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Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham): I listened to the long list of proposals that the hon. Lady made from the Opposition Benches. Could she enlighten the House and tell us whether she has costed those proposals and exactly who will pay for them?
Ms Church: Many of those proposals have been put forward by British Gas itself in a letter that has been sent to all hon. Members. Frankly, we should not be worrying about the cost of the proposals. We have to provide proper services for the elderly. We have to provide proper services and guarantees for disabled customers. We have to provide guarantees on energy efficiency. Above all, we must ensure--something that has to be put into
legislation--that all suppliers should have to offer the full range of payment methods. That would ensure that all the people who are being supplied with gas have a choice--not the sort of choice that British Gas is now putting before the people, that if they cannot afford to pay their bill months in advance, they will end up having to pay
Column 389higher prices, and whereby the least able to pay the higher prices will have to pay them. Also, all suppliers should be required to publish their prices. Above all, we need clear regulations on cherry-picking.
If the Government do not implement those proposals, British Gas says that 12 million people will lose out and 6 million people will gain. One does not need a crystal ball to know who the 12 million are who will lose out and who the 6 million are who will gain. Listen to the voice of the gas customers and the Gas Consumers Council, which I strongly suspect that Ministers and British Gas would like see the back of. It says:
"Service standards are likely to fall below the present level that regulation . . . has forced on British Gas".
It also says that competition will lead to price rises, which "may be on a scale which will leave many people at a price disadvantage for several years, some of them forever."
That may be what the Government want; it may be what British Gas wants; it may be what the independents want; but it is not what my constituents want and it is not what I want. It is not what the Labour party wants. After the bloody nose that the Government got over the Post Office White Paper, the Government may be well advised to listen.
Mr. Neil Hamilton (Tatton): I was proud to be elected a Member of Parliament and proud to be a Minister in Her Majesty's Government, especially a Minister in the Department of Trade and Industry--a Department about which I knew something, which I know is normally regarded as a disqualification for office. I was also very pleased to have responsibility for what I regard as one of the most important aspects of Government policy: deregulation. I welcome my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Corporate Affairs, my successor, to the Front Bench. The deregulation orders, which I hope that he will be bringing forth in profusion in the coming year, should significantly reduce industry's cost. I hope that he will pursue that policy with great vigour. I pursued my own deregulation interests with vigour and I am sure that my hon. Friend will as well. I enjoyed piloting the Bill through the House last year. I enjoyed being a pilot on the bridge. Now that I am a stoker in the engine room of the ship, I intend to enjoy that role as well and I shall play my full part as a Back Bencher supporting the Government.
I have, of course, accepted that I had to relinquish office, but I cannot accept the suggestion that I abused my position as a Member of this House or betrayed the trust reposed in me by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. I bitterly resent the suggestion that I was prepared to accept payment in cash or kind to ask parliamentary questions or change my opinions. As a Back Bencher and, indeed, as Minister for Corporate Affairs, I sought to uphold the standards of probity and integrity which this nation rightly expects of those holding high office in Government or in business.
The press and broadcasting are a major industry--some parts of it, of course, employ highly skilled manufacturers. They play an essential part in the education of a modern democracy. On both those grounds, the future of that industry is highly relevant to today's debate. The Gracious Speech could have included several measures which
Column 390would strengthen the press by reinforcing the instinct for accuracy and fairness, which, if compromised, turns a tremendous force for good into a terrifying power to destroy.
Public confidence in Government and politicians has undoubtedly been seriously undermined by the way in which the story about alleged corruption in Government has been reported and presented. To--
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I hesitate to intervene but the hon. Gentleman must get down to addressing the Queen's Speech, which we are debating this afternoon, and not what happened to him personally in the past.
Mr. Hamilton: I shall certainly be doing that. I did say that we were dealing with a very important industry and I was proposing a number of measures which might have been in the Queen's Speech in order to strengthen it.
