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9.4 pm

Mrs. Ann Taylor (Dewsbury): I understand hon. Members' wanting to hear more from my hon. Friend the Member for Renfrew, West and Inverclyde (Mr. Graham). His speech was direct and came from the heart. They would do well to listen to his underlying message.

We have had a wide-ranging debate, touching on--

Mr. Robert G. Hughes (Harrow, West): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Taylor: I have only just started my preamble, but I shall.

Mr. Hughes: I am grateful to the hon. Lady. She played a leading part in changing the Standing Orders, particularly those relating to the declaration of hon. Members' interests. Perhaps this was an oversight, but I fail to understand why the hon. Lady--unlike her party's Chief Whip and deputy leader--has not declared an interest in one of the amendments tabled by Labour. The hon. Lady has a relevant interest but she has not declared it.

Mrs. Taylor: The hon. Gentleman should withdraw that remark because I have no interest relevant to the debate. Those names shown with the letter R against them have been so identified after the procedure was cleared with the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. Labour Members are clear about the rules. If the hon. Gentleman has any questions, he should not raise them in the House but with the parliamentary commissioner. I assure the hon. Gentleman that his allegation is incorrect and I invite him to withdraw it.

Mr. Hughes: The hon. Lady says that, but she nevertheless has an interest that I regard as relevant, relating to that which she receives from the Association of Teachers and Lecturers and from Unison. While I am on the subject, I think that the sponsorship of the Labour party leader by the Transport and General Workers Union is also relevant.

Mrs. Taylor: This is a typical abuse by certain hon. Members, who are trying to mislead people about the amendment. I say to the House, and to the hon. Gentleman in particular, that the procedure that the Opposition followed in tabling the amendment, in relation to the registration of interests, has been cleared in detail with the parliamentary commissioner, who was appointed to take notice of those issues. It is a matter for him. If the hon. Gentleman does not understand that, he ought to go away and read the reports so that he understands the system that we introduced about a week ago.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris): Order. Hon. Members should be clear that if they have a complaint in relation to registration, it should be raised with the parliamentary commissioner. Such a complaint is not for debate this evening. We will return to the Gracious Speech.

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Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I have given my ruling. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is raising a point of order on a different matter.

Mr. Marshall: Mr. Deputy Speaker--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Is it a different matter? No. I call Mrs. Taylor.

Mr. Marshall: I wanted your advice, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order.

Mrs. Taylor: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for confirming the interpretation that I gave the House.

As I was trying to say before the hon. Gentleman so misleadingly interrupted--

Mr. Anthony Coombs (Wyre Forest) rose--

Mrs. Taylor: I shall not give way. I intend to make my speech, not to answer irrelevant interventions which you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, have already ruled out of order.

Mr. Day: on a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I hope it is a new point of order.

Mr. Day: I want to correct a point of order that I raised earlier. The House will recall that, earlier this evening, the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) claimed that Cheshire county council was Conservative controlled. I rose to put the record straight, on the basis of the seats allocated to each party. The information that I imparted to the House was correct: there are 22 Conservatives, 35 Labour councillors and 14 Liberal Democrats.

It has since been brought to my attention, however, that the chairman of the authority is indeed a Conservative. I understand that that is the result of some deal struck between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives. I thought it only right to put the record straight, and if I gave any offence to the hon. Gentleman, I apologise.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I am most grateful.

Mr. Miller: Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's comments and I do not blame him for what he said, although it was not a strong point in favour of the Conservative party.

Mrs. Taylor: If we could now return to the debate, that would be of benefit to the House.

We have heard the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway), for example, whom we are glad to see back with us following his illness, speak about local government reorganisation. We have also heard speeches on housing and the family. I would hesitate before trying to follow the cultural contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Renfrew, West and Inverclyde; suffice it to say that many of the problems that he related are known to the constituents of many other hon. Members. I think in particular of the many difficulties that my constituents have experienced with the Child Support Agency--my hon. Friend highlighted some of them.

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I start by reminding the House of the comments made by the Lord President on Queen's Speech debates. He wrote recently that the Queen's Speech is always an important signpost to the political year. That is true. This year, the wording on the signpost is large and clear: "General election this way". What is more, as everyone now knows, the sign writer this year was the chairman of the Conservative party. For the first time, the briefing on the eve of the Queen's Speech was given not by the Leader of the House but by the chairman of the Conservative party, who cynically told journalists of his strategy--that the speech had been drawn up to put Labour on the spot and to challenge the Labour leader after his warm words to the CBI.

As we all know, few things happen in Parliament that are not either openly political or have heavy political overtones, but we have surely reached new depths of cynicism when the whole thrust of the Queen's Speech becomes an exercise in party political point scoring.

What Ministers should recognise--although after l7 years of assuming a divine right to rule I doubt they do--is that Parliament is not an annex of Tory Central Office, and that the law-making process of this House should not be a crude extension of the writing of a party manifesto.

This evening, one of the least confrontational Ministers, the Leader of the House, is to wind up our debate. We may at last, therefore, hear something constructive. The right hon. Gentleman acknowledged in an article in The House Magazine this week that certain Bills were included in the Queen's Speech by agreement between our two parties' Front-Bench spokesmen. He drew attention to the consultation that had taken place on the drafts of the Armed Forces Bill and the Reserve Forces Bill. He also mentioned the offer that I made at business questions last year to facilitate the speedy passage of the Bill ratifying the chemical weapons convention, so he will acknowledge that there are occasions when the House can work constructively when there is agreement in principle on a certain issue.

