Queen's Speech Debate
Speech

House of Commons

It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac). I listened carefully to what she said, and she made a commendably bipartisan speech— [ Interruption . ] Unusually so, I hear. I assure the hon. Lady that nobody in the House is trivialising the threat, but many risk trivialising the liberties that we enjoy. That is the concern that the Opposition have about much in the Queen’s Speech.

I agree with the hon. Lady on the need to toughen border controls. I hope that she will support our policy, which is to ask for a proper border police force, rather than the re-badging of organisations as the Government have misleadingly proposed. I agree with her strongly about the fear of crime and was interested in what she said. In my constituency, crime is mercifully low, but antisocial behaviour remains a concern in every community. As she rightly said, the solution to antisocial behaviour is not more legislation but good old-fashioned policing. I am not even convinced by the antisocial behaviour order procedure, as it is not being enforced and breaches are treated with complete contempt. She was right to say that often what we need are not new measures but the better enforcement of existing ones. That will be one of the themes of my speech.

The House is quite sparsely attended today, but we have been treated to some of the finest speeches that I have heard here for a long time. I am thinking of my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), the shadow Home Secretary, who made a measured and important contribution, and of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), to whose wise words the Government should listen carefully. I am also thinking of the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), who brought great wisdom and objectivity to his remarks.

However, with due deference to all three, I am thinking particularly of the hon. and learned Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews). He made a fine speech, even by his standards, and that is saying something. His doctrine of non-interventionism and his love of liberty suggest that he is in the wrong party— [ Interruption. ] Perhaps there is room for dispute; the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed suggests that the right hon. and learned Gentleman belongs with the Liberal Democrats, but I believe that we are now the authentic defenders of liberty and that he should think of us instead. I see the hon. and learned Gentleman returning to the Chamber. I invite him to read my invitation to join the Conservative party in tomorrow’s Hansard. His two doctrines of non-interventionism and liberty underpin much of what I want to say, not only on matters directly relevant to today’s debate but more generally on the Gracious Speech.

I should like to say, through the Whips on the Government Front Bench, that I am very grateful to the Government Chief Whip for doing all that he could to resolve the unsatisfactory handling of the re-formation of the Select Committees following the machinery of government changes earlier this year. I am currently in limbo, because the Department of Trade and Industry no longer exists and its Select Committee was wound up at the end of the last Session. We were supposed to have a seamless transition to the new Committee. I am not sure whether the Committee chaired by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed still exists—

Mr. Beith: Yes, it does.

Peter Luff: He is lucky. Mine does not. I speak as a simple Back Bencher. I see on the Order Paper today, however, that our Committee has been re-nominated and I hope that it will get going again very quickly. I want to put on record my gratitude to the Chief Whip, but I hope that we shall not see a repeat of the unfortunate circumstances that arose at the end of last Session.

The Government have spoken of the need for an increased role for Select Committees. The Lord High Chancellor, to give him his proper title, spoke briefly about that during his speech today. I would have liked to have asked him what he meant by an increased role, as I have seen only rather limited proposals for confirmatory hearings, which have their limitations. In a way, Select Committees have that power anyway. We certainly enjoyed our de facto confirmatory hearing with Lord Jones of Birmingham when he appeared before us in his role as the new trade Minister. I am not sure whether he enjoyed it quite so much, but we certainly had a good time. There also seem to be proposals for increased debates on Select Committee reports, which would be good. All too often, such reports are written and then simply gather dust. However, Select Committees already have power to revisit reports and to reopen inquiries if they are dissatisfied with the progress that is being made, so I shall be interested to see exactly what the increased powers for Select Committees will involve.

The Government appear to be saying a great deal about improving scrutiny, and I welcome that. One innovation to which I am particularly looking forward is the new provision for topical debates at the end of Question Time. That could be quite a challenge to Secretaries of State, who will be expected to lead those sections of Question Time. That will be good. I am puzzled, however, by the draft legislative programme. I had not realised, until the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed told me, that an item had been quickly and peremptorily dropped from it, and I agree with him about the importance of the coroners Bill. I do not think that we need a draft programme, however. Instead, the Government should be putting their energies into draft Bills. That is what really helps better scrutiny in this place.

I want to refer to about seven different Bills, but I will try to be brief; the House should not worry, they will not all get the exploration that I would like to give them. So far as I can tell, only one of those Bills exists in draft, which is unfortunate. The Government need to think again about whether pre-empting the Queen’s Speech in July actually serves any useful purpose. Certainly it was too late for the old Trade and Industry Committee to examine the Bills proposed in the draft legislative programme, because we just could not organise a meeting in time following the very late announcement. Some of the Bills from the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform are very welcome, but I do not see the point of the preliminary announcement.

