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9.5 pm

Ms Helen Brinton (Peterborough): I am pleased to make my first speech in this important debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), for whose constituency I have great affection, as I lived there for six years. Indeed, I joined the Labour party when I was in Harrogate and Knaresborough. I send my good wishes to the constituency, and I am sure that we shall hear more sterling speeches from the hon. Gentleman.

I am proud to be the first woman Labour Member of Parliament for Peterborough, although there have been some distinguished women candidates before, including Madam Speaker. The last Labour Member of Parliament for Peterborough was Mr. Michael Ward, who made his maiden speech in 1974 and referred to his failure to win the seat in 1966 by three votes. Conservative Members may consider that relevant to their present situation. On that occasion, he quoted an earlier distinguished Member, who said, "One is enough." I am sure that the House knows to whom I refer.

Within different boundaries, I have been fortunate to be returned with a very different result--a somewhat larger majority--7,223, to be precise, which I believe at least partly reflects the deeply felt desire in the whole country not just for change, in which case anything different would do, but for an urgently needed improvement in the quality of national life, which the Government will carry out.

However, anyone who values democracy in our land should be glad that individuals and groups not based in Westminster or even in London have not waited for our Government's election victory to take action to make their communities better places. I am proud to say that the people of Peterborough who have chosen me to represent them in Westminster are outstanding in that respect.

Of course, the people were ably represented by my immediate predecessor, who now represents the neighbouring constituency--the right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Dr. Mawhinney), to whom I pay tribute for his part in many of the initiatives about which I shall speak. He has coped nobly with the most impossible black-spot job in politics--being chairman of the Conservative party.

Peterborough is one of only four cities in the United Kingdom to be chosen to be an environment city. It received that honour not because it has an inherently better environment than other cities, but because its people have worked together in partnership to make their city--and, in a small way, the world and the planet--a better place to live in.

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We all know that during the 1970s and 1980s, evidence began to confirm that ozone depletion, global warming and pollution are threats to personal health and the stability and prosperity of developed and developing nations. In 1987, the concept of sustainable development was put forward. That means that we must meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

In 1992, the Rio earth summit of the world's Governments considered how to put that sensible concept into practice. The resulting plan, agenda 21, included a crucial point: the recognition that actions at central Government level cannot provide all the solutions, and that we must have action at a local level by local government, businesses and individuals. That view was echoed by the European Commission in its fifth action programme, which strongly encourages towns and cities throughout the Union, such as Peterborough, to respond to the Rio declaration. Those local responses are called local agenda 21s.

Peterborough quickly took up the challenge. In 1990, before the Rio summit, Peterborough city council produced an environmental charter and established several working groups. On the basis of those initiatives, our city was granted the status of environment city--to which I referred earlier--together with only three others: Leeds, Middlesbrough and Leicester. Peterborough's work on environmental issues has been reported as far away as Los Angeles.

In 1993, Peterborough environment city trust--or PECT--was established by the local council, the business sector, voluntary organisations, and interested and committed individuals. PECT has a board of management representing both large and crucial small businesses, local authorities and other public organisations, and local charitable trusts. It has seven specialist working groups, SWGs, which deal with issues such as transport, the natural environment, the built environment, education--which the Prime Minister has said will be his Government's passion--recycling and waste management, energy conservation, and business and the environment because we believe that they are linked. More than 150 organisations are represented through those working groups, so a wide range of community skills and interests are co-ordinated.

Peterborough environment city trust has already had many successes, to which I shall refer. First, the energy advice centre in Peterborough is one of only 31 in the nation. It has provided free and impartial advice to almost 8,000 householders and small businesses, and has reduced CO 2 emissions by almost 1 tonne per household, per annum. Peterborough energy advice centre has been independently judged to be the United Kingdom's most cost-efficient and environmentally effective energy advice centre. However, it requires a secure funding future--with whatever balance of private and public money is deemed appropriate--if it is to continue to operate beyond the end of June this year. I shall fight for that cause.