I wish to illustrate the point that I have just made by referring briefly to my recent experience. On 20 October, as the House will know, The Guardian printed an unsubstantiated allegation about me by Mr. Mohammed Al Fayed, that I, as a Back Bencher, had corruptly accepted bribes of £2,000 a time to table parliamentary questions. There is no truth in this claim. Mr. Al Fayed has also alleged--this led to my being questioned by Sir Robin Butler--that I had received £50,000 for putting down 17 parliamentary questions for the House of Fraser. There is no truth in this claim--
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I do not wish to have to keep rising and I have no wish to intervene in the hon. Gentleman's speech-- [Interruption.] Order. However, he is straying widely from the Queen's Speech, which we are debating. I hope that he will address his remarks to the speech itself. If he does not, I am afraid that I shall have to rule him out of order.
Mr. Hamilton: I had understood, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that in the debate on the Loyal Address, one could speak on any aspect of policy and that the subjects for debate were merely indicative. I am not questioning your judgment, Mr. Deputy Speaker--nothing could be further from my intention--but we are dealing with what I regard to be an important industry, the operation of which has very significant effects on the way in which industry performs and the impact which that has on the trade balance and other aspects, which will most certainly be within the remit of today's debate.
Mr. Sheerman: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I must say that when I became a Member of this House, I was told that in debating the Queen's Speech one could talk about anything. I think that--
Column 391ways, it can assist the Government of the country. But, in other ways it could undermine it in a manner which would be highly disadvantageous to trade and industry. That is the point that I am trying to make about this allegation of so-called sleaze in Government. In my own particular case, to which I was going to allude briefly, all that I was going to try to show was that the plethora of allegations made against me do not in any way concern my operation as a Minister in Her Majesty's Government.
I was the Minister for Corporate Affairs in the Department of Trade and Industry with responsibility for competition policy and company investigations. Mr. Al Fayed, whom I mentioned a moment ago, was suing the Department in the European Court of Human Rights, claiming that the DTI inspectors' power were draconian and breached the convention. I was advised by officials that, in law, I was not debarred from taking decisions by virtue of my previous sympathies--well known to hon. Members of the House-- with the House of Fraser case. Nor was I debarred by virtue of having enjoyed Mr. Al Fayed's hospitality in the 1980s as a Back Bencher. However, I considered it imprudent, if not improper, to expose the Government to the possibility of criticism by exercising ministerial discretions in relation to the House of Fraser and instructed officials not to send me any papers involving that company and not to involve me in any decision-taking affecting the company's interest. The upshot is that it has manifestly upset Mr. Al Fayed that he has been unable to influence Ministers or to overturn the Department of Trade and Industry inspectors' report on the takeover of the House of Fraser. The press and television wield an enormous influence over public opinion and the power of an editor vastly transcends that of any individual Member of Parliament or most Ministers, and the ability of individuals to protect themselves against that misuse is restricted in practice in ways in which legislation could remedy. I know that better than most because, as the House will know, 10 years ago I was involved in heavy litigation with the BBC, when my costs amounted to £235,737.35. It took me three years to clear my name. In my opinion, the law should be changed to reduce the imbalance of risks. Greater risks for editors would increase self-discipline and greater powers for the victims of their mistakes would enable wrongs to be more easily redressed.
Mr. Hamilton: I am anxious not to give way as I do not want to take up longer in this debate than is absolutely necessary. The Press Complaints Commission is a sheep in wolf's clothing and it is treated with open contempt by wilder media moguls. It should be replaced by a serious body which can command respect.
Our court procedures should be tightened to reduce the delays in securing justice and there should be more balance in the risks run. Informal mechanisms to stamp out media abuses are plainly inadequate and legal mechanisms are ruinously costly and slow. A major lacuna in the Queen's Speech is that nothing is proposed to remedy those serious defects.
However, I read in yesterday's Mail on Sunday that the Lord Chancellor is preparing a Bill, based on proposals put forward by Lord Justice Hoffman five years ago, to make it easier for ordinary people to bring libel actions
Column 392and to speed up and cut the cost of proceedings. I strongly support such ideas and I hope that legislation will be announced as soon as possible.
