wanted to produce a report on car boot sales, but, along with some others, I managed to win the day.

It is a particular pleasure for me to note that legislation will be presented to the House—shortly, I hope—but there is no room for complacency. Although domestic violence is now recognised as the serious crime that it is, there are still areas that are patchy. For example, there is room for improvement in refuge provision, although it has already improved dramatically; and much work needs to be done in educating young people in particular. Girls and young women must not be allowed to grow up thinking that this is the way in which all men behave, and boys and young men certainly must not be allowed to grow up thinking that this is how their mothers should be treated. If the present situation continues, it will affect not just those young people but all of us. This is an essential part of child protection. Children are often the forgotten victims of domestic violence, and all hon. Members should treat the issue very seriously.

Mr. Bercow

As well as providing the vital legislative framework for the tackling of domestic violence, should we not continue to stress the contribution that volunteers can make? In that context, may I say how proud I am that my mother—who has never herself been a victim of domestic violence—will spend Christmas day helping battered women in a refuge?

Mrs. Roche

I agree absolutely, and I am happy to pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman's mother as well as volunteers up and down the country. Volunteering is a mark of our country, as is the number of people who volunteer in all sorts of ways, giving up their family time to assist others. That is tremendous.

I spent some time earlier this year going around refuges up and down the country, and I was astonished by the number of people—mainly women, but some men as well—who have dedicated their lives to the issue for 20 or 30 years. When one thinks what the burn-out rate must be, it is a genuine tribute to their courage, integrity and dedication that they go on. The legislation will be a tremendous fillip for those people, but I urge the Government—I plead with them—not to stop there, as there is still a great deal to do.

When we look at the figures, it is salutary to remind ourselves that, while I have been speaking and we have been debating the Gracious Speech, a great number of women across the country will have been victims of domestic violence. We must continue to redress that and to take it seriously.

Tuition fees and top-up fees will clearly be an issue of controversy and interest not only to the House and the other place, but to the country as a whole. Like many on this side and, I suspect, quite a few Members in all parts of the House, I was the first in my family to go to university. At the age of 18, I was the first person from my school, which had become a comprehensive, to go to Oxford university. I went up to Oxford and had three wonderful years.

I remember my first day at Oxford vividly. I grew up on a council estate in Hackney. My father was at work and we did not have a car, so, with my mother, I got the No. 6 bus for Paddington to get on the train to go to Oxford. Absolutely terrified, I had never been away from home before. I shall get into terrible trouble for this, but going from Hackney to Oxford took me the furthest north that I had ever been. As far as I was concerned, Oxford was the north. I have made up for that by representing a north London constituency.

I remember what I felt at 18, and I have to ask myself a question, which is where my difficulty with variable top-up fees arises: if my family and I had known that gaining a place at Oxford meant that I would incur at the end of it a greater debt than if I had gone to another university, would that have made a difference? I like to think that perhaps it would not have, owing to the support of my family—I was very keen to go—but I cannot be sure. Nor can I be sure what would be in the minds of today's 18 and 19-year-olds from similar backgrounds who will have to make that choice, which is one of the most important that people have to make.

Mr. Forth

Will the hon. Lady consider at least two possibilities? One is that she and others like her may well have qualified for scholarships, which I hope will be much more freely available here, as they are in the United States. The other is that, possibly, the generations now are much more mature and capable of handling the idea of borrowing and indebtedness in a controlled and responsible way and for the best possible cause—namely, educating themselves. Are not those big changes that would go some way to ameliorating the difficulties that she outlined?

Mrs. Roche

I understand the right hon. Gentleman's point. I listened carefully to his thoughtful speech. I did not agree with him, but I understood his train of thought. The situation in the United States is interesting. It is not just the poor children who do not get to Ivy League universities, but those from lower-middle-class income families. It has been strongly argued that Ivy League universities are much more elitist than universities in this country. I know of a family whose children are at Harvard. They got there purely on merit, but 13 generations of that family have been to Harvard. That makes the record of our universities pale into insignificance.

The difficulty with the right hon. Gentleman's argument is that bursaries and scholarships do not cover everyone. They may cover some people at the bottom of the scale, but they may not cover children from families who are a little above the minimum level—lower middle class or upper working class, to use the old terminology. Those people will not make it, even though they have the ability and enthusiasm. That is the difficulty.

All of us want people with merit, ability and dedication to get to university, but if they are put off because of the variable nature of top-up fees, and if it deters them from choosing to go to what are perceived, rightly or wrongly, as some of our better universities, that will be greatly detrimental to those individuals and to society as a whole. We would lose their contribution and their ability, and those universities would be poorer places without them. I urge the Government to think again. I think that this idea is extremely divisive and could cause a great deal of unnecessary damage.

I shall end where I started. I am proud of what the Government have done so far, but there are tremendous challenges ahead. To ensure that we rise to those challenges and build on what we have achieved, we must talk a new language not only to the parliamentary Labour party and Labour party activists and supporters, but to the country as a whole. We must talk the language of inclusion and equality. We must ensure that we extend inclusiveness and equality where we can.

We are in perhaps the most competitive age possible. We compete not only with the United States of America, Europe and the rest of the world for the best and the brightest, but to ensure that everyone in our society is productively engaged, so that our industry and commerce can be the best in the world. We need the best brains and the best people in our work force. We should not consider policies of inclusion and equality as soft, nice or at the easy edge of politics. They are not. They are vital to our economy and competitiveness, and I urge the Government to take them on board.

5.33 pm
Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

Madam Deputy Speaker, I appreciate your calling me after the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche). It is interesting that I differed from the hon. Lady and the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), who both confessed to having voted yes in the European referendum. I voted no, because I had read what had been done. What we discovered, even in the Maastricht debate, was fascinating. When the then Father of the House, Sir Edward Heath, was challenged on the fact that the European Union was supposed to be an economic union, he said that we all knew that it was a political union. The tragedy is that spinning has been going on in politics for a long time to confuse the unwary.

I wish to say a few words of caution to the Leader of the Opposition, the Prime Minister and the other Members—including the proposer of the Loyal Address, the hon. Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall)—who have referred to the elections taking place today in Northern Ireland. One regrets that the weather has proved to be unkind, but we will have to wait until tomorrow, when the count starts, and until Friday evening, when the last count is over, for the results.

It is interesting that a House of Commons brought into being by England, the mother of parliaments, has given us a system in Northern Ireland where, if one pundit is correct, there could be four differing parties, covering about 100 Members, pushed into a Government, with eight Members in opposition. It is a wonderful day for democracy—we have decided to have a Government by d'Hondt. There is nothing in that situation that allows the electorate, as the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase) said, to sack Members and to say that they have had their day. We must look more seriously at that aspect of the Province.

In England, people are complaining about the police service amassing fines from cameras. In east Belfast, a sign was put up next to a camera saying, "Motorists are fined and murderers are freed." We talk about a peace process—there has been a political process, which I welcome—but there is no real sign of one as yet. Some of those who would qualify, under d'Hondt, to go into government have a private army, which they equate with the constabulary, which was disarming around 1966–68 but was re-armed as a result of the insurrection. Subsequently, those people want the British Army to disarm. That is what they mean when they talk about demilitarisation. I would not hold my breath on that issue until we see how the count goes on Friday.

I welcome some of the proposals in the Queen's Speech. I agree with the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East, who talked about selling the situation. The main problem is that when successive Governments have told us that they are giving £5 million to the health service, we have then seen that £2 million of it goes on staff wage increases and £1 million on capital, leaving £2 million, which, incidentally, has not been paid up-front for developments nationally. However, we welcome some of the things that have been done in particular areas.

On the ground in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, there are hospitals that cannot cope with the demands made upon them. Some wonderful things have been done, and I pay tribute to the staff, but we live in an age in which people have greater expectations. It is folly for the Government to accuse the Opposition of trying to take money out of the health service by allowing a voucher to be used in private services. The family of a pensioner and ex-serviceman who required a heart operation had to pay £9,000 so that it could be carried out in a national health hospital. There are further cases of ordinary people, who were not part of BUPA or other private medical schemes, and who were told by the hospital that, regrettably, their operation could not be done on the national health service, but that it could be done—in the same hospital and with the same facilities and staff—if they paid up-front. We must reach beyond that degree of hypocrisy. The national health service, which I support and still use, is not properly funded to meet the demands of a generation who should not have to put up with second-class provision.

The points that were made about education are helpful. Graduates in my constituency—it is one of several in which house prices have rocketed—tell me that they cannot afford a house there. How will these people be able to live in such areas if, on graduating and seeking a loan to purchase a house, they are burdened with a massive overdraft? They can go to private developers, but they charge very high rents for their properties. We must face that reality.

I share one of the views expressed by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). People speak about choice and discrimination in Northern Ireland, and I had a choice to make. As a student, I was called to the ministry. My scholarship could have taken me to Trinity college or to Queen's university, but I chose instead to go to Magee university college, Londonderry, and graduated ultimately from Trinity. Magee is a Presbyterian foundation that was open from the beginning to all types of students. In my time there, Roman Catholic students from outside Northern Ireland attended, because the bishops in Northern Ireland would not allow Northern Irish Catholics to go there. But the Government of the day did not spend a single penny on that college because it was under Presbyterian auspices. Ultimately, it became a completely secular college. While I was there, the theological faculty was separated and put in a remote house, and ultimately it was taken back to Belfast.

I had a similar experience to the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green. My family encouraged me to become a student. They never had a car—I was the first member of the family to own one—and they made sacrifices. Perhaps I was one of the fortunate ones, in that I managed to get a job in the summer vacations, which helped me to pay my way through college. That did me no harm; it helped me to understand other people's circumstances as I developed. It is important that we look at these issues carefully.

Returning to health, I regret the fact that people who served this country in Her Majesty's forces during the Gulf war, at the behest of the Government of the day, are still suffering. They have had to go to court to get an acknowledgement that their illnesses were at least aggravated by, if not due to, the failure of certain vaccinations received while serving in the Gulf. A recent case caught my eye because it involved someone in Knutsford, which is where my sister-in-law lives. Major Ian Hill's widow had to get the coroner's court to acknowledge that he died not of natural causes, but of causes that were at least aggravated by what is commonly known as Gulf war syndrome. As we anticipate the cutting of Army numbers, my plea is that we do not simply use soldiers in wartime and emergency situations and then forget them, as happened after the first world war. Back then, it was "Tommy this" and "Tommy that", but when the war was over it was just "Tommy rot". I believe that if our Parliament calls people to serve in the forces of the Crown at home or abroad, we should look after them because they are serving us.

The Prime Minister made a slip of the tongue, according to the Speaker, when I raised a point of order earlier. Unfortunately, too many slips of the tongue are a problem. In the modern world, politics becomes devalued when politicians promise one thing, using language that gives people the impression that something is to be done in a certain way, and then do something completely different.

Parliament in the United Kingdom begins its proceedings in prayer to the Almighty, so we should recognise that although people throughout the land have different viewpoints, there are moral standards, which are important not just within a Christian community, but apply to Jewish, Muslim and other communities. We recognise the problems of people who have particular relationships, but I regret to note that already the papers are talking about civil registrations and civil partnerships as though they were civil marriages. The more that Parliament devalues the family by devaluing the marriage of man and wife, the more difficulties we will face.

I recall one particular difficulty when we debated mental health legislation that applied to England some 20 years ago—the question of how long relationships should last. One noted libertarian argued that three months was sufficient. I said in the debate that our American cousins called us the flip generation because we kept changing. I said that if the Committee regarded three months as the standard for a stable relationship, I believed that we had flipped. I wonder whether any consideration has been given to the definition of a lifelong or stable relationship. It was touched on earlier, and I hope that when it comes before us again, the House will give proper consideration to the issue.

We should not be trying to get rid of one inequality by introducing other inequalities. I think of the lifelong relationships of spinsters who often look after their parents even though they receive no benefits for doing so. In the Ulster countryside, rural bachelors have lived together for years and do not seem to have acquired any other benefits. We have to be careful that in passing legislation to remove one inequality, we do not create other inequalities. We live in an age of civil rights. That often means, "What I want, I should have. I call it my right and the Government should deliver it."

5.48 pm
Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab)

I start by dealing with a particular aspect of the Gracious Speech: My Government will take forward work on an incremental approach to a national identity card scheme and will publish a draft Bill in the new year. I want to talk about identity cards because I know that many hon. Members are concerned about their introduction. If people are living honest lives and are not of a criminal bent, they should have nothing to fear from them. I have given considerable thought to the issue since the Home Secretary discussed it a few days ago. It is a difficult subject to talk about without being misquoted, so I have written out exactly what I am going to say.

Earlier this year, I raised the question of prescription fraud with the Department of Health, and was told that recent checks introduced by the Government had reduced the cost of patient prescription fraud from £117 million to £69 million a year—a significant decrease, but still an unacceptable figure. More importantly, that cost is unnecessary; the problem could be tackled.

Responsibility cannot, of course, lie with health professionals or dispensing chemists. They should not have to refuse to dispense drugs because a patient cannot produce sufficient evidence or demonstrate an exemption from prescription charges. As things stand, the simple declaration on the back of the prescription form will suffice. Given the sheer volume of prescriptions processed every day, it is inconceivable that every one could he checked. The cost of checking and enforcement would be astronomical.

However, the presentation of an ID card containing information about the holder's eligibility or otherwise for benefits would leave no room for dispute. Presentation of such a card could be required to prove an exemption from charges for the dispensing of drugs and medicines.

Likewise, it is not for health professionals to check the status of those who present themselves at hospitals or GPs' surgeries for treatment. However, for the sake of managing and planning resources, it is imperative that we know how many people are entitled to free health care and can identify those who do not qualify and need to pay.

I deal with a lot of visas, and I know that the terms of the visas of people who enter the country as visitors specifically say that there is to be no recourse to public funds. Similarly, people granted leave to enter the country as spouses will have no recourse to public funds for two years; that is the probationary period now.

I do not believe that health professionals presented with a patient give any thought to his or her immigration status—nor should they. However, should one of us have an accident or become ill while on holiday and require medical assistance, we would be asked whether we had medical insurance, and, if we were in an EU country, whether we held an E111. I doubt whether such checks are made here. Perhaps we should require medical insurance when an entry visa is issued. My constituency work demonstrates that some people who manage to gain entry clearance as visitors have no intention of returning to their country of origin upon expiry of their visa, yet their call upon the health service is probably never questioned.

I am not suggesting that the use of identity cards is the answer to all our social problems. Those problems, and their potential solutions, are much more complex. To be honest, as someone who has advocated and fought for human rights for the whole of my adult and political life, my instinct is naturally opposed to the idea. In an ideal world there would be no need for identity cards, but we now live in a global village. The ease and accessibility of international travel, coupled with a stronger tendency to economic migration, inevitably means that it is becoming more difficult to ascertain who is in any particular place at any particular time.

I am an old-fashioned socialist who has always believed in the benefits of a planned economy, and if we do not know how many people are eligible to be cared for, educated, supported and protected, how can we ever plan accurately for the future? What is the point of making plans, only to allow them to be undermined by those who are not entitled to reap the benefits?

The arguments in favour of ID cards are not all based on the principle of control and management. For example, I remember all too well that when my first husband was killed in a car accident his organs were not used to save someone else. Had he been carrying an ID card that could provide access to his wishes, I am sure that I would have been given some measure of help in knowing that something positive had come from such a tragedy.

I shall now move on to other aspects of the Queen's Speech, on which I have made some fairly scruffy notes, which I shall try to read. The phrase that is relevant to schools in my constituency is: Delivering a world class education system that enables individuals to achieve their full potential". I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Arts is here now, because I want to pay tribute to the work that she did over many years as an Education Minister in introducing excellence in cities and Sure Start in towns such as Keighley.

In Keighley many children go to school at the age of four without a word of English, and sometimes never having heard English. Sure Start is one way of introducing such children to the world beyond their own street and their own community. They hear other children—white children—and white women, the helpers at Sure Start, speaking English. That prepares them a little for the day, which can be a terrible day for them, when they have to leave their mother and their community and go to a school where there are strange white women who dress in a strange way and speak a strange language. Sure Start is an excellent scheme. It is working well in Keighley, and is greatly appreciated by all who use it.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell) (Con)

Is it not a terrible shame that while Sure Start is being established with Government funds, the equally admirable home- start scheme, which has existed in the voluntary sector for years, is under pressure in many areas because of a lack of grant funding? Some local schemes, such as the one in my constituency, face an uncertain future because they do not have enough money, while just up the road Sure Start is being established to do exactly the same thing.

Ann Cryer

I agree; I was one of the women who had small children when pre-school playgroups were being introduced. I am going back a long way now; my son is nearly 40—what a terrible thing—but I know how difficult it was then to get playgroups going on a voluntary basis. We ran one in an old Church school, and we had to have jumble sales and all sorts of other activities to raise funds to keep it going. It was at Oakworth, in my constituency, and it is still running 36 years on, so such arrangements do work. I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is making, but by and large, in the areas where Sure Start is being introduced there are many very poor families, and we must give them priority.

The Queen's Speech also says: Universities will be placed on a sound financial footing.

I am pleased about that. I am pleased that our universities will not have to run jumble sales to continue operating. However, I am concerned about the introduction of top-up fees, and unless I can be persuaded to the contrary I shall probably vote against them, because I do not want young people to enter the world of work with enormous debts hanging over their heads.

I am probably one of the few Members of Parliament who experienced that sort of thing in the past, not because I was a student—I left school at 15, and did not have the advantage of a university education—but because my late husband was. He went to Salts grammar school in west Yorkshire, which was then called the West Riding. The county council had a peculiar view about giving grants, and my late husband was not given one, so he had to borrow some money from the education authority, and from a bank, to go to university. That meant that for the first three years of our marriage we were struggling to pay back those loans, which is not easy for people who are bringing up two small children and taking on a mortgage for the first time.

The proposed child trust fund, or baby bond, is an excellent idea that will help even poorer families to contribute to their children's adulthood and put some money in the kitty for when the children leave school and want to buy a house, or whatever.

When my first grandson, Conor, who is now 11, was born, I bought him a national savings children's bond, to which I add every year on his birthday. However, I now have six grandchildren, so I have to do the same for all of them. September, when I top up all their savings bonds, is an expensive time for me, so I think that it is terrific that the state will be helping out.

