|Previous Section||Home Page|
Column 48restrictive, are bound to cause alarm in the constituencies that are directly affected, and those are many more than just my own. I want to make a plea to the Government to take a comprehensive look, in the course of the year, at our airport needs in the south-east, and in the rest of the country for that matter. The development of airports policy in Britain has been characterised by the little-by- little approach, which has not served our interests well. At one moment we are told, no doubt under the pressure of popular resistance in areas where airport capacity is talked of, that extra terminal capacity is required and documents are produced to try to prove that. The next moment we are told that it is runway capacity that is crucial, and evidence is produced to make that point. There has been a great muddle in our airports policy over the years, and I hope that we shall not perpetuate it. It would be characteristic of the Government to want to take a long-term view. The continuing success of the Government's economic policies will lead to increased demand, part of which will be demand for air travel, whether for holidays or business. Clearly, therefore, some of the more optimistic predictions that are being made about airport capacity have as good a chance of being fulfilled as other less optimistic forecasts. If the Government recognise that that is likely to flow from the success of their economic policies, it is incumbent on them at the same time to bring before the House an airports policy that will take account of it.
It would be wrong to invite the House to approve further expansion at Stansted without saying what will come after that. It is not fair to my constituents to make it appear that any further expansion that must take place will have to take place at Stansted because there is nowhere else. If the picture, when it is unveiled, suggests that we shall need not only one more runway in the London area, but perhaps two in the next 25 or 30 years, we need to know that now, so that we can effectively plan where to put those runways. It is unacceptable to creep forward small step by small step. That is not helping us to preserve London's competitive position against Frankfurt, Paris and Amsterdam. Nor does it help us to achieve the full play of competition between airlines, which is also something that the Government support.
In the light of the liberalisation of air services in Europe, there will be still further pressure on the London airports system. We hope that liberalisation is achieved as part of the completion of the single market in Europe. I welcome all the measures that are being taken to complete the single market. I note the Government's commitment, reiterated in the Gracious Speech, and I warmly endorse it. Without surrendering an open outlook to the rest of the world, our destiny, as the Prime Minister reaffirmed at Bruges, truly lies in Europe. It may be paradoxical, but I suspect that the Government will find it easier to convince the British public about that than about the privatisation of the water industry. I hope that the Government will not make the country's ambitions in Europe harder to fulfil by running away with the idea that they have a sullen, suspicious public behind them.
I have been reading the last volume of Martin Gilbert's biography of Sir Winston Churchill. In the immediate post-war years, Sir Winston played a great part in stirring the public's imagination over steps towards the broader unification of Europe. One notes that in the difficult
Column 49post-war years that was treated with much enthusiasm by the public, and that the Conservative party chided the then Labour Government for not being sufficiently enthusiastic about it. I cannot believe that 40 years further away from the second world war it is more difficult to convince the British public of the benefits of greater European unification.
If the Government worry about public opinion, they should take heed that, for our main industrial companies, the fuse has been lit and that, to coin a phrase, there is no going back. There may be disagreements about exactly what is needed to achieve the single market, but if we are prepared to take full advantage of the opportunities that it will present, we must bring home to businesses--large, medium and small--exactly what is involved for them. The Government cannot afford any ambiguity in the signals that they send about the importance of what will happen. We must negotiate soberly and practically on individual measures, but we should take a wider, rather than narrower, view of what the single market could mean for us.
I echo the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Mr. Knox) about frontiers. It is a mistake to think that this country can maintain its frontiers against our 11 partners if they decide to have no frontiers between themselves. One sure consequence will be that business invests, not in this country, but in continental Europe. We are proud that we have attracted to this country, because of our improving economy and attitudes to industry, more outside investment wanting to be part of the single European market. It will be folly to give the slightest hint that we are prepared to see ourselves playing less than a full part in that market than any other country.
I endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Moorlands said about joining the European monetary system. It should go further than that, and we ought to consider the potential benefits of a single European currency. That may cause some fluttering in the dovecotes, but industry will increasingly find it convenient to deal with its counterparts if it operates a single currency. In Europe we impose burdens upon ourselves by having to observe currency differences, which create uncertainty in business deals. I believe that there will be increasing pressure from industry to move in the direction of a single European currency, and we should not set our hearts and minds against it.
If we are to preserve competition--which is something in which we, as the Conservative party, believe--for the benefit of British consumers, we must reconcile it with the need to have larger companies to compete effectively within Europe and throughout the world. If that means that amalgamations and mergers in this country should be accepted, the only way left to regulate monopoly will be on the larger dimension of the European Community.
