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Mr. Dobson : What Labour will put to the people at the next general election is a system of local government finance, funded by central Government, that will find enough money to build and provide homes for London's 30,000 homeless families and the 8,000 families living in bed-and- breakfast accommodation. We shall find adequate funds, including funds from central Government, to ensure that central Government can perform the functions that the country wants it to perform. We will not put up with any ragbag nonesense from the right hon. Gentleman, who was so concerned about homelessness in the inner cities that when the boundaries were reorganised in 1983 he did a bunk from Marylebone and went off to Mole Valley. He knew that that was the only place where he would be safe.

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Mr. Baker : The hon. Gentleman has added to Labour's spending plans in the past few minutes. We noted what he said very carefully, and I dare say that the shadow Chancellor will do so as well, but where will the hon. Gentleman find the money? His hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East has spent all the money that he has found on other matters.

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we have found money with which to deal with homelessness : just before Christmas we announced a £250 million package. Governments can provide funds only if they run a sensible economy, and Labour will not do that if it ever returns to office. All the Labour Governments that we have had have left the country with higher taxes and bigger debts.

Mr. Dobson : If the right hon. Gentleman was not so ignorant about homelessness, he would know that to keep a family in

bed-and-breakfast accommodation costs £12,000 a year, whereas finding a home for that family would cost less than £7,000. The policy to which I am referring would both find families homes and save money.

Mr. Baker : It would certainly not do that initially, and it is unlikely that it would do so even in the long term. If the hon. Gentleman is advocating a massive house building programme, he should cost it. If that proposal is to form part and parcel of Labour's policy review document, let us have the sums that are involved. I am surprised that the Opposition spokesman on these matters, who knows rather more about them than the hon. Gentleman, is not in his place to answer all my questions.

I have demonstrated the complete absence of local government policy on the Opposition Benches. Let me now deal with the continual evasion by Labour spokesmen, particularly the leader of the party. There is duplicity here. On 5 January I sent to the Leader of the Opposition a list of 52 questions relating to uncertainties in the policy document. Each was itemised. The list also included uncertainties surrounding what has been said by shadow spokesmen--for instance, the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson). I asked him to answer questions not about education, housing, defence or constitutional matters but about economic policy. I have not received a reply to my letter.

I wrote again on 12 January. I have still received no reply. I have written again today and reduced the number of questions to the Leader of the Opposition. I have asked him to answer just one question, if he cannot cope with 52 : to say how the Labour party intends to find the money for all its exciting and imaginative policies on housing and everything else.

I can understand the Leader of the Opposition's reticence. All the other Front-Bench spokesmen make enormous gaffs when they speak. The hon. Member for Dagenham has made gaffs about shares, dividends and restrictions on mortgages. The hon. Member for Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) made a gaff about banning second homes. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) made a gaff about repealing all the Government's employment legislation. The Leader of the Opposition can neither answer questions nor speak with authority on policy matters because his approach to modernising his party is deeply flawed.

In an interview a few months ago in The Sunday Correspondent the Leader of the Opposition was asked whether there was anything that he could possibly learn

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from the last 10 years of Thatcher Government. His answer was short. There were no qualifications ; there was no hedging ; there was no "maybe"; there were no baker's dozens, with adjectives fighting for supremacy in long-winded sentences. He just said, "No." He had nothing to learn from the last 10 years ; the creation of over 2.5 million jobs, the drastic cut in the number of strikes--last year the lowest since the war--eight years of steady economic growth and stable finances that have led to debt repayment, tax cuts and additional spending on priority programmes. He had nothing to learn from a Prime Minister, a Government and a party who have won three elections in a row.

What hope is there for an Opposition party and a Leader of the Opposition who are supposedly reviewing policy when they have nothing to learn? His inability to learn and his lack of qualifications for high office have not gone unnoticed, not just on this side of the House but even, I regret to say, among his own supporters. In an opinion poll published last Saturday in The Daily Telegraph, 35 per cent. of Labour voters thought that he was a windbag. I do not object to that. It also showed that 25 per cent. of Labour voters have the impression that he does not know what he is talking about. Moreover, according to the opinion poll, 42 per cent. of Labour voters--not Conservative, Liberal or SDP voters--said that he was a lightweight politician.