The speech states: A Pension Protection Fund will be set up to protect employees and pensioners if companies become insolvent. I cannot begin to count the number of times I have sat in my advice surgery listening to the sad stories of constituents whose company has gone down the tubes, taking their pension fund with it. That is especially sad for people of my age who are coming up to retirement with no decent private pension to look forward to, only state benefits. It is most upsetting when people who have been careful throughout their lives and have contributed to a fund find that it has disappeared—that it has been stolen.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche) mentioned the measures to modernise laws on domestic violence. Earlier this year, the Lord Chancellor's Department held a conference in Bradford to discuss domestic violence in the Asian community. Of course, the problem is not greater in the Asian community than it is in the white community, but the Asian community is still in a state of denial; people do not think that domestic violence occurs in their community.

The conference was most successful. The vast majority of the people who attended were from the Asian community, and many of the speakers had suffered domestic violence. The conference pushed the problem up a notch or two on Bradford's agenda, which is a good thing as it had not been discussed previously.

This summer, during the school holidays, I held a conference at a primary school in my constituency, which was attended by about 100 people, including head teachers, teachers who deal with domestic violence problems, social workers and community workers. We discussed the proposals published by the Home Office, and as a result I am convinced that the problems must be talked about in schools, as my hon. Friend pointed out earlier. We cannot discuss domestic violence too early; it is difficult for children brought up in the presence of domestic violence to understand that it is wrong, that it should not be happening and that there is another way. Schools should be discussing such problems even with young children.

The Speech states: Legislation will be introduced on housing that will help create a fairer housing market and protect the most vulnerable. Part of my constituency is the small town of Ilkley—it has a moor. Ilkley—is a posh small town; it is very nice and many people want to live there. Due to the burgeoning economy of Leeds, there are many professional people who, unsurprisingly, want to live in Ilkley, so houses in the town are now the most expensive in Yorkshire. That means that there is no affordable housing in Ilkley, so when the young people of the town get married they cannot stay there.

Ilkley used to have a lovely council estate, but nearly all the houses have been sold off. I am not knocking the tenants who bought their houses—they were fully entitled to do so—but young married people in Ilkley are having to move out to Bradford, Shipley or Keighley to find affordable accommodation.

I look forward to the possibility of more housing associations being set up in areas such as Ilkley to provide accommodation for such people at the beginning of their married life. Affordable housing is fine if it means houses that continue to be sold cheaply, but in fact a house is only affordable once. In Ilkley, as soon as a house goes on to its second owner, the price shoots up and poorer people, and even the reasonably waged, can no longer afford it.

The Speech noted that a Bill on planning, introduced in the last Session, will be taken forward to make the planning system fairer and faster with greater community participation". I am not sure what "greater community participation" means, but I should like it to mean that people in Keighley will at last be able to stop a particular developer. He is a good builder of excellent houses, but he has a bad habit: when he presents his planning proposals there are no objections and local people approve, but when he builds the houses they realise that instead of building 20 houses, as planned, he is building 30. The houses are pushed together, people do not get the view they expected and rights of way are blocked. Many things are done for which there was no original planning permission.

Bradford council often challenges that builder, who is doing a lot of work in the Keighley area. Many of my constituents are upset about the matter, as I hear in my advice surgeries, so they will be pleased that I am mentioning it in Parliament. I should like "greater community participation" to mean that people in my constituency will have a fairer say in developments and that they will no longer be told by the local authority that there is nothing it can do, that it is too expensive to stop the builder in his tracks, that the process will become protracted and that it is all too difficult. I hope that some of my constituents will be able to put their ideas to the local authority when it makes decisions on planning permission so that such situations do not occur in the future.

6.7 pm

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con)

The hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) made an interesting speech. I am sure that the Government Whip on duty will have noticed that, so far, every Labour Member who has spoken has expressed concerns about the direction that the Government are taking, especially on top-up fees. When a political party says one thing in its election manifesto yet months later does a complete about-turn, it is hardly surprising that there is growing cynicism in politics.

Much of today's debate has been concerned with the need to improve public services. Nothing is more important than more effective police, good teachers, improved education, a well-motivated and well-rewarded NHS staff and a better health service. The only difficulty is that we hear the same claims from the Government every year. In last year's Queen's Speech, the Government trumpeted: This approach will enable my Government to continue to invest in the public services, while supporting major programmes of reform on health, education, transport and crime".—[official Report, 13 November 2002; Vol. 394, c. 3.]

Can anyone name a single Act from last year that made a difference? Last year's legislation brought no real change to my constituents in north Oxfordshire.

Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East) (Lab)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Tony Baldry

No, I have only just started.

One year on, I doubt whether—

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab)

The hon. Gentleman asked a question.

Tony Baldry

I gladly give way, then, to hear the answer.

Brian White

Does the hon. Gentleman not consider that the Communications Act 2003, which fundamentally changes how telecom companies and broadcasting will work over the next few years, made a major difference?

Tony Baldry

First, I must declare an interest as the director of a company involved in interactive digital television. However, if I were to walk down the high street of Banbury or Bicester asking people to name a piece of legislation that the Government introduced last year, I hardly think that they would be pressing me on communications legislation. The hon. Gentleman, rather tellingly, reinforces the point that I was making.

I very much doubt that much of this year's legislation will make much difference either. We have another rag-bag of Bills; there are 23 Bills and seven draft Bills. By my calculations, we shall be trying to force through almost a Bill a week for every week of the parliamentary year.

It is clear that the Government have lost their way, or their third way. On the radio last weekend, Ministers said that, as part of the third way, the Government would launch a national conversation so that they can hear what the country wants. Well, Ministers may listen, but they do not learn. I shall give two straightforward examples of that.

Home Office Ministers have proposed to build an asylum accommodation centre for 750 people in Bicester in my constituency. It was opposed by local people and the local authority, and by every organisation from the Refugee Council to the Red Cross. No organisation concerned with the welfare of asylum seekers supports the proposal, but Ministers pushed ahead and the proposal went to a public planning inquiry.

The Minister for Citizenship and Immigration said at the Dispatch Box that the Government had made it clear that they would abide by the planning process and by the outcome of any public inquiry. She said that that was "both fair and democratic." I suspect that hon. Members hearing those words would assume that the Government would abide by the advice that they received from the planning inspector. However, the inspector said, unambiguously, that the asylum accommodation centre was a bad idea and should not go ahead. The Government's response was to execute a volte-face on their clear commitment. Notwithstanding the planning inspector's recommendation, they decided to go ahead with their plans. The clear inference is that planning inquiries are fair and democratic only when they tell the Government what they want to hear.

An asylum accommodation centre at Bicester would be bad news for the people placed there, as being stuck in the middle of the Oxfordshire countryside for up to six months with nothing to do would be pretty depressing. However, it would also be a huge financial burden on the local authorities involved. We understand that, under the asylum Bill announced today, parents whose claims for asylum have been rejected will be offered a choice—to take a voluntary airline flight, paid for the by the UK, back to their native country, or to lose all their benefits in the UK and have their children taken into care.

If the Government proceed with the plan for a 750-person accommodation centre on the outskirts of Bicester, new and serious issues will arise about the financial burden falling on Oxfordshire county council. From ministerial statements, we know that a significant number of the asylum seekers who would be accommodated at Bicester would be families with children. I understand that, at present, taking a child into care costs £16,900 a year at the very least. Of course, children taken into care stay there until they are 18. Moreover, the county council pays as much as £90,000 per year so that some children with special needs can be in care. The cumulative costs are therefore likely to be very substantial.

Is the Home Office willing to give an undertaking that it will underwrite the costs incurred by Oxfordshire county council if it has to take into care any asylum seekers' children as a result of the forthcoming legislation, or are the Government expecting Oxfordshire council tax payers to pick up the extra financial burden, without compensation? The potential costs of the accommodation centre were one reason why the planning inspector gave his negative recommendation. How on earth can the country be confident that the Government will listen to whatever message is given to Ministers in the national conversation?

My second point concerns the Bicester community hospital. The previous Secretary of State for Health, the right hon. Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn), when he was Minister of State, made a commitment at the Dispatch Box in 1999 that a new, 30-bed community hospital would be built in Bicester. He said that it was important to develop "modern, effective and dependable" services, and "improved fairness" in Oxfordshire's health services. That commitment is now three years overdue.

Recently, I presented to Parliament a petition signed by 7,000 Bicester residents, outlining how NHS officials now say that funds intended for the new Bicester community hospital, following the closure of Burford and Watlington community hospitals, had been "invested in the system" already.

It is fair to say that we in Bicester were surprised and concerned to learn that, from the next financial year, there appears to be no money for project finance to take the work forward. Also, there appear to be no funds to finance the project team, as the mechanism by which the team has been paid so far is being scrapped. Understandably, that leaves a sense of great betrayal locally. Ministers cannot tell a community one day that it will have a new hospital, and then change the rules completely a couple of years later. It is not enough to say, "Terribly sorry, there is now no money for a community hospital, and no mechanism to take the process forward." If the Government cannot keep the commitments made by Ministers at the Dispatch Box, no one who asks for anything during the so-called "national conversation" should expect delivery.

Rag-bag Bills to wallpaper over bad Government policy have been announced today. For instance, this year we have yet another proposed antisocial behaviour Bill. The Gracious Speech states: Firm action will continue to be taken against anti-social behaviour". The announcement of another Bill on this subject in the Queen's Speech is almost as predictable as the fact that Christmas comes every year. I doubt that I am the only hon. Member able to recount how different antisocial crimes affect different parts of my constituency pretty much all the time. Ahead of last year's Queen's Speech, a constituent wrote to me as follows: The situation here is quiet, but as I stated in my last letter I believe the gang have only moved on to another part of our community to get their fun. That is in rural north Oxfordshire, not some inner-city area. What do I tell my constituent of the Government's new Bill on antisocial behaviour? Should I tell him that last year he was the victim of the wrong type of antisocial behaviour, which will be addressed in the new legislation? That is absurd.

Last year, the Government presented a Bill to introduce antisocial behaviour orders. So far, Cherwell district council in my constituency has managed to secure just two ASBOs, and that took over a year. The process was subject to delays, red tape and, not surprisingly, obstruction by the individuals on whom the orders were to be served. If it takes a district council more than a year to get a single antisocial behaviour order, does that not suggest that a certain amount of gimmickry is involved? Would it not be better for the Government to look at the measures that they have introduced already and ensure that they are effective, rather than trying to give the impression that they are doing something about crime by producing more and more Bills and putting them on the statute book?

Yet another antisocial behaviour Bill is simply a Government decoy to distract people in north Oxfordshire and elsewhere from the real cause of the rise in low-level antisocial behaviour: the increasing invisibility of police officers on the streets as a result of severe under-resourcing for the Thames Valley force.

Every year since this Government came into office, spin rather than substance has dominated our criminal justice system. Practically every year, a new criminal justice Bill is dragged to the statute book to give the impression that the Government are doing something—anything—to tackle crime in general and antisocial behaviour in particular.

I suspect that my constituents want more than anything to know that there are capable and experienced police officers out on the streets. I should prefer the Home Secretary to give attention to the haemorrhaging of experienced police officers in the Thames Valley area, and the increasingly difficult financial situation in which that force finds itself.

In a recent briefing note to Members of Parliament, the chief constable of the Thames Valley force observed that organisationally, the single most important issue for the force remains police officer retention. Thames Valley police has suffered a significantly greater drain of fit, trained and experienced police officers who have transferred to other forces over the past two and half years…A total of 314 officers have left in that time. For many the prohibitive housing costs associated with the region mean that home ownership prospects are bleak.

He went on to say that for other officers, and especially those living in the south-east, there were prospects of earning at least an extra £4,000 per annum working for the Metropolitan police service, which has aggressively targeted officers to encourage transfers".

The chief constable went on to observe that the loss of these experienced officers creates an experience vacuum which impacts upon the quality and volume of operational activity.

The concern about experienced officers is demonstrated by the fact that it is getting increasingly difficult, in the Thames Valley force, to identify qualified people to promote to the ranks of sergeant and inspector. That is a matter of real concern in a public service that relies on effective operational supervision. Last year, Thames Valley police lost 160 officers, and this year they lost 180 experienced officers. The situation is not getting better—it is getting worse. For year after year, Members of Parliament from the Thames Valley area, such as myself, have called on the Government to introduce sensible regional cost of living allowances for police officers and other key workers, but the Government do nothing to help.

I recently received a letter from the Oxfordshire weighting allowance campaign. It says that the case for, effectively, London weighting to be extended to Oxfordshire is simple. In a nutshell it is that those workers in the county whose pay is linked to national scales are in a bind. Their standard of living is diminished through the high local cost of living. In comparison with other regions of the country and with London, where weighting is universal, they are at a disadvantage. Indeed, the Government's proposals will make the financial prospects for the Thames Valley police increasingly difficult. As the chief constable observed in his briefing to MPs, the financial outlook for 2004/5 and beyond appears rather bleak…early indications from the Home Office are that the financial settlement for 2004/5 will be very tight".

He concludes that unless something extraordinary happens to the Authority, they will once again be faced with making some very difficult and stark choices between providing the Chief Constable with the necessary resources he requires to deliver an effective police service across the Thames Valley whilst at the same time limiting the annual increase in Council Tax to a realistic and affordable level. I strongly suspect that my constituents would wish to see less spin on legislative gimmicks and more substance to enhance experienced police retention and police pay, and proper financial provision for the Thames Valley police as a whole.

The Queen's Speech contains many measures, but Ministers promised to introduce some legislation that, unfortunately, does not appear. One example, which does not even appear as a draft Bill, is legislation on corporate manslaughter. On that issue, I wish to refer to the tragic case of my constituent, Simon Jones, who was brutally killed. He was a student at Sussex university and had to work during the vacation to earn some money. He went to Shoreham docks and was killed on his first day in tragic circumstances. I do not use that word glibly, because in many ways his death has destroyed the lives of his parents and family.

I went to the Old Bailey to watch the trial of the chairman of the company concerned. Under our present law, it is almost impossible to get a conviction against an individual director or person responsible, and the company was fined a derisory amount. The Government have been consulting for a long time on the issue, and they had almost got to a draft Bill. However, they simply backed away in the face of pressure from employers. Such a Bill would not be about bashing employers, but about promoting safety in the workplace. When people go to work in the morning, they are entitled to know that they will come home safely at night. Many companies do a good job, but some do not.

Mr. Miller

The hon. Gentleman makes a valuable point from his experience of the case of his constituent. If the Government were to introduce such a Bill, would it have his support?

Tony Baldry

Of course it would have my support, and that is why I regret that it did not appear in the Gracious Speech.

A report yesterday in the Financial Times observed that critical questions remain about what those proposals will compromise despite earlier rounds of consultation. The Home Office is understood to be reconsidering its definition of what should trigger corporate liability. Business is lobbying government to water down the original proposal that companies would be liable if serious 'management failure' led to a fatality. Our record on deaths at work in this country is appalling, and some sectors of industry have particularly poor records. I know that the Health and Safety Executive does a good job, but if directors—I speak as a director of several companies, as anyone who consults the Register of Members' Interests will see—knew that they stood in peril of losing their freedom if they did not ensure that their work force had, so far as is possible, a safe place of work, it would substantially reduce the death rate of people at work in this country. I understand from Simon Jones's parents, who have campaigned tirelessly to change the law, that fines for poor safety are to be reduced: if there is to be a deterrent, this legislation will clearly have to be it.

The other parts of the public services about which we are all concerned are our hospitals and schools. Oxfordshire's hospitals, in comparison with much of the country, are under severe financial pressure. Nothing in the Queen's Speech will address that. In May, I held a public meeting to establish an action committee to keep my local hospital—the Horton—a general hospital. The campaign is supported by members of all political parties in north Oxfordshire and by members of the local community, and it seeks reassurance that services will not be removed from the Horton general hospital to downgrade it gradually.

The public meeting was attended by the then chief executive of the Oxford Radcliffe hospitals trust. Local people in Banbury and I were given reassurances that there was no hidden plan to close or downgrade the Horton and that managers would look for ways of treating people closer to home. I later met with senior NHS managers and was given assurances that no details were available of what services were being reviewed as part of the health plan being developed at the Horton. To put it simply, there was no review of removing services taking place at the Horton. That was in May 2003. Since then not a week has gone by without further suggestions for removing services from the Horton to the John Radcliffe. That is leaving local people with the feeling that they have been deceived by Oxford Radcliffe hospitals trust.

In May 2003, it was suggested that mortuary services were to be closed at the Horton. Only two months later, we saw the reduction of paediatric care at the hospital, with the loss of two consultant paediatricians and a freeze on staff replacement. The same month, it was announced that the viability of the nighttime accident and emergency service, nighttime emergency surgery, nighttime trauma treatment and nighttime maternity is now in question. Indeed, only last night the local action committee met again on that matter. I am told that there are no details of what services at the Horton will be part of the health plan review, because no services have been identified. Then we get three announcements that services are planned to be removed from the Horton. Is it seriously suggested that the removal of those services is separate from the health plan review for the Horton?

It is clear that a comprehensive review of health services in Oxfordshire is now needed, but to make the health system in the county a success, funding will have to be forthcoming from the Government. As matters stand, Oxfordshire's hospitals have little chance of the independent financial status for foundation hospitals that the Government introduced in last year's Queen's Speech. If Ministers cannot deliver on the proposals for public services made in previous Queen's Speeches, that means little optimism locally for anything different this time around. Indeed, given the situation with the Horton hospital and the Bicester community hospital, my constituents will find hollow indeed the words in the Queen's Speech about giving more choice to patients, more freedom to NHS staff and more control over hospitals to local communities.

They see little choice when promised community hospitals disappear and services are taken away from their general hospital.

The Queen's Speech makes significant proposals for higher education. I have mentioned those that the Labour party's manifesto said would not be introduced. It will be interesting to see how the Labour party will square the social exclusion that such proposals are likely to cause with its supposed championing of social inclusion elsewhere.

In pre-university education, little encouragement is being given to schools. The Government have made a total dog's breakfast of schools funding, and the situation is all the more disappointing because this year Oxfordshire has had the benefit of damping worth £4.7 million. It will not receive that next year, so it will effectively have a standstill budget, which will make the school funding situation much worse.

The confusion over school funding this year was characterised by the fact that almost at the last moment the Learning and Skills Council came up with an additional sum for some schools in Oxfordshire with sixth forms, based on their ability to secure high attendance levels from sixth-form pupils. Obviously that money was welcomed by those schools that benefited, but the House will agree that it was farcical that such an announcement came so late in the day and after many of the schools concerned had agonised for some time about whether they had to make staff redundant.

It was also disappointing that this year the Government chose to seek to blame everyone but themselves for the chaos in school funding. First, they blamed local education authorities, such as Oxfordshire, when it was clear that they had passed through to schools every single penny they could. Then we had the unedifying spectacle of Ministers seeking to blame the schools for the financial position that they found themselves in.