The logical underpinning for the changed economy that the Government seek, and for the longer-term industrial success that we all crave, is the fullest possible coming into being of the single market. The fruition of much of the Government's programme is dependent upon that, so the single market becomes the most important part of the Gracious Speech--which I have the greatest pleasure in supporting.
Column 505.54 pm
Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh) : I take this opportunity to draw attention again to what I believe is one of the greatest social injustices that Northern Ireland has to endure--the fact that no arrangement has been made to recognise that, in terms of basic commodities, the people of the North of Ireland are 30 per cent. poorer because of the cost differential that applies there as compared with any other part of England, Scotland or Wales. It is incredible that no allowance has been made for that in social security benefits. I do not see how anyone in this country can be happy with a situation in which people who are on the borderline of poverty, and who must resort to social security, are by definition 30 per cent. worse off in Northern Ireland than anywhere else in the United Kingdom. That is a crass injustice and one that ought to be put right at the earliest opportunity.
It is a matter of regret that, for the third week running, I have to speak about a substantial derogation of the rights of Northern Ireland people. What we have heard today in relation to more punitive measures will not bring a solution to the problems of Northern Ireland and to the violence there but will exacerbate them, and will further delay the day we can all begin to work towards peace. Last week, there was a derogation of rights in respect of the right to silence. The week before, it was in respect of free speech and the freedom of press reporting. This week, it is in respect of the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1984, and removal of the 50 per cent. remission that has existed since that legislation was applied in Northern Ireland.
Next week and the week after, there will be a further derogation in respect of a free and open franchise, which should exist in every country. The question that people ought to ask themselves is : what derogation of rights will there be the week after next, or six months hence?
The measures I have mentioned have not been as successful as the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland predicted. What will happen further down the line? When will Parliament say to itself, "So far and no further."? When Parliament reaches that point, it will have arrived at the moment of realisation--I hope it will be soon--that the course upon which the Government have embarked is not, and cannot be, successful. The reason is that the Government have chosen to make the law and the process of justice a weapon with which to defeat terrorism. However, the law is not there for that reason. I repeat what I said last week and the week before : the law is there to administer justice and it cannot be used to defeat terrorism in the way that the Government are attempting, without bending it and reducing its integrity and basic principles, which we should all cherish.
One element of the Government's action that I welcome is the legislation dealing with racketeering. It is wrong that individuals and organisations in Northern Ireland should be allowed to extort money from private individuals, private businesses and public bodies in the way that they do. However, I exhort caution. The legislation to which I refer will give the Secretary of State a power normally reserved for a judge or a court, and we must be careful to ensure that the onus of proof will reside with the state and not with the suspect. While I welcome that element of the Government's proposals, it could also be dangerous.
I am concerned about the withdrawal of remission, because it runs the danger of putting the whole debate
Column 51back at the emotional epicentre of Irish republicanism, which is the prisons. We have seen throughout history how the emotional content of what happens in Irish prisons can itself change history, and cause problems that last not for one or five years but for generations.
What is the Government's objective in making the proposed changes and those of the past three weeks? Is it to create a punitive arrangement, or to bring about the rehabilitative approach that I believe should underlie all legislation relating to the courts and prisons? In the last analysis, someone must put it all together again and enable a small number of people- -one and a half million--to live together in peace on a small bit of land. If we derogate from normal practice as I believe the Government are now doing, we are in danger of accepting abnormality. The Government may have conditioned themselves to live with abnormality, but those of us who live in the North of Ireland cannot allow that to become our standard. We are entitled to work towards normality, rather than settling for the lowest common denominator as the Government are doing.
As for the removal of the 50 per cent. remission, why was it there in the first place? The reasons, I think, are obvious : they are on record and they have been given by the Government here. First, a number of young people are caught up in the process of violence. That has not changed to this day, and as a reason it is as valid now as it ever was. Secondly, we are working against a background of legislation that does not operate in England, Scotland or Wales--the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1987, the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1984 and the public order legislation.
It is not accurate to say--as do the Minister of State, the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister--that arrangements are being brought into step with those in England, Scotland and Wales, or that they are being brought into step with those in the Republic of Ireland.There is a fundamental difference. In all those places, parole is available after one third of a sentence has been served, a facility that does not exist in the North of Ireland. We are not only playing with fire within the prisons and creating a highly emotional issue that will benefit not the Government or those who want peace, but those who want to manipulate it ; we are also adding to the harshness of an already harsh prison regime.
