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Column 88rightly wonder how a Government who are so blessed with wealth from North sea oil, and with Treasury coffers full of money that was stolen by selling off public assets--the Government have been selling Britain by the pound, and they intend to continue to do so-- could preside over such shameful levels of homelessness and real unemployment.
The Gracious Speech refers also to the conduct of local authorities. Having been a local councillor, I felt a chill on hearing that ominous phrase. I wonder whether Bradford is a threat to the rest of us.
On the subject of Bradford, I congratulate the elderly woman who, today, successfully obtained a judicial review. The case against the council that is trying to sell the home in which she is a resident will be heard in the High Court. What kind of people think that it is good to sell off a residential home with people in it? What kind of thinking goes into such a dehumanising process? The people involved are not even allowed the dignity of remaining with their landlord--the local authority. They are to be parcelled and sold off like baggage. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) is not present. Recently, in the press and other media, he has been articulate in advocating care of the elderly in the community. I welcome him to the side of the angels. Opposition Members have been saying that for decades. We are genuine in our demand for decent community care for the elderly, but we want an intensive care package across the whole spectrum, and that includes the National Health Service. Why on earth can there no longer be a long-stay bed for an elderly person? Why is there a cut-off point for NHS beds for elderly people? I include local government and the voluntary sector, all of which are experts in such care. The Government have shut down NHS long-stay beds for the elderly.
My local health authority and the hospital in which I worked for 10 years tell us that there are no waiting lists for the care of the elderly. That is absolute nonsense. If we never put anybody on a waiting list, of course there are no waiting lists. It is as easy as that. We want an intensive care package. For years we have argued that to hand over money to the private sector to care for the elderly in residential accommodation, when they have not been assessed by medical practitioners or by the social services for a place in certain accommodation, hurts the elderly, because they do not have access to real rehabilitation or reorientation with a view to going back into the community, and they are simply used as a means to earn money for private individuals. That harms the elderly, it is wrong, and it is economic nonsense for the taxpayer.
It is expensive to care for the elderly. For a long time private homes have benefited by the Government cutting services for the elderly, particularly for those in residential care. It has not been the right kind of care. It is not as good as that which can be given by fully trained staff and people who have expertise. Recently, the Audit Commission rightly pointed out that billions of pounds have been wasted.
The elderly were subjected to a great deal of stress and anxiety during the past couple of weeks when the Chancellor of the Exchequer was flying a kite about targeting the benefits that are enjoyed by pensioners. I
Column 89could give the Chancellor many good reasons for having universal benefits, and millions of pensioners could also do so. Universal benefits are cheaper to administer. As Conservative Members claim to be interested in cheap administration, I should have thought that they would be convinced by the facts that the Government's surveys have shown. Universal benefits have almost 100 per cent. take-up. That is important. What is better than a 100 per cent. take-up? Means-tested benefits create poverty traps, but I emphasise that the main point about universal benefits is that they do not stigmatise. If people persist in arguing that the well- off will benefit, the answer is quite simple--take it back at the other end in taxes. Our elderly people have been through two world wars and have worked or been unemployed through the depression. They could teach us a great deal. Do not subject them to stress and anxiety. We must not even consider subjecting them to the stigmatised means test that we had before the war.
I was interested in the article in The Independent yesterday, by Peter Kellner, about universal benefits. I recommend that it be read by Conservative Members and, if I had anything to do with it, I would make it compulsory. Mr. Kellner says :
"So far, however, ministers have only been playing in the foothills of this particular mountain range. Universal benefits, like universal public services, are part of what makes a wealthy society civilised. Moreover, despite claims to the contrary, their overall impact is redistributive in the right direction. Greater selectivity sounds like a sensible idea, but the greatest gainers from such a policy would not be the needy ; they would be the fit, childless rich."
Mr. Holt : The hon. Lady referred to private nursing homes and the National Health Service. What advice would she give to Mr. Richard Dennis, who is branch secretary of COHSE in north Teesside, and who owns his own private nursing home which is run mainly by people from the DHSS?