Lightweight politicians cannot change their parties. The hon. Member for Brent, East knows that. We have seen a brave attempt to change the rhetoric, but this document is a scissors and paste job. The Labour party remains essentially a corporatist, dirigiste party, that wants to extend state ownership, increase taxes and direct people into doing what the party wants them to do.

The Labour party's policies would be a departure from all the successes of the last 10 years. We have transformed people's attitudes during that time. All that would be thrown away. We should return to the failures of the 1960s and the 1970s. That is why we should lose no opportunity to debate and discuss the Labour party's policies. The more that they are debated and discussed, the quicker they fall apart. Those policies show that the Labour party has not changed fundamentally. They also show that we cannot draw out of the policy document a manifesto that will win the Labour party the next election.

12.43 pm

Mr. Bruce Grocott (The Wrekin) : The gag, if that is the right word, that ran through the speech of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was, who should or should not have been on the Opposition Front Bench this morning. I think that he asked for the shadow Secretary of State for Defence, the shadow Leader of the House, the shadow Secretary of State for the Environment and a few others. We can be forgiven some confusion, because we do not know what job the right hon. Member for Mole Valley (Mr. Baker) is supposed to be doing. We do not know, therefore, who ought to be here to reply to his speech. That confusion has become noticeably worse during the debate. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman can spell out precisely whether he is here as chairman of the Conservative party--the only chairman who is not subject to election--whether his advisers are paid for by the Conservative party or by the state, and whether the people who turn up in the Box reserved for civil servants and who are now playing

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musical chairs are here on the basis of a state allowance or a Conservative party payment. If the right hon. Gentleman clarifies exactly what role he is performing for the Government, we shall provide our opposite number. However, we in the Labour party have a strange system whereby our chairmen are elected. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will consider that at some stage. Let us be clear that we will provide whoever is required when the right hon. Gentleman clarifies his own job.

Mr. Kenneth Baker : Will the hon. Gentleman say who is the chairman of the Labour party?

Mr. Grocott : The hon. Member for Barking (Ms. Richardson).

Mr. Baker : Then she should be here today.

Mr. Grocott : No doubt the Chancellor of the Duchy would like to give us instructions as to exactly who should perform on the Labour Front Bench, but for the time being we shall make up our own minds. The debate was initiated by the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow), who spoke for about one and three quarter hours. I fully understand the dilemma and the concern that led him to choose the subject for today's debate. He had the priceless opportunity of winning a ballot that we all should love to have won. He has had more parliamentary time today than most of us get in a year. He could have used that time to raise the numerous problems and complaints of his constituents--the doctors who no doubt are complaining about what his party is doing to the Health Service, his constituents' worries about the poll tax, the business rate and the problems of schools and transport. But, quite rightly--and I totally sympathise with him--he feels the same sense of weariness that is felt by the Opposition, that it is a complete waste of time to go to the present Government with those worries and anxieties. So, quite rightly, he decided that we should cast our eyes forward and think about what could happen in future instead of doing what so many hon. Members on both sides of the House have done to so little effect to try to make the Government see sense and change their policies. He had ample opportunity to do that, but, rightly, he decided against it.

What we would most like is not simply to look forward to the next election but to have the opportunity to have it. The sooner we have it, the better. Then we shall be able to test whether seats such as The Wrekin are marginal. I have a lifelong interest in the activities of voters in marginal constituencies, having spent a lifetime contesting marginal seats, and I sense, as I am sure the hon. Member for Eastbourne does, that there is a groundswell of change among people in Britain who are sick and tired of the Government. The hon. Member for Eastbourne and the Chancellor of the Duchy will be disappointed that I am not able to announce today the Labour party manifesto for the next election. I am sorry to disappoint them, but we shall announce that at our own pace and in our own time. Shadow Ministers will make speeches in the House and in other parts of the country at times of their choosing and at their convenience and not at the convenience of the hon. Member for Eastbourne or the Chancellor of the Duchy, whatever his job happens to be. The right hon. Gentleman could bring forward the process rapidly by advising his right hon. Friend at Downing street to call an election. We

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would then deliver our manifesto very rapidly indeed. As he has more influence on choice of election days than I have, I would be happy for him to do that.

