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Column 57currencies will begin to cheat and play one currency off against another to try to gain benefits for themselves. Protection would inevitably follow, and when that happened the single market would be dead. Therefore, I hope that, as the European Union moves towards a positive decision on a single currency--as I believe that it will sooner rather than later--the Government will adopt a positive attitude towards the issue.
My worry is that this country will opt out of the single currency at the beginning, but that within a comparatively short period we shall find that that decision has been damaging to Britain. We shall then have to join an arrangement and accept conditions that we have played no part in drawing up, and that consequently do not take into consideration special British interests and circumstances peculiar to Britain.
Once again, in the interests of an illusory sovereignty we shall have given up the chance to influence the framework in which our country operates. In my view, that would not be very wise. 6.1 pm
Ms Ann Coffey (Stockport): I should have liked to hear in the Queen's Speech proposals to make more accountable the health service, especially trusts, which are basically local hospitals serving local populations. In April two trusts were formed in Stockport--the health care trust, which is responsible for community services, and the acute services trust, which is responsible for hospital services. Since then, several local issues have arisen that demonstrate the serious problems caused by the trusts' lack of accountability locally and by the way in which they are operated. The trusts are run by boards consisting of executive and non- executive directors, all appointed by the region. The model is from the private sector. Meetings are not open to the public. When I asked why not, I was told that there were three reasons. The first, apparently, is that closed meetings help trust members to focus on decision making. The second is that they are supposed to be more efficient. The third is that apparently in closed sessions members can be more robust in their dealings with each other than they would be if they were exposed to the public.
However, when meetings are closed, information about how decisions are being made, and about the problems facing the health service, is not available to the public. Private-sector models cannot be transferred wholesale to the public sector, especially to the health service, because health involves numerous issues concerning resources and their use-- especially as the money being discussed and dispensed is public money.
In the health service there is also a moral dimension. Our society has a strong belief in the value and intrinsic worth of the individual. It does not believe that one person's worth should be measured against that of another. When people cast their votes for political parties they take into account the moral values that we as politicians hold. Health is that kind of moral issue.
People have strong beliefs and values concerning entitlement to treatment and what the health service should provide. Yet elected representatives, the guardians of public opinion at both national and local level, are not represented on the boards that make those crucial decisions. Ours is a representative democracy, and that is
Column 58something that we consider valuable. We are not supposed to be experts, but we are supposed to be the voice of the people. Important decisions are being made about health care--such as who should have what care, and the level of treatment that people should have. Those are not only resource issues but moral issues, and the public have strong opinions on them. The trusts have the job of making decisions about how to manage their budgets and meet their targets. Various options are open to them. They use the phrase "increased efficiency", but where does increasing efficiency end and making moral judgments about how worth while various people are begin? Only elected representatives can say when that line has been crossed. Over the years, doctors have made many decisions about treatment, and I have had reservations about the powerful position that they held, but transferring that power to unelected boards will not necessarily help.
The trust boards are pleased about the change in the relationship between the service and the public. A trust chairman, Mr. Lilley, has said that doctors' first duty is to the organisation, not to their patients. The idea of organisations being paramount and becoming the arbiters is chilling. Indeed, a senior health service officer in Stockport told me that the best thing about the reforms was that the trusts now employ the doctors. I do not share his enthusiasm. While we were talking about efficiency and resources, the same person told me that a recent study had shown that most of the cost to the nation of an individual's health care is incurred during the final year of someone's life, and that a large proportion of that is spent during the final month of that person's life. It will not be long before a board, working within limited resources, begins to say that it is not an efficient use of resources to spend money on someone who has not long to live.
This summer, the Department of Health issued a statement saying that although medical care of the elderly continues to be a national health service responsibility, nursing care does not. How long will it be before the trusts decide that it is not efficient to use resources on older people at all? Indeed, are they already making those decisions? We do not know, because they are made privately, in secret.
It may be decided that it is not efficient to prescribe a more expensive treatment that could afford somebody a better quality of life. It may be decided that efficient use of resources means treatment designed to keep people out of hospital beds, such as day care and day surgery. There is nothing wrong with those as such, but rational, logical efficient allocation of resources can lead to decisions that the people who elect us would and do find unacceptable. Yet those people's voices are not there on the trust boards to say no. The trust boards are unlikely to say no, because they are all appointed. Chief executives will not say no because they will want to make their trust boards seem efficient and effective. Indeed, their jobs depend on doing so.