Mrs. Mahon : I would give exactly the same advice as I would give to anybody who believes that it is all right to care for old people and make a profit from it. I do not believe that a civilised society should go down that road. Elderly people should be cared for with dignity and with the best possible care from the state.
Mrs. Mahon : No. I want to move on. I have given way on the point. The Gracious Speech says that the Government will take action to raise standards throughout education. On the Government's record, I would challenge that. The Tory reality of recent years has been to destroy the chance of higher education to any youngster from a working-class background. For proof, we need only look at the cuts in student grants, at the cuts in benefits for working-class students, who are struggling at university, and the recent proposal that student loans will be all that will be on offer. Higher education will become university for the rich and compulsory YTS for the remainder. I must say, too, that nothing in the Gracious Speech convinces me that the YTS is a credible training scheme for the vast majority of youngsters.
Column 90In this morning's post I received a survey from the Economic and Social Research Council entitled "Jobs for Young People--A Picture of Diminishing Opportunity". Its conclusions were :
"Increasing numbers of young people aged 16-17 are entering the job market without the skills and qualifications that employers now require. As a consequence, Britain is rapidly developing a fundamental mismatch between the skills supplied by young people and those demanded by employers. The Youth Training Scheme has failed to redress this mismatch, and has in some ways perpetuated it." The report continues :
"The research argues that realistic job prospects for young people continue to look bleak. It goes on to suggest that for as long as training schemes such as YTS encourage early school leaving and fail to provide young people with the skills and qualifications now demanded by employers, these prospects can only worsen. The research concludes that a policy to encourage greater youth participation in higher education is urgently required in order to meet employers' demands for a more highly qualified young work force and stem an increase in the proportion of young people who are long term unemployed and, potentially unemployable."
I repeat that I believe that a vast majority of the YTS schemes have not fulfilled the Government's claims. This important piece of research will be discussed over and over again in the House. My hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mrs. Wise) outlined an alternative Gracious Speech that would benefit women. My hon. Friend made a remarkable speech, and I am only sorry that the House was not full at the time.
The hon. Member for Halesowen and Stourbridge (Sir J. Stokes) appeared to me and my hon. Friends to be operating in some kind of time warp. He praised the Prime Minister, I believe, in the context of the Prime Minister being a woman. I point out that nothing in the Gracious Speech will do much to help the vast majority of women in my constituency. I highlight the position of one section of the work force that I met recently--home workers. I listened as the workers, mainly women, told me that they earned as little as 20p an hour in the enterprise culture that the Prime Minister and her Government have created. They are being paid Third-world rates and their plight is the ultimate in exploitation. I dread the next 12 months and their effect on the vast majority of women. In the past year we have seen cuts to the NHS, to local government and to education--all of which hurt women.
Selling off the water and electricity industries is a shameful proposition which will be fought tooth and nail by the Labour party. Water belongs to all of us and it is not the Government's to sell off to anyone. It is life- saving and desperately necessary to us all. Conservative Members should note that, if and when profits take precedence over producing a safe water supply, history shows that disease ignores boundaries. Cholera killed those on top of the hill, just as it killed those at the bottom. For that reason, those who owned the wealth in the 19th century wanted a public water supply. To sell off the electricity supply industry is an act of criminal folly. A couple of weeks ago I sat here and listened to an excellent debate on the disposal of nuclear waste. Hon. Members from both sides of the House, apart from the new junior Environment Minister, agreed that the current proposals for the land disposal of radioactive waste were lacking in scientific and technical justification and had more to do with political decisions.
On Sunday, The Observer gave us an insight into the cost of disposal, which gave the game away. That article talked about burying high-level waste, which is a
Column 91frightening thought. As I understood it from the debate, we had not yet come to a decision on that dreadful and dangerous proposition. If such a decision has been made, we are entitled to know where that waste will be buried. No doubt the NIMBY--not-in-my-back- yard--and NIMTOO--not-in-my-term-of-office--arguments will be deployed. Who will pay for its burial, and what guarantees will be given once the nuclear industry is owned by the French, the Germans or the Libyans? Will YTS trainees oversee the vitrification of high-level waste? Will those who have been forced on to employment training schemes be found driving the waste up and down the country? We deserve, and we shall demand, answers. I do not believe that the Government have any coherent policy for the disposal of nuclear waste. Previous Governments have accepted responsibility for the waste, but this Government do not appreciate that the deadly waste is with us for thousands of years. It is the utmost folly to continue to produce it.
