Queen's Speech Debate
Speech

House of Commons

Peter Luff (Mid Worcestershire) (Con): I rise with both surprise and humility: surprise that there is not more competition from Labour Members to laud the Government's achievements on international affairs

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and defence; and humility following the two excellent maiden speeches to which the House has been treated. I am from the Marches myself—Monmouth does not seem so very far away from Worcestershire—but I have learned things today that I did not know. That just goes to show that sometimes one can learn things from speeches made in the House of Commons.

I salute the passion of the speech that we have just heard and also its messages, which are widely shared among Conservative Members. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies) on a speech at which he will look back with pride in years to come. The same is true of the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby), although I think that I know which of those two characters will be more trouble to his Whips Office—I speak as someone recently released from the burdens of that office. However, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on a fine speech.

It is customary to say that we have had a good debate at this stage of our proceedings on the Queen's Speech, but it is true. The debate has been characterised by many fine speeches. I was interested to sit next to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Kenneth Clarke) during his contribution. He was harsh on the Prime Minister and I certainly share his harsh analysis of the Prime Minister's record. However, he perhaps missed one thing that I rather wish that he had done as Chancellor of the Exchequer: independence of the Bank of England. The Government might just be remembered for that; it is perhaps their sole claim for a place in the history books of the United Kingdom.

It was a pleasure to hear the speech made by the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin). He told us that he was the first MP elected at the general election and for a period the only MP of the new Parliament. That reminds us of the person who I hope will be our last MP elected in a few weeks time and who is sadly missing from our proceedings today. I think that I should refer to him by name because he is not currently a Member—you will correct me if I am wrong, Mr. Deputy Speaker—but it would be nice to have Patrick Cormack back.

John Bercow: Sir Patrick.

Peter Luff: It would be nice to have Sir Patrick Cormack back with us in a few weeks.

The tests that we apply to a Queen's Speech are all different and personal, and I have four: does it enhance the freedom, security and prosperity of the subject; does it enhance our democracy; does it bring benefit to individual constituents, in this case those in Worcestershire; and does it contribute to a fairer and safer world, which is especially pertinent to today's debate? Let us first consider freedom, security and prosperity. I sometimes think that the only freedom in which the Government and Prime Minister believe is their freedom to be the Government and Prime Minister and that they believe that all other freedoms should bow down in abasement to that. That is sad because after the election that we have had, some humility is called for from all three major parties. Labour actually lost the

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popular vote in England, and only one in five voters supported it throughout the whole of the United Kingdom. Labour received the smallest vote share of a winning party. It is true that it has a majority in this place, but in my view it has no mandate.

Similarly, after a carefully targeted campaign, my party delivered a welcome increase in seats and, as we heard from those maiden speeches, we have some excellent new Members of Parliament. We have to be honest, however. Our vote share hardly increased at all, but had we managed an extra 1 per cent. or so on top of that smaller share, think how much smaller Labour's majority would have been.

The Liberal Democrats enjoyed moderate success, with a few new seats, but in the face of a spectacularly unpopular Prime Minister—those of us who were on the doorsteps know just how unpopular this Prime Minister has become—and despite being the only party to oppose the Iraq war, which is now also unpopular, although it was not at the time, they still could not get close to the vote share the equivalent party enjoyed at the height of the powers of Baroness Thatcher.

All three parties have lessons to learn. I was disappointed not to see more humility from the Prime Minister yesterday. He said:

"Let me gently remind" my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition,
however, which party won and which lost the election. He has 197 MPs. We have 256, and I stand here and he sits there."

That is rather like the football manager—I speak as a supporter of Chelsea football club, so this is a poignant comment—who celebrates a massive victory as a result of a goal that has been disallowed.

The Prime Minister went on to say:

"the Conservative party did not just lose the election—they lost the argument in the course of the election."

Of course, our real tragedy is that we won the argument many years ago, but that is not entirely apparent to many Labour Members, as I think the Prime Minister will discover during the course of this Parliament. He also said:

"The oddest thing about the election was that we were more interested in discussing Tory policy than the Tories were."—[Official Report, 17 May 2005; Vol. 434, c. 44.]

We wanted to discuss the policies that we actually had rather than the policies of the Prime Minister's febrile imagination.

What does the Queen's Speech say about freedom? My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe talked about some of the dangers inherent in the forthcoming prevention of terrorism Act. There are dangers, too, in the identity cards Bill, as we know. The Government talk about taking measures to address the pensions crisis—a crisis of their own creation. Perhaps if the Bank of England's independence is this Government's greatest achievement, its worst legacy is the crisis in pensions. What about prosperity? There was no mention in the Queen's Speech of the Government's fiscal plans—their plans for taxation—but I think that we can guess exactly what third-term Labour tax increases we are likely to see.