Secondly, the "eco house"--the Peterborough environment centre and energy show home--was opened by His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales in 1996. The facility is used by schools, local business groups and public organisations, and is a focus for voluntary environmental work and concern.

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Thirdly, the £11.5 million Green Wheel millennium project consists of a network of pedestrian walks and cycleways encircling the city. It will be landscaped, providing a green setting for our city, and will physically link many of the city's main tourist facilities, creating important new business opportunities. It will include three new heritage centres and areas that will function as permanent outdoor classrooms.

Fourthly, the material reclamation facility--which my colleagues tell me is called an MRF--is an immense achievement. Its £2.5 million cost is shared by the Department of the Environment, Peterborough city council and Shanks and McEwan, and it is situated on land provided under the Commission for the New Towns' Invest in Success scheme. By September this year, 55,000 households in Peterborough will have a refuse collection system using separate green boxes for paper, plastics and cans. Local businesses will also be able to use the facilities, and jobs will be created. By 2000, we shall provide a service for the adjoining counties of Lincolnshire, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire. The facility will open in late June or early July, and I am delighted to announce that I hope to persuade my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister--if time and his commitments allow--to come to Peterborough and preside at that opening.

Next month, there is to be a business forum on the environment, at which an agenda for green business is to be discussed and set out. I have been invited to speak.

I am glad to have had the opportunity to pay tribute to the outstanding achievements of PECT and other groups and of individuals in the constituency, in an important area. I look forward to being able to use my new role in this Parliament to further that work in a spirit of partnership and optimism, on which tide of feeling the Government have been brought to power.

9.15 pm

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire): Let me make it clear at the outset of this Front-Bench contribution that my speech is not a veiled bid for the leadership of the Conservative party. I make my speech in the absence of Tony Newton, who was a good House of Commons man who held a series of the most difficult jobs in Government. Tony introduced a number of welcome reforms to our proceedings. I think that he will be genuinely missed by his many friends on both sides of the House.

I am sad personally to lose my two hard-working junior Ministers, John Bowis and John Watts. I suppose that it is a small compensation that they are not in the House to make informed criticism of my management style.

We have heard many outstanding maiden speeches during the debate. The hon. Member for Bolton, West (Ms Kelly) paid a gracious tribute to Tom Sackville. She spoke movingly about youth unemployment and the minimum wage in her constituency. We wish her well in her quest for university status for her college. I think that the House will be more cautious about her aspirations for Bolton Wanderers. The hon. Lady can have a new university without the rest of us suffering, but her football team can flourish only at our expense.

I compliment the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell), who was confronted with an unusually difficult task in paying tribute to his predecessor. I think that he managed

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it with the right balance of tact and sincerity. He then went on to speak with insight and with feeling about land mines and the role of the United Nations. The hon. Gentleman made it clear that he was in this place for only one Parliament. It may be that others who made their maiden speeches will be here for only one Parliament, but they did not make such a ringing declaration at the beginning of their contributions.

My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) spoke without notes and in a rather ingenious way linked the theme of peace in Europe with a number of cities, towns and villages in his constituency. I compliment the hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) on his maiden speech, in which he paid a warm tribute to Jim Molyneaux. The hon. Gentleman made a plea for the Government to make Northern Ireland a special case and allow the lifting of the export ban.

I compliment the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Ms Mallaber) and congratulate her on her maiden speech. It is clear that she will not replace Phillip Oppenheim as captain of the rugger XV of the House of Commons. The hon. Lady made a moving speech about opencast mining in her constituency. It was good to hear that at least one new Member will take a particular interest in parliamentary procedure.

I compliment also the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Miss Johnson). She clearly has a forgiving nature, given what David Evans is alleged to have said about her. I think that the House recognises the generosity of her tribute. David Evans could certainly cause us on the Conservative Benches quite some grief.