I am pleased that the Under-Secretary of State for Health is here guarding the pot. I was an auxiliary nurse for 10 years and I have had some experience in the NHS. I had a super job caring for the elderly and those with mental illness. I have a great deal of expertise in recognising that illness in those who are unaware that they are suffering from it.
Many of my colleagues were enrolled nurses, staff nurses, midwives, sisters, domestics and porters. They represented the full range of health care workers and were all decent and hard-working citizens. The Secretary of State for Health--I am sorry that he is not here--greatly insults them with his arrogance and his contempt for their grievances about the imposed, stupid regrading scheme. It will not wash. The nurses will fight back. They expect and deserve better treatment.
I should never have believed that so much damage could be done by so few to such a brilliant service. The Government have deliberately starved the National Health Service. They have deliberately created a situation where children and babies on waiting lists die. They have decided that there will be no long-stay beds for the elderly, whatever the illness or suffering. History will judge the Government, and the people will turn them out of office.
Before that day comes, we shall fight the Government. I am not intimidated by the odds, and nor are my hon. Friends. I come from a proud stock of people who created the wealth of this country. My mother was a textile worker and my father was a bus mechanic and a bus driver. They taught me the true values of Socialism and of caring for each other. Their skills and courage were shown through two world wars, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) said. We are a proud people. We recognise the enemy that we are up against. We certainly recognise the damage contained in the Queen's Speech. I owe it to those who went before me to fight those dreadful proposals, and I promise the House that I shall.
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Sir Anthony Meyer (Clwyd, North-West) : It has long been my ambition to cheer up the hon. Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon). My previous attempt was rather unsuccessful. I came across a piece written about a moving speech that she had made, in which she was highly praised, and I brought it to her attention. Unfortunately, I discovered that that piece was in a paper published by Mr. Rupert Murdoch, so she was not allowed to read it. Perhaps I shall have better luck--
Mrs. Mahon rose --
Sir Anthony Meyer : If the hon. Lady will contain herself and be patient, I have better news for her. I may be more successful this time, because I shall follow her part of the way down the road to advocating the advantages of universal benefits. Who knows?--this may be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
I should like to speak on a subject that will loom very large in the Government's programme as foreshadowed by the Gracious Speech as they press on with the reforms of social security. That subject is the relative effectiveness of universal as opposed to means-tested benefits for ensuring a decent standard of living for pensioners, the sick, the disabled and low- income families with small children. I can begin even-handedly, by delivering a slap in the face to both the serious political parties.
To listen to the efforts by the Labour party to exploit the Chancellor of the Exchequer's thinking aloud on the theme of means testing is a weird experience. After all, it is supposed to be the party that wants to help the poor. When a senior Minister produces some ideas, however ill presented, for doing so more effectively, the Labour party's first and only concern is to grab as much short-term political advantage as it can get.
As for the Government, they are for ever telling us how pensioners are so much better off than they have ever been. Statistically, I have no doubt that that is true, but it is not the impression that many of us get when we meet some of the pensioners in our constituencies. All the time, we run into elderly people who are having a real struggle to make ends meet and who can do so only by going without most of the things that make life worth living. But there are also many pensioners, thank goodness, who are doing very nicely indeed, as they deserve to.
Hundreds and thousands of pensioners have one, sometimes two, pensions on top of the state pension. They have savings that yield an investment income. There is much talk about the disadvantages of higher interest rates, but one should bear it in mind that for those who have savings, higher interest rates mean a higher income. Above all, those people are now the unencumbered owners of their homes, having paid off their mortgages. In short, they are basking in well-deserved prosperity. So numerous and prosperous are they that they are unwittingly inflicting a real injustice on a smaller, although substantial, number of their fellow pensioners. They are boosting the average income of pensioners to a high point. The Government are able to boast that pensioners' incomes increased by 23 per cent. between 1979 and 1986--a rise twice as swift as that of the population as a whole--and that their real incomes from savings and occupational pensions rose by no less than 59 per cent. What is more, they can and do make a further claim for the pensioners at the other end of the scale. We are told that
Column 93the real income of the poorest pensioners has increased by 20 per cent. in real terms during the same seven-year period. I rejoice to hear that. It bears out my own observations. I find little evidence of grinding poverty among my poorest pensioners.
