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Mr. Roy Hughes: What have I said to contradict?
Mr. Nigel Evans: The hon. Gentleman has said many things. Does he agree that, had his party won the 1979 election, it would not have gone down the route of privatisation, as this Government have successfully done, including privatising companies such as British Telecom? Had his party won that election, the telecom industry, for instance, would have been allowed to trundle on in its
Column 45own sweet way, becoming ever more inefficient, expensive and uncompetitive with telecom companies abroad.
Mr. Hughes: I find it difficult to understand what British Telecom has to do with British Gas, to which I referred.
As I was saying, even a privatised British Gas cannot be left alone and a fresh attack is made on the industry in the Queen's Speech. It is as though the Government have a manufacturing competition in the gas industry. We know, however, that ultimately the consumer will pay, especially less fortunate members of the community.
This Parliament is well into its third year and it is time for the Government to realise that dogma must be put to one side. That is also the view of the former Conservative Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath), who is quoted in Monday's Western Mail as saying that ordinary people had "had enough" of sell-offs. How right he is. By contrast with his remarks, the Secretary of State for Wales declared:
"It's certainly not the end of privatisation."
He said that the Government would continue to sell off publicly owned industries. The right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) is the Secretary of State for Wales, but I can say without fear of contradiction that he is completely unrepresentative of the people of Wales. The Prime Minister bears a heavy responsibility for his appointment and for allowing him to run riot in Wales.
In recent weeks, there has been a good deal of interest in the report of the Royal Commission on Environmental Protection. I was surprised that it was not directly mentioned in the Gracious Speech. I welcome the proposal, however, to establish environment agencies in England and Wales and in Scotland. During the long recess, I had the privilege of visiting the United States with the transport group of the House. We had a long session with the director of the American environment agency, which seemed to be doing useful work in monitoring various activities that adversely affect the environment. It involves a bureaucracy of several thousand people, however, so I suppose that one could say, "Governments beware".
I wonder why the Government are being coy about the Royal Commission. The jackpot question which any Government must face, whether they be the present Administration or--I hope before too long--an incoming Labour Government, is, what will the proposals cost? The cost implications may be Government's reason for shying away from the matter and not mentioning it in the Gracious Speech. I applaud the Royal Commission's principle that the money saved from cutting back on road building should be spent on public transport. I agree that massive investment is now required in public transport. The worst nightmare would be if the money saved from cuts in road building were not spent on public transport. The Treasury would then laugh all the way to the bank.
The class issue must also be addressed because all manner of proposals have been made to place much heavier taxation on motorists. In economic jargon, we must consider the "elasticity of demand", for the poorest sections of the community would be taken off the road. Top executives would still cruise along in their Jags and Mercs, yet ordinary people who use their cars to go to work, busy housewives who use their cars for shopping purposes, and people in rural communities where public
Column 46transport is often almost non-existent will be hardest hit. Surely the disabled should be a major consideration. We should all remember that private transport was once the prerogative of the rich. During the past decade, south Wales has suffered many thousands of redundancies. A friend who is a second-hand car dealer in Newport told me about the length to which ordinary people would go to keep their cars on the road having been made redundant or having suffered some other misfortune. Individuals value the car for the independence and mobility that it gives.
On the issue of jobs in Wales--charity begins at home--the automobile industry is now the largest manufacturing sector in Wales. On 22 July, a perceptive article by Robin Roberts appeared in the Western Mail . He pointed out that Wales had emerged as a major player in the automobile industry. That is self-evident when we think of Ford engines in Bridgend, Bosch in the Vale of Glamorgan, Lucas Girling in Cwmbran. Many other firms may be less eye-catching, but are nevertheless important to the local economy. In what predicament would our steel industry be without the automobile industry? Likewise, as Professor Garel Rhys of the Cardiff business school recently pointed out, wages in the automotive sector are greater than the Welsh manufacturing average. Those arguments illustrate that Wales has derived substantial economic benefit from that sector of industry.
To return to my recent American visit, the United States is the wealthiest country in the world, and I was vividly reminded, out there, of the fact that that prosperity is essentially based on the automobile.