Several health issues have arisen in Stockport in recent months. One concerned the appalling conditions in long-stay psychiatric wards. The second involved a proposal to train new staff to take on duties performed by nurses. Thirdly, there was a £500,000 overspend by the acute services trust. Fourthly, there were the salary costs of the new boards, and fifthly the sum spent on a logo
Column 59and set-up costs. The sixth issue was a proposal that in future the staff providing laundry and catering should be re-named "hotel services".
Those issues became public knowledge not because of open meetings but because information was leaked by staff and the issues were taken up by the local paper. Of course, the trusts' initial response was that the rumours were a load of rubbish and the local press were scaremongering. Yet that turned out not to be true. Every one of those stories was factually correct. People from the health commission read about the problem in the local press, and its chairman visited the psychiatric wards and ordered them to be closed.
The only information that the public are getting from the trusts is the information that the trusts wish to impart. I suspect that important discussions about the health needs of my constituents, and those of all hon. Members, are going on behind closed doors. Why cannot that discussion take place in public? Why cannot local people see what is happening? Why cannot there be a representative on the board? Is the reason that millions of pounds have been cut out of the health service and that the decisions that are being made would be unacceptable to the public and are therefore being kept away from the public? Such decisions might involve care of the elderly, for example.
Under the new system, we all have a price tag on our heads for treatment. For some of us, the local health commission sees that price as not worth paying. What is happening is not being made clear. It may be easy for Conservative Members to allow decisions about our worth to be made in private and to welcome the new efficiency which, they claim, will develop quality of services. Quality of services for whom? Moral issues are marginalised in the new efficiency cult. Conservative Members should be worried because in accepting secrecy, they are depriving the political system and its representatives of any teeth and they are making us an ineffective and irrelevant part of the system. It all comes down to making accountability only an issue of a balance sheet. We are here not to be experts, but to represent views and to say that if efficiency means that my constituents will not be treated, let us have some inefficiency.
Mr. Robert Ainsworth (Coventry, North-East): I understand the important point made by my hon. Friend about the play-off between efficiency and accountability. That is often the case. My hon. Friend has adequately described the secrecy within hospitals. How do we know that we are getting efficiency from the trusts? We would know if we had an accountable system.
In the Walsgrave hospital trust in Coventry, a large capital bid has been made to move an inner-city hospital to an out-of-town location--
Ms Coffey: My hon. Friend makes an important point. I am talking about the balance between accountability and decision making. His point is that it is difficult to understand the criteria for those decisions because the information is simply not available. Facts and statistics
Column 60can be used to present cases as the organisation wishes them to be seen and not to give impartial information to the public so that they can make a decision.
There is no point in having ultimate accountability. Whenever they are challenged over the lack of accountability at every level in our society, the Government say that accountability comes at a general election. Accountability must exist at every level of decision making because small decisions, which may seem trivial to the Government, often have great consequences for local people.
I have been unable to get figures from the chief executive of our local health care trust about where he spent the £215,000 set-up costs. Before the trust was set up, when there was an elected representative on the health authority, I would have got that information. Now, the chief executive decides whether he gives me the information and when he gives me the information. I could, of course, write to the Secretary of State for Health. I would, no doubt, get a letter referring me back to the chief executive of the trust. Many of us go round and round that circle in sheer frustration, not for ourselves, but for our constituents. The political system is no longer the method of accountability. We have to beg for information that the people who have elected us believe we should be given. That is very damaging.
Having elected representatives on trust boards might take away some of their efficiency. We may irritate the professionals, but the professional system and the political system, side by side, provide a check and balance. That is the only way in which to ensure that the professionals do not pursue an internal agenda which is unacceptable to the public. I am very afraid that that is what is happening within the health service in terms of the decisions made daily, weekly and monthly. As Members of Parliament, we hear about such decisions only when our constituents come to see us.
An example is a constituent whose mother is in a Tameside trust hospital. The mother, who is not elderly, had a stroke and is in a coma. My constituent was instructed by the hospital staff to remove her mother from that hospital and to find alternative private nursing care. I have no doubt that the trust hospital was acting within its rights. To my constituent, who was on the receiving end, the hospital's decision was the ultimate brutality. I have little doubt that a thousand similar incidents are happening as a result of using the criterion of the efficient use of resources throughout the health service. To be honest, that is not good enough. Indeed, it is frightening.