The second question is implied in the first. A number of people, on leaving prison, revert to terrorism and to the support of terrorism. But the Government have not given the figure, and I think that they must put it on record. They tell us that they estimate such offences to be in the region of 25 per cent. of scheduled offences--that is, terrorist offences--but that is only a guess. When it is compared with the available figure of 60 per cent. for those convicted of non-terrorist offences, the notion that there is a high level of return to violence must be challenged.
I wonder whether the Prime Minister will accede to the point made by Viscount Colville in his report on the Prevention of Terrorism Act. He said that the iniquitous system of exclusion orders against people from Northern Ireland should be done away with, but the Prime Minister made no reference to that today. I wonder whether it will
Column 52happen, or whether the Government will override the view of a respected Member of the other House who is also a respected and learned member of the legal profession.
Does not the very fact that the arrangement is being made permanent tell us something about the imaginative approach of the Government? Does it not tell us something about their state of mind? It is very dangerous to start marginalising a large section of the community--such as we have in the North of Ireland--who are not on the margins but central and indigenous, and who support those who support violence. It cannot and will not work. The Government should be drawing those people into the process of creating peace and stability, rather than pushing them out.
There is no better example than the way in which the Government are now tampering with the electoral process by deciding that everyone who stands for election in the North of Ireland must make a declaration against violence. I shall have no problem with that, and I should like to think that no Member from the North of Ireland will either, but there will be problems none the less. I am not talking about those who form armies and occasionally take them to the top of hillsides to wave gun licences and threaten the Government ; I am talking about those who every day give unambiguous support to the men of violence. They have said that they will make the declaration. What happens then? Will the Government, in their wisdom and strength of purpose, step in and take them before the courts? No : that will be left to a private individual.
I do not believe that this will work, but if it is to do so at all successfully, an individual will have to take people before the High Court, at enormous expense and risk, to prove the spurious point that the Government are trying to make. That does not strike me as firm government or dealing with the problem that I accept is there--the problem of people on the one hand purporting to be democrats and on the other hand supporting violence. It is also a problem for me to realise that Members of the House create armies such as the Ulster Resistance Organisation, whose huge arms cache was found close to where I live last week. But we should face up to such problems honestly, not in this inadequate, devious way.
The legislation will not succeed, for the same reasons that the other legislation I have mentioned will not. People will drive a horse and cart through it, and those of us who are still involved in local government will be dancing in and out of the courts for the next four years. Think of the damage that will be done to the whole political process in the North of Ireland, which is damaged enough already, and the publicity that will be given to those who go through the courts or who take others through the courts. I know from rumour--a potent factor in the North of Ireland--that a long list of people are already earmarked for visits to the courts who do not belong to the UDA, to Sinn Fein or to a number of the organisations at which the legislation is aimed.
I am disappointed by these changes. I confidently predict that somewhere along the line a member of the Government must have the courage to stand up and say, "We are not going any further towards bending the law and derogating from the highest standards." Otherwise, the integrity of the law will go, and someone--and it will not be a Conservative Member--will have to put Humpty Dumpty together again.
Column 53That is painstaking work, which other people will have to do. They will have to create confidence and support for the process of law and justice, which is being eroded through Government edict. Surely, after the bloodstained history of Ireland and in view of Ireland's relationship with this country, the Government should have learned something.
The executions of 1916 were said to have passed Irish republicanism into the hands of people whose motivation was not only love of Ireland, but hatred of Britain. Must we continue to make the same mistakes decade after decade? In the case of this Government, perhaps I should say, week after week.
Mr. Patrick McNair-Wilson (New Forest) : I came to the House as Member of Parliament for my present constituency 20 years ago this month, but for 16 months between the end of 1964 and 1966 I had the honour to represent Lewisham, West. It gives me great pleasure to place on record my personal congratulations to my hon. Friend the present Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Maples) on the charming way in which he seconded the motion that a Loyal Address be sent to Her Majesty. I hope that he will represent Lewisham, West for as long as I have represented New Forest.
I find nothing in the Queen's Speech with which I can possibly disagree. Quite clearly, it represents the redeeming of the pledges that were given to the people of this country in the general election campaign. Nevertheless, the Queen's Speech raises matters that require further consideration.
First, I want to deal with the comments that were made in the Queen's Speech about defence and the need for effective and strong defences. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was kind enough to respond to me in an intervention earlier this afternoon, when I asked whether she could yet tell us when a decision would be made about the replacement of 500 Chieftain tanks by either the American-designed Abrahams mark 1A1 or by the Challenger 2. As we know, there was a third possibility for the contract-- the West German Leopard. In all probability, that third possibility has been ruled out.