I believe in an integrated transport system, which has long been the policy of the Labour party. I have tried to draw attention to the snags and difficulties that will be encountered in trying to implement such a policy. My mind goes back to the mammoth Transport Act 1968, steered through Parliament by Barbara--now Lady--Castle, at the height of her powers. In the event, that major Act did little to change transport policy in this country.
The proposals in the Gracious Speech are irrelevant to the problems confronting Britain. A few months ago, the Prime Minister talked avidly about getting "back to basics". As I understand it, there was no reference in the Gracious Speech to that issue. It has been ditched, like so many other things. Nevertheless, there is something in those words that I appreciate, although the Prime Minister's basics might be a little different from my own.
I was brought up in the mining valleys of south Wales, where there was a moral foundation in family values. People worked hard and were law-abiding, and I feel that we need to return to similar values. People should be able to leave their homes without fear of being attacked, or of their homes being burgled while they are away. That the devil finds work for idle hands is as true as ever it was. We need jobs for our people, especially the youngsters who have no stake in society. They should be helping to create the wealth of the nation, not being increasingly sucked into the dependency culture. Millions of people throughout the country are calling for a sound education for their children, better training and more
apprenticeships. They are also crying out for an efficient national health service to cater for all. They want decent homes to live in and an adequate pension when they retire.
Column 47In wealthy Britain, as we approach the turn of the century, those objectives should be well within our reach. They form the core of my basics, and I feel sure that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition shares many of those values and beliefs. I feel sure that he will lead us to victory at the next general election, to bring to power that long overdue Labour Government.
Sir David Madel (Bedfordshire, South-West): I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes); I agreed with him especially when he emphasised the importance of the motor industry. He will know what it means to my constituency and to Bedfordshire. Given that we have completely lost truck production in Dunstable, it is critical that Vauxhall Cars and ACD Components, to name but two local firms, do well. I could not agree more with what he said about how vital that is to our economic future.
I welcome in the Gracious Speech the references to the progress that has been made in Ireland, the widening of the European Union and our commitment to close co-operation with our partners. I naturally hope that Norway will follow Sweden and vote itself into the European Union when it has its referendum.
I think that the Gracious Speech shows that less legislation will be passed, which will be of a better quality. I hope that, by having fewer Bills, we will achieve the aim of better legislation. I am delighted that there is no education Bill. We have had 13 in 15 years, and I hope that we have laid the foundations for educational stability. However, given that stability, which I think is welcome throughout the teaching and education profession, boycotts of tests must end now, so that all the trade unions in the teaching profession co-operate in those vital tests.
I also welcome the fact that there is no trade union Bill. We have had plenty of trade union legislation. However, the Government need to keep an eye on one thing, given the legislation that we have passed. When an industrial dispute has occurred and remains unresolved, and a noticeably improved wage and salary offer is made to the work force, there should be a ballot on the fresh offer, and industrial action should be suspended while that ballot takes place. I believe that the long signalmen's dispute in the summer could have been brought to an end earlier if there had been a ballot when the employers made a fresh offer.
If the Royal Mail is to be reconsidered--I think that it will have to be because of the business changing; the Royal Mail is, after all, confronted by international competition--it is up to management to persuade the work force that changes are needed, and it is essential that there is a joint management/work force approach to the Government on the need for new legislation.
It is not our job, as politicians, to persuade the work force of the benefits of the proposals--that is the management's job. However, I have no hesitation in saying that, if the work force can be persuaded that a change is good for them, their families and the business, public opposition and anxiety about the Royal Mail will vanish rapidly.
Mr. Michael Spicer (Worcestershire, South): I have followed my hon. Friend's remarks with great interest. I
Column 48agree very much with the thrust of what he has just said, but surely one takes into account not only the work force but the customer.
Sir David Madel: I agree, but one of the problems for the Government was that it was obvious that the work force did not support the idea, and there was no management/work force agreement. Everyone in the Royal Mail should be thinking about ways to take the business forward. Taking the business forward successfully includes the customer, but the work force are a vital part.
One sentence that is always included in the Gracious Speech is: "Other measures will be laid before you."
We can all draw up a batting order as to what we like. I have no hesitation in saying that we must have changes in the Child Support Agency.