"My Government will promote further measures of law reform." It so happens that at 2 pm today, just before the debate, I was talking to two constituents with whom I had been in touch before. Their stepdaughter was run over by a hit-and-run driver in a stolen car some months ago. The offender was apprehended and given four years, which did not seem an awful lot to my constituents given that their girl had been killed. They came to see me in some emotion because they had just heard that, after roughly 14 months, their girl's killer was about to be released from prison. They did not come to me in a vindictive spirit and I do not put this point to the House in a vindictive spirit. I give this example
Column 61as a simple and stark reminder of the things that victims in our society simply do not understand about the law, and I share their incomprehension.
Mr. Wolfson: I am delighted to hear my hon. Friend making this point, based on his constituents' recent experience. Does he agree that the law will fall into greater and greater disrepute unless, in the public's mind, sentences reflect the seriousness of crimes?
The point is on my mind because there has been an upsurge of concern in my constituency--such concern was not there 10 years ago, when I was elected-- about a series of crimes which, admittedly, are fairly petty but are often brutal. I am sure that all hon. Members know what I am talking about because I suspect that it is happening all over the country. I highlight the point because it concerns my constituents far more than it did and because I am talking not about some god-forsaken inner-city area but about a quiet market town. Of course, when such things happen, it makes no difference whether one lives in a god-forsaken inner-city area or a quiet market town, but I make the point to show that it is not purely a city affair and that it is beginning to arouse concern in small and previously rather quiet areas.
When I go to my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary about this matter, I get the sort of answer which I might expect and with which I sympathise, in the sense that he can demonstrate to me that he has given more police officers to the Thames Valley police. When I go to the chief constable, he tells me that he has to give preference to places such as Milton Keynes and to the city areas where crime is even more rife than it is in my small town. However, something has to be done.
I am not suggesting the spending of any more money, because I do not think that we have that money. In fact, I know that we do not have that money as a nation because we are some £35 billion in debt. So, there is not much point in asking for more money. But something will have to be done to intensify the existing programmes to get policemen out from behind their desks and to continue cutting, where possible, the red tape with which they have been inundated, partly as a result, I am sorry to say, of some of our legislation.
I shall say little about Europe because I do not think that it deserves much more than that. We and the world outside--the press--will spend much time getting extremely excited about the issue surrounding Europe in the next few months. I do not think that it is important at all in the real scale of concerns in this country. Unfortunately, it will be used in the House by some of my hon. Friends, and certainly by the Opposition and the media, in the way in which Europe is often used in this country--as a form of escape from the fundamental problems that face us, problems which are of our own manufacture and have nothing to do with foreigners.
For those very reasons, the issue will be built into a huge bubble. My hunch is that the Government will win the day, despite all the intrigues and combinations on both sides of the House and all the speculation in the press. In other words, we can look forward to two or three months of wasted time and energy in the House on a subject on which it seems the Government are taking a perfectly reasonable line and which the Opposition know in their heart is reasonable and sensible. That is how we are working. I put
Column 62it like that because we are increasingly working in such a style. There is a series of phoney wars in which we, as a Parliament, are engaged, often with the press. No doubt I shall contribute a little to that myself at some stage.
It is worth asking ourselves in all honesty just exactly what we think we are evading when some of us try to blow up issues beyond their natural proportions. Many things are wrong with Europe. I do not want to go into that. It is perfectly obvious that for years and years we shall have to battle against corruption. We all know that we cannot do anything very quickly in certain parts of southern Europe. To pretend that such issues are of major importance in relation to the fundamental problems facing this country seems to be an act of national evasion. No doubt, we shall be able to evade those issues over the next few months all the more enjoyably because of that not very important and, in my view, rather mechanistic Bill.
One of my hon. Friends said that he was glad that there was no mention of education in the Gracious Speech. I do not share that view. I should have liked the Gracious Speech to refer to a Bill on that subject because the absence of any mention of education either means that we have the right system now or that we have given up trying to get it right. The Bill that I would like would be called the Public Schools (Voluntary Purchase) Bill. I am perfectly serious about it, as I shall explain.
One of our favourite forms of evasion is when, for various reasons, Opposition and Conservative Members evade what seems to be an absolutely central and obvious truth--there will never be high-quality state education while the public school system remains as it is. That has nothing to do with ideology. I ask hon. Members to wipe their minds clean for a moment of all the old arguments about public schools and join me in agreeing on one simple, obvious and undeniable fact. Six or 7 per cent. of the most influential, most powerful and often, although not always, richest people have no personal experience of, or stake or interest in, the state education system; in other words, they are the governing elite. Let us be frank, we are talking about big business men, doctors, journalists and Members of Parliament. They have the most influence in our society. When all those people virtually unanimously get out of the state system, that governing elite, however it is defined, will never put its heart and soul into ensuring the quality of that system.