However, there will always be a few who slip through the safety net, and I met such a couple the other day. He is a cancer patient and is unable to work ; she has to look after him. They are below retirement age. They have no income but have paid off their mortgage. The sum they are expected to live on by way of income support is £52. I do not see how they can live on that. They could sell or mortgage their house and live off the proceeds, but if they did that, they would lose their income support, would have no reserves for emergencies and would lose what is left of their self- respect.
I digress ; the point I want to make is that, with a few exceptions, the poorest have been well protected. The better-off are better off than ever before and the average is therefore high. Somewhere in the middle is a substantial group which is doing rather badly. The income and level of savings of people in that group have left them above the base line for any means test. For the most part, those people are Tory voters. The Labour party is not really interested in them, and the Government are rather smug about them. The Government can always claim--I always claim this when anyone complains to me--that they were far worse off under Labour and will be far worse off again. That is true, but it is not good enough.
To charge the Government with robbing the poor to pay the rich is the sort of silliness we expect from the Labour party. The true charge is that they have helped the very poor partly at the expense of the rather poor. The rather poor include a large number of pensioners and others who live by the values that the Government like to preach. Many of them have small savings or a tiny struggling business and prefer to take low-paid jobs than to be a little better off on state benefits. A nasty feeling is growing that the Government do not care as much for those people as they might, considering that the majority are or were Tory voters and that many of them are Tory party workers.
For such people, the surest, although not the cheapest, way of bringing much-needed help is by a straight increase in
non-means-tested benefits such as retirement pensions for the elderly and child benefit for families. Ministers mutter about scattering grapeshot, and we hear a lot about duchesses using their benefit for some frivolous purchase or other. However, the retirement pension is taxable and child benefit could be made taxable. It is not seemly for a Government who have slashed taxes at the top end to complain that the tax system is no longer an effective method of taking benefit from those who do not need it.
One of the Government's and the Prime Minister's most uncritical admirers has been Mr. Ronald Butt, who writes regularly in The Times . If I were a Minister, particularly the Prime Minister, I would be troubled to read what Mr. Butt wrote in The Times on 10 November : "By its recent actions and by other clues to its thinking, the Government is supplying material that its opponents will produce at the next election as evidence supporting their main charge against Mrs. Thatcher. This is that, the Government has little instinctive concern for a broader concept of social justice embracing those who have a comparatively hard time in a relatively undramatic way." Later in the article, he says :
Column 94"Nor is it a help to point to the well-off' pensioners who own their own houses which they have to live in with a relatively small disposable income. All that does is to incur the suspicion that while the tax cuts given to encourage the enterprise of the very rich are sacrosanct, when it comes to finding money for those in real need, the cash may have to be found from those in the category just above the really poor."
That is a worrying quotation. The Government claim with some justification that they have made some progress in eliminating the poverty trap, whereby someone who manages to earn a bit more will end up with rather less. They have managed to juggle the figures, at any rate for those able to work, so as vastly to reduce the "why work?" syndrome. They cannot honestly claim to have achieved as much for the pensioners, the disabled and those who care for sick relatives. All those people are caught in a poverty trap that is getting steadily deeper, often as a direct, although unintended, result of the Government's efforts to get more help to those who need it most. The list of benefits available to those who can give proof of low income seems to get longer by the month. There are means tests for income support, housing benefit, dental and optical treatment and now, unhappily, dental and optical tests. There are means tests for prescriptions, for hospital travel costs, for nursing home fees, for funeral payments, for help with fuel costs and with insulating and draught proofing costs, for legal aid and for rates relief. I accept that this tangle of means-tested benefits results from attempts by successive Governments to target help where it is most needed, but all too often the target is being missed. The multiplicity of these benefits means that only those who are sharp or exceptionally well advised get all the benefits to which they are entitled. For that reason, the take-up rate is much lower than it should be, and for some benefits it is unacceptably low.