My main subjects today are not confined to the Home Office or, indeed, to the Ministry of Justice. I apologise to Ministers, but I intend to use the latitude of the second day of the Queen’s Speech debate to range more widely over issues relevant to tomorrow’s debate on local government, next Tuesday’s debate on education and Wednesday’s on the economy. As the hon. Member for Cleethorpes suggested, many issues need a more holistic approach. I hesitate to use that word and I am struggling for a better one, but joined-up is equally a cliché— [Interruption.] Yes, a broad approach; I am grateful for that suggestion. I refer to issues that cannot easily be pigeon-holed into individual days of debate or departmental responsibilities. Competitiveness, skills, climate change, security and energy supply—these are issues in respect of which many Departments have a role to play.

I suppose that my overarching concern—I noticed it in this Queen’s Speech as I have in previous ones—is that the Government seem to be addicted to legislation, regulation and interference rather than just effective administration. Why cannot Government Departments, Government organisations, public services and local authorities be left to get on with the job and do things better rather than this constant shuffling of the pack? I am thinking of what will be the Trade and Industry Committee’s last ever publication, which comes out tomorrow. It deals with public procurement. There are some very important recommendations in that report, but as far as I can tell none requires new legislation to make them work. I suggest one motto for the Government: “Doing less better”, which would be a good idea.

Let me deal with issues that specifically concern the Home Office and, to some extent, the Department for Work and Pensions. I am thinking of the scandal over recent immigration statistics. We do not need a criminal justice or immigration Bill to deal with the problem; rather, we should let Departments do their jobs better. One of our recent Select Committee reports—“Europe moves East”—drew attention to the woeful inadequacies in immigration statistics and suggested mechanisms available to the Government to provide better and more accurate estimates. It does not require legislation to improve the position; it requires the Government to get on with the job of running government more effectively.

I had intended to quote the Select Committee report at length, but I will not do so. I hope that the Government will respond thoughtfully to our suggestions for better statistics, which are really important not just for public services but for the whole future of the UK economy’s competitiveness. We need to know with greater certainty how many immigrants are over here and we need to know their long-term intentions. How many of them will remain here and how many will go back to their home countries, taking with them the skills and good will for this country that they fostered while they were here?

I would like the Home Office to think very carefully about one particular issue in the report. There is evidence that central and east European migrant workers who come here to work in the agricultural sector rapidly move on to higher skill jobs elsewhere or to other jobs that they find more congenial. The agricultural sector, and particularly the horticultural sector, is thus short of people to pick and pack produce, which has potentially serious consequences for the availability of British food.

On Saturday, I talked to a farmer who is cutting his strawberry crop by half because he does not believe that he can find the workers to pick his strawberries. He is going back to arable farming over large areas of his land. At precisely the time when British consumers are demanding more products, that is a very unwelcome development indeed. I hope that the Government will think again with the utmost care about the abolition of the seasonal agricultural workers scheme. We still need Ukrainians, Russians, Bulgarians and Romanians on those tightly monitored and well organised schemes to ensure that we have the people in place to provide British consumers with the British food that they want to eat. Again, however, that does not need new legislation; we just need to use existing legislation better. Indeed, perhaps ironically for a Conservative, I think that it is better not to scrap a piece of legislation that is already on the statute book.

Another example of where further legislation is unnecessary relates to education. We are getting an education Bill, but it will not sort out the most pressing education issue facing my constituents. I have given notice to the two other Members concerned that I would be raising this matter. I am pleased to see one of them in the Chamber, but I appreciate that as a Whip he is not able to respond to the comments that I am about to make. Worcestershire’s rotten funding deal is what disadvantages our children and our schools. We need to close the gap between ours and the better funded authorities—a gap that has grown in both absolute and relative terms over the past 10 years.

I observe in passing how great it is to have the time to debate the Queen’s Speech, but what a shame that we are not debating the comprehensive spending review or the pre-Budget report. In “The Governance of Britain”, the Government said that debates on those statements were literally automatic and should be an important part of this House’s scrutiny of the Executive. We seem to be denied the chance of a debate on those issues this time round, however, so the Queen’s Speech is the next best vehicle.