Democracy flourishes when public understanding is at its greatest. We are now faced with a situation in which the press, both broadsheet and tabloid, are sometimes prepared to go to any lengths to undermine the authority of our institutions. Too much of the media in this country are prepared to destroy anything in their sights. While my right hon. Friend the Minister for Export Trade does a brilliant job leading trade missions to the far east, our business men's efforts and our constituents' jobs are put at risk by an avalanche of snide criticism and false accusations against our trading partners' political leaders.
Business men batting for Britain abroad are bashed by the media at home. Not only do they have to contend with fierce international competition, but, unlike their French or Japanese counterparts, they have to contend with a hostile domestic press. While British Aerospace sales teams are flogging their guts out winning orders in the far east to keep £1,000 million worth of manufacturing jobs going for my constituents and those of other hon. Members in the north of England, some unhelpful journalists sweat it out at their computer terminals, denouncing our trading partners and, in the same breath, the Government for failing manufacturing industry.
A commission has been appointed to consider standards in public life. Perhaps the Queen's Speech should have extended its remit to the lack of such standards in one of the most important of our national institutions-- the press. Again, perhaps my own experience is instructive. The campaign against me appears to have been unleashed not because of sleaze in the Government, but because the Government are clean. Desperate to find sleaze, the media have accepted at face value the sincerity of Mr. Al Fayed's statement of his motives. They have accepted uncritically all his allegations.
On 8 and 9 March 1990, The Guardian castigated Mr. Al Fayed for "lies, deceit, cock and bull stories"
and the commission of
"a very serious offence . . . the dishonest acquisition of one of our major stores groups."
It would be interesting to know what has occurred in the mean time to produce that startling change of perception of Mr. Al Fayed by the editor of The Guardian .
A free press is essential to a modern democracy, but a licentious press is subversive of it. The right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) has a point when he criticises the press for its obsession with trivia and personality rather than issues. Those factors, coupled with a cavalier disregard for accuracy and balance in the pursuit of profits from circulation, have contributed powerfully to the growth of national cynicism.
Column 393Nothing better illustrates that cynicism than a letter I received from a senior journalist on one of the newspapers which had hounded me from office. The letter read as follows:
"I hope you will accept my deep regrets about your departure from office. I know you blame the media in part, but I hope you will accept that, as far as I am concerned, it was a straight reporting job. We need more of your calibre in Government not fewer. When the dust settles please let me buy you both a very declarable lunch." So that is all right then; all in a day's work. I will not, of course, reveal my correspondent's identity as I well recognise that there is no more sacred duty in life than the protection of one's sources. In any event, we look forward to the lunch.
Editors accuse Members of Parliament of being corrupted by the acceptance of corporate entertainment, but apparently they are not corrupted by the same process. It would, of course, be daft to suggest that The Guardian would print something flattering to Barclays bank as a quid pro quo for inviting Mr. Preston and his wife to the men's finals at Wimbledon this year at possibly £1,000 a ticket plus £100 a head for a slap-up lunch and tea. I am not for a moment suggesting that that editor has been corrupted by that hospitality, but that is precisely the allegation that he makes against us as politicians.
I invite the House to speculate on the column inches of pious indignation that would have been directed at the Home Secretary or the police had they sought to obtain information on terrorism or drug smuggling by the kind of subterfuges that have recently been employed to expose non-existent sleaze in the Government. Surely a commission to look at standards in public life should concern itself with questions such as those.
Furthermore, for evidence of naked bias, one need only compare the kind of coverage that my now celebrated stay at the Ritz hotel in 1987 received with the two or three inches on page two accorded to a former Prime Minister who apparently received, but did not register, a payment of £12,500--three times my inflated so-called Ritz bill--from the bucket- shop bank, BCCI, also in 1987 when I visited the Ritz. I make no charges of impropriety against Lord Callaghan and accept his explanation that that was a mere "technical oversight". However, I merely draw attention to the double standards of the press and invite the House to speculate on the paroxysms of denunciation that would have flooded the pages for weeks on end had that been Lady Thatcher and not Lord Callaghan.