That brings me to the Asylum and Immigration Bill. The Leader of the House knows from my evidence to the Procedure Committee in June that I favour a greater use of Special Standing Committees. So, I believe, does he in some circumstances. We were told yesterday--we have been told it on other occasions--that the offer of a Special Standing Committee made by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition on the first day of this debate could not be accepted because the Bill was controversial and Special Standing Committees could not to be used for that purpose. I disagree with that analysis; I do not think that that was ever the presumption.

During the passage of what became the Water Act 1989, which privatised the water industry, it was suggested that a Special Standing Committee should be established, despite our opposition to the privatisation. The first part of the Bill created the National Rivers Authority, in which, on principle, there was agreement. The suggestion of a Special Standing Committee was not accepted, but I believe that the legislation would have been better if it had been.

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Even if the Prime Minister is right to believe that Special Standing Committees are used only for non-controversial Bills, we must ask what makes the Asylum and Immigration Bill controversial. On Wednesday, the Prime Minister said that it would

On the same occasion, the Leader of the Opposition said:

There was apparent agreement between them.

It must also be agreed by hon. Members on both sides of the House that the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993 was flawed, and that the Government got it wrong then; otherwise, there would be no need for new measures now. The question is, what is required? Do we need administrative change to deal with the backlog of applications, or do we need more fundamental changes in the system? If there is agreement on the objective, as the Prime Minister has said, why should we not try to achieve that objective in productive ways?

If, however, the purpose of the Asylum and Immigration Bill is to act as a vehicle for extreme statements about race relations--such as those made by Andrew Lansley, a prospective Conservative parliamentary candidate who has talked openly of the political benefits of playing the race card, saying that immigration has the potential to hurt the Labour party--the Bill will not achieve the Prime Minister's stated objective of improving race relations.

Moreover, the Prime Minister and others ought to bear in mind the existence of real practical problems with the proposed legislation. Ministers should know that, not least because the Secretary of State for Education and Employment has pointed it out. she has said that she agrees in principle with deterring illegal working, adding:

Parliament has tried to get asylum rules and procedures right in the past, and has failed. Opposition Members proposed the establishment of a Special Standing Committee in 1992, and it was rejected. Perhaps, had the Government agreed to it, we would not now be discussing the need for new legislation. The House of Commons should be able to say that, if it is agreed that a problem exists, that problem should be susceptible of solution by the House.

Let me cite just one problem in regard to which the Government's inactivity makes us worry about their approach to such problems. That problem could have been tackled, but has not been. This example may expose some of the double-speak of the Tory party in the Queen's Speech.

In l990, the Government promised to deal with a loophole in legislation that enabled organised criminals to perpetrate many kinds of fraud. I refer to what was called at the time the "Day of the Jackal" loophole, which exploited the ease of access to birth certificates in Britain.

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In l990, the Government produced a White Paper, "Registration--Proposals for Change", yet some of its recommendations have not yet been put into effect--most notably those intended to counter the loophole that allows the creation of false identities by organised criminal gangs, who can obtain birth certificates, and subsequently other documents, that can form the basis for fraud in a wide range of areas from social security to immigration.

This year, in a letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker), the Prime Minister said that he had been unable to find parliamentary time to close the loophole, yet there had been no approach to the opposition to ask for our co-operation with such a measure. Why not? Surely if Ministers genuinely wanted to make progress, instead of simply making loud complaints about the problem, there would have been an approach.

Hon. Members frequently complain about the public image and standing of Parliament. They often blame television and complain that Prime Minister's Question Time is the only representation of the House, yet when constructive suggestions are made the Government turn their back on them, as they are doing now in connection with the Asylum and Immigration Bill. That refusal does the House no good whatever.

I do not believe that the Leader of the House was allowed to influence that decision, which is a shame because he is a wiser man than the Home Secretary, and had he had his way the House could have been shown in a better light.

I shall now talk about some of the areas for which the Leader of the House is specifically responsible. Incidentally, I thank him for announcing today the dates of the l0 constituency Fridays for this Session, and I also thank him in advance for his anticipated early announcement of recess dates.

When I consider the parliamentary time that we have available, and when I hear comments such as those of the right hon. Member for Worthing (Sir T. Higgins), I am reminded how many failings our present system has. The Queen's Speech and the Budget--two of the biggest parliamentary occasions--are within days of each other. It is right that the debates on them are long and take a great deal of parliamentary time--but we may be short of time later.

What the House needs is not the tinkering changes to procedure to which the Jopling report led, but a far more fundamental rethink of how our parliamentary system could be made to work more effectively through measures such as the publication of draft Bills, the use of pre-legislative Committees and the reorganisation of our timetable so as to make better use of the time available and to avoid the long three-month gap, which makes no sense in terms of the accountability of the House to the public.

I believe that unless we start thinking about those issues, and unless we make such changes, not necessarily to give more sitting days but to spread them more carefully throughout the year, Parliament will not be able to do its job effectively. I am sorry that this year the Leader of the House has not been able to lead a campaign for further changes in our procedures. I understand that change is always difficult, and that the House is always very traditional, but I hope that more change can come.

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The House has been traditional today because, as has been our habit in recent years, we began the last day of the debate on the Queen's Speech with a debate on economic policy. At times today we might have been forgiven for thinking that we were in the middle of a Budget debate already--although clearly, judging by the questions that my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) was asked, it would have been a Budget introduced by a Labour Chancellor. It was my hon. Friend who was asked to provide all the answers. [Hon. Members: "He did not provide any."] He provided many of the answers--unlike the Chancellor, who does not seem to know the difference between objectives and policies.

I always find it amusing that Conservative Members expect my hon. Friend to answer details about what will be in his first Budget in 18 months' time. Conservative Members tell us that the election might not be for 18 months, but I am not sure that the Chancellor will be able to tell us what he is going to do next week.

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