I welcome the Minister's announced intention to launch a campaign to improve take-up, but perhaps it would be better to spend the money on improving and simplifying benefits. Much of the trouble stems from the announcement by the then Secretary of State for Social Services, now the Secretary of State for Employment, at the Conservative party conference in 1985 that he and his fellow Ministers in the Department would during the next six months carry out what he described as "the most comprehensive review of the social security system since Beveridge."
The very idea that three busy Ministers in their spare time from dealing with the day-to-day business of their Department and their constituency and other engagements could match the monumental achievement of Sir William Beveridge for several years during the war boggled the mind. Nevertheless, they did a surprisingly good job. The Social Security Act 1986, the end result of their labours, is about 80 per cent. good. But 80 per cent. good is not good enough, partly because the Ministers did not have enough time or commitment to follow through all the implications of the changes that they made. But there was another much more fundamental reason. The remit of their inquiry did not include the tax system or social security contributions. It is no earthly use even attempting to reform the social security system without an equally basic review of the impact of contributions to national insurance, and of the impact of taxation, not only on those on low incomes but on those who pay no tax at all.
Until the Government show readiness to tackle these components of the problem, they are not serious when
Column 95they talk about targeting benefits. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Sir I. Gilmour) made a gaping hole below the water line of their professed intentions in this regard when, according to The Independent on 7 November, he said of the Government's intention to phase out child benefit because it was going to rich people who did not need it :
"If higher rate taxpayers do not need £7.25 per child per week child benefit, they don't need the £30 a week they get in married man's tax allowance. Still less, if they are mortgagors, do they need the £28 a week they get in mortgage interest relief."
I believe that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor is aware of these anomalies and that he regards them as morally indefensible. The trouble is that, even if they are morally indefensible, they are politically unassailable, as witness the sudden embarrassed silence that descends on the Labour party when anyone talks about the absurdity of mortgage interest relief. It is rather like the reaction if someone at a meeting to outlaw cruel sports were to suggest that fishing should be included.
The Gracious Speech should have contained an announcement that the Government, in their pursuit of the perennial will-o'-the-wisp of effective relief of poverty and distress--a will-o'-the -wisp that has eluded Governments not just for decades but for centuries--would initiate a comprehensive review of the social security system, benefits and contributions alike, and of the tax system, including all allowances and with particular reference to the very high marginal rates at the bottom of the scale, where, almost uniquely in western Europe, the taxpayer pays the full standard rate on the very first pound of taxable income.
Nor do I believe that this is a job that can be done by busy Ministers in their spare time, even if Treasury Ministers form part of the team, as they surely should. I believe that this is a matter for a Royal Commission, something that has become unfashionable. I do not know whether anyone has a memory long enough to recall what such a thing is, we have not had one for such a long time. This is the time, and this is the issue, for such a prestigious, wide-ranging inquiry. It may take two or three years, but better that than a botched job carried out in six months.
Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East) : What worries me is that the hon. Member for Clwyd, North-West (Sir A. Meyer) may be one of a dying breed of Conservative Members who produce arguments in favour of universal benefit and child benefit that are critical of their party. The Gracious Speech shows that we are into a further stage of the policies that the Government have been pursuing ever since they emerged in 1979, and the policies that it sets out are in line with principles that are so different from those mentioned by the hon. Gentleman.
The Gracious Speech has not appeared in a vacuum. It follows legislation passed in the last Session. No legislation influences the shape of what we are now getting more than that concerning the poll tax. I shall refer briefly to the poll tax to establish certain principles, against which I shall examine the Gracious Speech. From 1 April next year, the poll tax will be a reality in Scotland, and registration for the poll tax will start in England and Wales. That means that the franchise will be cut, as has already happened in
Column 96Scotland, because of the link between the poll tax register and the electoral register. For the first time since the extension of the universal franchise, people will be required to pay a tax to qualify to vote.