I am glad to see that one Opposition Member is nodding. That truth seems self-evident. If we try to evade it, we shall never get to what I consider to be close to the heart of the educational problems which concern hon. Members on both sides of the House. We should not simply continue with our traditional attitudes towards public schools. Conservative Members sometimes defend them on the totally spurious ground that they are a manifestation of choice. Of course they are not. Only people who have enough money can attend public schools and even people with quite a lot of money are beginning to find it rather expensive nowadays. So, when Conservative Members adopt that attitude, it is totally spurious.
Opposition Members sometimes seem to gain more pleasure from their resentment of those institutions than from thinking more positively about what might be done to bring some of the benefits derived by people who attend our best public schools to people who do not have the money to go to them.
Column 63That wound should not be left to fester--that is not too strong a word, because the current position has an extremely damaging effect on our society. I know of no other western country that has such a primitive form of educational apartheid. It will not go away. Rather than leave it to fester, we should think about it. I am glad to say that the Government have done a little thinking--I have always supported it--in the sense that they have set up grant-maintained schools. I believe that they have done that partly in the hope that, over time, those schools will become centres of excellence, their reputations will be high, they will attract people away from private schools and, at the same time, they will be open to people who, of course, do not pay fees.
Again, let us be honest rather than talk in tedious slogans as we do sometimes. Grant-maintained schools will be good only if they concentrate the powers rightly given to them by the Government on the improvement of teaching. I know from experience that those schools sometimes think that, since they are receiving 10 or 15 per cent. above the average rate of funding, they will provide new facilities. New facilities do not necessarily produce higher-quality education. They may be desirable, but they are not often necessary to improve education. Instead, dedicated teams are needed and grant-maintained schools have powers to recruit such teams. We may hope that grant-maintained schools will grow up to challenge public schools and open a frontier, as it were, but we cannot be sure of that because in British education there is a tradition of too much talk about facilities and not enough talk about intellectual quality. What are we to do? I have suggested a Public Schools (Voluntary Purchase) Bill. It is nonsense to talk about abolishing public schools. That is part of the old debate. Also, we would find ourselves abolishing institutions of extremely high quality, quite apart from the question of personal choice. So abolition is not worth a moment's serious discussion. What is worth discussing, however, is the Government's provision, which already exists, for public schools to opt into the state sector. The other day I saw a report of one independent school--I cannot remember exactly where the school was--doing just that. It was not a famous independent school. One of the reasons why private schools may hesitate to opt into the state sector is, of course, cost. If they entered the state sector, they would receive the same funding as everyone else; yet, as we all know, private schools tend to spend rather more to achieve smaller class sizes, and so on. That is one of the reasons--not the only one--for the relatively high quality of their results. We must be honest about that. Few private schools would take advantage of such a provision in my legislation. Indeed, few have shown such an interest so far. The Government should show a little more social imagination about the questions that I have raised and give a higher priority to tempting some schools over the line and into the state sector. I have always had doubts about the assisted places scheme and I have expressed them frequently in the House. The scheme seems to be a very hit- and-miss affair. I suspect that we could all give examples of cases in respect of which large amounts of money have gone to
Column 64completely undeserving middle-class people to allow them to send children to very expensive schools. That is indefensible. There is also a charity flavour about the assisted places scheme which I do not like. I should like the scheme to be abandoned. The very considerable amounts of money involved should be spent on trying to tempt--there cannot be a question of force--more private schools into the state sector.
That might sound idealistic. Of course, I do not believe for a moment that Eton will come into the state sector. I have discussed this point with some private schools. With regard to what I have described, I am thinking of former direct grant schools like Manchester grammar school or Latymer Upper school, which are very good schools. When I was asked to present the prizes at my old direct grant school recently, I was forced to point out that people like me would not be allowed to attend the school now because we could not afford to do so.
Given their traditions, it is wrong that such schools should be in the private sector. They are precisely the schools that should come back into the state sector while maintaining their traditions and selectivity. All the costs should be paid for by the Government on the condition that the rule of access is by selective examination. There should be no social precedents or fees.
Imagine what it would be like for someone living in a not very happy inner- city area if an opportunity were suddenly to open up for that person's child, who possessed an unusual talent, to attend not just the local comprehensive--which might be good, although the records suggest that that might not always be the case--but, as used to happen in the slightly better old days, a much better and more demanding school and so move out of that somewhat restricted social background. That would be a step forward. Schools which returned to the state sector and which operated a completely open selective policy--I do not shun the term "elitist" policy, because they would be elite schools--would put pressure on existing public schools to show their laurels. The more high-quality schools there are in the state sector, the more difficult it will be for the private sector to attract paying students.