I entirely reject Conservative Members criticisms that the Labour party has been reticent about spelling out the issues to which we think the country should be addressing itself and the policies appropriate to the 1990s. We have undertaken the most extensive policy review--I have the real document here, not the cyclostyle one that Conservative Members have ; they can have the glossy brochure if they wish--that any democratic party has ever undertaken. It consists of 88 tightly typed pages and gives details on all the issues that will face Britain over the next 10 years.

I have looked in vain for any comparable exercise that was conducted by the Tory party when it was in opposition. I have been able to find only its 1979 manifesto. I always carry a copy of that very useful document. It contains a mere 32 pages and bears little resemblance to anything that has happened to Britain since 1979.

Mr. Nicholas Bennett : It is a pity that the hon. Gentleman does not do his research a little better, because I think that that document was called "The Way Ahead". It was published in 1976, and the author was the present Leader of the House.

Mr. Grocott : No doubt the author of that document came under the chairmanship of the then chairman of the Conservative party, who was appointed by its leader. We do not regard that as a very democratic process. Ours is a thoroughly democratic document. It was spelt out in front of a hostile press and was analysed in detail by the considerable brain of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who did not make a very effective speech on it.

I shall not embarrass Conservative Members by reading the sections of the 1979 manifesto on the fight against crime. The one issue that that small document, which cost 15p, addressed itself to was the priority of the fight against inflation.

The Conservative party manifesto of 1983 was smaller than the 1979 one. The only difference was that its price had increased from 15p to 25p. That 66 per cent. increase characterised the extent to which Conservatives managed to fulfil their electoral promises. It is flattering that Conservative Members are so interested in what the Labour party proposes to do while in opposition. What the Conservative party says it will do when it is in opposition bears no relationship to what it does when it is elected to office. Conservative Members will no doubt ask what we shall do when we are elected to office. We shall have to undo those policies that Conservatives have carried out in government to which they were resolutely opposed when they were in opposition. I shall give one classic example of that--the way in which they have cheated pensioners.

I was the hon. Member for Lichfield and Tamworth when the Labour Government rightly decided that pensioners should enjoy any increases in prosperity by increasing their pensions in line either with inflation or with earnings, whichever was the higher. There was not a flicker of opposition from the Conservative party, but as soon as it was elected to power it destroyed that link. I

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searched in its manifesto for the explanation of how it intended to cheat pensioners, but of course there was no reference to it whatsoever. Conservative Members at least do us the credit of knowing that when we establish our manifesto in opposition it will be our programme for government, which we shall implement when we are elected. Exactly the same is true of the Health Service. We are in the throes of a great reform Bill on the Health Service, but there is no reference to that in Conservative party manifestos. The Conservative party was wise enough not to mention it when it went to the electorate last time.

There was no reference to the constant rundown of key sectors of the Health Service since the Government came to power. In my constituency, beds are unused simply because there are not enough nursing staff to look after the patients. Hospitals are being closed and 10 per cent. fewer beds are available in the West Midlands health authority than there were in 1979. There was no statement in the Conservative party manifesto to show that it had any intention of making those cuts when first elected to power long ago in 1979. There are many aspects to our policy review. It states our commitment to defend and extend the Health Service and to ensure that it is free at the point of delivery. Many aspects of our review are designed simply to repair the damage of 10 years--maybe it will be 12 years--of Thatcherism in office. Naturally each Member will concentrate on the particular parts of the review that interest him or her. Not surprisingly, the Chancellor of the Duchy wanted to say a fair bit about education.

I can describe one nice piece of Labour party education policy which the electorate of The Wrekin will be pleased to see implemented : the scrapping of the absurd policy on city technology colleges. The right hon. Gentleman will remember approving for The Wrekin a system of secondary education schools for 11 to 16-year-olds. If I had gone to him two years ago and asked him to build an additional school, he would have fallen about clutching his sides at the absurdity of the proposition. Now £8 million of public money is to be spent on a totally unwanted city technology college in The Wrekin.