People's civil liberties will be invaded by the poll tax registrar in his search for people missing from the register. The central authority of the Secretary of State for the Environment, as with that of many other Secretaries of State in respect of other legislation introduced by the Government, will be greatly enhanced to enable him to control the legislation. Local government will become a sham because its powers will have been taken away, and that will be the end of local democracy. Above all, the poor will be asked to subsidise the rich. The poll tax will have a serious effect and we shall have poll-axed people who will be seeking to respond to the other measures introduced by the Government.
How will the franchise be affected by the measures in the Queen's Speech? People will become more disenchanted with the political process and will believe that politics have nothing to offer them. Those who still qualify to vote under the poll tax may turn away from the political system.
I stood for election in a constituency in whch there was a sharp divide between the areas of Conservative and Labour dominance. In Labour areas, there was great enthusiasm to get rid of the Government. I fear that those people who are incensed about what has occurred will, when blow after blow has been rained upon them, become apathetic and disappear from the electoral game. That might be in the Government's interests. A Member such as me might lose his seat, and that should worry Parliament considerably. Candidates may seek to represent both sections of society, but some people may feel cowed and may not wish to be represented by them. A Government who depend on the apathy of the public should be concerned about their position ; and they are certainly not acting within the spirit and traditions of parliamentary democracy.
The Queen's Speech contains recommendations for further public expenditure cuts and hopes for further tax cuts. The rich, who have already received a considerable tax reduction from 60 per cent. to 40 per cent., may be able to look for even greater rewards in the future. Those rewards will be provided through taxes on public services and cuts in much needed provisions in working-class areas, such as Barrow hill, in my constituency, where few people have second pensions.
As a result of the proposals in the Queen's Speech on local government capital and housing finance, the poor will be asked to subsidise those poorer than themselves. As a result of the privatisation proposals, ordinary people will be asked to pay market prices for water and electricity. Those prices will be based upon the principles suggested by the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) in a televised debate during which she said that a person in a desert would pay a fortune for a drink of water. Presumably a person caught in a blizzard would be prepared to pay a fortune for protection from the blizzard and for warmth. In other words, he would be prepared to pay a high price for electricity, or the highest that he could pay, to look after himself. In such instances individuals would pay what the market determined, and in many instances the market would break them.
The imposition of the poll tax will hit civil liberties, but other damaging measures are now proposed. It seems that
Column 97a national membership scheme will be introduced for football followers. Football fans are to be dealt with on the same footing as terrorists in Northern Ireland. It seems that their actions are seen to be the same. Football fans are to be a race apart. They will carry passes, unlike opera fans and theatre goers who, presumably, are seen as proper people within our society. Some will not wish to carry passes. Presumably they will be told that they can watch all the football they want on television. That is rather like Marie Antoinette telling the people that they can eat cake. The issuing of passes is irrelevant to the circumstances of football fans, and the notion is based on ignorance of the life that they lead and the interests that they have.
Power has been taken centrally by the state, and we are to have more of that in the measures that the Government plan to introduce in this Session. There will be controls in addition to those that are contained in the Education Reform Act 1988. The Secretary of State for Education and Science will have powers to introduce teaching by rote despite education being the enlivening and extending of the intellect in helping individuals' minds to develop. Education is not about telling children to repeat ABCD as and when required or to produce answers to certain pre-determined questions.
The state will take more power unto itself in replacing section 2 of the Official Secrets Act 1911. That has been made clear already in the White Paper that has been discussed by the House.
With centralised power, local democracy will have more blows rained upon it when it is already a dying body. A Bill will be introduced to control the conduct of local authority business. The poor will have more taken from them, against all the norms of Western democracy. We did not get the welfare state without developing a democratic system in Britain, with similar developments in the Western world generally. The welfare system will not disappear, except by abuse of the democratic system itself. The Government were elected to office but they have not acted upon any democratic principles. They have not considered the views and values that exist in society. They have chosen not to defend democratic pluralism.
The Government are prepared to attack democracy by controlling public expenditure, attacking local government, privatising essential services, placing more pressures on the unemployed, messing around once more with the Health Service and introducing privatisation where and when they can. In addition, the Government promise through the Gracious Speech to interfere with the social security system. The poor will begin to find that they are being pushed out of the political game. The Government's programme is an offence to democracy and adds to past abuses. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the measures that are proposed for Northern Ireland. Poverty, unemployment and chaos are more serious in Northern Ireland than in any other area administered from Westminster.