Moving from the sublime to the ridiculous, what sense of priorities motivated The Guardian on the previous day to run its front page lead story under the banner headline, "Minister is part-time dentist"? The truth is that, sadly for the sleaze merchants, there is no sleaze in government here. Oh, how they must yearn for the United Kingdom to provide the rich pickings found elsewhere like in Italy, where former Prime Minister Craxi is holed up in Tunisia, unable to return home where he would join a significant portion of the political classes already in gaol, or in Spain where they really know how to satisfy an inquiring press. The chief of police for Madrid is on the run, wanted for corruption, while the Governor of the Bank of Spain has been called before the National Assembly to explain his
Column 394own rather than the nation's finances. Even in France, two Cabinet Ministers were marched off by the gendarmerie on corruption charges. I was told that if this speech attacked the Prime Minister for requiring me to resign, I would get the front-page headlines in every paper in the land and I have no doubt about that. However, I have concentrated on issues rather than personalities, so, if this speech is mentioned at all, it will probably be buried obscurely on the inside pages. If that is what happens, it will prove precisely the point that I have been making.
Mr. Stephen Timms (Newham, North-East): I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this debate and I want to refer to a topic which was not referred to in the Queen's Speech, but which I was pleased to hear raised by the President of the Board of Trade when he opened today's debate. That topic is the development of Britain's information infrastructure and the deployment of optical fibre and other advanced technologies to provide the new generation of telecommunications services to Britain's businesses and homes. They are the services which, through the so-called information superhighway, will underpin economic development in the next century.
There is enormous activity worldwide in that area, but it is remarkable that, as far as one can ascertain, our Government are doing nothing to promote the deployment of those new communications technologies in Britain. The picture is very different around the world in our competitor economies. In the United States, the Clinton Administration on taking office established an information infrastructure task force which produced its report--an agenda for action--in September 1993.
The report made it clear that, in the United States, the information super- highway will be developed through private sector investment and that the role of the Government will be as a catalyst, complementing the efforts of the private sector and working in partnership with business, education institutions and state and local authorities. That is a model with which, I imagine, the British Government would be entirely comfortable.
That United States initiative has inspired others. The Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications in Japan is developing a public-private sector partnership to establish a new broad-band infrastructure. Two industry bodies have been established, one of which is the Association for Broadband Business Culture Creation, comprising 150 major communications users taking part in pilot applications of the new technologies.
Last year, the main Japanese carrier, NTT, which, like its United Kingdom counterpart, has several new and aggressive competitors, said that it would establish an optical fibre network across the country by 2015. This year, the Japanese Government have said that they want the job carried out faster than that, with optical fibre links being provided to every Japanese home and business by 2010, a task to be carried out by the private sector, with competition between cable television and telephone companies.
The European Union's action plan acknowledges the vital economic importance of developing information super-highways in Europe. Optical fibre connections to customers are being widely deployed in Germany, particularly in East Germany, where there was not a
Column 395proper telecommunications infrastructure before. The French Government have been considering an £18 billion proposal rapidly to establish an optical fibre network to every home and business, yet the United Kingdom Government are turning their face against opportunities to allow Britain to take a lead.
I am not asking the Government to invest billions and billions of pounds in an information infrastructure--that will not happen, and it does not need to--but we desperately need from the Government some vision, leadership and the willingness to act as a catalyst to bring together the partners who together can create the innovations that we need. So far, all that we have had is silence. That is very strange, because the Government frequently point to the need for partnerships.
I was very pleased that the Secretary of State for the Environment was able on Friday to pay tribute to the regeneration partnerships created by my local authority, by Newham council in Stratford, and by Hackney council in Dalston. However, for a national information infrastructure, only the Government can pull together the partnerships that are needed. How much longer must we wait before the Government make a start?
It used not to be like that. In 1983, the Government launched "The Cabling of Britain", which heralded modern British cable television. Things have not worked out as the Government then envisaged, and the regulatory regime which was introduced then has created some problems, but at least then there was a vision. At least the Government said that they were important issues, and major private sector investments followed, but today the Government are silent. A report which was published in February for the Department of Trade and Industry tactfully expresses it as follows:
"There is a view held by some in the industry that a clearer vision of the future shared with government would help."