The Chancellor of the Duchy talks about parental choice. Every conceivable form of opposition and expression of public opinion in The Wrekin--local authority, parents, teachers and pupils--is opposed to the establishment of a city technology college, which would be deeply to the detriment of existing schools. Everyone finds it preposterous that a Government who will spend only £4.9 million on all the schools in the country think it right to spend £8 million on one school. I recommend that more prudent expenditure to the Chancellor of the Duchy.

Mr. Madden : My colleagues in Bradford and I feel the same sense of concern about the proposed Bradford CTC as my hon. Friend has expressed about the CTC in The Wrekin. The Conservative party chairman has talked a great deal this morning about choice, including parents' rights to choose their children's education. Would my hon. Friend be as surprised as I am to hear, in reply to a parliamentary question today, the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science telling me :

"CTCs are independent schools and parents will have no automatic right of appeal if their children fail to achieve one of the limited number of places available. However, my right hon. Friend will expect colleges to look at individual cases on their merits."

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Surely that does not reflect the sort of sentiments which the Conservative party chairman was stressing so much today.

Mr. Grocott : My hon. Friend makes a strong point. On 19 December I had a reply from one of the right hon. Gentleman's former junior Ministers. I asked an innocuous question to find out whether the Minister would list the number of representations that had been received on the Telford city technology college, both in favour and against. I discovered from the reply --Ministers do not like answering such questions--that of all the replies received not one was in favour of the proposal. I wish that the Conservative Government would occasionally apply the consumerism about which they talk so much to some of their own policies and scrap the whole silly scheme. I come to the dreaded question of the poll tax. The right hon. Gentleman is a skilled political operator. He knows when to quit. This morning I heard him quoted on the radio as saying, "Last night in the vote we won the vote and we won the argument." He does not seem to have won the argument with the treasurer of his local authority. I was intrigued to read in "Local Council Review Winter 1989" an article by Mr. Roger Scott IPFA, FRVA, treasurer of Mole Valley district council, Surrey, on the cost implications of the poll tax. It states :

"Although we pride ourselves on being a very efficient authority, to handle the community charge we need to employ an extra 18 people ; in other words, to double our staff. In salary bills alone, this will increase our costs substantially.

To house the extra staff and equipment, a new extension to our existing building has been erected, at a cost of threequarters of a million pounds.

We expect our postage costs to rise four-fold. Reminders, notices of entry, the community charge bills and amended bills will push up our annual total from £10,000 to around £40,000.

Our bank charges will more than double.

A bigger, more expensive computer is needed to handle the extra work."

What can we say other than, "We told you so."? The proposal to introduce the poll tax was ludicrous from the start, as many Tory Members who opposed it in Cabinet know well. Yet it has been installed against the will of the British people.

Mr. David Nicholson : As we are debating Opposition policies, will the hon. Gentleman tell us how it is that the constituency Labour party of the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould), who was responsible for the two- tax policy of the Labour party, has denounced that as unacceptable electorally and administratively?

Mr. Grocott : That is a helpful intervention. The issue of how to finance local government has been debated since the second world war. The only consistency throughout the debate has been the constant rejection of the poll tax as absurd, even by many Tory Members and members of the Cabinet.

I look forward to seeing one or two aspects of our policies developed and extended. I commend them to the House. There is a section on working practices and arrangements. I look forward to life in the 1990s and I am strongly in favour of seeing the development of our policies on the reduction of the working week and new patterns of working arrangements whereby the working week can be four rather than five days. Tory Members will undoubtedly throw up their hands in horror at the cost

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implications of that. I have negotiated shorter working weeks, so I know that the cost implications are always grossly exaggerated by employers.

When Tory Members cost the various aspects of Labour party policy, as doubtless they will, I hope that they will use better economists than those they used for their own economic forecasting on the balance of payments, the rate of inflation, and other key economic indicators. They have been about 50 per cent. out, so perhaps we shall not have to take their considerations seriously.

