Sir George Winds Up Queen's Speech Debate
25 Nov 1999
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire): Let me begin by saying a word or two about the high-quality debate that we have had. I shall then put it in the broader context of the debates that we have had over the past week.
Not even his most ardent supporter could assert that the Chancellor's speech was one of his finest. He seemed to be in a particularly bad mood this afternoon, but he gave my party advance notice of the line of attack that the Labour party will deploy against us at the next election. It struck me as rather implausible, but we are grateful for the notice of where Labour will be coming from. Like the Prime Minister at Question Time, he was struggling to deny that taxes are rising under the Labour Government.
The Chancellor was followed by the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell (Mr. Taylor), who identified some rather worrying factors in the economy that the Chancellor had overlooked, such as the high pound and its impact on exports and manufacturing industry, higher house prices, which have been in the news today, and the north-south divide, which was a theme running through the debate. Along with other Liberal Democrat Members, he developed the war chest theory of politics. That is obviously a convenient theory for the Liberal Democrats, because they can feel free to spend it. They contrasted the sums that they alleged were accruing in the war chest with the problems of delivery that confront the Government on health and education.
We listened with respect, as we always do, to the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon), who made a similar speech to the one that he made in the same debate last year. He continues to be worried about the high interest rates set by the Monetary Policy Committee, and their impact on employment in his constituency. He made an interesting comment about hypothecation. That issue is worth a serious debate on its own. If hypothecation is to re-enter the public accounts, we should have a debate along the lines suggested by the right hon. Gentleman. What are the ground rules? How do we deal with the point raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor)? What would the baseline have been before the hypothecated stream of revenue came in? The right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne was right to put down a marker about hypothecation, and we should look into that issue again on a different occasion. He made, as he always does, an eloquent case for immediate entry into EMU.
My right hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk asked for a Government statement on a pesticide tax. That is of concern to farmers, and would have a serious impact on agriculture. He asked for a clear answer, and I hope that he will receive one when the Leader of the House winds up the debate.
My right hon. Friend rightly said that the pig industry was on its knees, and made the case for some short-term, targeted assistance to help with the welfare and other costs borne by farmers in this country but not by some of our competitors. He raised a serious issue about savings, which also needs a debate on its own. He drew attention to the worrying decline in the propensity to save, and identified some of the reasons for that, such as the change from PEPs and TESSAs to ISAs and some of the Government statements that may have undermined confidence in the pensions industry. He introduced the House to Mr. FRED20 -- an important character who is doing some seriously damaging work in the City of London.
I listened with interest to the right hon. Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies). I congratulate him on the research that he has undertaken to identify the origins of the third way. He went all the way back to 1944. He made an old Labour speech, and it was none the worse for that. He was concerned that the Chancellor would be trapped by his own rules and prevented from doing the things that his party wants to see done. He outlined some of the problems of delivery that a number of hon. Members have mentioned during the debate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor) reminded us of the wisdom of my right hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk in getting an opt-out. He made a trenchant speech about the common agricultural policy, and about the Financial Services Authority and some of the risks of tax harmonisation.
I listened with interest to the right hon. Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), who referred to the research that she had commissioned on the impact on children of young mothers returning to work. She identified that what they really wanted was choice. She went on to say that the other side of the coin of choice for the mother was a regulatory burden on businesses. She made the case for assisting businesses with some of the additional burdens that have been placed on them. She asked for a new deal for families, which sounded to me like a new headache for the Chief Secretary, as it had one or two pound signs attached to it.
My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Page) spoke about the importance of productivity. That issue was not mentioned much during the debate, except by the hon. Member for Bolton, West (Ms Kelly), but it is clearly an important factor. My hon. Friend also spoke about the Post Office. I am sure that he will want to serve on the Standing Committee considering that Bill. It would be a tragedy if his great knowledge of the Post Office was denied to the Committee.
The right hon. Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke) spoke about the importance of assisting the third world. It was right that there was at least one speech in this debate on the economy that focused on assistance to the third world. It was a good speech on the same theme as his contribution in the Queen's Speech debate last year, but it was particularly timely as we move towards the WTO meeting in Seattle shortly.
The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) asked where all the radicals had gone, and said that parts of the Queen's Speech appeal to Labour's vested interests without facing up to some of the real issues confronting the countryside. The decline of the rural economy is not addressed by attacking those who hunt foxes.
We enjoyed what I believe was the first post-ministerial speech of the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson). He wrongly accused my party of being remote from business, and was full of praise for the Chancellor; but he also spoke of the need to tackle the regional imbalance, and identified specific problems in the north-east. In that regard, he was echoed by the hon. Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell), who made what I considered to be a rather effective speech -- a blend of humour and statistics. He illustrated the north-south divide by telling us about his daughter, who has just bought a house in the south-east. He advocated regional interest rates, but then modestly asserted that they would not work. He said -- I wrote it down at the time -- that in his constituency people were on their knees, which contrasted with the rosy picture of the national economy painted by the Chancellor.