The second test is that of democracy. Many Members on both sides of the House have said this and have nodded in agreement when others have said it, and it is

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worth saying again: there are too many Bills in the Queen's Speech to enable proper scrutiny. That is of great concern. The hon. Member for Sunderland, South was right to say that previous Governments have needed to rewrite Bills in Committee, but at least the timetabling—or the lack of it—of those Committees enabled that process to take place. Sadly, Bills are now rushed through this place in a scandalous hurry and it is left to the other place to put right the massive deficiencies in legislation. I view with concern the Government's tentative proposals to reform the House of Lords. I do not think that they understand what an important job it does in serving British democracy.

For someone who says that there are too many Bills, it is perhaps a bit odd to say that I want an extra one, but as I said in my intervention on the Minister for Europe, we should have two Bills on the European constitution and the referendum, not one. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe might cast his vote in a slightly different way from how I cast mine, but we should have the right to express our views differently on the ratification of the treaty and the merits of a referendum. It is utterly unacceptable for the Government to muddle those two issues in the way that they intend.

Of course, the other important Bill is the one that belatedly, and, sadly, probably inadequately, seeks to restore some dignity and integrity to the voting system of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The Government's refusal to embrace individual voter registration is bewildering. Their reason is that when it was applied in Northern Ireland, it led to a reduction in electoral rolls. Well, we probably needed to reduce the electoral rolls in Northern Ireland because that was part of the problem. It is crucial that votes cast at elections are cast with complete integrity and certainty. The Government's proposals, although welcome, fall well short of what is needed to re-establish faith in our democratic system.

Let us consider our constituencies, such as Worcestershire. There is a passing reference in the Queen's Speech to

"sustainable development and supporting rural services",

although I think that that boils down to a new quango that muddies the roles of existing quangos. There is nothing significant on the problems of agriculture and horticulture; nothing on fairer funding for shire counties such as Worcestershire, which has been left badly behind in terms of schools and other public services; nothing on the impact of the Licensing Act 2003 on village halls and shops, a problem that I shall return to during this Parliament; nothing on the planning law and travellers, who in my constituency make a mockery of the planning system, something on which the Government's response is inadequate; and nothing to reverse the draconian and illiberal ban on hunting or to address animal welfare rather than class prejudice. In short, there is nothing much for rural shires at all. It is a very thin Queen's Speech, indeed, when viewed from a constituency perspective.

Today's debate, however, is about international affairs and defence. Again, I am genuinely surprised—this relates to the fourth test of whether the measures will build a fairer and safer world—by the apparent lack of detail and vision on those subjects. I got no sense that

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the Government deeply and genuinely understand the huge challenges and opportunities that face us in a globalised and fast-changing world. Although there are many aspects to that, I want to deal with just two of them: our relationship to India and our policies in relation to overseas development.

I choose India because it offers a huge opportunity for Britain, but we are not being ambitious enough and not talking about it enough. British business is not taking it sufficiently seriously. I also choose international development because it is, ultimately, the great moral challenge that we face as a nation. Of course, poverty lies at the heart of so much international instability. It has also dominated the debate so far.

On India, I have declared my interests in the register and have been a frequent visitor to the country in recent years. I endorse what the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) said about the structure of the Security Council. It reflects the environment of many years ago and not the realities of a post-cold war 21st century, so we should not have much faith in it. I look forward to India's early membership of the Security Council.

To be fair, I know that the Government launched a comprehensive strategic partnership with India in September last year. That charts a genuinely ambitious course for the relationship between our two democracies—the oldest and the largest in the world. I hope that the Government are putting their money where their mouth was last September and are giving serious thought to implementation of the partnership's key provisions. I am not clear that they are because the strategic partnership, of which the two Prime Ministers rightly spoke, needs to be built.

Let us consider some specific things on which progress is not being made in the way that it should be. The joint declaration pledged to energise collaboration in science and technology. Other countries are already doing that and moving much faster to establish contacts with India to take advantage of its knowledge economy. For example, United States companies have set up Indian research and development centres, and research there often outclasses work in the parent country. What is the British Government doing to encourage innovative methods for collaboration in science and technology, and to ensure that we as a nation benefit from that emerging resource?

On education, there has been a 400 per cent. increase in the number of Indian students in UK universities over the past four years. We derive huge benefits from their presence. In recognition of the value that students bring to economies, other countries have responded more generously than us. The United States has eased visa formalities and provides financial support to encourage the trend, because it recognises that both countries benefit from it.

What are we doing? We are making it more expensive for students even to have their visas renewed. Perhaps more worryingly, under the voluntary vetting scheme, Indian students are potentially barred from courses in science and technology, subjects on which they have, perhaps, the highest aptitudes. Do the Government have plans to encourage foreign students from India to come to Britain for higher education?