None of this blame game helps with morale or helps to resolve the situation. Given last year's chaos, I very much hope that this coming year Ministers will make every possible effort to ensure that local education authorities know at the earliest possible opportunity the exact funds that they will receive, and that schools know all the funding that they might receive from all possible sources—not only from the LEA but from organisations such as the Learning and Skills Council—at the earliest possible opportunity, so that when they set their budgets they can be confident as to the exact amount that they will receive.

The Government are introducing proposals on pensions, but I suspect that, as has been said, most of my constituents are concerned not about those new proposals but about how they will manage on their existing pension. They are concerned about the fact that many of them are not getting all the various benefits and credits that they should, because the system has become so involved. Also many pensioners are really concerned about the fact that any pension increase that they receive is eaten away by higher council taxes and other burdens. A constituent wrote to me the other day, and the letter summarised the feelings of many of my constituents. It said that the Government seems able to find billions of pounds to fund the war, but the pensioners' plight is mainly ignored. For instance our combined monthly pension increase for the coming year is £15.32. The council tax increase is £13.00 per month, leaving a balance of £2.32 per month. The landlord will increase the rent for this property in June". I very much hope that when Ministers are having a "national conversation" they will have a conversation with pensioners and others, and discover their true circumstances.

Tom Levitt

I can barely recognise the situation that the hon. Gentleman is describing. I will not go into education funding, but I do remember the cuts and cuts under the Tory Government. However, on pensions, I strongly recommend his constituents to ring 0800 99 1234 to see whether they can get up to £30 a week extra on the pension credit, which many of my constituents are getting and enjoying.

Tony Baldry

It is a really sad situation when our constituents who are pensioners have to start ringing freephone numbers to see whether they are eligible for particular benefits. I very much hope that during part of this so-called national conversation, Labour Members and others will go down some streets in their constituency and discover just how much increased poverty has come about because so many pensioners now can survive only on means-tested benefits. Indeed, huge numbers of people—not only pensioners but those who receive the working families tax credit and others—are being drawn into the benefit system, and pensioners in particular find that unpalatable and difficult.

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge) (Con)

While my hon. Friend is on the subject of broken Government promises, does he remember that before the 1997 general election the current Chancellor of the Exchequer was promising to end means-testing altogether for pensioners?

Tony Baldry

Yes, absolutely. Labour Members of Parliament cannot be surprised to hear that there is increasing disenchantment when pensioners and others who are not well off in our society find themselves drawn into an increasingly complex means-related, means-tested benefit system, which they find very convoluted.

Finally, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition mentioned earlier, we are about to see—allegedly—referendums for regional government, which the Government seem determined to introduce. We now have an unelected regional planning authority for the south-east. In Oxfordshire we have very little in common with Hastings and Dover, and Kent and Sussex, and we find the idea that more and more decisions affecting Banbury and Bicester will be made in Dorking and Guildford increasingly alien. The idea that regional government will bring greater local democracy is a great mistake. Regional administrations will remove local democracy.

Any regional assembly in the south-east would leave Oxfordshire isolated, left on the edge by another remote tier of central, not local, government. I very much hope that the Government will recognise that, rather than undermining district and county councils, these tiers of local government have worked well for many years and should continue to work. Local minds should be put to local matters wherever possible, so when Ministers tour the country, telling people they are listening to the "conversations" that they are having with local people, perhaps Ministers should remember that it is local government, not they, that has the best record of standing up for people's needs.

At the end of the day, the Government will be judged not on the number of Bills they manage to force through Parliament during the legislative year but on whether they do actually enhance social justice and improve public services. On the basis of their immediate past record and of the proposals in the Gracious Speech, I do not think we should hold our breath and expect that either social justice or improved public services will be seen in the coming year.

6.35 pm
Ross Cranston (Dudley, North) (Lab)

The Gracious Speech is a useful occasion for stocktaking because it enables us to reflect on the Government's legislative intentions in the context of what has gone before and what may happen in future. Of course it provides only an incomplete audit of legislative activity, quite apart from other measures that may be laid before us, since so much effort these days is expressed through secondary legislation. Moreover, a great deal of Government activity occurs through administrative effort and public spending, which is not directly related to legislation.

If it is to be effective, Government activity must accord with a philosophical position, even if that is only to keep the ship of state afloat. The Government's prospectus will be published on Friday, and I hope that the specific proposals will be placed in a more philosophical context. None the less, I think that we can appreciate the measures in the Gracious Speech, because they do fit into a framework, I would argue, that can be generally described as designed to produce a more socially just and civil society worked by modern institutions.

First, I want to say something about the constitutional measures in the speech. Historians looking back on what has occurred since 1997 will see a period of very significant constitutional change—changes to our Parliament, the devolution of legislative powers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the protection of individual rights through measures such as the Human Rights Act 1998. That constitutional change continues with the proposals in the speech for the abolition of hereditary peers. The justification for the hereditary principle for parliamentarians has long since gone. If individuals who are hereditary peers have a contribution to make, they should do so as life peers or as elected Members of this place, such as the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso).

I shall say a few words about the proposed changes to the justice system—the establishment of the judicial appointments commission and the supreme court. I declare my interest as a barrister and a recorder. These proposals have already been subject to considerable debate. Their goal is to widen the pool for judicial appointments while retaining the merit principle, and they are designed to end the perceived anomaly that our most senior judges are part of the legislature. The new arrangements will need to be carefully constructed and will need to avoid unintended consequences. I shall confine my remarks to judicial appointments.

First, I foresee an initial period in which outstanding candidates will be reluctant to apply for judicial appointment. Successful members of the Bar, for instance, may not risk the potential blight to their career if they apply unsuccessfully. Reputation, at the Bar, is everything. That necessitates a mechanism of head-hunting, to ensure that those inhibited from applying are encouraged to do so.

Secondly, committees are typically unimaginative and risk averse. It is always a salutary experience to re-read C. Northcote Parkinson's accounts of the principles of selection, the point of vanishing interest and palsied paralysis. Given those characteristics of committees, there needs to be a corrective mechanism if there is no longer to be a role for a renaissance Lord Chancellor. Earlier this week, for example, the Society of Black Lawyers characterised the proposed reforms as window dressing and said that it preferred a Lord Chancellor to deal personally with judicial appointments.

Frankly, I can see the necessary corrective mechanism that I have mentioned coming only from the Secretary of State having the discretion to initiate candidates before the commission and to choose between names advanced by the commission for appointment. Of course, there is a fear that ministerial discretion will give rise to political interference, so undermining judicial independence, but the current mechanisms for accountability, including the media, are strong enough to ensure that that does not occur.

Thirdly, in any event, there needs to be ministerial discretion in appointments if legitimacy is to be maintained. Unless there is some political involvement in appointments, we politicians will, at the very least, have fewer inhibitions in relation to criticising the judiciary. So, somewhat ironically, I am at one on this issue with Judge—formerly Professor—Posner of the United States, who argues that political involvement in the appointment process protects the tenure of judges during their judicial life.

Let me turn to the public sector and how it pursues the philosophical aims of social justice and strengthening civil society. The public sector has an important regulatory role in pursuing social justice. I am pleased that the employment relations Bill will make it illegal for employers to offer financial inducements to exclude individuals from the fruits of collective bargaining. I welcome, too, the company law Bill, which will strengthen the investigatory powers of Department of Trade and Industry inspectors when they are inquiring into corporate wrongdoing. I am especially pleased that the Bill will provide potential whistleblowers with legal protection from accusations of breach of confidence.

I also welcome the Bill that will encourage employers to provide good occupational pension schemes and establish a protection fund to safeguard employees when those employers fail. My hon. Friends the Members for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase) and for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) have already mentioned that. Unfortunately, the measure will not be retrospective, so it will leave high and dry a number of my constituents who have contributed faithfully to occupational pension funds for up to 30 years and have received nothing, but who find that the directors of the failed companies have protected their own pension rights. The Government have to address that serious problem.

The hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) mentioned the corporate manslaughter Bill, which has been promised many times and which must be one of the other measures to be laid before us. Perhaps my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench need to say, perhaps in a modified version of the Book of Common Prayer, "Lord, let me know the number of my days, that I may be certified how long I have to legislate." We promised such a Bill in 1997.

The public services also have an important role in providing universal services, which can have an ameliorative effect on social inequalities and provide a foundation for a strengthened sense of community. In the last few days, the No. 10 strategy unit has published a detailed document that demonstrates that substantial and significant progress has been made as a result of the investment and administrative changes made by the Government over the past six years. That refutes the points made by various Opposition Members. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister set out a number of the achievements.

The strategy unit document mentions steady improvements in education results—in reading, maths and science—and in health outcomes, such as the 19 per cent. reduction in cardiac deaths and the 9 per cent. reduction in cancer deaths since 1997. Crime, too, is down a quarter, in part reflecting investment in law enforcement. Many of those improvements in the impact of public services result from spending power and administrative changes that are only tangentially reflected in legislation.

In that context, let me say something about the proposed Bill to allow universities to levy higher tuition fees. Last week, I received my copy of the newsletter, "Harvard Law Today", which announced that the current Harvard law school general fund-raising campaign launched in June this year has already clocked up $170 million. The programme is designed to raise $400 million in the next year, and I am sure that that will be achieved. That is but a small part of the enormous funds available to Harvard law school, which is one part of one American university. Our universities cannot compete with that sort of money, which buys brains and facilities.

We need more money to be invested in our universities, and the only way to do that is to charge those who are able to pay for their university education. That is socially equitable. The great majority of my constituents do not have a university education and are on incomes below the national average. Historically, they have subsidised the better-off elsewhere to go to university. It makes sense for different universities to charge different fees for different courses, and for universities to be able to charge different amounts. That would reflect both the cost of different courses and the returns to students from those different courses in different universities. The Government's proposals are consistent with social justice since students pay only on graduation, when they receive the financial benefits of their qualifications. Moreover, their payments will be linked to earnings. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills has patiently developed a fair and practical deferred fee system. The yellow brick roads of the Opposition parties are precisely that: roads to fantasy lands.

Finally, let me to turn to the advancement of individual opportunity and rights, as set out in the Queen's Speech. The child trust fund will have an initial endowment, with a higher amount for poorer children, so, as the Queen's Speech states, children will have an asset to draw on when they reach the age of 18. I support that innovative idea. I am pleased that there will be a Bill to introduce a new form of company designed especially for social enterprise and the not-for-profit sector—an important and thriving sector of our economy. Many of those enterprises pursue important social and environmental objectives, but to be successful, we must ensure that the details of the model set out in the Bill will be sufficiently attractive to encourage social enterprises to use that new structure rather than other options.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche) mentioned the proposals on domestic violence. I applaud the proposal to appoint a children's commissioner in England. Moreover, the victims Bill will create a commissioner to champion the rights of victims and witnesses. That is especially welcome to those of us who want the criminal justice system to be reoriented in favour of those who actually suffer at the hand of defendants, while not trenching on defendants' rights.

I want to say something about the proposed Bill to deal with the rights of the disabled. I am honorary president of the Blue Badge Network, which safeguards the concessionary parking permit for people with disabilities. Its head office is based in Dudley. The blue badge scheme is vital for the mobility of more than 2 million people who qualify for it. It allows those with disabilities to shop, visit friends and family and so on, but it is open to abuse, often by able-bodied motorists. It has been estimated that about 700,000 fraudulent abuses of the badge take place each year. Badges are copied, borrowed, stolen or sold on the black market, so places are used by able-bodied people. That devalues and discredits the scheme in the eyes of the public, so harming the people whom it was designed to help. I therefore hope that the draft disability discrimination Bill will include legislative measures, which the Government have promised, designed to remedy that problem, such as giving powers for police officers, traffic wardens and parking attendants to check the details of a badge and providing for penalty notices to be issued to vehicle owners who park in spaces designated for badge holders.

I turn to the civil partnership Bill. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green for her contribution when she was in government and to the work of Lord Lester. This issue has been subject to extensive consultation, and I am not sure what numerical weight can be attached to the responses, as there were orchestrated campaigns both for and against the proposals. It is important to state what the Bill will not do. It will not create a form of gay marriage. Instead, it will sensibly set out the rights and responsibilities that will flow when same-sex couples register their relationships. They include, for example, rights to welfare benefits, parental responsibility and what happens to benefits and property following the death of one of the individuals involved.

My puzzle, however, is that the Bill will not extend to opposite-sex couples. It is not enough to say that opposite-sex couples can attain legal rights and status for their relationships through marriage when the statistics clearly demonstrate that many opposite-sex couples cohabit but choose not to marry. Moreover. it seems that some unmarried opposite-sex couples are still

under the mistaken belief that they have a legally recognized status as common law husband and wife.

The courts have done their best to grapple with the consequences of such cohabitation when there is a breakdown of the relationship or the death of one of the partners and the other party is left financially vulnerable or unable to claim ownership of the property to which they both contributed in the course of the relationship. It is high time that this problem was addressed. When the Law Commission examined the issue a couple of years ago, it identified the registration of civil partnerships as a way forward—precisely what this Bill would confine to same-sex relationships.

Tom Levitt

Perhaps the issue is not whether heterosexual couples should be able to have the equivalent to civil registration. The Bill will say that no couple—whether heterosexual or homosexual—will have the right to civil partnership unless the partnership is registered. It will be registered either through marriage in the case of a heterosexual partnership or through civil registration in a same-sex partnership. Those who have not registered—whether they are heterosexual or homosexual—will not receive the benefits of the partnership, so it is clear that the Bill will give equivalence to the two situations in that respect.

Ross Cranston

I hear what my hon. Friend says, but many heterosexual couples choose not to marry. Women often contribute significantly to the property but find that, when the property is registered in the man's name, they have no access to it on the break-up of the relationship or on the death of the man. There is a definite problem there.

Let me return to the strategy unit audit, which has just been published. As well as setting out the achievements, it lays bare the fact that much more has to be done. With human capital, for example, our top quarter of school children are world class, but there is still a long tail of under-achievement. We have a strong science base, but investment in research and development has fallen in recent decades. Substantial progress has been made in tackling poverty, reducing social exclusion and rebuilding a sense of community, but persistent poverty remains and it is associated with the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in Europe.

The Sure Start programme operates in the Kates Hill and Sledmere areas in my constituency, and I support it wholeheartedly. However, it should be extended more widely, and it could operate successfully in deprived wards in Dudley, North such as the Castle and Priory ward. The strategy unit audit sets out the very clear evidence of the high returns and cost effectiveness of targeted investment in children—such as provided by Sure Start—in increasing education attainments and reducing crime.

Mr. Miller

My hon. and learned Friend makes a very good point about the way in which the Sure Start boundaries were set up. Is he aware that, under the new legislation for children's centres, there is much more local flexibility to allow for tweaking the boundaries to suit local demographics?

Ross Cranston

The ward that I mentioned will benefit, to some extent, from that. However, the people there would very much like Sure Start—I appreciate their concerns—to operate in full-blown form.

The Queen's Speech is one more brick for building a more socially just and inclusive society. As I have suggested, it is not sans crack or flaw but, on the whole, the constitutional proposals are an attempt to mould venerated and successful institutions to modern demands. The regulatory proposals recognise the reality that rewards from the market alone must be modified to achieve social justice. The proposals for the collective provision of public services not only pursue this social justice goal, but contribute to a strengthened sense of community, and the proposals for enhancing individual rights guarantee greater opportunity for all. I support the speech.

6.55 pm
Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con)

Although I did not agree with everything that the hon. and learned Member for Dudley, North (Ross Cranston) said, he spoke with great authority about legal matters. However, his colleagues on the Government's Whips Bench might be more interested in the fact that he is the first Labour Member apart from the Prime Minister who has said that he will support top-up fees. We look forward to that.

Tom Levitt

I will be the second.

Mr. Robathan

The hon. Gentleman will be the second.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), the hon. and learned Gentleman spoke about corporate manslaughter and the fact that a Bill was promised in 1997. I should like to develop that theme, because there was tremendous enthusiasm among Labour Members in 1997 that was matched by a certain unhappiness on our side after the election that year. We all remember, "Things can only get better", but we are now six and a half years on and the hon. Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall) said that there was so much to do, so far to go. However, we should rely on the experience of our electors—be they in Dudley, North or Blaby or wherever. After six and a half years, the Prime Minister seems detached from the experience of my electorate. He suggested that everything was getting better, but that is not what I hear from my electors.

The speech and this legislative programme show that the Government have lost their way. I understand that there will be 30 Bills altogether, and the Gracious Speech says that the

Government is committed to improving the quality of people's day to day lives. It is difficult to get a comment much more trite than that. The Government are failing to deliver.

The Prime Minister said that he was achieving much in the national health service, and it is true that a lot of money has gone into it and that some things are certainly better. I do not deny that, but let me give an example from my constituency. In September 1999, the Prime Minister said that, by September 2001, everybody would be able to get an NHS dentist. That was a clear promise that everybody would be able to get an NHS dentist within two years. I cannot, my family cannot and nor can any of my constituents around Lutterworth and Broughton Astley under the South Leicestershire primary care trust. Two years after the promise was meant to be delivered, it has not been delivered. That is the experience of many of my electorate.

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con)

It is all jaw.

Mr. Robathan

It is.

Leicestershire is the worst-funded education authority in the country. I accept that one authority has to be, but I have received letters from people who I am almost certain voted Labour at the last election and from head teachers and others who say that they heard much about "education, education, education", but it all turned out to be worthless. They make the points that more money has gone in, that money has been ring-fenced and that classrooms have been built. But I was shown a classroom by a head teacher and governors who I know are not Conservatives, and they said, "There is the brand-new classroom but, unfortunately, because of the education funding this year, we cannot put a teacher in it." The Prime Minister's speech was full of assertions that did not reflect the experience of our constituents.

Much of the Gracious Speech is about putting right the Government's earlier mistakes. There will be another Bill on asylum and immigration but, in 1997, the asylum situation was improving and the number of asylum seekers was falling dramatically. Under my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), firm measures had been introduced to deter economic migrants from claiming asylum but currently about 200,000 illegal immigrants enter this country each year.

I think that we have a fine tradition of accepting refugees in this country—they have included the parents of my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition—when they have feared repression. The statistics from the Government's own courts tell us that the majority of people who come to this country are not asylum seekers, but economic migrants who understandably want to better themselves. If about 200,000 people a year are entering the country—and the numbers are increasing—by a fairly simple equation, about 2 million such people will enter in a decade, and we will have to build two cities approaching the size of Birmingham to accommodate them.