The hon. Gentleman also asserted that his constituency was losing revenue support grant to the south. I found that deeply worrying, because I happen to represent a southern constituency. We have lost revenue support grant, but we were told that that was because it was going to the north. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman and I should form a joint deputation to the Treasury to find out exactly where the money has gone. Perhaps it has gone to the midlands.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley) said that tax was going up. He identified, and quantified, the impact of the stealth taxes; he then made some helpful suggestions about business rates. He made the point that they had a disproportionate impact on smaller businesses, and generously proffered an item that was in our last manifesto -- now, sadly, surplus to requirements -- that would redistribute the burden, moving it from small businesses to those best able to pay the extra costs.
The hon. Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) made a speech which will, I am sure, be well received in her constituency, and also in the Whips Office. My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) spoke of the Financial Services and Markets Bill, and also put the British economy in a broader international context. He pointed out that, in such a context, our growth rates are not that hot, and that growth in productivity is slowing down; he also made the point about the north-south divide.
Mr. Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
Sir George Young: With respect, I must point out that the hon. Gentleman has not been present for the bulk of the debate, unlike a number of other hon. Members.
The hon. Member for Colne Valley (Kali Mountford) made a brave speech in defence of IR35. I suspect that, as I speak, her speech is whistling around the internet, and that when she reads her mail tomorrow she may find that highly literate people have taken exception to some of what she said. She also criticised what my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) had said about single mothers, asserting that it was all sticks and no carrots. She should be cautious: that sounds to me like exactly the sort of policy that her Government may shortly introduce.
Until that point, no one had really focused on the Government Resources and Accounts Bill, then the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) asserted -- I wrote this down as well -- that it was the most important measure to come before the House in the current Parliament. I am sure that it will be useful in reforming the national accounts and helping us to make sensible decisions about priorities, but I must say that I do not expect it to live up to the star billing that the hon. Gentleman gave it.
The hon. Member for Shipley (Mr. Leslie) -- a patient man, who sat through virtually all the debate -- tried to paint my party as an extremist party. That, I think, lacked credibility.
My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) had tried to make his speech four hours earlier. Fortunately for the House, he then had four hours in which to polish the speech, which focused on the regulatory burden imposed on firms in his constituency.
The hon. Member for Bolton, West (Ms Kelly) began with some remarks about the clearest vision of any Administration. She is too nice and too clever to be deceived by her own oratory. We all know that there is no clear vision at all; it is all done by focus groups, and it changes from week to week.
It now seems much longer than a week ago that the debate on the Loyal Address was launched from Cumbria. Since then, there have been 127 speeches from Members, including two high-quality maiden speeches -- I heard the speech by the hon. Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan) last week.
If one analysed the speeches of Labour Members, however, loyalty would not be the adjective that sprang to mind. In what is probably the last full Queen's Speech of the Parliament, the Government must have hoped that Members would queue up to pronounce their full support for the programme. On the first day, 12 Labour Members spoke and five expressed concern about the proposals in the Queen's Speech. Over the week, three major Bills attracted significant dissent from Labour Back Benchers. The Minister who used to have Cabinet responsibility for the Freedom of Information Bill, the right hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), was one of many who criticised that proposed Bill, saying:
"We are not there yet." -- [Official Report, 17 November 1999; Vol. 339, c. 40.]
The Minister who had Cabinet responsibility for National Air Traffic Services, the right hon. Member for Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh (Dr. Strang), disagrees with the Government about the proposed privatisation. He said:
"I have no doubt that many Labour Members are still trying to persuade Ministers not to privatise Britain's air traffic control."
On the same say, the hon. Members for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) and for Reading, West (Mr. Salter) expressed similar doubts. The Chairman of the Transport Sub-Committee of the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs, the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), also attacked the NATS proposals and said:
"It is not sensible to hand over air traffic control to a private company whatever its nationality". -- [Official Report, 18 November 1999; Vol. 339, c. 151, 165.]
Yesterday, the proposals on trial by jury were questioned by many Labour Members, having originally been opposed by the Home Secretary himself. On the first day of the debate on the Loyal Address, the hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham) went so far as to say:
"We are going to restrict the right to trial, and that is a matter that should cause concern to any person with libertarian feelings." -- [Official Report, 17 November 1999; Vol. 339, c. 90.]
He went on to oppose the withdrawal of benefits from offenders who breach community service orders.
I suspect that those doubts resemble an iceberg. For every two Labour Members who voice their doubts in public, another seven share them in private. Therefore, the Government's legislative programme will not be the unifying, inclusive one that they wanted. It will be contentious and divisive.
In her article in this week's edition of The House Magazine, entitled "A better Britain for all", the Leader of the House found space for many of the smaller Bills in the programme. The bigger ones were less lucky. The mode of trial Bill got but 12 words. Astonishingly, nowhere in the entire article is there any reference to the Freedom of Information Bill, one of the flagships, or to the proposals for NATS. The business manager in her may wish that those Bills were not proceeding, but they are.
The language of the Queen's Speech is perhaps more partisan than it has been. It resembles last year's in one respect: "modern" or "modernise", which appeared 12 times in last year's Queen's Speech, appear 10 times this year, though the institutions covered by the Governments' enthusiasm for reform has widened to include the United Nations.