The Social Security Select Committee report into the workings of the Child Support Agency was extremely thorough and helpful. The Government could act on two recommendations quickly. In paragraph 51, the report says:
"As part of any review of the retrospective nature of the Act, we suggest the Government takes into account past property and capital settlements."
In other words, the problem of clean breaks is being considered. In paragraph 65, the Committee says:
"We recommend that travel to work costs are included in the calculation of exempt income."
You can say that again in a constituency such as mine, where some people have to travel out of Bedfordshire to seek work.
I believe that the Budget will be the centrepiece of this year's legislative programme.
The Budget that will come in a fortnight includes not only taxation but what we might expect in the way of Government expenditure. There is currently a good deal of loose talk about slashing the roads programme and switching to public transport, but I ask the Government to remember that some bypasses are environmentally essential. I am backed in that regard by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution. In my view, it is a priority to give Dunstable its bypass, rather than merrily starting to widen the M1 between Northamptonshire and Hertfordshire. Loose talk about cutting the roads programme does nothing for the environment, or for villages and towns such as Dunstable that are clogged with vehicles. It undermines the debate we need to have about how we will improve the road infrastructure. A local matter is causing enormous concern in my constituency: the Local Government Commission, and the point that it has reached. In Bedfordshire, the commission originally recommended a north- south split, but then said that it wanted a three-way split--in other words, a complete change. Inevitably, that has prompted an intense further debate.
The commission's first mistake was not to present the status quo as an option in its first report. Although the report contained a chapter on the status quo, it did not state that that was an option. The commission also made some administrative mistakes. It sent leaflets about local
Column 49government reform concerning Buckinghamshire to my constituency in Bedfordshire: hon. Members can imagine what that did for local morale.
In a speech on 27 February 1993, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said:
"In the 1990s I want to agree a new pattern--one that lasts, in its turn, well into the next century to come."
There is therefore no need to rush into what should be done about Bedfordshire. First, the Audit Commission must be sent back into the county to examine the cost implications of change. Bedfordshire county council says that the three-way split will cost £36 million extra over 10 years; South and Mid-Bedfordshire district councils say that they could save £5 million a year. We must have impartial, accurate financial advice and guidance on the true costs. The county council and the district councils are at loggerheads on the matter. In the county, however, opinion is solidifying, favouring either a three-way split or the status quo. The north-south split, the commission's original recommendation, seems to have gone out for good. But there are now bitter disputes and complaints about opinion research polls, market research and what people really want. None of that is doing local government in Bedfordshire any good.
Mr. David Rendel (Newbury): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, if there is no consensus about what should happen in Bedfordshire, it would be very dangerous to go ahead with reform? Reform that has not been made with consensus never works in the long run.
Sir David Madel: The hon. Gentleman's intervention was a bit premature: I shall be dealing with that shortly.
We do not need, and should not have, shadow elections next May; we should have normal local government elections. In May, nearly all Bedfordshire will vote in local elections. Moreover, the county and district authorities will note from sections 137 and 141 of the Local Government Act 1972 that they have the power to hold an advisory plebiscite. It would therefore be possible next May, on the day when nearly everyone in Bedfordshire will vote, also to ask whether those people want a three-way split or the status quo. Of course, arrangements would have to be made for the few villages that are not voting to be able to answer that question.
Because the advisory plebiscite would take place on the same day as the local elections, additional costs would be small. Schools and village halls would already be open for voting purposes. If a plebiscite takes place, the county and district councils must immediately stop spending council tax payers' money on putting out propaganda. The local press and local radio are perfectly capable of conducting in-depth interviews enabling various people to put their views across, and it would be entirely possible to include explanatory leaflets about the two options with council tax bills when they go out in late March and early April, thus keeping costs to a minimum.
There are precedents. As the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) probably knows, the borough of Tower Hamlets has conducted an advisory consultative postal plebiscite ballot on whether the people in the borough wanted a high, low or medium spending budget. In May 1979, people in various parts of the country had two votes, one in the general election and one in the council
Column 50elections. There is nothing new about being asked two questions on voting day; parish and local elections often coincide.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones), the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, kindly answered my Adjournment debate on local government in Bedfordshire on 18 October, before the commission's final recommendations. He said: "We want structures to be based on local consensus, and that can be achieved only if all those involved have taken part in shaping their local government for the future." --[ Official Report , 18 October 1994; Vol. 248, c. 256.]