I receive letters daily about congestion on our roads and the failing transport system, as well as the education system, hospitals and waiting lists. If we are taking on 2 million extra people in a decade, we must consider the implications. When the Home Secretary says that he envisages no limit on the number of new immigrants, we should all discuss the matter in a grown-up way, without accusations of racism, and talk about what we want from migration and who should be allowed to come to this country.

On my second point, the Government are again turning to an issue that they have made worse and trying to fix their own problems. I have yet to see the details of the so-called pension protection fund, which may be welcome. Other hon. Members have mentioned the genuine issue that arises when companies go into liquidation and the last people to benefit are the poor

pensioners, who may have worked for that company for 40 years. That is a disgrace. None the less, the Chancellor is also culpable. Since 1997, he has taken £5 billion a year out of pension funds through the abolition of advance corporation tax. More than £30 billion has been taken out of private pension funds. He cannot say, "It's got nothing to do with me, guv", because it has a hell of a lot to do with him. The crisis—it has now been admitted that there is a crisis—has partly been caused by the Government. Indeed, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury, who spoke about how the state pension and credits, which are apparently so marvellous, are eaten away by other tax increases. In particular, he mentioned the council tax increase, which is eating away at a £15 state pension increase and leaving a £2 monthly increase.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD)

Abolish it.

Mr. Robathan

I hear from the Liberal Democrat Benches that we should abolish the state pension. I suspect that that was meant as a joke, so I shall treat it as such—and I should like to put that on the record.

Sir Robert Smith

I meant the council tax.

Mr. Robathan


Mention is also made of a Bill to retain the current number of Members of the Scottish Parliament. The reason is that all MSPs want such a measure, as they have got their jobs and voted themselves a pay increase, and they now like the idea. However, we were promised in the devolution settlement that when the number of Westminster MPs was reduced, the number of MSPs would he reduced as well. Personally, I think that there are far too many politicians, and I would reduce the number of politicians in the House of Commons. I would not, as a turkey, vote for my own Christmas, but we should own up to the fact that there are too many MPs and reduce the number gradually to, say, 500 or 400. The people of Britain would appreciate such action as a statement from us. The process could be relatively painless for individuals. However, the matter is not mentioned in the Queen's Speech, so I shall not go too far down that road.

Patrick Mercer

There should be fewer MPs in Leicester.

Mr. Robathan

It is as my hon. Friend says, and there should certainly be fewer around Newark as well.

The Queen's Speech also talks about implementation of the Criminal Justice Act 2003. Of course, the Prime Minister tells us that all is well in criminal justice, but that is not the experience of people on the streets of Blaby, London, Newcastle or wherever, who have seen a rise in violent crime and a dramatic rise in gun crime, and who are becoming more and more frightened.

There will be another Bill to establish a supreme court. That is an issue of the Government's own making, as most lawyers, including the Law Lords and others, and most people in the street, are not worried about the higher judiciary. They are not fed up with the Lord Chancellor and will not necessarily even understand the issue. Perhaps the system could do with improving, but it has worked relatively well, and I see no likelihood that a supreme court will make things better.

Yet again, there is so-called reform of the House of Lords. The Opposition said in 1999 that the matter should be sorted out at once and that we should introduce proper reform, but the Government went ahead with phase 1. We asked what phase 2 would be, and we now know: it will be to get rid of the remaining hereditaries, and that will be it, as the rest will all be appointed. I voted for an elected House of Lords. Since we are changing these things, we should have a proper, elected, Senate-type organisation. As Labour Members know, we will end up with a bunch of Tony's cronies. I do not think that that is desirable in any circumstances. What was working relatively well is working less well. In my opinion, it will work even less well after getting rid of the remaining hereditaries. I shall not die in a ditch for the remaining hereditaries, although they contribute well to what happens in the House of Lords, and I pay tribute to them for it. None the less, if we are to have a second chamber, I think that we need to work out what sort of chamber it should be. It is no good the Government saying "It's got nothing to do with us; we'll just get rid of the hereditaries." We need a proper revising chamber and we should sort out how we wish it to be.

Various hon. Members referred to the child trust fund and said what a marvellous idea it is. I do not think that putting £250 in a fund for 18 years is that good an idea. As has been pointed out, it is the middle classes that will benefit. It is people such as me and other hon. Members who will understand how to operate the system and benefit from it. Things should be made a great deal easier. We should encourage a savings culture—something that the Government have not done by introducing means-testing—and not pile on yet further bureaucracy in respect of the child trust fund, which is an easy gimmick, but will not be popular. I understand that the fund will almost certainly come into operation the month before the next general election. Of course, it is cynical of me even to imagine that those two facts might be related.

I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) is present because we are also to have a defence White Paper that may lead, we understand, to the abolition of a further 10 infantry battalions or certainly a reduction in infantry numbers. I find that staggering when British troops are hugely overstretched. Today, while we sit here in the House of Commons, troops who have been deployed in Iraq are risking their lives for British interests. If it is true that there is to be such a reduction, it is a great worry.

I also noticed that this statement had been snuck away at the end of the Gracious Speech: A Bill will be introduced to give enabling powers to bring in new pension and compensation arrangements for the armed forces. I hope that that has sent a shiver down the spine of every serving member of the armed forces. We already know what it is likely to mean to a certain extent—less good pensions. I declare an interest because, like my hon. Friend the Member for Newark, I receive an armed forces pension. It is not great, but when I was serving and stuck in some dump for six months, living in a tent or a hole in the ground, I knew that, although I might not be earning a great deal, I was running up a decent pension. [Interruption.] Believe me, I have spent six months living in some very strange places, but I shall not name them for fear of offending their inhabitants.

The Government are kicking loyal and brave public servants in the teeth. The Prime Minister has called upon them in Sierra Leone, Kosovo and elsewhere, and they are even now risking their lives in Iraq, where some have died. The fact that the Government are kicking those brave public servants in the teeth shows how undervalued they are by the Prime Minister.

I think that it was the Prime Minister himself who described the European constitution as a tidying-up measure, but it is probably the most significant measure that will be introduced during my time in Parliament and it will dramatically change the constitution of this country. Is it the end of the nation state? I do not know. On the continent, many people believe so and think that it seals a federal nation and union, which is what they want. The British people do not want legislation to implement the treaty, as mentioned in the Gracious Speech; they want the chance to vote on the treaty. The Foreign Secretary said at the weekend that we may veto the treaty. Few people know what it introduces, and I believe that we should hold a serious, grown-up, public debate on the provisions on defence and tax harmonisation and all other aspects and allow the people to vote in a referendum on how they want their country to be governed in the long term.

The Queen's Speech also mentions legislation for a referendum on the single currency. Why? The Prime Minister does not intend to hold a referendum at the moment because he knows full well that he would lose. When we witness France and Germany tearing up the stability pact, as they did yesterday, the eurozone hardly appears an attractive option. Indeed, the Chancellor of the Exchequer views it as unattractive.

Other hon. Members, especially Labour Members, have spoken about top-up fees and their opposition to them. Again, we need a more sensible discussion about funding higher education. When 40 per cent. of students drop out of some courses before the end, we need to consider the matter closely.

What is not in the Queen's Speech? Hunting is not included, except where Her Majesty had a slight trip and talked about the national hunt service. The newspapers report that Back Benchers were offered a bribe to compel—I should say, "encourage"—them to vote for foundation hospitals. We should know whether that is true. We also need to know the Government's position on the matter. Outside the House, there is no appetite for such a mean-minded and chippy measure, which, we now discover, may infringe the Human Rights Act 1998 if we do not offer compensation.

The Government need to deliver for the British people on law and order, on education, on health, and on delivering less bureaucracy, form-filling and regulation for business instead of delivering on the class envy of some Labour Back Benchers.

The Queen's Speech does not mention reform of the common agricultural policy. A so-called mid-term review has taken place. I declare an interest because I speak as a farmer who received an integrated administration and control scheme cheque last week. The CAP is complete nonsense. The current reforms do not go nearly far enough, and it should be scrapped.

I support some items in the Queen's Speech. For example, I support encouragement for renewables in the energy Bill, working against the AIDS pandemic and rebuilding Afghanistan and Iraq. The speech states that the Government

will work to strengthen the United Nations". I hope that they will do more than that and work for full-scale reform. Although the UN remains the best show in town, I regret to say that it is increasingly becoming a bloated bureaucracy, which does not achieve what we wish.

The Queen's Speech mentions development. I hope that the Government will move away from saying that the New Partnership for Africa's Development is a great thing. Most people realise that it is a fig leaf and an offering from some corrupt African leaders to the west to suggest that they will put their house in order. Actions speak louder than words—that will become apparent as matters develop. I trust that the Government will pile the pressure on Zimbabwe at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, raise the matter at the UN Security Council, push South Africa further and take away President Mugabe's knighthood. The previous Conservative Government gave it to him in 1994, to little opposition from Labour Members. However, it is time we recognised that he is an evil tyrant to whom we should give no credence.

The speech is without a theme.

Mr. Miller

The hon. Gentleman is self-deprecating.

Mr. Robathan

How kind of the hon. Gentleman.

The Gracious Speech is without a theme. Labour Members know that the Government have lost their way. They return to hear about another Bill on asylum and immigration. It is tiresome when the same subjects appear time and again. It was evident in the faces of Labour Back Benchers who listened to the Prime Minister that they believe that the Government have lost their way. What about the office for fair access? Surely we all believe in university places on merit. That measure will not even placate class warriors. The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase) called for a return to Labour values.

The Gracious Speech disappointed Labour Members. We shall oppose it, as the new Leader of the Opposition said in an excellent speech. It presents a dog's dinner of a legislative programme. The Government know it, as do the people of Britain.

7.14 pm
Jon Trickett (Hemsworth) (Lab)

I disagree with the claim of the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) that the contents of the Queen's Speech will not make a difference to people's lives. I shall try to show why I believe that in some of my later comments.

Like hon. Members from all parties, I am disturbed by the current political situation. It was deeply troubling that some detachment of the people from the political process was clear at the previous election—turnout was deplorably low. It is clear to many of us that the detachment continues and will eventually pose a danger to democracy. Like other hon. Members, in the summer recess I made a huge effort to contact as many people as possible. I visited every house in several villages in my area. Two reflections that are relevant to the Queen's Speech emerged from that.

First, poverty remains deep, acute and chronic in the Yorkshire coalfield area that I represent. It is profound—severe poverty exists there—and it is chronic because it affects tens of thousands of households in contiguous wards. For example, four adjacent wards are in the bottom decile of wards throughout the country—they are therefore among the worst 10 per cent. One would expect the mining legacy to prove especially difficult for health, and we have serious problems. Health indices reveal three wards that are in the worst 5 per cent. for problems. We do not only have old men dying from lung disease; shockingly, cancer rates among young women are high in my constituency. Most depressing, suicide rates among males aged 18 to 25 are high. We live in troubling times.

Secondly, there are signs that the Government and their programmes have made a difference. Some areas are imprinted on my mind from my first visit to the constituency in my by-election campaign in 1996. The effects of changes are beginning to be clearly felt. However, the beneficiaries of the Government's programmes frequently do not recognise that a Labour Government introduced the changes. The welfare benefits programme, the tax reforms, the tax on benefit changes and introducing people, whom the Tories had thrown on the scrap heap, back to work are frequently not recognised as Labour initiatives. The combination of the two points—the continuing decline of some coalfield areas and many working class people not recognising reforms as those of a Labour Government—reinforces detachment. I am deeply troubled, in a supposedly safe Labour seat, by the extent of disaffection with the political process and institutions.

The Queen's Speech reflects the Labour Government's strengths and weaknesses, but if we are not careful we will reproduce the conditions that I have described. The Queen's Speech clearly contains measures that are intended to help people in my constituency. For example, the trusts for newborn children will make a huge difference. I stress that to Conservative Members, who appear to have several sources of income. The sum of £250—£500 for the poorest—for each newborn child will make a difference when that child enters adulthood.

Mr. Robathan

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Jon Trickett

I would rather not give way now, as I am trying to develop a theme.

The housing bill will also make a difference. The housing market in former pit villages in my constituency has collapsed, and people in rented housing are migrating. The villages are imploding. They are dying before our eyes, and we are being left with ghost villages Part of the problem is private landlordism. Responsible landlords are doing a fantastic job in my area, but too many are not responsible and tolerate antisocial— sometimes criminal—behaviour by tenants provided that there is a cheque at the end of the month. There is usually a cheque from the state as well, incidentally—from the Department for Work and Pensions.

Decent people can leave the villages because they are in rented accommodation. It is then impossible to move anyone else into the properties involved, and a rapid process of collapse ensues. The pattern will be familiar to hon. Members representing areas in the M62 corridor generally, not just mining areas. It can be observed in Burnley and in other parts of Lancashire. Provided that the details are right, the housing Bill will make a real difference by allowing local authorities to license landlords, with the not-so-hidden threat of revoking the licence if they do not deal with nuisances committed by tenants. I look forward to working on the Bill.

The proposed employment legislation will also help. We have already seen the difference made by allowing people with difficult employers to face them in the company of a trade union or other representative. The legislation will be particularly helpful in areas where employers use agency and temporary labour as devices. Indeed, the Government's legislation has already made a difference. A senior trade unionist in Yorkshire told me only yesterday that many employers had adopted a much more civilised partnership approach.

The problems experienced by my constituents, many of which I think the Government's proposals will address, lie not with existing legislation but with the way in which the Government articulate their case. Their role is being reduced to that of technocratic managers. They are managing the system well, and introducing legislation that we want—legislation that produces equity, equality and social justice. However, they do not always argue their case, and they do not always connect with those whom we aim to represent and whose lives we want to improve.

We must abandon the managerial vocabulary and adopt the vocabulary of values, equality and even redistribution—not for reasons of jealousy, as suggested by the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan), but for the sake of equity and a fairer, more decent society. I think that the Government have been afraid to tackle what they perceive as a conservative—with a small "c"—political culture. We have introduced legislation in an attempt to solve problems left by the Tories, but we have done so in a technocratic rather than a value-driven way. That has been a mistake. It has resulted in the kind of behaviour that I described earlier: people who are benefiting from the Government's initiatives are not connecting that with the election of a Labour Administration, which I find deeply troubling.

Other parts of the Queen's Speech trouble me even more, because I think we have simply got it wrong, or are in danger of getting it wrong. Higher education is one example. Education is probably the only key to social mobility and to a breaking down of the ossified class structures that still exist.

Like many others who have spoken today, I can say that mine was the first generation to go to university, in my family and in my community. Going to university provided me with a fabulous opportunity. Many of my friends, neighbours and members of my family could not do the same—not because, in those days, they would incur debts, but because they had to go to work in order to contribute an income to the household. That pressure continues, but is exacerbated by the fact that the departure of a family member at the age of 16 or 18 now represents not just the loss of an income, but the incurring of a debt. We must not underestimate the effect that the thought of large-scale debt can have on poor and working-class families. I am deeply troubled by the incurring of debt by students, which I believe will reinforce the present social composition of university entrants.

The Government have a strong argument for enhancing entry to higher education. As I said earlier, we have allowed ourselves to fall into the trap of engaging in a managerial or technocratic debate on a funding crisis without first engaging the nation in a debate about why higher education constitutes a tool for social change and a modernised Britain. Had we tackled the latter debate first, we could have created the conditions for a sensible, mature discussion about finance.

The proposed planning Bill interests me. As I have said, my area is in desperate need of further regeneration. All too frequently, planning applications decided on by local authorities are called in by the Secretary of State, often for mysterious reasons. In fact, that is nearly always done by civil servants, with no political control. I hope that the Bill will return control to local level. In my constituency, for instance, a retail development is proposed. I know of no institution in the area that opposed the application, which, after some debate, was approved by the planning authority. The proposal is a purely local matter, relating to a town centre rather than an out-of-town area. There is high unemployment in the town, which is in danger of dying altogether. It is impossible to discover why the application was called in. If the planning Bill will enable us to regain control of what happens in our communities, it is a good thing.

I spoke earlier of the bridge between institutions and Government on one side and the people on the other. I believe that at the core of any political reform should be a closing of the gap between us and the electorate. House of Lords reform is desirable in that it will abolish the hereditary principle once and for all, and also bring about much-needed change in the role of the Lord Chancellor; but we shall be left with a House that will depend on patronage and appointments. We shall have a complex bicameral system, involving both an elected Chamber and a non-elected, appointed one. That is not an easy principle to argue with the population. I think that we will lose them, which will not at all help to make government more simple, and the House of Lords will believe itself to have a legitimacy that it did not have when it had an hereditary principle within it. In fact, the process of government will be made more complicated. At the same time, the proposals will not appeal to the electorate, who will not understand how we have produced such a complex, unresponsive and unaccountable second Chamber. I am troubled about that, although I am broadly happy to go along in the direction in which we are proceeding. I only hope that, if this is the second phase, very soon there will he a third, which creates a more legitimate upper House.

My final point is on asylum. Like many Members, my early ancestors were victims of anti-Jewish pogroms in imperial Russia. They set off on the long trek to America. Some got as far as Leeds, some got to Manchester and some reached Liverpool. The others finally got to the United States. My family remained in Leeds because there was an elderly relative there to be cared for. The city of Leeds, which is my native city, has had wave after wave after wave of immigrants and asylum seekers. They are part of my composition, and I believe that I represent this mongrel nation in my ethnic make-up.

I yield to nobody in taking a tough line on bogus asylum seekers, but my stomach turned when I heard the spin that was on the radio the other morning—we are going to separate families and take children into care. That is not something I could warrant. I hope that that was spin by some over-enthusiastic youngster who will be reprimanded in No. 10 or elsewhere. If such a proposal comes before the House, I would have the greatest difficulty in supporting it.

With those reflections, I believe that the Queen's Speech achieves a great deal for my constituency, although the Government need to articulate their case in a different way. They need to move away from managerialism and to look again at one or two of their proposals, which are either inhumane or will reproduce the iniquities that already exist in British society.

7.32 pm
Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD)

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to take part in the debate on the Queen's Speech. Before discussing the Queen's Speech, I want to reinforce what Mr. Speaker said in the statement he made before we dealt with the Sessional Orders.

There is a report on the Table from the Procedure Committee that, I hope, will enable us to see a way forward that would make it easier for Mr. Speaker to start the Session of Parliament in a way that allows slightly more access for the watching public. It occurred to me that when Committees of the House publish such reports for the House's benefit, perhaps we should alert people to their existence by means other than the traditional ones, as quite a few colleagues did not know of the existence of the Procedure Committee report. As a plug, I should say that the Procedure Committee report on proceedings, the way in which debates are handled and related issues comes out tomorrow. Members might want to have a look at it.