I want to place on record my concern about the way in which the choice will be made. No one wants a repeat performance of the difficulties in which the Government found themselves over the airborne early warning system, when vast sums of taxpayers' money were spent on a system that was clearly unable to do the job. For that reason, I found no difficulty in supporting the decision to buy the American system. However, on this occasion it appears that the choice available to the Ministry of Defence is finely balanced and the effect of losing the order would be so disastrous that the matter should be examined in the greatest detail.
The two tanks are very similar. The American Abrahams tank is powered by a gas turbine engine, whereas the British tank will be powered by a Perkins 1,200 horsepower engine. On paper, that is 300 horsepower less than the American tank. However, it should be remembered that a gas turbine engine is far more thirsty on fuel, which will create additional problems of logistic support for tank formations, and I am advised that Perkins states that its engine is mildly turbocharged, and could be uprated to 1,500 horsepower, if necessary.
Column 54Therefore, there is no difference in terms of performance and speed. In addition, even when a gas turbine engine is running at tick-over speed it has a more definite heat signature than a diesel engine, so in terms of battlefield logic it makes a great deal of sense to stick with the British design.
We are told that one of the drawbacks of the current Chieftain tank and, we are told by those who have examined the plans, of the Challenger 2 is that the gunnery system is less efficient. I hope that Vickers, and those companies that subcontract from Vickers, will ensure that that will not be the stumbling block for the British design. Vickers has already spent about £40 million on the project and about 12,000 jobs at Leeds and Newcastle upon Tyne could be affected by a decision to buy the American tank. In addition, British companies would lose servicing contracts and contracts for sales elsewhere in the world, so I hope that we shall choose the British product.
Page three of the Gracious Speech refers to the economy and to the need to
"pursue firm financial policies designed to bear down on inflation."
Hon. Members have made their own suggestions this afternoon on how that could be achieved. Inevitably, some rather simplistic views have been expressed, and there seems to be a feeling that there is a panacea to cure all difficulties.
Some hon. Members have said that we need to join the European monetary system--a view that I totally reject. The European monetary system, and especially the exchange rate mechanism, was designed to cater for like currencies. Within that system, currencies operate within predetermined arithmetic bands and, if a currency goes outside its band, remedial action is necessary. On certain occasions, that has meant not only increases in interest rates, about which hon. Members have complained today, but jumps of up to 20 per cent. in interest rates to bring a currency within its band.
Our currency has a characteristic unlike all other European currencies, in that, for whatever reason, it is a petro-currency and is perceived as such. Given the wide fluctuations in the cost of crude oil, our currency could be given a band, without any reference to the performance of the economy, and we could find extreme difficulty in trying to stay within that particular range. That would be an added strain on the British economy, which we could well do without.
Other hon. Members have talked of the need to reduce the value of sterling, as if that was an easy option for restoring competitiveness to the economy and removing any deficit that may exist. I remind the House that in 1976, in the darkest days of the Labour economic crisis, the Chancellor of the Exchequer had to take immediate action, part of which relied on a visit to the International Monetary Fund. The West German deutschmark and the Japanese yen were at record high levels, yet their cars and products were pouring unchecked into this country. The low value of our currency did not help us at all. In fact, the reverse was true. Currency is an indicator of the international financial respect that a country enjoys.
Column 55produce is not to the liking of the consumer, the consumer will buy elsewhere. I have always tried to buy British, and I am satisfied with the products. The hon. Gentleman knows much about such matters, but I remind him that unfortunately the creation of an economy such as I have just described by the Labour party in the dying years of its last Administration did nothing to stimulate competition. It was for that reason that British Leyland and many other businesses produced products of the wrong quality, which meant that people bought from elsewhere. As a result, it was not just the motor industry that suffered. The steel industry was also affected because every foreign car that was imported meant a tonne of steel that did not come from a British steel mill. There are no short cuts. We want a properly competitive industry to produce products at the right price, at the right time and, more importantly, of the right quality.
When discussions on the world economy takes place today, there is one component that is totally different from any of the pre-war or immediately post-war years. At the time of the great crash of 1929--that happens to be the year when I was born, which some might regard as significant--the world's national currencies were related to the amount of precious metal in the possession of the national Governments. We all recall that the gold standard created terrible misery. Throughout those pre-war and early post- war years, currency crises meant that gold and dollar reserves were the arbiter and deciding factor in how far an economy could be expanded.