There is no sign of one yet, and that is deeply worrying. The Government must begin soon to draw together the telephone and cable companies, the programme makers and software developers, and the leading commercial and public sector users into a national information infrastructure partnership. Britain can excel in developing the super-highway, but the Government must first show the leadership and vision that will allow that to happen.
The British model, in which competing operators provide local communications services, has been enormously influential, but it has one feature which is a growing embarrassment to us and which will not be copied elsewhere. Cable television operators are allowed to provide telephone services, but the established telephone operators cannot provide cable television. That asymmetry is understandable as a device to assist the fledgling cable carriers, but it is preventing telephone operators from developing their networks in the ways that are being proposed in the United States of America, Japan, France and Germany. We cannot allow our telecommunications networks to slip behind those others simply because we have got ourselves into a position in which our regulatory framework is wrong.
The Government say that they will leave the development of that infrastructure to the market, but, at the same time, they are tying the hands of the major players in that market. If that situation continues, the opportunity to develop a super-highway infrastructure will pass us by.
Column 396The Government have in this Session a golden opportunity to tackle the problem, by responding to the Trade and Industry Select Committee's report on optical fibre networks. The Committee has proposed that British Telecom and Mercury should be able to convey cable television in their networks, but initially only where there is no cable television franchise. That provides an imaginative way forward. It safeguards the interests of cable television companies and the existing investments that they have made. I hope that the Government grasp that opportunity.
Press reports today suggest that the Government plan to do nothing and will reject the opportunity that has been presented. I hope that those reports are not true. The Committee's proposal protects existing cable television investments. To leave things as they are is seriously detrimental to the national interest. If the Government do nothing, and thereby perpetuate the present exclusion from the market of organisations which should be key players, the economy and British competitiveness will be the losers, and we cannot afford that.
Mr. McLoughlin: The hon. Gentleman misses two points. If we had not allowed cable television companies to have a franchise and a monopoly in local areas, there would not be such investment by cable television companies. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there is nothing to prevent British Telecom from undertaking cable franchises in local areas? It has chosen not to do that. Indeed, it had several licences which it gave up.
Mr. Timms: I am grateful for that intervention. The Select Committee offers a proposal that would allow existing telephone operators to upgrade their existing networks. That is the key. They must be able to upgrade existing networks on the ground in which they have already invested in areas where there is no cable television franchise. That would not threaten any cable television franchises that have been issued, but it would allow the main telephone operators the opportunity to develop their networks in line with developments that are taking place in all other industrialised countries. We cannot allow that opportunity to pass us by. I now comment on what the European Union refers to as the trans-European networks--the key elements of infrastructure which, like the information super-highway, will underpin Europe's economic development in the next century--that is, a national high-speed railway network. I was pleased that the Gracious Speech referred to a Bill to enable at last the construction of the high-speed rail link from London to the channel tunnel. I accept the Government's assurances that the decision on the location of the intermediate stations will be made in a honourable way. As the Government have made it clear that they choose the present easterly alignment for the link in order to bring regeneration to east London, I look forward to long-awaited confirmation in the spring that there will be an international and domestic station at Stratford as well as elsewhere on the line.
I am pleased that the Secretary of State for Transport has told the House today that he will shortly meet representatives of the Stratford promoter group. However, the channel tunnel rail link is only a start. We need a national high-speed rail network, and Stratford international should be its hub. In that matter, too, we need Government leadership, vision and planning. Other
Column 397European countries already have networks. As we recognise the limits on road building in future, so our need for high- speed rail services becomes more apparent.
An information super-highway and a high-speed rail network are vital components in the infrastructure for our economic development in the 21st century. We understand that the Government will not pay for them, but they have the key role in making them happen. The Government must take the lead in creating vision and setting up partnerships. The Gracious Speech was depressingly thin on those topics, but we cannot afford delay.