Where is the Government's proposed devolved assembly? Such an assembly would regularise the political scene in Northern Ireland. Where is a Bill of Rights, which would protect the citizens of Northern Ireland? Where are the measures to introduce and stimulate a decent economy in Northern Ireland to help to introduce full employment? Instead, we are offered a measure about fair employment. Fair employment will work in a fair weather system when full employment has been established in front of it. That is
Column 98the action that must be taken. Northern Ireland can only be thankful that at least it does not yet have the poll tax to contend with.
Mr. David Amess (Basildon) : I welcome the proposals outlined in the Gracious Speech, as will many of my constituents. The state opening of Parliament was quite magnificent, but I trust that more and more hon. Members will realise that the concept of televising our proceedings is a great mistake. I understand that an experiment took place yesterday to test the lighting in the Chamber, and a silence has fallen over those people who witnessed it. I can only repeat that we would all regret the televising of our proceedings.
During the American elections, the Republicans accused the Democrats of being liberals. That charge struck a chord. Tonight I accuse Opposition Members of being conservative and reactionary. That was highlighted by the speech of the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Kinnock). His was a sad and entirely negative speech, but of course, that is the theme of the Labour party today : it is bankrupt of ideas and believes that the general public will swallow the nonsense that the Labour party is the listening party. The Government decide what they believe is best for the country and do not consider short-term popularity. That is the best way to proceed.
I was pleased to note the commitment in the Gracious Speech that the Government will
"continue to pursue firm financial policies designed to bear down on inflation."
Over the past few months, we have heard hypocrisy from the Socialists, who have performed a gigantic U-turn over Europe. We have also seen their hypocritical stance about inflation. We will never let them forget how high inflation was between 1974 and 1979. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Maples) said that he came into the Conservative party during the 1970s as a result of that high inflation. I joined the party in the 1960s ; I decided to become active in the Conservative party as a result of the Labour Government's mismanagement.
I am pleased that the Government are determined to continue their policies of sound financial management. Basildon is experiencing an economic boom. When I became the Member for Basildon five years ago, nearly 10,000 people were unemployed in the constituency. There has been a reduction of more than 50 per cent., and now fewer than 3,000 people are registered as unemployed.
Business is booming in Basildon. More and more firms are coming to the town and I am delighted that Basildon has become the most successful new town in the country as a result of the Government's policies. Basildon is a beacon for the south.
I was also pleased to note the references in the Gracious Speech to Mr. Gorbachev's visit. Earlier this year, I visited Moscow under the auspices of Christian Solidarity International. Our task, together with an American Congressman who led a party, was to try to obtain the release of a number of prisoners of conscience. We took the list given to us by Keston college of over 100 prisoners of conscience. I applaud the way in which the Soviet authorities have reacted. Only last week I met Konstantin Charchev, chairman of the Soviet Union's Council for Religious Affairs, and congratulated him on the announcements made over the past few weeks and months about prisoners of conscience.
Column 99However, I also raised with him the fact that our delegation was not entirely happy about the circumstances of Vasili and Galina Barats. We still need further assurances about their circumstances. When we visited Galina Barats in the Soviet Union, she was confined to the 18th storey of a tower block under house arrest and food had to be lifted up the side of the tower block in a bucket. We were not satisfied with the assurances that we were given on that. I am sure that the Government are sensible to be cautious in their approach to glasnost and perestroika. We applaud everything that Mr. Gorbachev is trying to do in the Soviet Union, but his position is not entirely secure, and the sensible thing is to proceed cautiously.
I welcome the proposal in the Gracious Speech for a national membership scheme to control admission to football matches. I never thought that the deplorable incidents that took place during a football match this weekend would happen in my lifetime. We should take note of the scheme that has been implemented for the past two years by the chairman of Luton football club, my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Mr. Evans). In the two years that that scheme has been operational in Luton, there has not been one arrest. Hon. Members might object to certain parts of the scheme, but I am sure that such objections can be ironed out.