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On medicine, India has world-class medical facilities—I know because I have seen them—and biotechnology and pharmaceutical strengths that would surprise many in this country. Given our strength in those sectors, we should be an ideal partner. That was a major feature of the New Delhi declaration during the Prime Minister's visit to India back in January 2002, and it was reiterated last September. The Governments agreed that they would focus together on key sectors in which we share such world-class expertise. That also relates to information technology. So what are we doing to build on this statement of intent? We have seen the words, but we have not seen the action—a familiar phrase from somewhere in recent weeks.

The outsourcing of medical facilities, pathological testing and cost-effective drugs could make a huge contribution to the British national health service. We could have joint research in medicine and collaborative ventures between medical institutions, all on a long-term basis, but it does not seem to be happening like it ought to.

Indian companies, meanwhile, are being harassed when they try to bring in short-term workers to work in many Indian enterprises now active in the UK. As far as I understand it—the Minister may correct me—India has co-operated wholeheartedly with the British authorities on immigration. A memorandum of understanding has been signed on speedy repatriation of immigration offenders and, I believe, India is on the white list of countries for asylum applications. So, it is a little strange that more is not being done to ease the transfer of professional staff between our countries.

The Government are devising a new points-based system for immigration and work permits, which, as we know, is common ground across the House. However, it seems that several categories of skills needed in the UK, particularly in the IT sector, cannot be included in the system. What are the Government doing to ensure that personnel with such skills, who need to be brought in quickly, are treated as a distinct category so that they and the companies that need them do not suffer from lengthy procedures, long delays and quota limits that a large immigration process necessarily involves? If the economic relationship between our two countries is to develop, it is very important that we have a fluent and smooth exchange of professionals.

Before I move on, I have a word to say on Kashmir. The way in which Pakistan and India are talking about the future of that troubled part of south Asia is hugely encouraging. It is wonderful to watch the establishment of a bus link, for example. I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend would agree that it is wonderful that cricket has played such a part in building relationships between India and Pakistan on the matter. However, it is a matter of some concern to me that the travel advisory is unnecessarily cautious. That is true of many travel advisories issued by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Within India, tourism to Kashmir is booming, and it would be nice if British tourists were encouraged to make the journey there too. It is a truly fantastic part of the world, as I know from my visit to Srinagar.

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Time is moving on, so I shall be brief and make my final comments on the subject of the developing world. I worry about the debate on the developing world because so much of it is characterised by learned, difficult and arcane debate among experts, who use acronyms, names, functions and conferences which are not easily comprehended by others who take an interest in the issues. In addition, so much of the debate among the campaigners is characterised by excessively simplistic solutions. So perhaps there is room for a third way—a middle way. It is crucial that the debate is engaged in widely.

There have been many false dawns. I had the privilege of working for Sir Edward Heath in 1980 at the time of the publication of the Brandt report. I remember the huge optimism that swept around the country at that time. It was probably one of the defining moments in the developing understanding among the British people of the need to do more to tackle poverty in the developing world. Only three years later, however, the follow-up report, which was also published by the Brandt commission, struck a much more depressing note.

So often over the past quarter of a century the story of development issues has been one of two steps forward, one step back—to be optimistic about things. I disagree with the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), who said that international issues had dominated the election and had been prevalent in his campaign. Apart from Iraq, I heard very little about development issues. That is probably because there is a healthy consensus across the House on the main issues of aid, trade and debt. That is not new. The issue is less politically charged than it used to be, but with that there is a danger that it will drop from the public consciousness. That must not be allowed to happen.

My party has made a welcome conversion and made a strong, clear and credible commitment to meeting a target of 0.7 per cent. of gross domestic product in aid. That is a genuine commitment and I pay tribute to those on the Front Bench who have achieved it. The Government have also taken huge strides in understanding the importance of free and fair trade. I pay tribute to both International Development Secretaries for the way in which they have fought that corner.

Debt relief is of course also a matter of consensus. I am delighted at the way in which the Chancellor of the Exchequer—although, it has to be said, not always the Prime Minister—pays tribute to people such as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe and Sir John Major for their work on debt relief. I pay tribute to the way in which the Chancellor has bravely driven forward the issue in international negotiations. That is not always easy, as Britain is often more enlightened on these issues than some of our fellow members of the G8.

The consensus has largely been driven forward by the campaigners, particularly the Churches, which have done so much to keep the matter up the agenda, and I pay tribute to them. However, it has also been driven occasionally by great international crises. The general response of the British to the tsunami was heartwarming and encouraging, but sadly, dealing with such issues can sometimes lead people to believe that the problems are

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not so deep-seated and that a one-off contribution at the time of a great crisis will address the fundamentals. That simply is not true.