The Queen's Speech is different from all earlier ones in two respects. First, it is the first Queen's Speech whose Bills will be scrutinised by the transitional House of Lords. Secondly, it is the first Queen's Speech since devolution. It is worth spending a moment reflecting on those two points, which have not been commented on before.
Reading The House Magazine for 27 September -- the editor is just behind me -- I read that Baroness Jay said that the interim House of Lords
"will be more legitimate, because its members have earned their places, and therefore more effective in playing its part in our bicameral institution."
In The Parliamentary Monitor of November this year, she wrote that the House
"will be able to speak with more authority . . . a decision by the House not to support a proposal from the Government will carry more weight because it will have to include supporters from a range of political and independent opinions. So the Executive will be better held to account."
Can the Leader of the House therefore confirm that she expects more amendments from the other place and that it will be more difficult simply to disregard them?
Earlier this month, the Government would have lost on one of Lord Ashley's amendments to the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill without a single Conservative vote. The Government simply ignored it, but, if they assert that the new upper House is more legitimate, will they be able to disregard its views in the same cavalier way in the current Session? When the business managers decided to put 28 Bills in the Queen's Speech, had they considered that dimension, as well as the fact that, as I have said, Back-Bench Labour Members will need time to ventilate their own concerns about the programme?
Last Thursday, at business questions, I asked the Leader of the House if the Government would say which Bills in the Queen's Speech applied only to England and Wales, post-devolution. It was a highly relevant question, as an answer to it would show how the House of Commons has been changed by the Government's constitutional reforms. I hope that, in her reply to this debate, the right hon. Lady will say how many of the 28 Bills -- my estimate is 18 -- do not apply to Scotland, but are effectively domestic Bills for England and Wales. The answer should illuminate the debate about those constitutional reforms -- which Labour Members have been anxious to avoid, as they have no answer on the democratic deficit in this Chamber for English Members.
The Government's measures in the Queen's Speech amount to a hotch-potch of proposals with no discernible theme. They are beads with no string, with a substantial number of beads spilling all over the parliamentary floor. If the Government are able to mismanage a programme comprising 18 Bills, they are certainly able to mismanage a programme with 28 Bills.
For many of us, the shambles of the fag-end of the previous Session is still fresh in our memory -- four guillotines in the last 10 days of the previous Session, and 820 amendments to the Greater London Authority Bill. However, far from learning the lessons of the end of the previous Session, the Government seem determined to repeat and to amplify their mistakes.
The Times of 18 November states:
"Government sources voiced confidence that the ambitious programme could be driven through, even though it is far bigger than in the previous two years. It seems certain that Ministers will use new powers to allow some Bills to be carried forward from one session to the next."
I remind the Leader of the House that that can be done only by agreement. Perhaps she will also explain to the House what is meant by "driven through". Is not the truth that the only way in which the Government will be able to get all those Bills on the statute book is by over-reliance on the guillotine and curtailment of debate, with the consequence that legislation will be as shambolic as the Greater London Authority Bill was?
What about the clear breach of a manifesto commitment? One might have thought that a programme of 28 Bills in the third Queen's Speech of the Parliament would have had room for the commitment to hold a referendum on electoral reform for the Westminster Parliament. The Government have clearly breached one of their manifesto commitments.
The Queen's Speech does not help the Government with their problems of delivery. A consistent theme in today's debate, on both sides of the House, has been the gap between rhetoric and reality.
In North-West Hampshire, we are concerned about the report of the panel on Serplan -- the so-called Crow report, which has been mentioned in the debate. Despite the rhetoric on protecting the environment, we are confronted with urban sprawl, linking Basingstoke to Winchester and on to Southampton -- is that what Labour means by joined-up government?
This is meant to be the Government's year of delivery. We all know the syndrome: the goods are promised on a certain day, so one stays at home, waiting for the van to arrive. Nothing happens in the morning, so one rings at midday and is told that the driver is in the middle of his round and will be there shortly. At dusk, one begins to lose hope. When one rings up again, one is told that there has been an unexpected hold-up -- which of course is not the company's fault -- and that they hope to get there tomorrow. It is the same with the Government and their promises. The goods that were promised are not being delivered, and the customers are becoming impatient.
As with so much else with the Government, they say one thing but do another. We have the language of devolution, but the reality of central control. The Cabinet Office deregulation Bill is contradicted by the large amounts of red tape contained in other provisions. On the one hand, the Government introduce measures that virtually privatise air traffic control and the Post Office; yet, in the same programme, they seek to re-nationalise a part of Railtrack.
It seems that the Government's programme lacks common sense. Britain needs to give more power to communities and to families -- to build a more secure society; to release Britain's potential; to protect Britain's integrity and independence; and to restore faith in politics. It is those priorities, not those of Labour, that are in line with the common-sense priorities of the British people.
The Queen's Speech is irrelevant to Britain's needs; inconsistent within itself; unpopular with many of the Government's own supporters; and wholly indigestible for Parliament. That is the bad news. The good news is that it is the last full programme from this Labour Government.
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Copyright Sir George Young Bt. 2015