Several hon. Members rose --
I have listened with interest to Opposition Members in recent weeks, but I have not been able to discover any blue water between their policies and ours; all I have found is a deep red sea. Labour Members have learnt nothing and forgotten nothing. For them, choice and diversity remain mere words without significance for the nation's children. They still appear to think that there is only one type of school--that only one type of school holds all the answers to all the needs of all the nation's children. They maintain their opposition to grant-maintained schools, to city technology colleges, to grammar schools and to the assisted-places scheme. I notice that Opposition Members are nodding in agreement. But those schools provide education for about 750,000 of the nation's children, and they are doing a great deal to provide essential diversity, choice, quality and improved standards.
The hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle)--I am sorry that he is not in his place--is now an Opposition Front-Bench spokesman, a position I trust he will hold for ever. He was quoted in The Times Educational Supplement as being "an unequivocal opponent" of grant-maintained schools. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman; he clearly says what he means and means what he says. At least one knows where one stands with him, which is rather more than one can say for his right hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair). Apparently, the right hon. Gentleman was considering sending his son to the London Oratory school, which--shock horror--is grant maintained.
Mr. Pawsey: Of course it is: most grant-maintained schools are good. Someone should introduce the right hon. Member for Sedgefield to his hon. Friend the Member for Walton so that they can get their act together and decide on their attitude to GM status.
It would also be extremely helpful if, at some point in the debate, Opposition Members found time to describe their education policy--assuming they have one. My hon.
Column 398Friends smile at that, but they know it is true. Are the Opposition still abolitionists, seeking to cram all the nation's children into one type of school, or are they slowly being dragged, kicking and screaming, into a growing acceptance of the Government's policies? Incidentally, as the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) now believes that league tables are not all bad, perhaps we shall soon hear him talking about standards, excellence and discipline. Perhaps Opposition Members will eventually come round to believing that a measure of competition between schools is desirable.
I believe that the Government's reforms are delivering the goods. It has taken time and it has been a long hard passage from the anything-goes 1960s to the more demanding 1990s. The Education Reform Act 1988 signalled the Government's determination to improve the quality and standards of state education. It was this Government who introduced local management of schools, under which all schools now control 85 per cent. of their budgets. LMS quite naturally signposted the route to grant-maintained status--an imaginative concept much derided by Opposition Members but increasingly accepted by the nation's parents.
It was this Government who introduced the national curriculum and testing, it was this Government who introduced a new system of schools inspection-- Ofsted--and it was this Government who introduced league tables, and the GCSE. This Government have expanded advanced education, so that there are now well over 1 million students. All that has been achieved at great cost indeed. Spending per pupil has risen by almost 50 per cent. in real terms since 1979. Spending on books and equipment is up by 37 per cent. in real terms; and we have not forgotten teachers. I have long maintained in the House that the overwhelming majority of the nation's teachers are dedicated to their profession and the children in their charge. It is therefore entirely right that the Government should recognise that dedication in increased pay. Teachers' average pay has increased in real terms by 57 per cent. since 1979.
Another Government achievement has been the greater part now being played by parents in running their children's schools. There is a powerful argument to the effect that most parents know best what is right for their children. Parents do not leave their brains behind at the school gate when they go in to see their children's teachers. They have a contribution to make--I believe a great one.
Parents like a choice of school, for they recognise that children respond to different challenges and differing school environments. It is this Government who ensured that all parents now receive a written report on their child's progress at least once a year. Schools are now required to publish test and examination results.
The Government's reforms are working, I believe, and state education is improving. The debate initiated by Jim Callaghan in 1976 is beginning to reach a conclusion, despite the ill-conceived opposition of the Liberal and Labour parties to all our reforms. I am convinced that education is now much better than it was when Callaghan started that debate in 1976.
As a foot soldier in the long education battles throughout the 1980s and 1990s I must tell the House that these improvements have occurred not because of the Opposition but despite them. [Hon. Members:-- "Hear,
Column 399hear."] I am delighted to hear that support. The Opposition withheld support for the national curriculum and they opposed virtually every other education measure. Only belatedly are they seeing the educational light and ditching their comprehensive dogma and the old equality claptrap. Children are not equal; they do not have the same needs. Parents need freedom and choice to make the right decisions for their children and they will get that only from this Conservative Government.