I want to touch on aspects of the Queen's Speech that affect my constituency as well as issues raised with me by constituents. The first is the proposed legislation on occupational pensions and the guarantee that will be introduced to protect people in the future. Other Members have spoken about the pension issue and the problems for pensioners in certain schemes, but the biggest victims at the moment are those coming up to retirement, who have trusted in a scheme and put their money into it only for it to go bust at the last minute. They are the last in the queue and the greatest victims of anything that goes wrong. While it would obviously be welcome to have some underpinning and protection for the future, I am concerned that during the passage of the legislation we find a way to deal with current victims of schemes that have gone bust, leaving them high and dry.

I understand where the civil contingencies legislation is coming from and the concern to address the threats that society lives with, but I hope that we do not develop a fortress mentality as the legislation progresses. At the weekend, people were talking about trying to defend all the iconic buildings in London to the same extent as the American embassy is defended, but I do not think that the British public would want to see such protection in our country. I should like to see much more intelligence-based and much more sensitive policing and reaction to the threats that we face.

Members should compare the protection needed to bring our Head of State to this Parliament to open it and that which the American Head of State had to have to come through our streets. On the whole, this country would prefer to stick with the British style of doing those things.

Phase 2 of House of Lords reform has already been touched on. Quite honestly, it is not phase 2. We were promised a two-stage process.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op)

It is phase one and a half.

Sir Robert Smith

It may be half a stage, or even a backward step. Unless the Government are going to come up with the proper final package, we should carry on with the House of Lords that we have until we see something tangible that takes us forward into the 21st century.

On the plus side of involving the public, a draft Bill is to be produced for the euro referendum. Obviously the Government have not gone far in taking this country towards joining the euro, but the benefit of making some progress is that it at least sends the market and those who are thinking of investing in this country because they still see a long-term chance of it taking a step towards euro membership a signal that the debate is still going on.

The longer we wait, however, the more we will adapt our economy to living outside the eurozone and the less easy it will be for us to join the euro. I was talking to some large manufacturers, who were concerned that their investment for the European market would have to shift to mainland Europe and into the eurozone. To get round that, although they are outside the eurozone here, they are sourcing all their supplies in euros, so either suppliers in this country have to take the currency risk or suppliers inside the eurozone have an advantage over the domestic supply. It is extremely important that the Government take the matter forward.

The Government have finally made proposals, it would appear, to take forward the energy White Paper, which is welcome. If they take forward the opening up of Scotland's electricity market, that, too, will be welcome. The Trade and Industry Committee has been considering draft clauses of a Bill in respect of the British electricity trading and transmission arrangements, but the Government will still have to address anomalies in the different transmission systems in Scotland and England and ensure that small generators are not penalised for trying to connect to the network.

The Government finally recognise the need to deal with the huge liabilities of the nuclear industry, but I am disappointed that they are not willing to go the whole hog and establish a segregated fund for those liabilities. Instead, they have opted for a segregated account, but the worry is that future Governments could raid that account. Perhaps the proposal for a separate fund can be addressed when the energy Bill goes through the House.

I hope that the energy Bill will be sufficiently widely drawn that it will deal with other concerns raised by my constituents about renewable energies and alternatives. On Monday, I was looking at proposals for a district heating scheme in Braemar that would rely on wood fuel as its source of heat. A lot of hard work has gone into the scheme, but there is frustration that the incentives for biomass and renewables do not apply to wood taken from the thinning of forestry.

It is important that the Government readdress that to try to get the balance right. In the same way as nuclear power was the cuckoo in the nest that took all the money for alternative energy sources, there is a worry that wind power is so far ahead that it will become the cuckoo in the nest that holds back other alternative renewable sources of generation. I hope that the energy Bill will propose ways of levelling the playing field to encourage other long-term alternative energy sources. The United Kingdom has plenty of coastline, so we could take advantage of tidal stream energy. If we could crack that, it would be a reliable and predictable source of energy.

If the timber from the thinning of forests were counted towards renewable supply, it would have the double benefit of encouraging people to manage their forests better. If the next generation are to get the best productivity, many of our forests need to thinned now. The market for that timber is so bad that people are neglecting the management of their forests.

The Government give renewable incentives only to renewable electricity, but heat from other renewables instead of carbon fuels is equally beneficial in tackling global warming. I hope that the energy Bill will be amended to deal with that issue.

The hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) referred to the size of the Scottish Parliament. I welcome the recognition that the Scottish Parliament is there to serve the people of Scotland, and should be of a size that best enables it to fulfil that function. Its size should not, as the Prime Minister wanted, be dictated by the number of MPs at Westminster. We welcome the reduction in the number of MPs at Westminster in recognition of devolution to Scotland. Like the hon. Gentleman, I would go further and would contend that, as we make constitutional changes, we could reduce the size of this Parliament as well.

The size of the Scottish Parliament should be dictated by its needs—its Committee structure and the structure of the Executive—and what the Scottish electorate want from it. I hope that the legislation to deal with the size of the Scottish Parliament will allow us also to consider the method of election to it. There is a desire to move to a system that gives more power to the electorate and reduces the power of the parties. It should also make all Members of the Scottish Parliament equal. There has been some concern that the list system has produced two types of MSPs: one for the constituency and one for the list, and those on the list sometimes tread on the toes of those for the constituency. A switch to a single transferable vote system would be extremely attractive.

Mr. Love

The hon. Gentleman should not hold his breath.

Sir Robert Smith

Well, there is a groundswell of opinion. It appears that we will have a single transferable vote system for local government. That Bill has been introduced in the Scottish Parliament, and I think that the electorate will be attracted by a similar system for the Parliament that represents them in Edinburgh.

The Gracious Speech refers to the draft constitutional treaty for the European Union and to legislation to implement the treaty. I hope that the Government will finally wake up to the fact that, if the treaty still contains constitutional changes, its implementation should involve the British public in a referendum. That would have several benefits. It would enable us to have a debate in the country about our relationship with Europe. It would focus people's minds, and we could decide where we want to be in Europe.

A referendum would also strengthen the Government's negotiating arm. It is always handy to be able to say, "I understand where you're coming from, but I have people back home whom I have to convince." The Prime Minister wants to draw a red line on certain aspects of the constitution, and a referendum would be beneficial to him in his negotiations.

I declare an interest, which is in the Register of Members' Interests, in oil and gas exploration. I want to highlight the concern of many of my constituents about future investment in the North sea. They are worried that the current drafting of the European constitution contains a chapter on energy that holds the door open for the European Commission to get involved in the licensing regime in the North sea. The constitution has been broadly drafted and it needs to be amended. At this late stage, the Government seem to have woken up to the need to amend it, and it is now important that they show the resolve to achieve that amendment in negotiations and not to use it as something to be negotiated away in order to gain other benefits.

The Commission claims to have no interest in the North sea in the short term. However, if the treaty is not amended and a future Commission realises that it has powers that it did not have before, or if the European Court says that the Commission has the power to intervene and the Commission does so, it will upset the arrangements that have attracted investors. No amount of reassurance that the Commission will not use that power will protect investors from that uncertainty. We saw what happened when the Chancellor changed the tax regime in the North sea. It was not just the change that frightened investors, but the fact that he showed that things could suddenly change. Investors need some certainty, and they welcome the fact that the Foreign Office will tomorrow meet an all-party delegation to discuss the clauses in the energy chapter. We must ensure that the Government remain robust.

The media have focused on the Bills in the Queen's Speech. The Government might be introducing too many measures, and we need time to scrutinise them effectively, but government is about not just producing Bills but executive action, the day-to-day workings of government and the delivery of government functions. At the end of the Queen's Speech are more fundamental aspects that will affect our constituents, such as security and the international climate, the threat of terrorism throughout the world, and the work of this country in promoting peace in the middle east. There is a commitment that the defence White Paper will finally be published. There is concern in many quarters about the future of our regiments. I hope that the White Paper will end the uncertainty, and that regiments such as the Highlanders will be able to continue to recruit. We must get the message to young people that they could have a long-term career in the Army.

Mechanisation and automation of the battle stage of conflict is increasing. As a result of the military's investment in equipment, the Army may need fewer troops at that stage. However, given the need for a flexible response to an uncertain world and for the policing that follows military operations, it is people on the ground who are important, and this country can be proud of the professionalism and the quality of its military personnel. They offer the rest of the world a shining example of how to police such situations. They need to maintain numbers, and it would be dangerous for the White Paper to recommend any reduction in the size of the Army. I hope that we can get the message across to young people in our constituencies that there is a future and a career to be had in the Army.

Many of my constituents lobbied hard for the reduction of debt in the Jubilee Debt Campaign. They want the millennium development goals to be achieved, and the commitment in the Queen's Speech to be translated into action. They also lobbied hard on the issue of fair trade. I still have reservations about Cancun. I am not sure what is the best outcome. The worry is that the breakdown of the talks in Cancun may have been seen as a victory for the smaller nations, but if it means that the United States of America is more likely to walk away from international engagement and go for bilateral deals, some of the poorest nations will suffer. We must get trade negotiations back on to an international footing.

The Government will have to work hard in that respect, because the USA may abandon the multilateral approach, as it did in the run-up to the Iraq conflict. In the aftermath of the Iraq war, it is beginning to wake up to the need for help, but by not preparing the ground beforehand, it has done a lot of damage. I am concerned that, given its over-involvement in Iraq, there is a danger that for domestic political reasons the USA will disengage too quickly and in the wrong way, and having gone so far will leave behind more damage than it sought to remedy.

Given the Government's engagement with the USA, they face a real challenge on world trade, on multinational issues and on Kyoto. They must say to America that we all live on the same planet and that we all interact with each other. Economically, it is better to open up trade so that we all get the best products from those most able to produce them at the best price, and we can all then produce, in our own countries, what we are best at. In that way, we maximise the growth potential of all countries to our mutual benefit.

7.50 pm
Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab)

I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith), who made a thoughtful speech. Unlike the speeches from most Liberal Democrats, it contained no fresh spending commitments. I agreed with what he said about the future of our armed forces and the work that they are doing. I urge right hon. and hon. Members not to add fuel to the fire while we are waiting for the White Paper, because nothing is more draining on morale than hearing stories about the future of regiments.

During the first Gulf war, I worked with the then hon. Member for Stafford, now the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash), when there was a threat to merge the Cheshires and the Staffordshire regiment. It was a totally false threat—

Patrick Mercer

indicated dissent.

Mr. Miller

The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but it turned out to be a false threat. One might argue that that was a result of the campaigning of Members of this House, but the threat did a lot of damage to morale. I hope that my colleagues in the Ministry of Defence will think about these issues carefully after the publication of the White Paper. It is vital that we address that key issue, particularly while our armed forces are working in difficult environments in Iraq and Afghanistan.

On the current constitutional position, I welcome the further commitment to reform the House of Lords. We need to make it clear that, whatever happens in terms of the future structure and role of the House of Lords, the House of Commons must have primacy. We can no longer tolerate the ludicrous position where Bills from an elected Government with a substantial majority are subject to continual ping-pong backwards and forwards and attempts to wreck them in an unelected upper House.

I accept that there are experts in the other House and that we should be prepared to listen to advice and guidance from experienced people who have contributed a lot to the nation. However, it is outrageous that an unelected Chamber should seek to block proposed legislation.

My next point concerns a subject on which my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) intervened on the Prime Minister today—foxhunting. I welcome the Prime Minister's commitment. The Lords must be told in no uncertain terms that they cannot continue to act in an undemocratic manner, as they did by abandoning the Hunting Bill. The will of the elected House must prevail.

There are some considerations that we must accept about the House of Lords, on which a number of Members have touched. We should start by reflecting carefully on its function. If we start to define that, we can move more neatly towards a description of how we think the Lords should get to that position. By doing so, we can move more logically towards resolving the appointed-or-elected conundrum. There are powerful arguments in terms of maintaining a House of experienced people who have contributed to public life in the political and other spheres.

Twenty years ago, I would have been of the view that the upper House should be wholly elected. However, that would weaken our ability to get the first category of people. I have moved towards the concept of an appointed upper House, mainly because I believe that the process of checks and balances can be better exercised by people with particular experience of the areas in which we are seeking to legislate. However, I very much resent the notion of any appointed House seeking to wreck legislation coming to it from this end of the Corridor.

In the past 12 months, substantial improvements have been made across the country, affecting our constituents in all sorts of ways. In my constituency, and across the whole nation, we are seeing record employment levels and the lowest unemployment in the G7. When I was elected in 1992, unemployment in my constituency was at least 20 per cent. in some patches and in the mid-teens on average. I would not have believed then that we would see unemployment down to 1.7 per cent., as it is today. The enthusiasm among the various agencies in that area ought to be commended, along with the partnerships with the private sector. The public and private sectors have worked brilliantly together in an attempt to drive down the unemployment figures.

We now have one of the lowest inflation rates in the EU and the lowest mortgage rates since the 1950s—certainly pre-dating my mortgages. I can remember paying much higher rates under the previous Conservative Administration and I am sure the same is true across the country. Our economy is predicted to grow twice as fast as the rest of the EU this year, and the stability that has come from our economic policy has helped deliver the basis for real change. That ought to be welcomed.

Consequently, we have been able to release resources to invest in public services. We have record numbers of police officers—that is certainly the case in my area. However, we need to work out how those police officers are best used and how best to provide them with modern aids and resources to allow them to spend more time on the streets, fighting crime. They have been successful, and we have seen reductions in crime.

On the NHS, massive investment is being made in hospital facilities in and around my constituency, helping to contribute to the 300,000 extra operations that have taken place this year compared with 1997. On a very personal note, I pay tribute to the work that has gone on in cardiac technology. My younger brother recently had a major heart operation, and thanks to the fantastic brand-new facility in Swindon and then the Bristol royal infirmary, he is back on his feet and was discharged, amazingly, a day after his heart operation. That is an extraordinary reflection of how technology is impacting on our ability to deal with problems that might otherwise have killed.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dudley, North (Ross Cranston) touched on Sure Start, which is a magnificent example of what can be done by drawing together agencies across the board that have not previously worked together in a co-ordinated way. I was delighted to attend the annual general meeting of the Ellesmere Port Sure Start yesterday. It was thrilling to see that people from so many agencies are working with the voluntary sector and with families and communities, and that they are excited about the impending projects. It was even more exciting to discover that Hungary—I have connections with Hungary, on the Foreign Office's behalf, in respect of its efforts to accede to the European Union—has started to emulate Sure Start. That reflects well on what is happening here in the

We know from analysing the many unstructured comments of the Conservatives that they are trying to present the public with something of a false prospectus. I was anxious to intervene on the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) when he was going on about referendums. I wondered whether, with hindsight, he thought that it might have been better to have had a referendum on the poll tax, given that he is now keen to have referendums on subjects such as which day of the week it is. The Tory claim that one can lower taxes and deliver more and better services sounds like a new piece of alchemy. We heard plenty of that from the right hon. and learned Gentleman. In essence, it is a black magic art, especially given that it came from a man who has "something of the night" about him. The notion that it is possible to get out more than one puts in seems to be based on an attempt to create a perpetual motion machine.

The Tories are about cuts, charges and privatisation, whereas the Liberal Democrats—with the honourable exception of the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine—as usual, are about uncosted, unclear and unaffordable proposals. I was very interested to hear the way in which the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy) approached the Gracious Speech. On several occasions, a couple of which I shall shortly cite, he carefully amended the facts or introduced concepts with no analysis whatever. For example, he spoke at length about the recent war and asserted that al-Qaeda has grown in strength since. I do not know what special intelligence briefings enable him to come to that conclusion. He may or may not be right, but it would have been interesting to hear the evidential basis for his assertion.

Similarly, when I intervened on the right hon. Gentleman, he referred to our policies on asylum and the apparent taking away of children from their parents in the context of "asylum seekers", but as he knows full well, the draft legislation will deal with failed asylum seekers—those who have gone through the entire process. Moreover, he is of course basing his speculation on press comment, rather than on published fact. Such poor choice of language has the propensity to mislead members of the public, and as parliamentarians we must be extremely careful about that.

The Gracious Speech represents a radical agenda of a reforming Government. It seeks to make communities more safe and secure; it addresses social justice and will create lifelong opportunities. Importantly, it deals with quality of life and economic stability, and starts to tackle the very difficult task of modernising our democracy.

Several Members have talked about the pension protection fund proposal, which is a very welcome step. Of course, several of us have dealt with extremely difficult pension cases over the years—indeed, I suspect that half of us have had some dealings with such cases. H. H. Robertson, the steel manufacturing company in my constituency, went into liquidation just before the 1997 general election. I pay tribute to the then Trade Minister, the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor), who was very prompt in referring the matter to the Serious Fraud Office. Such serious fraud ought to have been subject to a trial, under the terms of legislation such as that which we were debating last week. Had a pension protection fund been in place, my constituents and those in the surrounding constituencies would have benefited from it.

Given the nature of the proposed pension protection fund, larger funds will inevitably contribute proportionately larger amounts, so I suspect that the larger funds themselves might act as a better check and balance on the operation of some of the smaller ones. Had such a fund existed, perhaps H. H. Robertson would not have gone into liquidation, with £5 million owing to its pension fund, and neither I nor the Serious Fraud Office being able to do anything about it. The question of backdating also arises. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister for Pensions has met various delegations. I congratulate him on having had the courage to attend the pension summit arranged by my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt), and on listening carefully to the proposals. The previous Government promised that the 1996 legislation would be the saviour of all pension funds, following the Maxwell collapse. That manifestly has not happened, and there is an argument for establishing whether there is some mechanism by which we can gain redress for those fund members who have lost out.

I turn now to the part of the Gracious Speech dealing with identity cards. We all have a pile of such cards in our back pockets—I counted nine in mine—and they are covered by a single universal scheme. I spend a few pounds a year on mine so that, should I lose them, they can be cancelled and protected by a single phone call. I have absolutely no problem with consolidating everything on to one card—that would make my wallet considerably thinner—but I want to be in control of access to the various layers of information contained within it. The key to any ID card system is that we ensure that the user is in control of access.

Before we embark on the ID card exercise, we need to create a national change of address system like that used in other countries. Then, when one changes one's address, all the relevant state agencies—as agreed by the individual citizen—can be automatically notified. It would have to be done only once instead of so many thousand times. Having such a mechanism in place would move us neatly in the right direction, which could help us to prevent people from entering into criminality and so forth.