I am disappointed that the current Home Secretary—a Worcestershire Member of Parliament—who will be replying to the debate, was not able to address the unfair funding gap for Worcestershire when she was a Schools Minister. I am even more disappointed that she chooses to attack the local education authority for the cuts that it is obliged to make to local services as a result of the unfair funding deal that she was not able to address. The hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster) is shaking his head. He and I had quite a strong exchange recently about the issue of school balances. It is utterly outrageous that the Government ever planned to tax schools for making prudent provision for future financial years. Of course excess balances need to be treated with considerable concern, and reduced where possible. Many schools in Worcestershire, however, must save up across the end of a financial year for things that other schools, in other parts of the country, take for granted.

The idea that schools would lose money automatically for making prudent provision was an outrage. I was disappointed that the hon. Gentleman originally supported that policy. I am glad that the Government had a change of heart, and I hope that he now admits that the policy was wrong. I disagree with his comment that the county council is awash with cash. We do not need new legislation in the Queen’s Speech to address the huge financial problems that the county council faces in finding £25 million in savings. The Government have the power to put that right now, but instead Ministers and Government Members prefer to attack local people, head teachers, governors and councillors for their attempts to deal with the unfair situation.

That leads me to another future concern. We do not need a health and social care Bill to address the looming crisis in Worcestershire and around the country of the growing number of elderly, mentally impaired patients suffering from dementia and a range of other diseases of old age. The Government have given the NHS a 4 per cent. increase this year and have given local authorities less than 1 per cent. Let us guess whom they will blame when local councils have to make cuts that the NHS does not have to make, and when those elderly people pay the price. They are setting councils up to fail, and they will blame councils. The blame, however, lies with the Government. We need not a health and social care Bill but a better balance between the different parts of the care system. It is one of my overall themes that many of the problems that we face need not new Bills but a new Government.

The other main theme of my speech is that we are at the 11th hour on a number of issues. Time is running out on many issues of concern to my Committee, which I hope will be the Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Committee in a few days’ time. Such issues include: a skilled work force for the future; a secure energy supply; and a competitive, flexible Europe. Those issues are addressed by Bills in the Queen’s Speech, but given that the question of liberty has so rightly dominated this afternoon’s debate, the Government are approaching too many of those problems with unacceptable authoritarianism, burdened with a legacy of complacency.

I shall be briefer on the following subjects than I had hoped, as they are not strictly relevant to today’s debate, but let us take the example of the energy Bill. I will probably support that Bill in the Lobby, subject to its precise detail. How could any Conservative oppose a measure to cut carbon emissions, secure the best energy mix for the UK, encourage the private sector to fund, construct and operate new nuclear plants, assist private sector investment in gas supply projects and create a framework for private sector cash to be channelled into carbon capture and storage projects? What worries me, however, is that the Government have come to the subject so late. A legacy of complacency makes the Bill desperately overdue.

The current energy review flows from a missed opportunity—the 2003 energy White Paper. The writing was on the wall then, but the Government chose to ignore it. A realisation of the serious future energy gap that we face has kick-started the new energy review process, which has been under way for two years. Three consultations on nuclear power have taken place, but still no formal decision has been taken on whether to give the go-ahead. The public’s perception, I am afraid, is that it is just a rubber-stamping exercise, and that is not helped by the fact that the nuclear installations inspectorate has already begun a public consultation on potential reactor designs, before the Government’s announcement.

The Government should, say, two years ago, have made a more honest, rapid and prudent declaration that they wanted new nuclear power stations and pressed ahead then with the measures necessary to deliver them: persuading the public of the need; dealing with the nuclear waste legacy; and above all, creating a stable price for carbon. The Government still express confidence in the EU emissions trading scheme, and I hope that they are right. I am glad that they have reserved the option of taking additional powers should that scheme not deliver the price for carbon, but it is crucial not just for nuclear but for renewable energy.

The only area in which there seems to be progress is planning. I am delighted that the Government are trying to deal with that issue, but I worry that they may not be getting the methodology quite right. I am particularly worried about the fact that they are paying no attention to renewable heat and not enough attention to combined heat and power; but those are subjects for another debate.

Some people say that we need to be, in John Howard’s memorable phrase, “alert but not alarmed” about future energy supplies, but I am becoming a bit alarmed. More than 30 per cent. of our supply will shut down over the next 20 years, and all our nuclear power stations except Sizewell B, as well as many older coal-fired stations, are due to be closed. There is a real sense of a lost opportunity. This energy Bill should have been in the Queen's Speech two or three years ago, and I am sorry that it is so late.