Mr. Nicholas Bennett : Does the hon. Gentleman think that the best way forward is to support every inflationary wage demand and strike? That seems to be the Labour party's way of reducing the working week.

Mr. Grocott : I shall come to the public sector shortly, and the hon. Gentleman will find my comments interesting.

Tory Members respond consistently to our policies with, "You must dot all the i's and cross all the t's. You must be absolutely precise about exactly what you will do in office." Again, I must disappoint them. They never did that when they were the Opposition, but they expect it from us. There is no way, however, that we will know exactly what we can deliver when in office because we do not know what kind of mess we shall inherit when the day comes. We have a fair idea, however, and the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) spelt that out. I know that Conservative Members do not like listening to him, but he summed up the mess we shall inherit when he said :

"We've blown North Sea oil ; we have sold the assets. We are a society too anxious to consume, and an economy too reluctant to invest."

That could well be the epitaph of the Government. Despite the priceless and unspeakable advantages of the oil revenues, the Government have wasted them. In the 1970s we all knew that those revenues were coming and we knew that, whichever party won in 1979, it would enjoy massive economic advantages during the 1980s. In 1977 a prophetic document, "The Right Approach to the Economy" was published by a group of Conservative Members, including the present Leader of the House, which said :

"It would be comforting to believe that North Sea oil will transform our situation ; but an improvident government could all too easily allow these resources to be frittered away."

How true. I wish that the Leader of the House would appreciate the implications of his prophecy.

Although the Labour Government will face a grave economic inheritance, the social inheritance is far more serious. We shall inherit a deeply divided society. We shall inherit an attitude that, last year, faced with equanimity company directors being awarded pay increases of 72 per cent. This year the Government have told the ambulance crews that they should be pleased with a 6.5 per cent. pay offer. Such are their double standards.

The Government have raised self-interest to the level of idolatry. They are now living with the consequences of their actions. The problem could not have been better described than it was described a couple of weeks ago in an article by Robert Harris, who said : "The message pumped out from Westminster since 1979 has been that there is nothing wrong with personal greed. Indeed the acquisitive instinct was supposed to be the motor of national recovery the reality is that to have been employed in a non-profit making job in the past ten years is to have been a second class citizen. There has not been even

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the traditional compensation of pride in working for the public services. Instead, the Government has routinely implied that health service workers, civil servants and teachers are Left- wing, lazy and inefficient. The message, not always unspoken, has been : If you don't like what you are paid, clear off, do something more productive.' It is a record which it will take a long time to live down."

I can only say amen to that.

One of the key functions of the next Labour Government will be to restore confidence in the public sector. Contrary to the Conservative party, we believe in collective provision and we believe in the welfare state. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has said that there is no theme running through our policy review, but there is a common theme in that review and a common theme shared by my hon. Friends. Unlike the Government, we do not believe that the welfare state is one group of people paying, rather against their will, for other people to be looked after. The welfare state is all of us looking after one another at different stages in our lives. We do not know when we might be unemployed or sick. We do not know what our needs will be when we reach old age. We regard the principle of the welfare state as being a fundamental and irrevocable difference between the two parties. We reject with contempt the Prime Minister's view that there is no such thing as society. We reject with derision her view that people who disagree with her are enemies. She even uses that language when talking about some of her former hon. Friends. I am sure that in private conversation she sees the ambulance workers as the enemy within, just as she does any other group of people who try to improve their living standards.

The bunker mentality at Downing street, where the Prime Minister sits behind fortress gates, is alien to the instincts and values of the British people. What is going on in the Cabinet Office? The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster must know far more than I do about that. Just occasionally we have had glimpses of what life must be like around the Cabinet table with this Prime Minister. Two senior Ministers have resigned : the Secretary of State for Defence and, more recently, the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Neither resigned over matters of principle or policy ; they resigned because they found the behaviour and style of government of the Prime Minister wholly intolerable. Increasingly we have government by tantrum. We heard yesterday the Prime Minister--

Sir David Mitchell (Hampshire, North-West) : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The motion concerns the policies of Her Majesty's Opposition, so should we be given a lengthy speech which does not refer to and gives no revelations about the policies of the Opposition?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean) : Such motions lend themselves to wide debate, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will refer to the motion.