Finally, I want to touch on the civil contingencies Bill, which is particularly important in a constituency such as mine, where there are many major hazard sites. I certainly praise companies and the fire brigade for the fantastic work that they do to protect citizens in and around the chemical plants. I never want to see again the sort of action that put the safety of my constituents in jeopardy, as occurred during the fuel protests a couple of years ago. Fire engines could not then have attended in any emergency. Serious major hazards require handling with care, and I hope that in developing the civil contingencies Bill we will find a way of dealing with those problems without jeopardising people's legitimate right to protest about things that they disagree with.

We have heard another bold Gracious Speech and I certainly look forward to its key elements being brought into legislation over the next few months.

8.11 pm
Mrs. Patsy Calton (Cheadle) (LD)

I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in the debate and raise several issues that directly affect my constituency on which I happen to have worked over the past year or so. I shall make suggestions to the Government in a spirit of helpfulness in respect of any omissions in what they have proposed or where additional points might be incorporated in their legislation.

I should like to start with current planning legislation. I would like the Government to deal with permitted development rights. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has undertaken a review of permitted development rights, and I understand that consultants were engaged and Nathaniel Lichfield & Partners Ltd. commissioned to produce a report, which was published on 10 September.

I tabled a parliamentary question about what would flow from the report and what progress the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister was making. I hoped to hear that the parts of the report that affect my constituency—particularly part 17 rights in schedule 2 to the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 1995—had been dealt with and that some information would be provided to explain what would happen next. Unfortunately, my question was not reached last Wednesday, but I promptly—on the same afternoon—received a written response that stated that no decisions had been made about any changes to permitted development rights and that full public consultation would take place before any changes were made.

I fully understand the need for public consultation, but the report made it clear that 150 organisations and individuals had already been consulted. The proposals were excellent and many of them were wholly in line with what I have tried to achieve over the past year or so. There have been about 60 structured interviews as well as case studies. I repeat that I am absolutely in favour of public consultation, but I believe that the Government have an opportunity use their planning legislation to make the minor changes that part 17 requires in primary legislation in order to allow some of the changes that the Government's own consultants' report says are needed. It would not take a great deal to make progress on that.

My private Member's Bill fell, technically, last Friday, although it had really fallen before then. It was mainly concerned with the permitted development rights of rail undertakings, particularly those of Network Rail with respect to telecommunications masts. Network Rail has a perfect right to install such masts anywhere it wants on its own operational line up to 33m in height, although doing so will have caused considerable upset in some places. In my constituency a 20m high mast was put up 16m from the nearest house—not the garden—and having such a mast so near to one's house is obviously noticeable when people walk out into their back garden. People are left feeling helpless because they are incapable of doing anything about it.

Every possibility was explored. One suggestion made by the consultants was that article 4 directions, which local authorities are currently loth to engage in because of the costs, might not in fact entail costs to such authorities. It would be simple to put that right, and local authorities would have an opportunity to make a difference. I greatly commend the suggestions that were made in the report, which reflected on the private Member's Bill that we drafted and agreed that aspects of it would have been useful. Parts 11 and 17 of schedule 2 to the 1995 order—parts relevant to communications masts—should be amended in line with part 24, which would then bring all the Government's intentions with respect of visual amenities into play. At present, Network Rail does not have to comply with them.

I believe that the Government have an opportunity to make real progress on the problem without incurring extra expense. In so doing they could meet the needs not only of my constituents, but of others throughout the country who live alongside railway lines. I would be grateful if the Government gave serious consideration to that.

The second issue that I want to deal with is the change to charities legislation. I have taken part in consultations during the past year because my constituency has a particular charity issue, which has caused me and others—particularly the Charity Commission and a specific charity—great worry. The Cheadle Royal hospital is a charity in my constituency whose assets over the past few years have been used for a private hospital, a 57-acre business park and a grade separated roundabout.

I lived in the area for some years and was unaware that the charity had financed all those things. I tried to find out how much the charity had in its coffers, and it was much less than I had expected. I had expected a great deal more. After two years of work, I concluded that there is a heavy burden of responsibility on trustees who can become too few in number and can suffer from advancing years and find it increasingly difficult to cope with the large burden that the highly complex law surrounding charities places on them. It is clear that the Charity Commission finds it exceedingly difficult to cope. For example, in that case the charity and the hospital had originally been set up as the result of an Act dating back to 1844, but the Charity Commission was unaware of that Act, so it did not have a clear picture of what was required.

I found out about the case only when a statutory instrument under the negative procedure crossed my desk, simply because it contained the name Cheadle—and the only reason why I noticed that there was anything wrong was that there appeared to be a mistake in the drafting, which suggested that the hospital had had to be sold, whereas as far as I knew, it was still operating as a mental hospital. I subsequently found out that it had been subject to a management buy-out, which I had not known, and it was not well known in the community, either, although all the procedures had been carried out.

The business park will generate substantial funds, and if we are to be certain that such matters are transparent, there must be something in the charity law covering the funds generated by charities that ensures that it is easy for everybody, including the Charity Commission, to understand exactly what is going on. Without a great deal of digging, it would have been very difficult to find out what was happening in the charity that I have described. There may be other charities in a similar position, and charity law must reflect the reality, and the very large sums involved. In that particular case, millions of pounds, not just a few thousand, have resulted from what started as public subscription in the 1750s and carried on with public donations thereafter.

As for the changes to the law on disability discrimination, I welcome the fact that the Government intend to examine the definition of discrimination—at least, I hope they do. A great many people with disabilities are not covered by the legislation now, so neither their disability nor the discrimination against it is recognised. I can think of three groups with which I have worked in my constituency over the past year that fall into that category.

First, there is the Restricted Growth Association. We had an Adjournment debate here a couple of weeks ago, and a very large lobby: 200 people filled a Committee Room and made it clear that they wanted their disability to be recognised. Because their condition cannot be regarded as an illness, those people cannot get the discrimination against them recognised as it should be.

Similarly, people with some forms of autism—high-performing autistics with Asperger's syndrome, for example—do not have their disability recognised. Whatever the wording of the legislation, it needs to recognise that there are people being discriminated against who do not fall within the existing disability discrimination legislation.

Thirdly, people with some mental health conditions may not qualify under the current Act. Whatever else the new legislation does, I hope that the draft Bill will extend the definition to allow many more people to be recognised as suffering discrimination.

I am pleased to hear that the Government intend to bring HIV and cancer within the definition. A constituent with breast cancer recently came to see me, and although she has had to give up her job because of her chemotherapy, is moving on to radiotherapy and is clearly not well enough to cope, she cannot have disability living allowance because her prognosis is good. The fact that she is ill and needs help now cannot be taken into account, and that situation must be cleared up.

The Government have said in two different ways that they intend to reduce congestion—a subject linked to the quality of day-to-day life, which they have also said that they want to improve. In my area, one in three people say consistently in different surveys that reducing congestion would improve the quality of their lives, and that they regard it as a top priority. Some of the recommendations of the south-east Manchester multi-modal study have already been incorporated in my area, and we are seeing some improvements, but that does not alter the fact that the road network must be completed. I am happy to say that we are making dramatic progress on the planning for that.

Improving traffic flows and managing road works are extremely important in suburban areas, such as mine, which suffer from constant traffic. We need good management. At present, an experimental scheme is operating whereby all the traffic lights are controlled from central Manchester—I am not sure how. From time to time, one gets stuck in traffic queues that are considerably longer than they used to be, but things are improving, and I am happy to give credit where it is due. Some of those initiatives will improve people's quality of life.

I was sorry that there was no mention of public health in the Gracious Speech, as it has much to do with quality of life. The things that enhance public health also enhance quality of life. There is scope for measures on the environment, on housing and, especially, on local government. The Liberal Democrats have made it clear that we want health impact assessments of national legislation and of local government policies and priorities. To those Members who may ask why, I offer two examples: school meals and junk food machines. Indeed, my first question in this place, two and a bit years ago, was about what the Government intended to do about the sale of junk food in schools. I was told that it was a matter for school governors. However, over the past two years, everybody has begun to realise that health is much too important to be left to individual school governors and governing bodies. There has been an explosion in the number of obese children, which indicates that there is a problem. That is a quality of life issue; it affects the day-to-day life of young people as well as of everybody else.

Another worry relates to the fact that at one time, schools were at the centre of their community and most children went to a local school; they were not taken by car to another school somewhere else. The Government are considering pilot schemes for school transport, possibly using yellow buses, but that misses the point; it would be much better if far more children walked to their local school and for the local school to be the centre of the community.

The hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) and others talked about our treatment of ex-servicemen and women. I am especially concerned about ex-servicemen, now in their 80s, who played a large part in the second world war, such as members of the Arctic convoy and the Calais diversionary force, about which I tabled an early-day motion in the last Session. I am disappointed that we cannot find a quicker way of obtaining recognition for those groups; it took several years for the Suez medal to come through. It is important that those people should receive the recognition to which they are entitled while they are still alive.

I was heartened by the Prime Minister's response at Questions a few weeks ago when he said that the Government keep that matter constantly under review. I hope that they will give it a high priority because so many of those service people feel unrecognised for the very real part that they played during the second world war.

8.29 pm
Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East) (Lab)

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the first day of the new Session, as I have done ever since I became a Member of this place. It is nice to see some of the same people in the Chamber, making some of the same comments, year after year.

Given my interest in energy conservation, I am especially pleased that the Queen's Speech contains an energy Bill. Last year, I was lucky enough to be able to take a private Member's Bill through the House, and luckier still to see it become the Sustainable Energy Act 2003. It called for targets to be set for energy efficiency and renewables, and I am very pleased that the Government have accepted that. I hope that the introduction of the energy Bill will silence some of the critics who have accused the Government, in their attitude to the White Paper and to my Bill, of being long on talk without delivering anything. I hope that the energy Bill will allow the Government to demonstrate the importance of energy conservation and of a sensible renewable energy policy.

Interestingly, the Opposition seemed to have a different spokesperson whenever I brought my private Bill to this Chamber or before the Standing Committee. I note that energy has been demoted even further in the recently announced shadow team.

In that connection, I draw the House's attention to early-day motion 96, set down today with 179 signatures. It calls on the Government to set an energy efficiency target, under my Act, with the aim of making 5 megatonnes of carbon savings per annum by 2010. It will be important, when the Government bring forward their energy Bill, to highlight that.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller), I welcome the introduction of draft legislation on identity cards. I welcome the commitment made by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary in his statement of 11 November to engage in a sensible and thoughtful debate on the matter. Such a debate is needed. Some people oppose identity cards strongly, and fear an incremental creep towards a Big Brother state. That is a genuine fear, and it needs to be tackled. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) said, the use of cards brings benefits when it comes to accessing public services.

At the moment, the same data about people are stored in a number of locations. The data are relevant to various Departments and Government agencies, and are often subject to various anomalies and mistakes. Providing the information repeatedly increases the risk of error and the insecurity of the data. In an increasingly global marketplace, identity fraud and theft are becoming easier. The danger is growing, and criminals are reaping greater rewards. We must find new ways to tackle the problem, and the debate on identity cards provides an opportunity for that.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has promised that the identity card scheme will be evaluated properly. In that connection, I draw the Government's attention to the credit card industry, where identity verification technology has existed, and been continually developed, for a long time. I urge the Government to look at what the private sector is doing. They should not try to reinvent the wheel as a square, with the Home Office working to develop its own system. The Government should engage with the private sector, create a true public-private partnership, and use the technology that already exists. If I am lucky enough to be a member of the Standing Committee considering that Bill, I hope to expand on some of those points.

The legislative programme announced today reaffirms the Government's commitment to fairness and equality. The proposals on civic partnerships and on disability are to be welcomed. They would certainly transform the rights and opportunities available to disabled people in my constituency.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con)

Does the hon. Gentleman believe that many disabled people—and their supporters—are very concerned about having a single disability Act? Disabled people have particular needs. Some disabilities are dynamic by nature, while others can be acquired. Disabled people do not make up a single group, capable of being covered by one piece of legislation. Does the hon. Gentleman have any observations to make on behalf of disabled people?

Brian White

As in any proposal, there are dangers if we get it wrong. If that happens, the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) may have a point. However, the key is that we recognise the issues and needs faced by disabled people. The debate on the Bill will allow us to move matters forward. There are many things that could be improved, and I am confident that the Bill will take us forward. I recognise the potential dangers that the hon. Gentleman has pointed out, but the fact that he has highlighted them means that we should be able to avoid them.

I have sat on two pre-legislative scrutiny Committees, one a Select Committee, and the other a Joint Committee. I am therefore very aware of the improvements that can be made to Bills. I especially welcome the fact that seven of the Bills announced today will be published in the form of draft legislation. That will save Parliament's time, and enable people to get to the issues involved—such as the point about disability made by the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings—in a far more open way. I urge the Government to consider using pre-legislative scrutiny for the Bill on top-up fees and higher education. Top-up fees are controversial and would benefit from the utmost scrutiny by all parties so that the final proposals have no inadvertent consequences. Given that we have said that we will not implement the legislation until after the next election, there is no time barrier to such scrutiny.

Pre-legislative scrutiny would change the debate from the present media speculation about who might rebel to a proper consideration of the issues. The Queen's Speech contained the announcement that up-front tuition fees will be abolished, but all the media want to talk about is tuition fees going up. On the doorsteps of a middle England constituency such as mine, people say that they oppose top-up fees. When asked what they would put in their place, they describe most of what the Government intend to do for higher education. There is a disconnection in the debate that a draft Bill and pre-legislative scrutiny would help to resolve.

Mr. Brazier

In encounters on the doorstep with constituents, has anyone argued strongly in favour of the current phase of expansion of higher education? It will cost more than top-up fees will raise

Brian White

In a constituency such as mine, which relies on high technology and a skilled work force to compete in the global economy, the skills and the dynamism of universities are necessary. In 1975, when I left school, I received an offer of a place on a degree course at Sheffield and an offer of a job on the same day. At the time, unemployment was more than 500,000, so I chose the job rather than the course. Whether that was the right decision is a matter for history, but we need the skilled work force that is provided by lifelong learning opportunities. University is not something that happens only between the ages of 18 and 21. It should be a continuous process.

The research that universities do is important, and we need to take account of the wide range of skills and give people opportunities. One of the dangers of a system that restricts opportunities is that talent is wasted. People in my constituency understand all too well that if we are to provide opportunities for their children we have to widen access to higher education.

Tom Levitt

I agree with what my hon. Friend says on this issue, but does he realise the significance of this moment? We have just had official confirmation from a Tory Front Bencher that the Conservatives oppose the expansion of higher education.

Brian White

That should not come as a surprise to my hon. Friend, given that the Conservatives always look backwards, never forwards.

I have the largest university in the country in my constituency in the Open university. After the NHS, the Open university is the best gift that a Labour Government have given to the people of this country. Given that the Open university has many part-time students, including many who have had to find alternative ways into higher education, we must not lose that jewel in the crown of higher education. The future of the OU is crucial to the Government's proposals.

Mr. Brazier

My party has made it clear that it is not happy with the most recent phase of expansion in higher education. As someone who represents two universities and an excellent tertiary college, I see great scope for putting more emphasis on vocational training for those skills that are needed directly in the marketplace at present.

Brian White

I am sure that if the Government accept my proposals for a draft pre-legislative scrutiny committee, proposals of the type that the Opposition are making will be well tested and rejected.

Much of last Session was dominated by the misjudgments over Iraq. It is vital that we help to rebuild Iraq, but we must not do it at the expense of other countries, and we should not walk away. However, one question that I have about the rebuilding of Iraq is, under which economic policies it will be rebuilt? Will it be under the "caring conservative" policies of George Bush, which brought 3 million more unemployed to the United States, turned a budget surplus into a deficit and introduced protectionist measures, linked aid to abortion policies, scorned international treaties and undermined international institutions, introduced tax cuts for a few and brought misery to millions by the decimation of public services? Or will Iraq be rebuilt under economic policies of the type put forward by our Government, who have kept us out of the world recession—ours is the only major nation not to fall into the world recession maintained the lowest interest rates for a generation, put 1.5 million more people into work, created a cleaner environment, introduced a minimum wage and better working conditions, increased aid to developing nations and invested massively in rebuilding our public services?

It is the economy that is crucial, and one of the dangers of being too closely involved with the Bush Administration is that it gives credibility to the Conservative economic policies that would be a disaster for our economy. As we saw earlier today, leopards do not change their spots, and those people who say there is no difference between the parties should just look at what happened in the US with the election of a Republican Government committed to "caring conservative" policies and just look at what the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) said today and the damage it would do if he were ever to form a Conservative Government in this country.

I welcome the omission of any reference to a draft civil service Bill. I take that to mean that the Government have recognised the inherent problems that such a Bill would create. The Public Administration Committee is conducting an inquiry into a draft Bill at the moment and was asking witnesses to define a civil servant, which is kind of important in the context of a civil service Bill. Various descriptions were offered but there was no single definition on which everyone could agree. I am pleased that there is unlikely to be time in this Session for a civil service Bill, not only because it would apply to Whitehall only, but because it would neglect the good work that is being done in the public services and the dedicated public servants who are working in the NHS, in schools and throughout the public services, and who are delivering high-quality services day by day. All that the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe did in his speech was to denigrate the hard work and commitment of those people; they will remember that.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller), I regret the omission of proposals for a hunting Bill and I hope that the Government will bring such a Bill back under the Parliament Acts.

Finally, I want to raise two key issues. The first, which my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) highlighted, is the need for more affordable housing; the housing Bill will address that. A decent home is a fundamental right and today's package of measures is particularly welcome, especially the Government's proposals to introduce a system of national licensing for houses in multiple occupation.

It is important that we get the legislation right, but one aspect has been too often neglected in the House: we are very good at passing legislation but not particularly good at reviewing it, and we are not particularly good at the delivery end. If we do not have the resources for enforcement or, more important, if local authorities do not have the political will to implement it, no amount of legislation will solve the problem. I urge the Minister, as the Bill goes through, to ensure that the provision of resources—the implementation—goes in parallel with the passage of the legislation through this place. Delivery must be integral to legislation instead of following on, as has been the past practice. That has been especially true of the culture of the Home Office. Over the years the Home Office has generated lots of laws, but it has neglected to give active attention to the manner in which they are implemented. That was never more clear than when the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe was in charge of the Home Office.

There is no point in introducing new asylum measures if the competencies of the immigration and nationality directorate are not raised to deal with them. I shall highlight one important aspect, although there are many. A lot of people have been through the appeals system, including the second level, and their appeals have been rejected. They are told that their appeals have failed, and no one ever contacts them again. They are not deported. They are not told what they can and cannot do. They are just left in limbo-sometimes for years, with no word from the Home Office, simply because it does not get its act together. That Department needs to address that far more than any of the issues raised in the legislation proposed in today's Queen's Speech. If nothing else, I urge the Minister to take on board the consequences of legislation in relation to the delivery mechanisms in Departments.