I was pleased especially to see my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) in the Chamber. He is a former constituent of mine with whom I worked well in government. My hon. Friend paid a glowing tribute to Keith Speed. The new Ashford International station, whose formal opening I attended, is indeed a good monument to Sir Keith. I am sure that by the time my hon. Friend has finished in Kent there will be similar monuments littering the countryside in tribute to his hard work. My hon. Friend paid also a compliment to Bill Deedes, who still writes a fairly useful column in a much-read newspaper. That was a useful precaution on my hon. Friend's part.

The hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Mr. Goggins) represents a constituency that was one of the more optimistic destinations to which the Conservative party chairman sent me during the general election campaign. If the hon. Gentleman does as well as Alf Morris did in representing his constituents, he will have done very well indeed. I hope that I played a small part in promoting more jobs in his constituency by giving the go-ahead for the second runway at Manchester airport earlier this year. I very much hope that the protesters take on board the robust message that he gave them in his speech: it is time to go home. If they do go home, I hope that they do so above ground rather than below it.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) is obviously proud of his constituency. He has a tradition of good service in local government. Again, the House will appreciate what he said about Robert Banks.

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I commend the hon. Member for Peterborough (Ms Brinton), who had a very long wait for her maiden speech and made some charitable comments about the chairman of the Conservative party. Again, she has a deep pride in her constituency.

In addition to the many maiden speeches, we had a resignation speech, from the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster), who must have created some record as being a ministerial office holder for the shortest time in the history of the Government. He made an interesting speech. He was Chief Whip of the Labour party only two months ago--[Hon. Members: "Twoyears!"] He obviously made a deep impact.

When the right hon. Gentleman was Chief Whip, he gave a clear incitement to new Labour Members to rebel. I suggest that the new Chief Whip has some quiet words, on Whips' terms, with his predecessor. The right hon. Gentleman also warned the Prime Minister not to treat the House of Commons as his poodle. Those were wise words, if I may say so.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir J. Stanley) made a speech that is required reading for those who do not fully understand the consequences of signing up to the social chapter.

It was also good to see again my former parliamentary private secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), who paid a glowing tribute to Sir Julian Critchley.

Perhaps I will be allowed to make a small maiden speech myself, as this is the first time that I speak as the Member for North-West Hampshire. The boundary commission effectively abolished my former constituency of Ealing, Acton by dividing it into three and then attaching each part to a neighbouring constituency. I was very cross at the time, but by 2 May, with a majority of 11,500 in North-West Hampshire, the anger had subsided.

I pay tribute to my popular predecessor, Sir David Mitchell, who represented the area for some 30 years and will be a hard act to follow. He helped to convert me from an urban Member of 23 years to a rural one of nearly 23 days. A large part of that scenic constituency is owned by the 7th Earl of Carnarvon, and another large part by the 1st Baron Lloyd-Webber, who, Labour Members will be pleased to know, is still in residence. Both are good landowners and they mark the blend of the old and the new that is north-west Hampshire, where unemployment is, mercifully, lower than anywhere else in the country and still falling.

A number of hon. Members referred to the issue of the procedures of the House. I genuinely believe that the Government made an unnecessary error of judgment about the arrangements for Prime Minister's questions that betrays a dangerous streak of authoritarianism. One reason why the Jopling reforms took root is that they were extensively discussed and agreed first. The ground was cleared before the shrub was planted. There was no reason for the Government to rush ahead with the new arrangements for Prime Minister's questions, and the Prime Minister would gain much credit from the House if he conceded that he acted precipitately and reverted to the original arrangements while the House quickly reflected on the proposed changes.

Nor did we find out from the Chancellor exactly why he made his announcement about the Bank of England when he did instead of waiting some 14 days, with the

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statement then being subjected to the normal parliamentary scrutiny that we would expect for a statement of such magnitude.

There is, of course, a risk that any speech from the Opposition Benches will sound like the Black Fairy in "Sleeping Beauty", making tactless and unpopular predictions in the middle of a rather good party. I shall try to avoid that, but I want to put some questions to the Deputy Prime Minister and then outline some strategic issues that I believe confront the new Administration.