I stress the words "all those involved". That points to using the 1972 Act to conduct an advisory plebiscite. The three-way split remains my preferred option, but, in an attempt to end our difficulties in Bedfordshire, I advance my proposal in good faith. I hope that it will be met with good will.
Mr. Michael J. Martin (Glasgow, Springburn): I agree with the hon. Member for Bedfordshire, South-West (Sir D. Madel) about the Child Support Agency. I am on record as saying that all parents--fathers and mothers-- should support their children if they can do so, and that there should be legislation to ensure that they do. I do not think that the CSA is finding the parents who are not carrying out their responsibilities, however; I think that it is taking the easy option, and finding the parents who are easily traceable.
I have described one case to the Minister. It involves a mother whose husband was given custody of the children when the marriage broke down, because of family circumstances. The father is unemployed and the mother is working. It turns out, however, that the children are in the mother's home nearly every evening, where she feeds them. At night, she sends them home to their father, because the school is near where he lives and she starts work early. Every weekend she looks after the children, and she takes them on holiday.
Because the CSA has a certain way of calculating, no consideration is given to that mother. No one would dispute that she is fully meeting her responsibilities to her children, but she is being expected to hand over a large part of her earnings to her ex-husband.
That is unfair, and I hope that the Minister will take on board the complaints being made about the CSA. In many instances, its methods are hitting people who are trying to bring up their children in difficult circumstances and to get on with their lives; it is unfortunate that their homes have been broken up, but the Government's methods of calculation do not help.
There is no one to whom the parents can go. There are no officials with whom to talk over their problem. Officials send out circulars saying that a parent must pay a certain amount and if they can do that, there is no reason why, in a caring society, those parents cannot discuss the matter with those officials face to face, so that they can obtain advice and be listened to.
I am disappointed that more has not been done about employment. I come from a community with a long tradition of railway engineering. Great emphasis has been placed on the technology required to create the channel tunnel link between here and Europe. That technology and the necessary training and skills are built up over
Column 51generations. We had generations of skilled people in Springburn. We had a railway workshop that employed 3,000 people, but it now employs about 300.
Those left do not want to know about redundancy payments, but want to get on with serving the railway industry and doing a good and decent job. They are still worried, because there is talk of cutting the existing work force by more than a third. I am going with my hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow, Shettleston (Mr. Marshall) and for Cumbernauld and Kilsyth (Mr. Hogg) to visit that factory on Friday to see what we can do.
If the Government can exert any influence over British Rail Engineering Maintenance, I hope that they will do so. The Government argue that there will be an upturn in the economy, but it would be terrible if that upturn took place and we did not have the skilled labour to cope with it. Work forces and factories may have to turn away orders, which would then go to Europe. That will happen if we have any more redundancies in the railway workshops.
The Government should look at the so-called employment agencies that have been set up. They have been set up with good intentions, but there is not enough scrutiny of them. There is one in my constituency that is in difficulties. The Prime Minister mentioned scrutiny of spending in Europe. There is no point in having that scrutiny when hundreds of thousands of pounds is being put into some of these employment agencies without any scrutiny. Those agencies are supposed to create work.
I can highlight my point by referring to a company known as Glasgow North Ltd. It was set up with money left as a legacy for the people of Springburn by the railway industry. When there were huge cuts in the railway industry, it left about £500,000 for the community as a pump primer. Glasgow district council, Strathclyde regional council and the Glasgow Development Agency have put money into the organisation, which is being run by well- meaning and reputable people, but there has not been enough scrutiny.
The chief executive has been suspended. I do not want to say anything about him now, because he is entitled to his say. I do not want to use the Chamber as a way of getting at him. That is not what I am about. However, a deficit of £300,000 has been discovered in that organisation, and one does not need to be a mathematician to work out that most of the legacy left by British Rail when it pulled out of Springburn has been used up. If it was not for the legacy, the company would be bankrupt.