Over time, I would expect my policy not to produce dramatic results, in terms of weaning Eton into the state sector, but to blur the current extremely damaging apartheid divide in our very old-fashioned country between state and private. I would expect a movement gradually to a variety of schools, including former public and elitist--I use that word in a positive sense--schools, open to all the talents in the country, irrespective of background or influence. Many people, perhaps some of those on the Conservative Benches, would be unhappy about my suggestion because they believe in the private sector. I, too, believe in the private sector. That is why I stressed that there was no question of force applying and that schools would return to the state sector on a voluntary basis. Let us face it, in the real world some people send their children to private schools for snobbish reasons. There will still be plenty of second-rate--or even third-rate--private schools to which such people could send their children because there will always be such institutions as havens for snobs and their delusions. People could
Column 65continue to send their children to bad schools and pay large amounts of money for as long as they wanted to do that.
Sir David Madel: I am sorry to interrupt my next-door neighbour. Would the examinations to obtain entrance to those schools be held at the age of 11, 12 or 13? Would they be held at a particular age? A child might develop later and be very good at 14.
Mr. Walden: My hon. Friend has made a good point. As my hopes of success for my Bill are restricted, I had not given its drafting sufficient care to give thought to my hon. Friend's point. However, movement between schools is important because people develop at different ages. That is the kind of flexibility I had in mind. I am perfectly serious about my point and about saying that this country will never get anywhere educationally until the problem is tackled positively and creatively and not in a negative or vengeful way. The frozen educational line, with all the resentments and grotesque hypocrisies that we all see in our social lives, with well-off people--let us be frank, sometimes Conservative councillors-- saying, "There are some absolutely marvellous comprehensive schools in my area, but they are not for children like mine", that dank snobbery which is rather characteristic of this country, and our obsessive classlessness, about which we hear from both sides of the House and of which I strongly approve, because classlessness, in my terminology, very often means levelling downwards, are the two sides of the coin that warp social attitudes in this country and rob many extremely intelligent young people of the opportunity to promote themselves in life.
Because of those two sides of the coin, many extremely second-rate people gain jobs to which they have no right because of their intellect or intelligence. They gain them simply because they have some facile or plausible patter which they have learnt at a school which, unlike so many state schools, at least teaches them to read and write properly.
That may all seem to be a little like a self-indulgent flight of fantasy. I sometimes become irritated, as I am sure all hon. Members do, when we in the House or people outside refuse to stare in the face problems which arise every day and which, if they are not solved, will not allow our country much of a future at all. If we have just an adequate education system, and not a superlative system, we will find the world a very competitive, ruthless and overwhelming place. Although I am not entirely serious about my Bill--if I were, I would have presented it in another way- -I believe that we should think about these matters and not evade them.
Mr. Bruce Grocott (The Wrekin): The hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden) described his proposal as a flight of fantasy. Like many others, I listened with great interest to what he had to say, and I find myself in complete agreement with his comments about the origins of what he described as educational apartheid. I would extend much of what he said to an analysis of our health service and the apartheid that all too often exists in it.
We have a spirit of bipartisan agreement at the moment, but I fear that I will lose it fairly shortly. The person who was ultimately responsible for the management of
Column 66the health service for 11 long years, Baroness Thatcher--who frequently would recount what she described as her party's achievements in respect of the health service--on her own admission would not dream of using the national health service. She once famously remarked that for her it was essential to go into an hospital of her choice, at a time of her choice, with the doctor of her choice. Would that that option were available to everyone. The analysis by the hon. Member for Buckingham of the education service also applies to health.
I wish to confine myself to a few words about the operation of our democracy. I have chosen to make my remarks today because the occasion of the Queen's Speech should tell us one or two things about the strange way in which our democratic system sometimes works. I am talking about the process of the Queen's Speech. I enjoy the pageantry and ceremony of it, but, in all respects save one, we are clear about what part is pageant and what is part of the real power structure in our country.
When we traipse into the House of Lords, the pageant is that we humble commoners go along to listen to Her Majesty speak in the House of Lords, and members of the Upper House--the really important nobility--sit and wait for us to turn up and stand at the Bar. That is the pageant, and no one gets too worked up about it, whereas the reality--at least I hope that it is the reality--is that this place is a bit more important than the other place and that it is in this place where real power resides.