This is a good Queen's Speech. It builds on what we have done so far, and it concentrates on bread-and-butter issues, which is welcome. It will make the daily lives of my constituents better. It shows the challenges that we face and forces us to look to the future. It also shows a clear divide between how the Labour Government are investing in our communities and the nit-picking Opposition. The comments made by the Opposition tonight show what a future we would have if they were ever to form a Government. I hope that the message that comes from today's Queen's Speech is that this important set of proposals will benefit the lives of my constituents.

8.46 pm
Mr. David Amess (Southend, West) (Con)

The Gracious Speech represents the seventh year of failure of this dreadful Government—seven years of their failure to deliver on their promises or to improve public services. On Sunday, when the Leader of the House was interviewed on BBC 1's "Politics Show", he said:

Everyone will be excited by the legislation planned for next year. I for one am not excited by the 23 Bills and seven draft measures. In fact, I am deeply depressed because we have heard it all before.

When the House listened to the Prime Minister, whose performance today was abysmal, I wondered for a moment which world he is living in. He took the American President to his constituency last week, but of course, he did not allow him to meet the real people. As ever, that visit was stage-managed. The real people in every constituency have a completely different experience of this dreadful Government's performance over the past seven years.

I note that the Government's annual report has vanished. In 1997, when the Government came to power telling everyone that things can only get better—yes, we will all remember that record—they decided that an annual report would be published every year. I asked at the Vote Office today for last year's annual report. Surprisingly, there was not one; nor was there one the year before. I have asked parliamentary questions on matter. Exactly who paid £2.99 to purchase that garbage?

The reality is that the Government no longer issue an annual report because the general public realise that everything that the Government tell us is completely fictitious, but I make an offer to the Minister: if the Government feel that they can no longer raise the cash to publish an annual report, I should very much like to be given the job of issuing an annual report on behalf of Her Majesty's Government, and I promise the House that I will be absolutely fair.

Tom Levitt

As I recall it, for the first two or three years after the 1997 election, Opposition Members had nothing better to do than argue from time to time that the annual report should be scrapped. Surely the hon. Gentleman should welcome the fact that a listening Government are engaging so positively with the Opposition.

Mr. Amess

For goodness' sake, does the hon. Gentleman think that that will wash? He knows only too well that Government Members do not listen to, or act on, anything that Her Majesty's loyal Opposition say or do. If only it were different. The Government have dumped their annual report very quietly but some of us will not let them forget that that report, which we were told was crucial, has disappeared. I repeat my offer to write an annual report on the Government. I would be only too delighted.

Brian White

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that one of the reasons for the Government ending the annual report was the action taken by the Select Committee on Public Administration? It suggested to the Government that there were better ways of dealing with such issues.

Mr. Amess

I am delighted to hear that that is the reason, but I am surprised that the Prime Minister has not made a statement to the House to apologise to the House and the country for the waste of taxpayers' money. If it is true that the report was scrapped because of the Public Administration Committee's report, I will be only too happy to remind the Prime Minister of that fact should I be lucky enough to have an opportunity to do so.

The idea that the Prime Minister and the Government are again embarking on a nationwide consultation is crazy. Does he honestly think that the general public will be taken in yet again by one more consultation exercise? The idea that the Government consult and listen if they receive an answer that they do not like does not reflect what happens. He should save the Government a great deal of money by abandoning the consultation, because the British people will tell him that, over the past seven years, the Government have absolutely failed to deliver on their promises. The gut feeling of the British people is that they have no confidence whatever in anything that the Government do or say. Fundamental to that is the issue of law and order, to which I will come shortly.

The Gracious Speech tells us:

Delivering a world class education system that enables individuals to achieve their full potential remains my Government's main priority for Britain's future success. Educational reform will continue to raise standards in all schools. We all agree with that, but all hon. Members know from their visits to schools that teachers complain endlessly about the extra burdens of regulation and administration. Teachers can no longer do that which they are best at—teaching—because of the constant interference from this dreadful Government.

Two weeks ago, I and others met the Minister for School Standards. Among the group was Councillor Sally Carr, the chairman of the Southend education committee, and we had a good meeting in which we discussed in detail the authority's financial settlement. However, the next settlement has been announced and it will simply not provide enough money to offer the education that the children who live in Southend deserve.

Tuition fees, on which my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition brilliantly chided the Government, are fundamental to this issue.

The Gracious Speech tells us: A Bill will be introduced to enable more young people to benefit from higher education. Upfront tuition fees will be abolished for all full-time students and a new Office For Fair Access will assist those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Universities will be placed on a sound financial footing.

Labour Members will groan at this, but I am what is described as a working-class Conservative. I come from an entirely working-class background in the east end of London and was born within hearing of Bow bells. The reason why I am a Conservative is that, unlike Labour Members, who are so good at describing poverty and dreadful living conditions but doing nothing about them, it is the Conservatives who believe that every woman and man, regardless of race, creed and finances, should be given the opportunity to make the most of their God-given talents.

That is why what this dreadful Labour Government are now going to do about tuition fees is so hypocritical. When I was given the opportunity to go on to higher education, my parents did not earn enough to make any contribution to the grant. I was one of those lucky individuals on a full grant. [Interruption.] There is no doubt—this is why Labour Members are embarrassed—that once the tuition fees kick in, they will definitely be a penalty against children of working- class parents who want to go into higher education.[Interruption.] It is no good Labour Members shaking their heads. That is what will happen.

Ian Stewart (Eccles) (Lab)

The hon. Gentleman is wrong.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. I must say to the hon. Gentleman that keeping up a running commentary from a sedentary position is not assisting the debate.

Mr. Amess

I have five children. Although some Members of Parliament say that we are not particularly well paid, by and large, we are pretty well paid in comparison with the rest of the population. I am now experiencing trying to pay for some of my children to enjoy higher education. I tell the Government now that burdening youngsters later with high debt, in the very early years of their working careers, will be an absolute disaster.

The reason why I find the Prime Minister's position completely untenable is that he leads the party that grew out of Keir Hardie, in whose seat, which was a working class area, I fought my first parliamentary election in 1979. He is now betraying the many Labour Members who, in their heart of hearts, are still working class and want to support working-class people. I hope that, when it comes to the vote on that dreadful measure, they will do the right thing and vote against it.

The Gracious Speech tells us: My Government will continue to reform the National Health Service by giving more choice to patients, more freedom to NHS staff and more control over hospitals to local communities". I am a member of the Select Committee on Health, an excellent Committee led by the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe), who is a very fair minded Chairman. There is no doubt that the Health Committee has found wanting the Government's policies. which they tell us are intended to give more choice to patients, more freedom to NHS staff and more control over hospitals to local communities". All the arguments from academics that we read in our papers and journals say that the Government's obsession with sticking to targets is undermining clinical priorities. As long as they continue with that obsession, our wonderful national health service will continue to struggle.

There was a moment when the Prime Minister shook his head in despair at the Leader of the Opposition because he did not like what my right hon. and learned Friend said about asylum seekers, especially their children. We will have to see what eventually happens but it would be shameful if Government Members, who believe in their heart of hearts that it would be dreadful for asylum seekers' children to be taken into care, stood by and did nothing. Many Labour Members know that when the Government say, "Oh, this is stuff that the media have got wrong", that is not the case. The Conservative party intends to watch the measure on asylum seekers' children carefully.

I draw hon. Members' attention to early-day motion 1695, which the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mrs. Clark) and I tabled in the previous Session. It called on the Government to allow asylum seekers to work while their applications were being considered. My views on the subject are well known. The Prime Minister and the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer have had some amusement about asylum seekers, who, I believe, should be in secure units while their applications are being processed. As they are not, it behoves the House to seek an alternative, and allowing them to work is an obvious solution.

The Gracious Speech stated that the Government wanted to take forward…an incremental approach to a national identity cards scheme and that they would publish a draft Bill in the new year. I introduced a ten-minute Bill on 12 May 1993 for voluntary personal security cards. It was the first time that a Bill, albeit a ten-minute measure, went unopposed. My supporters were Mr. Jacques Arnold. Mr. David Ashby, Mr. Roy Beggs, Mr. James Hill, Lady Olga Maitland. Dame Jill Knight, Sir John Hunt, Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman, Mrs. Angela Knight, Mr. Ralph Howell and Sir John Wheeler. Apart from me, only one remains a Member of Parliament. I hope that we shall both be here when we do not simply talk about identity cards but do something about them. A lot of nonsense is spoken in resisting the change. Every human being has a birth certificate and when we die, a death certificate. Why does the bit in the middle—our lives—have to be a secret? I am not bothered about whether the Home Secretary has fallen out with another member of the Cabinet. The British people want identity cards and if the Government are serious about law and order, they should introduce them.

We hear yet again that there will be more antisocial behaviour orders, that the laws on domestic violence will be modernised and that a commissioner will be established to speak for the interests of victims and witnesses. The British people are sick and tired of Government gimmicks on law and order. Since the Home Secretary was appointed, there have been 30 Acts. We all know that despite the wonderful technology that is available today, there are not enough policewomen and policemen. There might be in the rest of the country, but that does not apply to Southend or Essex where the numbers are way down. All Members of Parliament know that the general public's first concern is law and order. They say, "Oh David, there's no point in reporting crime anymore. You can't get through to the call centre." When police eventually come along and take the details of whatever has been stolen, they simply shrug their shoulders and nothing is done. "But", they add, "you might get caught by a speed camera."

People see the unfairness of that. Law-abiding citizens who do a wonderful job in their communities can be criminalised for driving at 32 mph, while the big criminals get away with everything scot-free because there are not enough policewomen and policemen.

Mr. Kevan Jones

I am sad to hear that Southend has been passed by. County Durham has been given an extra 100 police officers and an extra 25 community support officers since 1997, and crime in my constituency has fallen by 50 per cent. What is unique about Southend?

Mr. Amess

I am delighted to hear what the hon. Gentleman says, and extremely jealous. As his constituency is doing so well in crime reduction, perhaps he will be magnanimous and encourage some of those extra 100 police officers to relocate to Southend. We are losing officers to the Met because they are paid £6,000 a year more than they would receive in our area. We have a terrible problem. Our policewomen and policemen are working hard to control the situation, but they do not have the numbers to deal with it properly. That is the biggest complaint that we hear from the public.

Given that the Prime Minister made his name with "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime", it is about time he did something rather than continuing with these gimmicks. We have seen the introduction of curfews for children, for goodness' sake. I do not think one has ever been imposed anywhere—and it seems that we are to have yet more gimmicks. I ask the Government to do at least one sensible thing, and introduce identity cards.

The Queen's Speech tells us A Bill will also be brought forward to improve the delivery of fire and rescue services, ensuring that they can respond to the changing demands placed on them in the modern world. I have the honour to be joint chairman of the all-party parliamentary fire safety group, which will examine that measure very carefully. While we welcome changes, it is of paramount importance that the professionalism of our firefighters is not undermined in any circumstances.

We are also told that the House of Lords will be reformed. The Government will remove hereditary peers and establish an independent Appointments Commission to select non-party members of the Upper House". I am afraid that when I heard that I had to be scraped off the floor. The idea of the Government appointing non-political people in larger numbers than those who were truly independent is crazy.

The Prime Minister quoted an Ofsted report. Of course things are marvellous now, but the Government did not retain the last chief inspector of schools because he did not have so many good things to say about the Prime Minister. I am not in the least confident that the Government would appoint independent people to the House of Lords.

I am sorry that the House of Lords was sabotaged in the first place. The idea that there was always a Conservative majority there is nonsense. During 18 years of Conservative government, the House of Lords rejected Bills time after time. As the Labour Government have introduced more and more of their own appointees to the Lords, more and more have resisted their Bills. It has done the Government no good at all.

The Gracious Speech tells us that there will be a Bill to enable a referendum to be held on the adoption of the single currency subject to the Government's five economic tests being met". Along with other Members I was in Rome yesterday, where we had interesting meetings on the single currency with Italian politicians. We were intrigued to learn that the Prime Minister was being feted by the left in Italy. The Italian experience was, "Do not, under any circumstances, enter the single currency at the moment." We should be very, very cautious, but we all know that the Government do not have the slightest intention of having a referendum on the single currency—this is yet another gimmick from them.

The Gracious Speech tells us that the Government is committed to improving the quality of people's day to day lives. Wonderful, but when is that going to happen? We are told: Legislation will also be brought forward to improve traffic flows and manage road works more effectively." Marvellous, but how on earth is that going to happen? I expect that we will have yet more gimmicks. I welcome the draft Bill on charities, which I understand will be published shortly and will modernise charity law and better enable charities to prosper.

I end with some brief remarks on what is not in the Gracious Speech. The hon. Member for Cheadle (Mrs. Calton) referred to an issue on which I feel very strongly mobile phones.

Mrs. Calton

indicated dissent.

Mr. Amess

The hon. Lady, I thought, talked about the particular height of a mast.

Mrs. Calton

I was referring to Network Rail's telecommunication masts, not mobile phones generally.

Mr. Amess

I was going to make the same point about the nearness of a mast to properties. The situation whereby planning matters involving mobile phones are pushed from local authorities to the Government, backwards and forwards, is ridiculous. We have had many public meetings in Southend on the issue, but we have been told: That mast has been designed so that it looks like a flagpole…it is Permitted Development under Par 24 of the Town and Country Planning General Permitted Development Order 1995. That is crazy. The Government are saying that they are introducing an important planning measure, but if a mobile phone mast is disguised as a flagpole it can go ahead.

Mobile phones are overused and what is happening is out of all proportion. I welcome the Government criminalising people using mobile phones as they drive along in cars. That will be unlawful from this month, and I look forward to the Government enforcing it.

I am disappointed that there is no animal welfare Bill in the Queen's Speech—we had expected one. I introduced a ten-minute Bill on stray animals, which is a matter on which the Canine Defence League feels strongly as it tries to re-home animals. Later, when the so-called owner turns up, there could be civil litigation. I am also disappointed that there is no mental health Bill. The number of people who feel helpless because they cannot get the support they require for their mental health difficulties is a serious matter.

The private Member's Bill on fireworks introduced by a Labour Member was a step forward, but the Government will have to look at the issue again as we need to deal with the suppliers.

Is it any wonder that the Queen faltered when she uttered the words "national hunt" rather than "national health"? I suspect that her mind was wandering at that time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman has been a Member long enough to know that he must not invoke Her Majesty in debate in the House.

Mr. Amess

I simply say that, for seven years, we have had a failing Government. I look forward to the time when I will be able to make a speech in favour of the Gracious Speech, but I feel that that will not happen until we have a Conservative Government re-elected. Judging by today's performance by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), the Leader of the Opposition, the Conservatives are coming home and we will once again have a Conservative Government.

9.14 pm
Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

An academic article is due to be printed soon entitled "Sheep that bark". It is about rebel Labour MPs, and it will come as no surprise to anyone that I am included in that list. I intend to bleat and woof about various measures in the Queen's Speech that I would like amended. I hope that my suggestions are constructive. I also have some opposition to particular items.

I want to say something about higher education, but I shall not deal with the problem of top-up fees as people know where I stand on that. The Queen's Speech refers to a new office for fair access to assist people from disadvantaged backgrounds. I have considerable interest in that proposal, as I am a product of the liberal education tradition. I went to Ruskin college without any formal qualifications and was there from 1960 to 1962. From 1966 to 1987, I taught at Sheffield university extra mural department, which then became the division of continuing education. Through industrial day release, many trade unionists went to places such as Ruskin college, Fircroft, Coleg Harlech and the Northern college. I also ran access courses for people who had no formal qualifications but who then found their way into colleges and universities. There are many late developers, and many people need a second chance.

I am worried that the trend in education is for testing in schools and elsewhere, and for modular provisions. People are expected to attain a certain standard before they move on. That overlooks the separate culture of the liberal adult education tradition. That tradition has been strong in the Workers Educational Association, and we should nurture it and make use of it for the office for fair access. When the proposals are introduced, if that area is missing or has been downgraded by too much stress being placed on testing and modules, I shall seek to amend the legislation.

A number of hon. Members have stressed the importance of the proposals on company and individual pensions. A White Paper was published, and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions made a statement in the House on 11 June. There have been many encouraging proposals to protect pension funds.

There is the problem of existing cases in which people's company pension funds and private pension arrangements have gone down, but past cases also need to be tackled.

Coalite in Bolsover, where a number of my constituents work, went into receivership and their pension fund was hit. UEF Chesterfield Cylinders went into administration and was taken over by Apolda GmbH, and the pension fund was hit. Demaglass in Chesterfield was similarly hit. There is also the Equitable Life problem, and we are waiting for Penrose in that connection.

I urge hon. Members to consider the arguments that were used across the House when the Secretary of State made that statement. Ideas of how to deal with this difficult problem have been suggested. Finding the funding is problematic, and there is no simple answer that would solve the difficulties. I am an advocate of progressive taxation, but I am in danger of proposing it as a solution to all problems. I know that it is not, and that there must be priorities. Nye Bevan said that socialism was the language of priorities, and we must decide what we do at every stage

Hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mrs. Calton), mentioned the disability provisions contained in the Gracious Speech. There has been a considerable battle in this House to advance the civil rights of disabled persons. In 1991, when he was in this House, Lord Morris of Manchester proposed a wide-ranging Bill on civil rights for disabled people. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry) picked up the Bill in 1993, and I did so in 1994 in competition with a Government Bill.

The definition of disability needs to be put right. We have a medical and restricted definition at the moment, but a social definition, directed towards the discriminators, which says that one can never use disability as a ground for excluding people from a particular area, needs to be put forward.

I urge the Government to go back to the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill, although they have proposed a number of related measures, particularly the setting up of the Disability Rights Commission, which was contained in the Bill and is advancing matters considerably. In my version of the Bill, I added the issue of access to polling stations, which is not dealt with properly now. Limited measures were contained in recent representation of the people legislation, and the arguments developed by Scope need to be taken on board.

My next point concerns identity cards. Fruitful amendments can be tabled on this issue and some socially useful items could be proposed in connection with ID cards. I have a suggestion that ties in with my interest in electoral registration and people exercising their franchise rights. I would advocate votes at 16, with the time that voters were registered and identity cards established being the last year of school as pupils approached 16. They would then be on registers and would have an ID card. It should then be possible to get them on to new registers, instead of the present situation in which masses of people are still missing from electoral registers. We attempted to tackle that with the rolling register introduced in 2001.