Mr. Grocott : We have seen the style of government of the Prime Minister, and her personality has been referred to in opinion poll after opinion poll. People see her as being arrogant, unsympathetic and oblivious to their needs. There is more than a touch of megalomania about her. I have here a document which is part of the Conservative thought apparatus. It is, of course, blue.

Mr. Leigh : Is this about Labour's policies?

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Mr. Grocott : I am talking about this Government and how matters would change under a Labour Government.

Despite instructions from the Cabinet Office that Government documents should not be personalised--an instruction that came from the Prime Minister herself at some milder period in history--this document has pictures of the Prime Minister throughout. Incidentally, it also describes Britain as a "force for peaceful change" in Southern Africa--a real piece of double-speak. There is a picture of a smiling Prime Minister on the front, a close-up together with a quotation from her, on page 5, another picture on page 14, another on page 17 and one on page 22, with another extended quotation. [Hon. Members :-- "Hear, hear."] Conservative Members may cheer. Would they do that if, in 18 months' time, documents came out regularly--at public expense--with red covers and with repeated pictures of members of the present shadow Cabinet inside? Regrettably, we shall not have the opportunity to test that because we shall stop such absurd practices and abuses of public money.

Mr. Leigh : Will the hon. Gentleman also stop Labour authorities abusing their position by distributing party political propaganda at the expense of ratepayers and community charge payers?

Mr. Grocott : I welcome the hon. Gentleman's intervention if he is suggesting that the same standards of conduct should apply to central Government as to local government. That would be a tremendous step forward. As he knows, the controls are far stricter for local government than for central Government. Governments involve not only policies but the people who implement those policies.

During the debate on the Queen's Speech the Prime Minister was good enough to allow me to intervene to ask her when, after her 10 years' management of the NHS, she expected to be so pleased with it that she would start to use it herself. There was no answer. The Government are full of Ministers who manage our state education and health services but would not dream of using them. The Prime Minister is like the proprietor of a chip shop who would not be seen dead eating on the premises. That is how the Government view the electorate. The Prime Minister's view was encapsulated perfectly in the immortal lines she uttered during the last election campaign. Describing why she went private, she said :

"I insure to enable me to go into hospital on the day I want and at the time I want, with the doctor I want. And for me that is absolutely vital."

It is vital for a lot of other people, too, but there is no possibility of it happening under this Government.

It is not surprising that the country is turning against the Government. The Chancellor of the Duchy kindly referred to The Daily Telegraph poll of last weekend. I happen to have it with me as well, and not only does it show a 10 per cent. Labour lead--that will do for the time being--but Professor Richard Rose said :

"The size and stability of Labour's lead in all the recent Gallup surveys is impressive. More than 40 per cent. of the electorate has now said for eight months in a row that it would back Labour in an early election."

We want these polls tested at an early election.

Mr. Nicholas Bennett : Before the hon. Gentleman becomes too overjoyed, may I remind him of the position of the Labour party at precisely the same point in the 1979

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and 1983 Parliaments? In January 1982 and January 1986 the Labour party had a substantial lead, yet it lost the subsequent elections by large margins.

Mr. Grocott : The hon. Gentleman is not right about the last Parliament, into which third party politics intruded. I am glad to say that the electorate will make a straight choice between two parties at the next election.

It is not opinion polls that interest us ; we are interested in real elections. The news on that front is excellent as well. Across the country last year, from the Vale of Glamorgan to the county council elections and, most importantly, the European elections, Labour did very well. The Guardian called the Conservative vote in the last elections the worst this century--not bad for the worst Conservative Government of the century. It said :

"The Conservatives have 34.7 per cent., which is their worst result this century. To find a lower share of the vote one has to look back to Lord Palmerston's victory in 1859, when the Tories, under the Earl of Derby, received just 34.3 per cent."