In the past, I have told Ministers that it is no good simply saying that they are bringing employment to an area because they are setting up these organisations that will look after things. Some of the officials in these organisations have had no experience in the business world. They cannot be left to handle big budgets. My community has been let down. In some pockets of my constituency, adult unemployment is as high as 50 per cent. The organisation is supposed to be creating jobs, but instead we have lost £300,000. I hope that there will be a thorough investigation of the company, because it is not the only company in Glasgow or in the United Kingdom. I hope that there will be more monitoring and more public accountability.
Column 52Ministers talk about local government, and say that it should be more open. They must set the same standards for the employment agencies, so that elected representatives or any member of the public can scrutinise what is going on.
The Gracious Speech mentions health, and specifically the disabled. I make a plea for consideration to be given to the carers in our society. A few weeks ago, I lost someone very close to me. The carer in that case was 80 years old. She wanted to look after her husband to whom she had been married for 61 years. They brought up their family together. When the war began, her husband, who was exempt because of his job, decided to go and serve his country. He never had a day's idleness. He carried out hard and heavy work from the age of 14.
Her husband's illness meant that he needed constant care, but his wife was treated despicably. She was lucky if she got four hours' sleep a night, and if she asked for help from social services, it was given grudgingly. Sometimes it took social workers four or five months to come and see her, and when they did come they did not let her know that she was entitled to certain allowances.
I know that everyone can say that carers receive disability allowance, carers allowance and so on. However, we must remember that, when a loved one becomes ill, people cannot always obtain the necessary forms from the post office, because they are too busy looking after their loved one. Doctors, social workers and those coming into contact with carers should be more interested in finding out how they are coping.
The lady of whom I am talking thought that she was going to be visited by a social worker. In fact, it was someone from the social work department doing a survey about how her husband had contracted his disabling illness. The survey lasted one and a half hours. An old woman who was not getting much rest had to sit and listen to someone from the social work department asking probing questions, which obviously must have been hurtful to her. We are not doing well by carers in our society, some of whom are in their 80s and who sometimes have illnesses themselves that they overlook to care for their loved ones.
The Government keep telling hon. Members, when we ask parliamentary questions, that they have not cut health services, yet when one considers the position at the pit face, as it were, we find that cuts are being made. Glasgow royal infirmary is the main hospital serving my constituency. Bypass operations have been cut by 100 at that hospital.
After this speech, Ministers will probably write to me to say that, overall, another 100 such operations have taken place in another part of Glasgow. Anyone who knows anything about the hospital system, however, knows that general practitioners refer patients to a consultant at their local hospital. The patient is then put on the waiting list for heart surgery at that hospital. He does not join the waiting list for any hospital in Glasgow. If bypass operations have been cut by 100 at the local hospital, patients in its area must wait all the longer for their operations.
The worrying feature is that, if a patient waits too long for heart surgery, he or she can become inoperable. Sometimes, patients are no longer there to operate on. I hope that the Government will take that on board and that
Column 53their answer will not be that numbers have risen. If we play the numbers game, we sometimes play with people's lives.
I worry about the housing sector. To my knowledge, nothing was said in the Gracious Speech about housing. The Government and even the Prime Minister attack the Labour party on the question of dogma. It is a known fact that the Government have a hang-up about local authority housing. They are obsessed with the fact that local authorities in Glasgow have houses to look after.
I am the first to accept that some of that housing is not fit for human habitation, but some of it is excellent. The answer is not to starve local authorities of the finance they need to repair housing and to carry out improvements that are needed to give people decent, quality housing, but that is what is happening.
The agency Scottish Homes is an excellent, first-class landlord. It started off as the Scottish Special Housing Association. Its aim was to help smaller local authorities that did not have a big maintenance and building team to build houses for people on the waiting list. It became a landlord, and now the Government want to unload its housing stock on to the private or voluntary sector.
I have no objection to housing going to a local housing association that has a track record. Scottish Homes, as the agent of the Government, is seeking to give the impression that that is being done democratically, but it is not. If it does not want tenants to remain with Scottish Homes, why does it not put a question on the ballot paper asking tenants whether they want their housing to go to the local authority? That would be democratic.
In a desperate attempt to unload its property, Scottish Homes is encouraging some of its management to set up housing associations, which it should not be doing. The worrying feature is that some of those housing associations have no track record in being landlords and in maintaining and looking after property. My deep concern is that Scottish Homes will cajole people and say that they have to opt for housing associations with no track record.