Now that gold has been demonetised and we have moved away from a reliance on a relationship with a given amount of precious metal, there is no limit to the size of the world economy. Previous constraints no longer exist. Although hon. Members may be concerned about the level of the American deficit or about our own deficit, we should look at the wider issues. If we were to accept the proposals that were put forward by the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), the leader of the Democrats, that we should have an immediate restriction on credit, we would begin once again to recreate recession and depression in this country. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Arnold) said earlier, if the Americans were substantially to increase their level of taxation to deal with the deficit, they would do precisely the same thing to their economy. Therefore, I do not regard those as sensible options.
Interest rates are an option that could be used, in spite of the important and engaging remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Mr. Knox) about the need to reduce them. Interest rates are probably the quickest way to bring any imbalance under control.
The third of my four points about the Gracious Speech is the Government's continuing attachment to the importance of protecting our environment. I live in an environmentally sensitive part of England. I have the honour to represent the New Forest. It is not just a very nice part of England ; it is a unique part of England--indeed, a unique part of Europe. It is the largest piece of lowland vegetation in the whole of central Europe.
Recently in the New Forest we have had some difficulties because of the local authority's attempt to introduce a private Bill to circumvent some of the general Acts of Parliament which are in place to protect that
Column 56unique part of England. The legislation that is designed to give that protection stems largely from an inquiry which was set up in 1946 by a Labour Government to look at the requirements of the New Forest in the immediate post-war period and the years beyond. The New Forest now needs a new inquiry. Although we have had a full review, which was set up by the Forestry Commission, the final report which will be available shortly, only an independent inquiry can ultimately produce the balanced report that will be necessary if new legislation is to be introduced at some future date.
I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will find it possible to set up an inquiry, like that was established in 1946, not only to consider the requirements of the New Forest and of the people who live there, but to ensure that a balance between the increasing urbanisation of the south of England and the protection of this remarkable ecological example of rural England can be preserved. Therefore, I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry will ensure that my right hon. Friend is told of that requirement, because it will not be enough to rely on legislation stemming from an inquiry that took place over 40 years ago. We need something new, and we need it soon. Finally, I should like to turn to the restructuring and sale of our electricity supply industry. A long-standing problem for those concerned with energy is the complete imbalance between the generating part of our electricity industry and the part that is supposed to be concerned with prices. We have always known of the dominant position that the Central Electricity Generating Board has enjoyed relative to that enjoyed by the Electricity Council, even to the point that the CEGB not only made but spent all the money. With great respect to those who have served the Electricity Council for so long, it has been little more than a tassel on a lion's tail. The idea of restructuring the industry is not new to any political party. Attempts have been made by both sides of the House to look for ways of redressing and restoring the balance. Therefore, I am happy that we should go the full distance in our restructuring and return the industry to private ownership. However, I have one caveat, because, although in separating generation from transmission one has immediately and helpfully--and hopefully--broken the idea of a public monopoly by becoming a private monopoly, one could be in serious danger if there were a shortage of supply, because the generating companies might well group together to produce a common and increasing price scale. If we are to see the fruits of the success of our policy, it is essential that the Government quickly expand the number of generating companies and units that will be available after vesting day.
At the moment, the two generating organisations will control 70 per cent. and 30 per cent. respectively. The area boards are there to take up any options and opportunities which may exist. However, I shall not feel happy about the privatisation of electricity until I see a much larger number of generators on the scene. I refer not necessarily to those who build the large power stations, to which we have become accustomed, but to well- backed generators which use gas turbines and smaller thermal stations to add to generating capacity, so that transmission companies may have a genuine, wide range of options, and, as a result, we shall see prices fall. The alternative is a cartel of generating
Column 57capacity, which would lead to increasing prices and would completely defeat the objective of the Government's policy. I have picked out four significant matters in the Gracious Speech. The speech sets out a formidable programme for the next 12 months, but, having heard my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister explain the Government's plans to the House this afternoon, I am convinced that we shall have little difficulty in convincing the country of their value.
Mr. Michael J. Martin (Glasgow, Springburn) : In the past few weeks in Glasgow and in Scotland generally there has been much talk about nationalism. It is disappointing that the Scottish Nationalist Members who told us that they would set the heather on fire are not present. I am disappointed also that the Queen's Speech does not mention devolution for Scotland. It is clear that the vast majority of people in Scotland do not want to go down the road of separatism, but they want a say in the running of their own affairs. The Government should remember that.
The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) spoke about the North of Ireland, as he called it. Perhaps that is an appropriate term. However, he spoke about Northern Ireland. In view of recent events, there is worry in Scotland that we could see a hatred of the English emerging again. I am Scottish born and bred. I am proud of my culture and my heritage. I hope to God that I never see the day when my country is run by people who hate others on the basis of race and creed.