We keep up the fiction with every Bill that we pass. Every Act of Parliament contains the words which we all remember:
"the Queen's most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons, in this present Parliament assembled"--
again, it is as though we are the least important of the lot. Occasionally, it feels like that, I admit, but let us acknowledge that that is not part of our democratic procedure.
There is another part of the fiction of today which we all understand and which we know is a fiction, and that is calling it the Queen's Speech. We know that it is not the Queen's Speech. We know that it would be utterly intolerable if the speech were written by an hereditary monarch. I am sure that Her Majesty would subscribe to that view as well. The speech is written by the Prime Minister of the day. We understand that. We agree that it would be an utter disgrace if an hereditary ruler wrote the speech, and it would certainly be an utter disgrace if an hereditary ruler refused to give assent to a piece of legislation that had been passed by this House and by the House of Lords.
There is one crucial aspect of our democracy in which the pageant and the power have become hopelessly muddled and it needs rapidly to be disentangled. The vast majority of people in the other place are there because they have inherited their titles. Their power is not simply part of the pageant or of the ceremony; it is a real power that they are able to exercise--they have inherited the right to legislate. That is an intolerable power to exercise in a democracy. We have Walter Bagehot's phrase about the efficient part and the dignified part of the constitution all tied up. I do not mind what hereditary peers call themselves and I do not mind much what they do, but I object when they are able to legislate on the proposals that are put before the House during the year. There are 759 hereditary peers out of a total membership of 1,203.
Column 67The sooner they lose their right to legislate, the sooner we can enjoy the ceremony of such occasions without confusing them with political power.
I introduced a Bill on this matter, but, sadly, like most of my attempts at legislation, it fell by the wayside earlier this year. Since then, I have made one or two inquiries. One figure which surprised me, I am pleased to say, was provided by my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell), in his capacity as Chairman of the Accommodation and Works Select Committee. I asked a parliamentary question to find out what floor space in the Palace of Westminster is occupied by the House of Lords and by the House of Commons. Rather to my surprise, 58.3 per cent. is occupied by the House of Commons and 38.7 per cent. is occupied by the House of Lords. I expected it to be far less than that, I must say. I am not sure whether those 759 hereditary peers and their various activities require all that floor space. I have a simple proposal: let us stop them inheriting the right to legislate. Without losing any sleep over what the next proposal to reform the House of Lords might be, let us reduce the area to a sensible, manageable size. It might be nice if hon. Members were allocated a little more space in which to operate.
There are two other aspects of our democracy which could have been improved in the Queen's Speech, but sadly there is no mention of them. It is incumbent on us to do something about them quickly, not least because we can be certain that, in the next 12 months, the House of Commons will send observers, possibly as part of the United Nations or as part of the European Community, to ensure that electoral systems in other countries operate properly so that the international community can validate them. That has happened time and again and I am sure that it will happen in future.
When we perform such operations, it is incumbent on us to make sure that our own House is in order and that our own democratic procedures--I have already mentioned one, which is getting rid of the hereditary element--are in order. There is one glaring respect in which they are not. It is a topical matter, because it follows last week's United States congressional and Senate elections. I refer to the expenditure of parties and individuals in general elections in this country. The Senate race in California cost $28
million--admittedly that was for the unsuccessful candidate, thank goodness, so perhaps money does not buy everything--and $18 million in Virginia. That is £11 million for one election.
Thankfully, in this country one cannot buy commercial time to fight elections, but we have one huge anomaly which needs to be sorted out. We all accept that it is absolutely right that there should be limits on election expenditure in individual constituencies. That has been acknowledged for 100 years because of the simple, blatant truth that, if one individual can spend far more than another, there can be no hope of a fair contest. We have no limit or restriction on, and no attempt to control, what parties can spend nationally in election campaigns. That is despite the fact that--even the least modest would have to acknowledge this --the outcome of a general election
Column 68is determined much more by what is spent nationally on advertisements and the paraphernalia of politics than by what each individual spends in his or her constituency.
Mr. Nigel Evans: I accept that there should be limits on individual candidates. The two candidates that the hon. Gentleman mentioned--they were Huffington in California and Oliver North--lost, irrespective of the amounts that were spent on their campaigns. Money does not buy everything; it does not persuade people to vote for certain parties--policies do. The one thing that is absent from everything that we hear from the Labour party is what it genuinely believes in.