Those housing associations may have to go to the banks to borrow large amounts of private finance. After five or six years, when Scottish Homes and the Government pull away safety nets, the sort of financial difficulties that I explained in relation to Glasgow North Ltd. involving bad management may arise. Tenants in excellent housing all over Glasgow may have to run around looking for a landlord to take them on. That is dangerous. I hope that the Minister conveys my deep concern to his hon. Friends in the Scottish Office.
Mr. Gordon McMaster (Paisley, South): I commend my hon. Friend for raising that important point, which has not had nearly enough attention. Does he agree that Scottish Homes' tenants, of whom there are many hundreds in my constituency, have not been given a democratic choice but only one take-it-or-leave-it option? In addition, they face the prospect of Scottish Homes management telling them that the one advantage of transferring to a new housing agency is that money will be available to such an agency, but will never be available to local authorities. Why should that be the case?
Mr. Martin: That is my point. If moneys go to agencies with no track record, why should they not go to local authorities? If the Minister could show good cause
Column 54and prove that some local authorities are irresponsible, I would be the first to say that they did not deserve support, but any hon. Member who knows the Scottish scene will know that no local authority in Scotland could be considered irresponsible and incapable of handling housing finances.
I know other hon. Members want to speak. I am grateful that I was able to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
Sir David Knox (Staffordshire, Moorlands): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Glasgow, Springburn (Mr. Martin) who, but for the conventions of the House, I should refer to as my hon. Friend. I share the concern that he expressed about unemployment and I am conscious of the problems in his Glasgow constituency and in Glasgow generally. Unemployment has always seemed an awful economic waste, apart from its appalling social consequences.
Fortunately, the position in my constituency is much better than in Glasgow or in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. Staffordshire, Moorlands has the lowest rate of unemployment in the west midlands and one of the lowest in the country. None the less, unemployment is too high in my constituency and I am glad that it is falling at quite a fast rate.
It is more than two and a half years since the last general election and we are into the second half of the present Parliament. We have just completed the second of two fairly heavy parliamentary Sessions, during which a great deal of legislation has reached the statute book. There have been some claims, in the press and elsewhere, that the Government have lost their purpose, because the legislative programme for the coming Session is not as heavy as those of the past two Sessions.
Nothing could be further from the truth. In the real world, away from the chattering classes, where people do things rather than talk about them, the public are fed up with the avalanche of legislation--often ill-considered-- that has descended on them year after year and that has diverted their attention from constructive activity and from their real work. Those people are looking to the Government for a period of legislative calm and consolidation, during which the radical reforms and changes of recent years can be given a chance to settle down and made to work more efficiently and more effectively. That is true not only in parts of the public sector such as the health service and education, but throughout the private sector. Continual revolution is not a recipe for good government or for national success. Whatever the media may think, the country is calling for a period of quiet, steady administration.
That is not to say that there should be no legislation in the coming Session. I welcome many of the measures in the Gracious Speech. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Bedfordshire, South-West (Sir D. Madel), I regret the fact that much-needed legislation to reform the Child Support Act 1991 has not been included--I hope that I can add the words, "at this stage", because I very much hope to see such legislation later in the Session.
I warmly welcome the proposed Bill on pensions. An increasing number of people retiring today look forward to receiving occupational pensions. It is important that they should enjoy the security of knowing that their
Column 55pension rights are adequately protected against the activities of people like the late Robert Maxwell. We must ensure that the Bill provides that security. As it passes through Parliament, perhaps we can keep in mind the lesson of the Child Support Agency, because when the Child Support Act went through the House, no one realised that it would have the consequences that it has in fact had.
I also welcome the proposed legislation on the gas industry. I believe that, in general, British Gas is a highly efficient company and that that has been due to the high quality of its management--I think of people such as Sir Denis Rooke, who have held prominent positions in that industry--but continuing good management cannot be assured. If the industry is to be efficient in the future, as it has been in the past, it requires the spur of competition, and I hope that that will be the result of the proposed Bill.