In recent weeks in the Govan area, I have seen something emerge that the press has not covered. I mean no disrespect to Scottish Nationalist Members, but some of their followers are frightening people. They are prepared to crowd around Members of other parties at polling stations to make sure that they do not hand out leaflets. Because of their political beliefs, they are prepared to abuse those who are interested in promoting their parties and democratic systems.
Ten years ago, when I was a councillor, and when the SNP had some seats in Glasgow, councillors were prepared to say that, unless they related to their wards, they were not prepared to push through any decisions. We must consider not only the nationalism that the press has been reporting but the ultra-nationalism that can be seen in Scotland. Believe me, it is frightening. We have already seen people who, only five or six years ago, were anti-European. They went around factories telling people not to get into Europe. They now say that Europe is the greatest thing since sliced bread.
In Scotland, as in the rest of the country, there is great worry about the regrading of nurses, nursing sisters and auxiliaries. We should not forget that regrading affects auxiliaries. The rights of women have been mentioned. It is interesting to note that many auxiliary nurses are women who have brought up their families and who have lost education opportunities. They take up auxiliary nursing so that they can have an interesting job that can give themselves a decent career and a proper status. The Government have failed miserably in looking after such dedicated people. The word "dedication" has been used time and again, but it is hypocritical for Ministers to talk about the dedication of nurses. Within five minutes of
Column 58some nurses expressing a grievance, the Government are the first to say that they are harming patients and the National Health Service. One of the biggest employers in my constituency is Stobhill hospital. I visited that hospital three times to attend meetings there in the past week. I can lay to rest the case that trade unions are stirring up matters. Pressure has come from nursing sisters and those in other grades. They called the meetings and asked elected trade union representatives to come along. If Ministers think that that is just another case of trade union officers and militant trade unionists stirring up matters and leading workers by the nose, I invite them to come to Stobhill hospital or to any hospital in Glasgow. They will then see the bitter resentment that has been caused there because the Government and the health boards have made an absolute mess of regrading. Glasgow is even worse off than areas outside the boundaries. Health boards in areas other than Glasgow have given the benefit of the doubt to nursing sisters and auxiliaries.
We have a colder climate north of the border. It is exceptionally cold just now in Glasgow and in the north of Scotland--
We had about four inches of snow at the weekend. That is a serious problem for the elderly. We are talking about the privatisation of the generating boards, but, as a small first step, we should abolish standing charges. Elderly people living alone are worried about bills and they try to cut the amount of gas and electricity that they use. Therefore, it stands to reason that the standing charge is proportionately bigger than any other charge. It is shameful that, sometimes, people spend only £5 or £6 on gas and electricity during the summer, but they are hit with a standing charge that is almost that amount again. We should do away with standing charges, at least, and examine the poverty of the elderly. All hon. Members must be ashamed when people go to their surgeries.
Mr. Tony Favell (Stockport) : Has the hon. Gentleman investigated whether old people would in fact benefit from the abolition of standing charges? If standing charges are abolished, it means that the bills will go up for everyone else. The cost must be spread equally. Has it occurred to the hon. Gentleman that many old people are housebound and therefore have larger bills than people who go out to work?
Mr. Martin : I was coming on to the question of larger bills. Many elderly people have been accustomed to saving and putting aside the money for their rent, electricity and other bills. They gain some benefit in the summer, during the hot weather, but that benefit is taken away when the bill is lower, because they are hit with a standing charge. That is highlighted when a person's appliances are almost all gas and the only electricity used is for lighting. In those circumstances, it is very galling for an elderly person to have a small electricity charge, but to discover the same amount again for a standing charge.
I am ashamed, as no doubt other hon. Members are, of the fact that many pensioners tell us that they are in arrears with their electricity payments, and that to try to pay off
Column 59those arrears they have to reduce their electricity consumption by cutting down on their heating. The Government tell elderly people to guard against hypothermia, but because those people are in arrears with their electricity payments their only option is to cut back on heating. It is no use Ministers saying in communities such as mine that they will crack down on illegal moneylenders, when they are forcing people to take that road because of gas and electricity arrears.
I am worried that no mention has been made of drug and drink abuse. There is a flaw in the law of Scotland, and perhaps applies in England, too. In Scotland there has been a lot of publicity about the fact that no one under the age of 18 can be sold alcohol. However, it is not against the law for a person under the age of 18 to consume alcohol on the streets. If we are worried about law and order, it is ludicrous that people as young as 14 and 15 can consume beer and whisky on the streets. The Government should take steps to deal with that loophole in the law.