Mr. Graham Bright (Luton, South) : Does my hon. Friend agree that, not only have there been no arrests in Luton in the past two years, but the whole atmosphere of the town has been changed? Shoppers can now go freely about their business when Luton is playing at home. The scheme has not only reduced violence but has transformed the environment of an area with a football club in its vicinity.
Mr. Amess : My hon. Friend represents a Luton constituency and is well placed to give us an informed opinion on how that membership scheme is working. As a House, we should fail in our duty if we did not try the scheme to see whether it has any effect on the violence at our football grounds.
I also welcome the proposals in the Gracious Speech to continue to raise standards in education. In my constituency of Basildon, standards in education are improving all the time. I was honoured to be invited to a prize-giving ceremony last week at the largest comprehensive school in Basildon, where I gave out the first GCSE examination certificates to those young people. The parents and the teachers were proud, and above all the young people to whom I was giving those certificates were delighted with their achievements. GCSE has been a success in Basildon and it has been a success throughout Britain. Therefore, I applaud the Government's commitment, as outlined in the Gracious Speech, to continue to improve education in Britain.
Mr. Michael Brown (Brigg and Cleethorpes) : Just to underline what my hon. Friend has said, is he aware that I had the privilege yesterday of visiting a comprehensive school in Kirton in Lindsey in my constituency and the first thing that the headmaster said to me was how the Labour- controlled education authority's attitude had changed? Once upon a time, he had received diktats from the county education authority on all sorts of nonsense,
Column 100such as not wearing uniforms, and so on. Today, the education authority is so concerned that schools might be on the point of opting out that it is bending over backwards trying to ensure that it can persuade the headmaster in this case that the authority can give him everything that he wants. That is a benefit of the legislation now on the statute book.
Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnor) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The comments of the hon. Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) have nothing to do with the Queen's Speech, which contains no reference to schools opting out. I have sat here patiently for six hours without being called, and what is occurring on the Government Benches is a conspiracy against free speech.
Mr. Amess : I refer to that part of the Queen's Speech dealing with child law. I am delighted to see my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Health on the Front Bench. All right hon. and hon. Members will welcome the Government's commitment to reform child law. It is a sensitive area, and I know that the proposals brought before Parliament will strike a balance between the interests of the child and those of the family. All right hon. and hon. Members will have been presented with sensitive cases with which they have had to deal. The proposed legislation is long overdue and I hope that there will be all-party co-operation to ensure that the legislation ending up on the statute book is in the best interests of all those children coming before the courts. Such legislation is even more necessary in the light of Cleveland.
I must tell my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Heath that I am disappointed that there is no mention in the Queen's Speech of any intention to legislate for embryo research. The Warnock report was published about six years ago.
Many right hon. and hon. Members feel that time should be given to tackling the problems surrounding embryo research. Although I applaud everything that scientists in this country are doing, I am not satisifed that, in their eagerness to push barriers forward, they are not doing things about which people such as myself, holding strong views about the matter, are not entirely happy. I hope that the Government will tackle that subject.
As to abortion, there were 174,000--
Mr. Ian McCartney (Makerfield) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Like the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Livsey), I and my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) have been sitting here patiently for a number of hours. It is one thing listening to Conservative Members speaking about matters to which the Queen's Speech may refer, but it is another listening to them addressing subjects that are not included and eating
Column 101up the time of the House, so that Opposition Members cannot make valid contributions. That goes beyond the bounds of good conduct.
Mr. Speaker : It has traditionally been the case that the first day's debate on the Loyal Address has always been wide and not tied to any specific subject. There are no wind-up speeches tonight, and it has always been legitimate, particularly on the first day, to draw attention to matters that right hon. and hon. Members feel should be in the Gracious Speech.
Mr. McCartney : Will you, Mr. Speaker, give Opposition Members an assurance that those of us who have been sitting here for six hours will be given an early opportunity tomorrow to catch your eye or that of the Deputy Speaker, so that they may make their contributions?
Mr. Speaker : The hon. Gentleman knows, because he has often heard me say it, that those right hon. and hon. Members who sit patiently through a two-day debate--and this is a five-day debate--have a much better chance of being called on succeeding days.