The Bill dealing with discrimination against disabled people is also very welcome and will, I hope, enable hon. Members to put behind them the controversies of the past Session. Discrimination of any kind is deplorable and unacceptable. The House has a duty to reduce it wherever possible. I have always believed that the law has a part to play in the battle against discrimination, although I do not subscribe to the view that legislation alone will eliminate it. I am not, therefore, expecting utopia for disabled people to result from the Bill, but I hope that it will ease their lot and help to improve their quality of life.
I welcome also the European Communities (Finance) Bill, which implements decisions reached at the Edinburgh summit in December 1992. Although it will involve a small increase in Britain's net contribution to the European Union, the contributions from other countries will grow more quickly, thus reducing the proportion of our contributions to European Union funds. The Bill, therefore, is in the interests of Britain. It is also in the interests of the European Union, as it will facilitate future development as the Community widens and deepens.
It will be interesting to observe how the official Opposition react to the passage of the Bill. They claim to be strongly committed to the European Union. The Bill will be a test of that commitment and of the new style of the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair), the Leader of the Opposition. If they oppose the Bill, or indulge in silly parliamentary ploys to delay its passage through the House, the country will know that so -called "new Labour" is just the same old soiled and tainted Labour that we have always known. I am bound to say, given remarks that the right hon. Gentleman made this afternoon, that I feel that it will be the same old soiled and tainted Labour that we have always known.
More generally, I welcome the positive references in the Gracious Speech to the European Union. British membership of the European Union is the most important issue that has faced the country since the end of the 1939-45 war. It is one that we have not handled well. Twice this century, Europe has been torn apart by awful and dreadful wars. Between 1914 and 1918, and again between 1939 and 1945, the cream of the youth of Europe was slaughtered and immeasurable material damage was done with the destruction of industry and property throughout the continent. Both those wars could have been avoided if Europe had been united.
Column 56After the second world war, the other countries looked to Britain to take a lead in uniting Europe, but we failed to do so. Eventually, they went ahead on their own and the European Economic Community was formed in 1957. We kept aloof, but by 1960 we realised that our failure to join had been a dreadful mistake. It then took us 13 years before we were eventually admitted in 1973--a 13-year exclusion that cost the country dearly.
Since we joined, we have not been good members. Too often, we have whined about how badly we are treated in the Community. Some people refer to the other Community countries as though they should be dependent territories. Some--a small minority, admittedly--speak about the other member countries as though they were enemies. Others--a rather larger group--try to blame the Community for all our shortcomings. Every piece of European legislation is distorted and twisted and held up as an object of ridicule, no matter how beneficial it may be. Some people--I am afraid that this has included Ministers on occasions--blame Brussels bureaucrats for decisions to which British Ministers, answerable to the House, have been party. Abuse of members of the Commission is stock in trade for vulgar populists.
Such constant sniping does the country great damage: it undermines our authority and reduces our influence in the Community and it diminishes our influence in the world at large. Far from advancing British interests, that behaviour has done great harm. In many cases, it is done, so we are told, in the name of patriotism, but the sooner everyone realises that British membership of the European Union is the highest form of patriotism, the better it will be for us. Outside the European Community, we would merely be Europe's offshore island--a relatively impoverished island with little influence over our own destiny and none at all in the world at large.
More than 30 years ago, Harold Macmillan said that if we remained outside the Community, the realities of power would compel our American friends and others to attach increasing weight to the European Economic Community and to pay less attention to us. Earlier this year, the out-going American ambassador, Raymond Seitz, a very good friend of this country, emphasised, in a valedictory speech to the Pilgrims, that the influence in America of any member state of the European Union depended on the degree to which that country was effectively engaged in the European Union.
The possibility that Harold Macmillan foresaw so clearly in the early 1960s is now reality. That shows clearly that the patriotic line in Britain today is full-hearted support for membership of the European Union. It is in Britain's interests to be at the heart of Europe and it is against Britain's interests to be outside the European Union or to be a semi- detached, uncommitted member. One of the great successes of the European Community in recent years has been the Single European Act, which has freed the flow of trade in goods and services within the Community. We must now build on that, and the next step is a single currency. It is both desirable and inevitable. There is no single market in the world without a single currency. If we had one it would further free the movement of people, goods and services, and eliminate the costs of exchanging currencies.
More than that, a single currency would ensure the continuation of the single market. If there is more than one currency in a single market, those who manage the