Mr. Grocott: I made precisely the point that the hon. Gentleman has made. I said that the candidate whom I mentioned happened to lose. Yet it is universally acknowledged that in the United States it is not worth thinking about standing for a Senate seat without about $10 million ready to spend up front--that is the figure most quoted. Of course money is not everything in elections, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not seriously suggest that we should get rid of controls locally. I hope that he will acknowledge--if he does not, I guess that he will be in a minority of one--that there is some sense in saying that we need controls over election expenditure. The sooner we introduce a system of control over what parties can spend nationally, the sooner we shall acknowledge that there must be a ceiling on what can be spent in a general election. The amount varies greatly between the parties. We need to have proper open accounting of the income and expenditure of political parties. I know that Conservative Members are rather reluctant to have that happen. To take a simple example, although we cannot buy commercial television time--thank heaven--there would be nothing to stop a political party, if it had the money, distributing a free video nationally. That would almost amount to the same thing. Clearly there must be some limit on parties' expenditure. The sooner we tidy up that part of our democracy, the better.
Although Conservative Members might smile at what I am saying, if they went to observe an election in another country and discovered that one party had phenomenally more resources than another and spent phenomenally more than another, I am sure that they would report it. At least, I hope that they would. If they did not, they would not be good election observers.
My last point is also about the workings of our democracy and we regard it as fundamental when we assess democratic systems overseas: it is the need for variety and fairness in the media that cover elections and the run-up to elections. I find it deeply ironic that Conservative Members have suddenly discovered that the newspapers in Britain can be unfair. It is a pleasure to see it dawn on their faces as they discover that the newspapers do not always report Tories nicely and the Labour party as if we were all rogues; the newspapers can also be unpleasant to Tories occasionally.
Tory Members claim that some Conservatives have had to leave office because they have been hounded by the tabloid press. I remember a quotation from the right hon. and learned Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor). This is not an attack on him. I quote him as exactly as possible. He said something along the lines of, "It is very unfair if Cabinets are determined by the tabloid media." I wish that
Column 69he had said at the last general election, "It is very unfair if general elections are decided by the tabloid media." If he did say that, I missed it.
The only safeguard in our democracy is diversity, different centres of power and competition within the media. I am deeply alarmed at what the Government have done in broadcasting. I hope, although I fear that it is a vain hope, that even at this stage the Government will learn by their manifest mistakes and introduce changes such as I have proposed.
The Government have changed our rules on the ownership of television companies in the past 12 months. I know that there is nothing more tedious or self-indulgent than quoting one's own speech when it is right, but other people quote our speeches frequently enough when they are wrong so I make no particular apology for doing so. We had a debate just 12 months ago on a Government order that allowed television companies to merge. Those television companies only two years previously had been delighted to bid for their franchises under the existing rules. In the debate I said:
"We already know two inevitable consequences of his"-- the Secretary of State's--
"actions: the industry will suffer further job losses, and decisions will be made in London and not in the regions."--[ Official Report , 8 December 1993; Vol. 234, c. 449.]
I quote that because it is precisely what has happened. It has certainly happened in respect of the merger between Carlton and Central Television. There have been further job losses and, in effect, a regional television company has been taken over by a London one. Certainly in Birmingham--the regional capital that I know best--what was once a thriving centre of television excellence is now reduced to a news studio and basically a regional output as opposed to a centre for making programmes for the network.
If a decision has been shown to be a mistake, surely before further decisions are made about relaxation of media controls and rules on ownership there should be at least a review of the mergers that have taken place and whether they have brought benefits to the viewer. This is not just about broadcasting. It is about our democratic process. If we have a system in which power and control in the media become more and more centralised and are in the hands of two or three individuals, it is not only bad for the industry but fundamentally bad for our democracy.
Three or four other matters could have been tackled in the Queen's Speech. We have seen in the pageant of today how they illustrate some of the strengths and failings of our democracy. In a country which is fond of lecturing others on their democratic process, it is time that we got our own house in order.
Mr. Michael Spicer (Worcestershire, South): I was interested to listen to the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Grocott), but there seemed to be an inconsistency between his first and second points. He claimed that he wanted more party politics in the upper House, yet in his second breath said that he wanted to cut party politics for the lower House.
Column 70You will not be surprised to hear, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I welcome most of the Queen's Speech. I am sad that Post Office privatisation is not in it. I would certainly have privatised Post Office Counters as well as the Royal Mail. Privatisation of Post Office Counters would have given greater liberty to post offices. There is anxiety in rural areas about rural post offices. It would be good for rural post offices to have the freedom to develop. I suppose that I am also influenced by my experience in government, when I learnt that it is a mistake to privatise one part of an inter-related industry.