The tsunami shocked the world and has had devastating long-term consequences for the people in the countries affected, but invisible tsunamis are sweeping Africa, in particular, every day. Although there is talk about the issue in places, the world does not seem to notice. The matter is not just about AIDS, which is sometimes talked about and which claims six lives a minute on the continent, but about malaria and tuberculosis, as well as malnutrition. A child in Africa is dying every three seconds as a result of hunger or preventable disease. What a scandal that is. The annual death toll from poverty-related diseases is estimated to be about 18 million—a third of all human deaths. That means that, since the end of the cold war, some 270 million people have died unnecessarily.

I recently read a fascinating article by Thomas Pogg in a journal on ethics. He talked of our need to accept our own part in the continuing scandal of world poverty. He said:

"It is unthinkable to us that we are actively responsible for this catastrophe. If we were, then we, civilised and sophisticated denizens of the developed countries, would be guilty of the largest crime humanity ever committed, the death toll of which exceeds, every week, that of the recent Tsunami and, every three years, that of World War II, the concentration camps and gulags included."

He suggested that there are things that we could be doing to address global poverty that we are not doing. Perhaps that unthinkable truth is true after all. We all bear a share of the blame for this disaster.

John Bercow: Surely at least part of the problem is that, whereas the public are generous, public policy is not. Given that, as he and I agree—and there is widespread consensus across the House—current western agricultural dumping policies are both morally wrong and economically devastating to the developing countries, but have very strong, wealthy and articulate supporters in the international community, how in practical terms does my hon. Friend think that it will be possible to get the agreement that we need to scrap those subsidies to facilitate market access for poor countries and thereby to give them the chance that they need to compete and grow?

Peter Luff: I entirely agree with the importance of the issue cited by my hon. Friend. India, for example, has a potentially very successful dairy sector and could export large quantities of skimmed milk to the Gulf particularly, but is unable to do so because of the subsidised milk that is dumped there by the European Union. The United States of America, which so often lectures us about free trade, has scandalously subsidised agricultural production that is carefully concealed behind various different schemes. Digging down and discovering the true extent of American subsidy of agriculture is very difficult. My hon. Friend is right that there are deeply entrenched interests that will take a lot of challenging. If there is one thing that we could do to improve the lot of the developing world, it is to get the EU and the United States of America to stop subsidising exports. That would transform the life chances of millions of people around the world. How would we do it? We must carry on battling; I am not aware of any

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short-term solution. I hope that the World Trade Organisation will be robust and will not accept bullying from the United States of America and the EU.

I particularly welcome our commitment as a party to an advocacy fund, because one problem is that countries in the developing world are often unable to make the case with sufficient power in international forums and institutions. They do not have the expertise to do so. An advocacy fund is one practical way of helping them to make that case in the WTO. Addressing that problem is possibly the single most important thing.

I am delighted that my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition has tabled early-day motion 14—the first in his name on the Order Paper—which addresses this matter in such detail. I am a little sorry that the Prime Minister did not make more of the matter in yesterday's debate in the Queen's Speech, because he has every reason to be proud of the report of the Commission for Africa. It is a truly remarkable document. The International Development Secretary and the Chancellor also have their names on that report. The report shows the detailed work that needs to be done in many areas of policy. It is a weighty document by any standards, but an important one, which I hope that the Government will drive forward in this Session.

Ministers on the Treasury Bench have a unique opportunity this year. There is the G8 summit in Scotland in July, the EU presidency in the second half of the year and the UN General Assembly special summit on millennium development goals in September. Those goals are slipping hopelessly out of sight; there is no prospect of that target being met by 2015. They have the Commission for Africa, which they must pursue relentlessly. They have in the public mind the 25th anniversary of Live Aid, as well as the powerful Make Poverty History campaign.

I do not associate myself with all of the remedies proposed by the Make Poverty History campaign. Sometimes there is too much hostility toward the private sector, globalisation and free trade, and a lack of understanding of the complex way in which organisations such as the World Bank have to operate. The debate on reform of the sugar regime, in which my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe and I have been privately engaged during this debate, is a classic example of the difficulties. We heard earlier about the likely impact on Caribbean countries, but there is a hard judgment to be made. Opening up the trade in sugar might lead to massive deforestation in Brazil without corresponding benefits to that country's population. That could be the consequence of inappropriate reform. It is not always easy to get it right. None the less, the anger of the Make Poverty History campaign is an unmitigated, unqualified force for good. If the campaign can keep the Government committed to implementation of the excellent work that they have done on the Commission for Africa, and if it can drive our determination to tackle the greatest scar on humanity at the beginning of the 21st century, it will have done a good job indeed.


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