The Government have mentioned a recent campaign about drugs and the fear of AIDS. Frankly, that is not enough, when housewives cleaning their tenement closes and stairways run the risk of being jabbed by discarded hypodermic needles, which is how serious the problem is in some parts of Glasgow. Recently, after a church service, I was told that an 11-year-old child had picked up a discarded needle. She was not a drug user, nor was her family. That innocent child was cut and had to be rushed to hospital, and her parents had a worrying time wondering whether their child would contract hepatitis or AIDS. The Government are spending ha'pennies on the campaign to combat the drug and AIDS problem.
I cannot recall a time since becoming a Member of Parliament when a new nursery has been opened in my constituency. When talking about women's rights, and, most important, children's rights and better education for children, it is a scandal that our record for nursery education is worse than that of any in the European Community. The local authority in Strathclyde--a responsible local authority--cannot guarantee children at least a year's nursery education before they start primary school, which is probably the case for every local authority. That is shameful and something should be done about it. 6.34 pm
Sir John Stokes (Halesowen and Stourbridge) : I always enjoy debates on the Gracious Speech. They are a kind of grand inquest on the nation, when we hear many speeches covering a wide variety of topics. Before thinking what I would say today, I refreshed my memory by looking up what I had said two years ago on a similar occasion. I see that then I praised
"the strength, energy and commitment of the Government,"--[ Official Report, 12 November 1986 ; Vol. 105, c. 42.]
I reiterate that praise today, but add to that the strength, energy and commitment of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who goes from strength to strength in leading this country at home and abroad. We are greatly respected abroad and, in spite of the sad tales we have heard today, in the main our people have never been as prosperous as they are now.
Column 60Our Prime Minister has just returned from a most successful visit to the United States and she occupies a unique position on the world stage, however galling that may be to some Opposition Members. There has been some mention in the press about the possibility of the Queen visiting the Soviet Union. The Soviets brutally murdered the Tsar and his family who, of course, were close relatives of the King of England. They have an appalling record of crimes against humanity.
I welcome the statement in the Gracious Speech that we shall maintain strong defences. Agreeable as the reductions in nuclear arms have been, there is still no sign whatever of any reductions in Soviet conventional forces. Until those come about, we must continue to keep up our guard.
In foreign affairs, I support the Prime Minister's determination to keep our national identity and not to be swamped by what I can only call an absurd federalism among some EEC nations. Therefore, we must not be entirely bemused by the prospect of one market in 1992. Of course, so far some of the changes have been appalling, silly and unnecessary, such as tinkering with our ancient weights and measures. I now hear that our superb English silver, which is the best in the world, will no longer have its own distinguishing hallmark, but will have instead a miserable number produced by some faceless bureaucrat in Brussels.
I welcome the list of new Bills, long though it is. I hope that perhaps next year, as well as passing Bills, we can return to scrutinising Government expenditure and wherever possible saving the taxpayer's money, which is our prime duty.
The increase in the rate of inflation is worrying, as, too, are some aspects of the housing market. I have great confidence that, by next spring, the Chancellor will have substantially reduced the rise in inflation and that there will have been stabilisation--I hope, a fall--in house prices.
Enormous sums are still being spent on social security. We all pride ourselves on looking after the ill, the old and the unemployed, but I am not in favour of indiscriminate benefits, which are often paid for by imposing too high a tax on those with small incomes. I welcome the further steps towards privatisation and towards increasing the efficiency of industry and commerce. The improvements in the west midlands are most encouraging. The fall in unemployment, the rise in orders, the creation of so many new businesses and the general commercial activity are welcome. In the hard times, the people of my constituency never complained ; I rejoice in that, and congratulate them on their success now. They have also greatly improved their marketing and selling skills in an area that was once far too production-oriented. I also salute their tremendous export efforts, which are an absolute romance. If one goes into the
Column 61packaging departments of firms medium and small, one sees the names of countries from all over the world. It makes one very proud. The Government believe in encouraging individual effort and getting the state off our backs. The reductions in taxation are most welcome. So too is the enormous increase in private giving to charity, which I am sure is the result of people paying lower taxes. Almost the worst way in which to help people is by giving liberal helpings of taxpayers' money. Self-help, soon to be supported by local and central Government, will be the key to our success in regenerating the inner cities and other depressed parts of the economy. Unfortunately, the Government have not yet had much success in dealing with crime, violence, punishment and the lack of it. Violent crime and armed robberies continue unabated. The vast majority of the public desire the return of the death penalty. Each time this Chamber refuses to conform to their wishes, our reputation suffers further harm. However, I welcome the steps that have been taken to combat football violence and hooliganism.