I had to laugh recently when I read “Energy Markets Outlook”, published by the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. The Minister for Energy, the hon. Member for Croydon, North (Malcolm Wicks), commented that the report suggested the existence of

“significant medium-term opportunities for the construction of new electricity generation capacity in response to expected demand and forthcoming plant closures.”—[ Official Report, 23 October 2007; Vol. 465, c. 5WS.]

Of course there are significant medium-term opportunities, but we are in a panic: we need that generating capacity really quickly.

Let me return briefly to the planning issue. I hope that the planning Bill strikes the right balance between local accountability and national need, but I am nervous about the creation of the new commission. I think that there are other methods of ensuring the necessary clarity and enabling public inquiries to take place in a much shorter time. I hope that this Bill is the right one, but I am very apprehensive about it: I fear that it will take a sledgehammer to crack a nut, destroying local accountability in the process.

The hon. Member for Cleethorpes raised another issue that is directly relevant to the debate. The education and skills Bill is potentially very important because, as she said, there is a strong correlation between criminality and low levels of educational attainment. Ask any magistrate, and he or she will say that that is true.

Skills shortages in the UK work force are now chronic. Only about half our population have the equivalent of national vocational qualifications at level 3 or higher, and 31 or 32 per cent. have qualifications at level 1 or lower. Those are not the qualifications that the modern economy needs; it requires qualifications at level 3 or higher. One in four maths teachers are not specialists, but they are teaching maths because of shortages. The number of A-level physics students has declined by 38 per cent. over the last 17 years, while 26 per cent. of state secondary schools have no physics specialist and 12 per cent. have no chemistry specialist. One in six British adults does not have the literacy skills expected of an 11-year-old, and 50 per cent. of those people do not have that level of functional numeracy.

I am wearing my pass around my neck in order to demonstrate that the literacy skills problem may even extend to the Serjeant at Arms Department. I hope that when our passes are next reissued the word “It’s” in item 2, relating to unauthorised possession of the pass, will lose its apostrophe.

Dr. Julian Lewis: Eats, shoots and leaves!

Peter Luff: I think that the error has been duly noted, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I am encouraged by that.

The centrepiece of the education and skills Bill is the extension to 18 of the minimum school or training leaving age. I feel that that is an authoritarian approach from an authoritarian Government. It does not address the real issue, which is how we can motivate young people to want to be trained and how we can upskill the current work force. That is where we desperately need to improve our game. As I said earlier, employers now see level 3 as a benchmark. Countries in central and eastern Europe, behind the old iron curtain, have much higher levels of vocational and academic qualification, which give them a sharp competitive edge in the difficult world that we now face.

I think that the Bill sets the wrong agenda. We should not force people to do things that they do not want to do; we should encourage them to want to do those things. I agree that the number of NEETs—those not in education, employment or training—has risen to a scandalous level under this Government over the past few years, from 160,000 to 220,000, but we should encourage young people to stay in education rather than forcing them to do so. I wonder what would have happened if Richard Branson had been commanded to take A-levels in English literature and philosophy, rather than going off and making his fortune. I do not think that compulsion is the right way in which to deal with such an important issue.
What the Government need to address are the reasons for the poverty of aspiration that exists in too many of our communities. Broken families, welfare dependency, inner-city deprivation and discrimination are all symptoms of a broken society. The Government are appearing to be tough on skills shortages when they should be tough on the causes of skills shortages.
The last Bill to which I shall refer—I shall make it six rather than seven, in view of the time—is the European treaty Bill. I think it is a matter of trust that there should be a referendum on the European treaty. Trust is the paramount reason. Almost every Member was elected on the promise of a referendum on the treaty. The treaty is the constitution by another name and we should, on the grounds of honour and trust alone, have a referendum.
I have another major concern, however. Europe must face up more than it has done to the consequences of globalisation and an increasingly competitive world. I discern in this new treaty all the old instincts of the old Europe, such as the instinct to centralise—to take power away from countries and communities and to impose on them regimes that are not necessarily those required to survive and flourish in a competitive world.
I had hoped to speak for longer on this matter, but I shall truncate my remarks. We need a different kind of Europe. Let me return to my theme of authority. The Government say that we do not need a referendum because this House will decide, but this House has a large Government majority and Members will be whipped to support the Bill—although some brave Labour Members will break ranks and say, “No, we should have a referendum and let the people decide on this important question of a permanent transfer of power away from this House to the European Union.” I fear that by following that course of action the Government will again prove my central theme to do with their authority: the complacency of this Government. Europe needs to change, but the Government are using their authority to ensure that it does not do so.


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