I welcome this debate on the choice facing the country ; the sooner it is made, the better. The debate has enabled us to look back to the 1980s and forward to the 1990s. During the 1980s we had a Government rich in oil but mean in spirit, led by a Prime Minister who is arrogant with power. The sooner she allows the British public to make their choice, the better.

1.18 pm

Mr. Alan Stewart (Eastwood) : The hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Grocott) launched a typical personal attack on the Prime Minister. In view of the time I shall not answer all his points ; I merely mention in passing that the Labour party received 31 per cent. of the vote at the last general election.

The hon. Member for The Wrekin did not touch on the Labour party's policy for the constitution. My hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) rightly pointed out in an intervention that no Scottish Opposition Member is here, not because of constituency business

Mr. Couchman : My hon. Friend may also have noticed that no Opposition Back-Bench Member is here to defend Labour policies either.

Mr. Stewart : My hon. Friend is right, although one or two Back- Bench Opposition Members were here earlier.

Scottish Labour Members are absent not because they are in their constituencies, but because they are participating in a meeting of the self -styled Scottish constitutional convention, a self-appointed and self- annointed body considering proposals that have fundamental consequences for the House and for the United Kingdom. Those proposals are based on a document called "The claim of right" which asserts that :

"Parliamentary Government under the present British constitution has failed"

However, not one scintilla of evidence is provided to support that statement.

The Labour party is now considering the detail of its proposals for a Scottish assembly, for unilateral devolution. We have been down this road before. I draw to the attention of the House some words of great wisdom. They are :

"The irony of devolution is that it will smash beyond healing the unity of Britain. People who light fires must expect explosions. These devolution proposals offer a maximum of risk with a minimum of gain to the Scots people."

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Those words are from the South Wales Echo of 25 February 1978 and they were uttered by the right hon. Gentleman who is now the Leader of the Labour party.

As always, the devolutionists are in considerable disarray. The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) is seeking to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and if he does I hope that he will spend a minute or two on that point. I draw to his attention a recent article in Scotland on Sunday which says :

"This week's meeting of the constitutional convention is heading for a confrontation over the Labour party's refusal to accept the right of a Scottish Parliament to decide for itself which powers it would retain."

The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie) said about Labour's proposals :

"It is contrary to the claim of right which says it is the right of the Parliament to decide on matters including taxation. This will be hotly contested."

The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) said :

"I am sure many in the party will be as dismayed, as I am, that a more radical approach has not been adopted. It is centralism with a Scottish face."

I hope that the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey will have an opportunity to confirm that that is the position of his party. In practice, Labour's position on devolution is completely confused. I shall give two examples of that. This week we gave a Second Reading to the Environmental Protection Bill. It provides for a new conservation agency for Scotland to take on the functions of the Nature Conservancy Council. It is opposed by the Labour party. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment said : "For a party that wants a Parliament for Scotland it is extraordinary that it argues that the Scottish people cannot be trusted to protect their own environment.--[ Official Report, 15 January 1990 ; Vol. 165, c. 43.]

Labour also voted against a Bill to provide for the transfer of responsibility for training from Sheffield to Scotland.

What are Labour's answers to the key questions that are raised by devolution? What does it say about the number of Members in the House? Labour asserts that Scotland should still have 72 Members of Parliament when none of them will have any responsibility for Scottish affairs. That is absurd. What about the Secretary of State for Scotland? The convention says :

"There is a consensus that there should be a Secretary of State for Scotland but it must be admitted that he would serve no useful purpose."

That means that the Secretary of State for Scotland will have nothing to do.

What about the West Lothian question? Would Scottish Members vote in matters relating to the domestic affairs of other parts of the United Kingdom? Labour says yes, but why should English Members allow Scottish Members to vote, possibly decisively, on legislation affecting English education, housing and local government, when none of them could vote on comparable Scottish matters? Scottish Members of Parliament will find themselves deciding schools policy for Doncaster but not for Dundee ; transport policy for Kent, but not for Caithness. Such a situation would be absurd.

As to finance, a recent article by Professor Donald Mackay in the booklet "Scottish Assembly : We're better off without it" analyses the financial implications of devolution. Professor Mackay points out that Scotland

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