I detect a new social problem arising from affluence, not poverty. I refer to the appalling bad manners, increasing dirt, litter and vandalism that is evident in public places. Some areas also suffer from dreadfully bad, selfish and dangerous driving.
In the 18th century, the poor, who had to endure many hardships, were promised the reward of heaven in the next world by John Wesley and other preachers. Today, for some poor people who have become rich, heaven has arrrived. It is here and now, and those people respect neither God nor man. This is primarily a matter of moral training and discipline in the home, supported, I hope, by teachers and the clergy. We shall become a perfectly horrible nation unless steps are taken now to curb this menacing trend. I realise that the mass of the people live good lives and use their wealth responsibly. That only makes it more important to try to curb the bad behaviour of a small minority.
I welcome the intention to make the prevention of terrorism more permanent and positive. I am not one of those who are mad to replace section 2 of the Official Secrets Act 1911. That is mainly a matter of concern to journalists and media people and not to the ordinary man and woman in the street. Most ordinary, decent, patriotic Englishmen want state secrets to be kept and those who break them to be properly punished. Similarly, I am horrified that politicians should somehow have detailed control of our Secret Service. I can imagine nothing more disastrous for the safety of our country. I welcome the improvements in the standard of education, but I am only sorry that, today, so little English history is taught. I take people around this place, which I greatly enjoy, and I show them the great portraits in the Royal Gallery and the paintings depicting the battles of Trafalgar and Waterloo. Many children have never heard of Nelson and Wellington, our heroes. Surely the basis of our civilisation is our great and glorious history.
Today, Opposition Members have told us of some of the sad cases in life, but let me repeat what I have said so often in this place--how fortunate we are to live in this island. Our general elections, for instance, do not cause the convulsions that occur in some other countries. Our people are basically peaceful, particularly the English people. They hate revolution and civil strife.
Column 62Today, as I saw the Queen arriving, followed by the royal procession with the sun sparkling on the plumes and helmets and surrounded by the good-natured crowd, I thought, "My goodness, we have a lot to be thankful for ; how cheerful are our people." They are rightly cheerful.
Ms. Joyce Quin (Gateshead, East) : I am grateful for the opportunity to speak at an early stage in this debate and I am also pleased to follow on closely from the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Springburn (Mr. Martin), who eloquently described the situation in Scotland. My speech, as a Labour Member representing the north-east of England, will follow a similar course, but whether my Englishness will be acceptable enough to the hon. Member for Halesowen and Stourbridge (Sir J. Stokes) is somewhat doubtful. I listened carefully to the Gracious Speech and to the fuller version given by the Prime Minister this afternoon. Along with, I suspect, many others, I am as perturbed by the glaring omissions in the Gracious Speech as I am by the catalogue of unwelcome Bills that it contains.
I want to concentrate on the failure of the Gracious Speech to tackle one of the most acute problems in Britain--the way in which power is centralised in our society and how decisions are increasingly concentrated not in Westminster or Whitehall, but in No. 10. Downing street.
I was amazed that, in response to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, the Prime Minister denied that centralisation was taking place. It became clear, however, that she backed up her claim by quoting her privatisation programme. That is a peculiar form of economic decentralisation, which involves selling off something that is of benefit to us all for the benefit of a favoured few. However, there is nothing in the Gracious Speech about political decentralisation or the reform of our political institutions. That is a tragedy. At one time, Britain was a shining beacon of democracy that others admired, but we are now falling behind many other countries in the quality and depth of our democracy.
What we need is political decentralisation, but what we will get is more centralisation and the denial of local and regional powers, which has been the hallmark of the Government since they took office. It is clear in the Gracious Speech that, once again, the Government are proposing a Bill to deal with the conduct of local authorities. That follows the curbing of local authority spending powers, rate capping, the poll tax and the abolition of the metropolitan counties.
We have seen the destruction of regional policy, the collapse of much regional financial support and the refusal to create regional institutions. The Government, who have presided over and helped to create the most marked regional and social divisions that many of us can remember, do not recognise that fact, and propose no remedies or initiatives. There seems to be a complete lack of awareness of regional feeling, yet I believe that the Government ignore it at their peril.
I was greatly amused to see a cartoon in one of the national newspapers last week, which referred to the Mappa Mundi that the Hereford cathedral authorities proposed to sell. The cartoon showed a 20th-century Mappa Mundi, with the Prime Minister gazing at it in appreciation. That distorted view of the world showed a