We made a mistake in privatising the electricity industry without privatising coal at the same time. I was the Minister responsible at the time and I argued for the privatisation of coal, which would have been a good thing. I would have privatised the two parts of the Post Office, but we have not done so. That is sad, but I shall move on to other measures that are good.
I certainly approve of the measures to create greater competition in gas, precisely as we did in electricity. We created a dynamic structure and moved towards a competitive industry. That has been successful, particularly on the power production side and increasingly on the distribution side. We could do the same for gas. The principle of flexible contracts for agricultural tenancies is a good idea as it will ultimately help more people to enter the industry. The problem is that the proposal relates to the present structure, financing and policy of the agriculture industry. If the aim is to bring more new tenancies and young, new farmers into the industry, the greatest single obstacle to it is the workings of the common agricultural policy, which will not be overcome by the new legislation. The quota arrangements in particular will undoubtedly result in a disproportionate rise in the value of quota-based land and farms above the value at which new entrants can easily enter the industry.
That raises the future of the common agricultural policy. The CAP needs an absolutely radical change, and until such a radical change--preferably a repatriation--is made in the method of support for the agriculture industry we will not overcome the distortions that are at the root of the problem, particularly for new entrants. By abolishing the CAP, we would, in a stroke, abolish 63 per cent. of the budget that is causing anxiety among some hon. Members. Our approach must be more radical.
I agree with hon. Members on both sides of the House who have said that the real issue is not so much what legislation we are to introduce but how we address the fundamental problems affecting not only this country but the entire western world. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Sir D. Knox)--this is one of the few matters on which I agree with my hon. Friend--that unemployment will be a massive problem, not just for this country but for the whole western world into the foreseeable future.
I obviously welcome the fact that British unemployment has fallen consistently from quite high levels, and today's figures, showing a reduction of 50,000, are good news indeed, but a clear picture emerges from the long-term and secular effects of unemployment here and in other European countries. Ten years ago, unemployment throughout Europe was about 5 per cent., but now it is nearer to 10 per cent.
It is quite clear that, in the longer term, finding people jobs in the western world will be a major problem. Even if people find jobs, there is a new sense of insecurity about
Column 71those jobs. Most of the current political and economic issues in the western world relate to this issue--for instance, that of protectionism versus free trade. I warned my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden) that I would refer to an article that he wrote in the Evening Standard in which he apparently flirted with protectionism. The trend towards protectionism in the western world is a result of the growing concern about unemployment. Most of the economic concerns expressed by hon. Members relate fundamentally to unemployment. I shall return to the point.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bedfordshire, South-West (Sir D. Madel) that a crucial element in the Government's strategy for the next year must focus on the Budget, which will be delivered in about a week. The Queen's Speech mentions fiscal probity and the need to reduce the total amount of resources as a percentage of GDP that go into public spending. That is good, because the solution to unemployment is fairly straightforward. If we are to deal with unemployment, we must create jobs, and that means investment, particularly in smaller businesses.
I argue that there are only three things that Governments can do to encourage investment: first, to ensure a low-tax regime; secondly, to have sound money so that production costs do not rise
disproportionately to revenue; and, thirdly, to maintain free trade. Sadly, the latter was not mentioned in the Queen's Speech. Ensuring sound money and reducing taxes is a difficult balancing act for any Government, particularly in the context of our large borrowing requirement. Some difficult decisions must be made. I suppose that we all have our own shopping lists of what we might do to try to get the budget into balance and to meet the objectives of sound money and fiscal probity outlined in the Queen's Speech. My own hobby horses include housing benefit, and I speak as a former housing Minister. The enormous increase in housing benefit clearly causes concern, especially among those who believe--as I do --that, ultimately, all our housing stock must be transferred to the private sector. I would include housing associations that were genuinely in the private sector in that calculation. That means that all the financing and revenue associated with housing must come through market rents and prices.
It is well known that we have the smallest private rented sector in the entire western world at about 7 per cent. In Germany, the figure is more than 50 per cent. It is manifestly important to create a substantive rented sector, and that requires transferring our entire stock to the private sector. Part of the reason for doing so would be to focus state spending on those who really need it, rather than on bricks and mortar. That is not achieved under the present system, partly because of the way in which the housing benefit system works and partly because of the various large sums-- the current figure is about £4 billion or £5 billion--that still go directly into bricks and mortar.
Since it is imperative to channel all housing support through the housing benefit system, controls must be established on the rents for which housing benefit is available. The cost of housing benefit is now tens of