I wish to refer now to the reform of the House of Lords. Some Members have suggested that there are too many Members in this House. I would remind them that if we had fewer Members in this place, the power of the Front Benches would be proportionately greater. We should watch out for that. Front-Bench Members could be sent along to the other place, as was almost suggested in a pamphlet in the 1950s by a chap who was then called Anthony Wedgwood Benn. He argued that the second Chamber should be occupied by the Privy Council, which would account for most Front Benchers. Perhaps if Back Benchers ran the affairs of the Commons, it would be of interest.

Abolition of the Lords should be one option to consider, as its scrutiny functions could be undertaken in this House. The best bit of this House is often what takes place in Select Committees, which break down some of the rigid yah-boo party games of the Chamber. If we do not achieve that, there is the possibility of indirect election. Trade unions, voluntary organisations and professional bodies should have a say, although I am not so sure about the CBI and industry, which seem to run things already; however, perhaps they could have a minority representation. If we fail in that regard, the final democratic resort is direct election to the other body, despite the fact that that may create certain problems.

The Queen's Speech also contains a section on Europe. I have always been in favour of referendums where major treaty changes are involved. What happens automatically in the Republic of Ireland under its constitutional provisions should happen here. I say that despite the fact that if we had a referendum on constitutional matters, I could well campaign in favour of the measure in question and not against it, depending on the final package. In this case, I am not arguing for a referendum on the basis of what I think the likely outcome will be.

The Queen's Speech also refers to planning and to "greater community participation" in it. One thing that could be done is to strengthen section 70(a) of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. Under it, the planning authority can kick into touch repeat applications that have been refused through the system, on the ground that they are too similar to previous representations. However, that provision is not currently used because it is very narrow; it needs to be rather broader. In this regard there is a relevant case involving Barnes farm, in Dronfield, which is in my constituency. I should point out that I do not own Barnes farm—it has nothing to do with me. In fact, I own very little. Two planning applications by Hutchison 3G UK Ltd. have been rejected by the district council and rejected on appeal; a third application is currently going through the relevant procedures. Making it easier for the district council to reject the application would be of considerable advantage. In addition, perhaps the inspectors themselves should have the right to kick such applications into touch if they feel that an unnecessary number are being made in particular areas.

There are several other issues that I would have liked to mention, but as I want to accommodate those Members who have yet to speak, I shall finish by dealing with the section at the beginning of the Queen's Speech that refers to continuing to deliver reform of the public services", and continuing to focus on greater opportunity and social justice", and on enhanced security and protection". I want to deal briefly with three things that could be done in this regard. I am very concerned about the interface between the Child Support Agency and income support. A particular constituent of mine moves in and out of the two because her husband, who is the absent parent, is in and out of work. Procedures have to be gone through in respect of the CSA arrangements and attachment of earnings work; then, she reverts to income support. She has to provide notification each time she moves; otherwise, she would be considered guilty of fraud. She is better off under income support because it draws down other benefits. However, such people must know how to subsist and to advance their position without being hammered.

I have been dealing with the vaccine damage case of another constituent of mine ever since I entered the House. In fact, my predecessor, who was the MP for my constituency before 1987, also dealt with this problem. There are aspects of vaccine damage that we need to return to; we should not worry about the vast problems associated with furthering legislation that is regarded as retrospective.

My final point is about the need for the Government to tackle legal professional privilege. They should move towards ending it as far as many of their own operations are concerned. Ministers invariably seek to uphold legal advice received from their Departments or Treasury counsel under the blanket of the provision of legal professional privilege. That applies even where the draft legislation or regulations are designed to protect the public for unfair treatment. The end of the use of legal professional privilege over measures intended to protect the public interest would facilitate the fuller understanding of the implications of legislative and regulatory proposals so that more relevant amendments could be tabled. Such an approach would be in keeping with the general intentions of the Data Protection Act 1998, the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and the code of practice for access to Government information.

It is important to have opportunities to attach amendments to particular measures in the Queen's Speech or to look to other avenues such as ten-minute Bills in order to advance various parts of my agenda for the coming Session.

9.31 pm
Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)

It is, as ever, a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes), who, as always, favoured the House with a thoughtful and well argued case from first principles. Sadly, an independent cast of mind is all too rarely demonstrated in the Chamber. I know that the hon. Gentleman will be with us only until the next election, so we should savour his contributions between now and then.

Like many right hon. and hon. Members, I find much to welcome in the Gracious Speech, but I am indifferent to some aspects of it and hostile to others. I am struck by the number of proposed Bills or draft Bills that will affect Scotland. From a quick count through the paragraphs in the Queen's Speech, I estimate that about 18 Bills or draft Bills will apply north of the border. It is worth reminding people both here and north of the border of the continuing importance of the House to daily life in Scotland.

Since becoming a Member of Parliament in June 2001 I have spent a great deal of my time in Standing Committees. As a result of what I have observed I have become concerned about the manner in which Scottish interests are dealt with in the House and by the civil service in Whitehall post devolution. It has become apparent to me that Scotland has, for all intents and purposes, fallen off the civil service radar in Whitehall so that there is now almost a presumption that Scotland has its own Government or Executive who should deal with Scottish issues. Sadly, that is not the case.

I recently had a conversation with a senior member of the Crown Office, the head of the prosecution service in Scotland, who told me that it is sometimes consulted on legislation that will have an impact on the Scottish legal system, but that it is invariably done too late. It is done after decisions have been taken and after any point at which the distinctiveness of Scottish law can be taken properly into account. It is the integration of Scots law into the business of the House that continues to concern me. I can think of many example—the Extradition Bill and, more recently, the Crime (International co-operation) Bill, on whose Standing Committee I served.

It seems to me that the problem is somewhat unnecessary. I have expressed doubts about the need for it in the past, but we continue to have the Scotland Office. Surely the job of Scotland Office Ministers, instead of running around trying to find photo opportunities, should be to give their time to Standing Committees and to Report stages of Bills. The Crime (International Co-operation) Bill is a recent classic example. We were dealing with amendments that had come from the Law Society of Scotland, and the Home Office Minister more or less shrugged her shoulders and said, "We haven't heard from the Scottish Executive about this, and we don't see what the problem is." Of course the Government had not heard from the Scottish Executive. Why would they have done? The matter was not devolved.

One subject that would normally be a devolved matter, but which will come to the House in the coming year because the Scottish Parliament has passed a Sewel motion, is the registration of civil partnerships. I am prepared to give a broad welcome to that because it is long overdue, and it is certainly proper that we should recognise that people in same-sex relationships have hitherto had highly prejudicial and unequal treatment in law.

However, I echo a point that was made earlier: there should be some provision to apply the legislation to opposite-sex couples who choose—because of their personal circumstances, for religious reasons, or for any other reason—not to get married in either a civil or a religious ceremony. I hope that the Government will give that idea some consideration during the Bill's passage. The Leader of the Opposition said that this provision was about life choices, and he was right—but we must recognise that a great many people's life choice is to cohabit with someone of the opposite sex without getting married. If we make provision for same-sex couples but not for opposite-sex couples, that may not be understood by the population at large, and we risk damaging what will already be a difficult and controversial piece of legislation.

I would not be a Liberal Democrat if I could resist the temptation to speak about constitutional issues, and a number of those are dealt with in the Gracious Speech. First, there is the abolition of the remaining hereditary peers in the other place. That is overdue and I welcome it, but I regret that at this stage the Government have chosen not to go the whole hog and allow the second House to be properly elected. That will become a more clamant case as the years go by. Patronage is no substitute for democracy.

There is something else that I do not quite understand. At this point I should declare my Presbyterian interests. If we are getting rid of the hereditary peers, why are the Church of England bishops to be kept? As a Presbyterian, I find it obnoxious that the Church of England should remain established, and episcopalians should still be represented in the other place. If that is how I, as a Presbyterian, feel, how must Roman Catholics, Hindus, Muslims and those of any other faith feel about that? I shall seek to return to the subject by tabling amendments later in the Session.

I also broadly welcome the long-overdue legislation to create a supreme court. Scots law has not always been treated well by the Judicial Committee of the other place, and I hope that as the mechanisms of the supreme court are being constructed, one can be found to involve a minimum representation of Scottish qualified jurists in the determination of any civil case that comes to the supreme court from Scotland.

I have no truck with those who say that Scottish civil cases should be repatriated to the Court of Session. That would not be a sensible or workable operation, given the great interaction that there now is between our common civil law and the statute law that affects the whole of the United Kingdom. We should not miss the opportunity offered by the supreme court to deal better with Scots law.

From a constituency point of view, one of the most important measures in the Gracious Speech will be the energy Bill—in shorthand, the BETTA Bill. It will have a profound impact on access to the national grid for developers of renewable energy generation in my constituency. That is essential if we are to develop our abundant wind, tidal and wave resources, which we are keen to share with the rest of the country. The current system' requires massive up-front charges for grid connections, due to the byzantine rules operated by Ofgem. I do not think that that situation will improve, so we in the northern isles will be looking closely at the progress of the BETTA Bill.

May I make a plea for a change of mind in the operation of Ofgem? Only last week, Ofgem announced that it deemed the hydro benefit—in effect, a subsidy to electricity distribution in the highlands and islands that has existed in some form for many, many years—contrary to European competition law, and that it was to be abolished. That announcement seemed to come as something of a surprise to the Department of Trade and Industry but, to his credit, the Minister for Energy, E- Commerce and Postal Services said that he would seek other ways of preserving the benefit. I hope that he is able to do so. The benefit is crucial to the highlands and islands and especially to my constituency, yet I first heard about the matter only last Monday on Radio Scotland. Surely, there should be better provision for consultation with communities and their representatives, such as me, on issues of such fundamental importance.

I shall finish by talking about asylum. Like many Scots, I have looked with concern, growing occasionally to horror, at the manner in which Dungavel detention centre in Lanarkshire has operated. Nothing that I have heard in the past few days from Government spokesmen and others about the proposed treatment of children makes me feel more optimistic about the centre. We must take seriously the treatment of children in detention centres. It is already bad enough that we detain them in Dungavel for as long as we do, but now it is suggested that they are to be put into care. Whose care? There is already a paucity of foster places and places in children's homes.

I am concerned about the abolition of the second appeal in asylum cases. Twenty per cent. of such appeals are successful. What will happen to such people if that provision is removed?

I am aware that at least one more Member wants to contribute to the debate so I end with this point: as a representative of one of only three entirely island constituencies, I look forward with great interest and a small measure of apprehension to learning to which island the official Opposition intend to send their asylum seekers.

9.43 pm
Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab)

In the early years of the Soviet Union, it is said that a message went out from the communist party to the country: "The dawn of socialism is just over the horizon". One peasant turned to another and said, "I'm quite happy with all this socialism stuff, but what's this word horizon?" His colleague said, "The horizon is an imaginary place; the closer you get to it the further away it seems".

That may have been the case in the Soviet Union, but in real politics, in democratic politics, things that are just over the horizon tend to creep up on us and suddenly arrive. There is no pretence that today's Gracious Speech does not take some cognisance of the fact that a general election is just over the horizon. That election will creep up on us pretty quickly, in political terms.

The Government's first term in office was about getting the basics right. The Government implemented 176 manifesto commitments in a period when they also had to control the country's economic circumstances. The Government were successful: inflation and interest rates were under control, unemployment was falling, and economic competence and stability were at a high level. Without that economic success, we could not have had the spending policies that have been put in place, or the investment in public services. We would not have been able to prepare the Queen's Speech for this coming year, and we would not have been able to start to prepare for a third term in office.

The Government's second term in office—this term—has been about delivery. It has demonstrated that the pain of holding back on investment, as happened for some of the first term in office, was worth while. It has shown that the Government's investment of cash in the public services, and their modernisation of those services, have worked to improve delivery. As a result, those public services are able to fulfil the functions that they were designed to perform. The task has not been easy, but people will judge the Government on their record in respect of the delivery of public services and the management of the economy.

The Government's third term will be about renewal, and about moving on to a future that is fair for everyone. That is where today's Queen's Speech starts to lead us. It will be about making sure that boom and bust can never return, because they will be designed out of the economy. It will be about giving ordinary people ownership of the ideas that drive our public services, and not just of the services themselves and of the choices that can be made. That ownership will be experienced, both collectively and individually, within a framework made up of community and social values and the progressive politics espoused by Labour Members.

Only when the practical approach and the ideas and values that drive it are in harmony can we ever hope to succeed in our delivery. The Queen's Speech shows that we are moving in the right direction

The Queen's Speech is consistent with the preparatory work of the past six years—or one and a half terms of office. It contains some excellent measures. For four years, until last summer, I was Parliamentary Private Secretary to my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche). For two years of that time, she was the Minister with responsibility for equality. I know how hard she worked to get the civil partnership legislation ready, and I am delighted at its inclusion in today's Queen's Speech.

However, I want to turn to a matter touched on by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) and others. The civil partnership legislation means that any couple—same sex or otherwise—can have certain legal rights if the two members of that couple are prepared to make a lifetime commitment to each other. That right has always been available to heterosexual couples, but the proposed legislation will bring parity for homosexual couples. Even so, registration will play an important part, and ensure that the two sets of circumstances will be equivalent. Without registration, questions will be asked about commitment, and every couple could end up in court in an attempt to determine what rights—in respect of pensions, parenting, immigration, property and so on—should be shared. Registration will make it clear that any long term commitment between two people, regardless of the circumstances, will be recognised in law.

Mr. Carmichael

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Tom Levitt

I may give way a little later on. The hon. Gentleman and I have been restricted to 15 minutes, whereas other speakers in the debate were able to go on for nearly 20 minutes.

As a former trustee of the Royal National Institute for Deaf People, I am especially pleased that the draft disability Bill was mentioned in the Queen's Speech. In 1997, the Government set up the disability rights task force. We then went on to establish the disability rights commission, and my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) was instrumental in that long campaign. In 2001, the Government published "Towards Inclusion", their response to the report from the disability rights task force. Many of the issues addressed in "Towards Inclusion" are now in law, but outstanding issues remain that the new Bill will address. It will address transport issues and—I hope—it will give public authorities a duty to promote equality for disabled people. I also hope that it will expand the definition of disability more widely, as the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mrs. Calton) suggested, to include those with HIV and cancer.

As chair of the all-party group on the voluntary sector and charities, I am especially pleased to see that the role of charities will come of age in a new charities Bill. We often see the economy as having three sectors the—public sector, the private sector and the voluntary sector. However, over the past few years, other sectors have emerged. For example, we have the compact between voluntary sector and public sector operations. Co-operatives and not-for-profit companies fit in between the voluntary sector and the private sector. Public interest companies, with a charitable purpose, will be established by another Bill and will fall between the public and private sectors. We no longer have a triangular model, but a continuum of different vehicles with different functions that work to deliver quality services in partnership with other parts of the economy.

The Bill will enable the charitable and voluntary sectors to maximise the contribution that they make to society. It will remove arbitrary restrictions on their operation, modernise the definition of "charitable purposes" and greatly benefit national voluntary sector organisations and charities, as well as the small ones with which we each work daily in our constituencies.

The future of our economy depends on investment in skills. We need more graduates. The target of 50 per cent. of 30-year-olds—not 21-year-olds—with degrees is modest compared with some countries with similar economies. We need investment and we need to generate more graduate-style jobs. We need to ensure that we are a highly skilled, highly paid economy and that we resist the temptation to fall behind and become a warehouse economy. Therefore, we rely on a healthy, vibrant higher education sector to teach students and for research.

Where should the investment come from? I hope that we have all agreed that up-front fees are dead, because they are politically difficult and there is no reason for them. The taxpayer spends about £6,000 on every university student, about £4,500 on every sixth former, about £4,000 on every secondary school pupil, about £3,000 on every primary school pupil and about £1,800 on every pre-school child. If we are serious about a long-term commitment to, and investment in, education to improve the qualifications that people achieve and to benefit the economy, we should put our investment in the early years. That would generate a more receptive generation for higher education later down the line. That is why I have no qualms about asking graduates to make a contribution to pay for what they have received. Many will not be asked to pay anything because they will not earn enough. Nobody who earns under £15,000 a year will be asked to make a contribution. The advantage of this proposal over a graduate tax is that graduates pay a graduate tax for the rest of their life. Under our proposal, graduates will cease to pay when their debt has been repaid and it will not be a lifetime burden.

Some countries are ahead of us on this matter. Australia's system for financing undergraduates and graduates could be a successful model to follow. It is essential to stress that, under a top-up system, universities should not and will not be free to choose what fees they levy, but that fees will be approved by an independent body—a regulator—and in that sense there will not be a free-for-all for universities to charge what they want.

My local university is the university of Derby and it has establishments within the High Peak constituency, in the town of Buxton. Derby is almost unique because it represents a coming together of higher and further education. I would argue that, if we are going to have deferred fees for higher education, let us have them for further education as well.

I have a constituent who, three years ago, had to give up his job as an engineer because, through meningitis, he contracted epilepsy. As a result of epilepsy he can no longer work with machinery. He wants to become a quantity surveyor—it takes all sorts, but apparently there is a great demand for quantity surveyors and there is a choice of ways of qualifying. However, he has found that the fees for that non-degree course, which he wants to take by distance learning, are higher than those that are being proposed for the highest level of fees for higher education.

There is a huge disparity between FE fees in different parts of the country and for different courses. For most people, further education is much more tied in to people's vocational experience and development than higher education is. Further education is more likely to involve working on the job and is more likely to have that vocational link to a person's earnings. It may not produce as dramatic an effect as getting a degree would, but certainly the person studying moves onwards with more qualifications. I realise that FE is a complex sector but I do ask that we look very seriously at producing the same sort of equity in FE as deferred fees will produce in higher education.

I would have liked to dwell on other elements of the Queen's Speech, but time has almost eluded me. I very much welcome the creation of a children's commissioner for England. The measures proposed on domestic violence, which accounts for a quarter of all violent crime, are also very welcome indeed. I am absolutely confident that the hunting legislation is not in the Queen's Speech simply because it is not this year's legislation but last year's unfinished business, but as unfinished business we must tackle it. It is a question of faith and I am absolutely certain that when the time comes, it will be there and it will have my support.

The measures in the Queen's Speech stand out as being sensible, appropriate, measured, practicable and necessary—and many are exciting too. I am looking forward to this Session and the legislation therein. I have great pleasure in contributing to the debate. My maiden speech was in the Queen's Speech debate in 1997, so I have pleasure in being the one who has the privilege of bringing the first day of debate on this year's speech to a close. I hope that we shall move on quickly into the legislative programme and deliver, deliver, deliver.

Debate adjourned—[Vernon Coaker]

Debate to be resumed tomorrow.