The Deputy Prime Minister has responsibility for transport. He is now well qualified, as he seemed to spend the whole of the election campaign cocooned in a bus from which he was allowed out from time to time for short natural breaks of oratory. One of the most breathtaking moments of impudence during the campaign was when the now Prime Minister annexed a privatised train operator for a photo opportunity.

No one is more in favour of people travelling by train than I am. In fact, Conservative policies helped to reverse decades of decline in travel by rail. But no group of individuals fought harder to prevent Richard Branson from having an opportunity to run that train than the parliamentary Labour party. Given all its predictions of the injury that the private sector would do to the railways, the country was slightly surprised to see Labour Members enjoying Mr. Branson's hospitality at Euston station.

The Deputy Prime Minister can do two things to atone for that behaviour. First, he can admit that he was wrong to deny Branson and others the opportunity to invest in and improve our railways. Secondly, he can confirm that he personally will oppose any windfall tax on Railtrack that will put back the improvements on the west coast main line, the upgrading of our mainline stations and the building of Thameslink 2000--all improvements that we want to see.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister also tell the House whether the windfall tax will fall on the privatised bus companies? It is common ground that we all want to promote travel by bus. The companies are now investing substantially in new buses, improved ticketing, better information and quality partnerships with local authorities. A windfall tax would be paid for either by higher fares or by less investment, in conflict with any sensible balanced transport policy.

Let me say a word about the logic of the windfall tax itself, which looks as if it contains more wind than fall. Labour Members seem to think that one can extract billions of pounds from companies without there being any adverse consequence. The fact that the share price may discount the tax does not alter the impact of the tax on resources. The money extracted from the companies will be made good by higher prices, reduced services, less investment or reduced dividends--reduced dividends not to the original shareholders, but to the current holders who are largely institutional investors paying today's pensioners.

I suspect that the money will come from reduced investment, in which case, jobs will be lost in one sector of the economy--core permanent jobs, modernising and improving our infrastructure--to create temporary and more marginal jobs in another sector. It is by no means clear to me that that interventionist and rather arbitrary switch of resources will leave us all better off.

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At some point, the Deputy Prime Minister should tell us his plans for London Transport. The Labour party made it clear that the Conservative Government's provision for London Transport was inadequate. On 8 January, in a Labour party press release, the now Minister for Employment and Disability Rights, the right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith), said:

We had clear proposals to put LT in the private sector, to reinvest the proceeds and to cap the fares. Clearly, we cannot do that. But what will the Labour party do? If Labour Members are proud to ride on privatised trains above the ground, why not below the ground? If old Labour councils can voluntarily privatise their bus companies and airports--and they have--why cannot a new Labour Government privatise the underground?

Introducing the debate on Wednesday, the Prime Minister said that his Government's job was to modernise

The truth is that the Deputy Prime Minister does not accept that. Not all the dogma has been flushed out of his system. It is no good trotting out waffle about private finance. The chairman of London Transport made it clear that that would not do the trick. If the right hon. Gentleman rejects our option, he owes it to Londoners to come up with another one that is at least as good, or the words of his fellow Ministers will simply be hollow rhetoric.

On local government, another area for which the right hon. Gentleman has responsibility, the Government propose to permit the phased release of capital receipts. It is worth just reminding the House that, had we heeded the Labour party's advice, there would be no capital receipts to talk about, because the Labour party opposed the policy that generated them. Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us by how much that increases the PSBR--which the Chancellor wishes to reduce? When the receipts accrued, they were set aside and the PSBR fell. If they are spent, it goes up. What does the right hon. Gentleman propose to do about the fact that the receipts tend to be in the wrong places and the authorities with the greatest need are not those with the highest receipts? Our policy, which he proposes to jettison, had the merits of targeting the funds on areas of greatest need. What will he do about authorities that used the proceeds to reduce debt and do not have the cash? Will they be penalised for their prudence?

One of the few moments during the campaign that the Labour party might prefer to forget involved the privatisation of National Air Traffic Services. If I had been told before the election campaign that an obscure part of the Civil Aviation Authority would dominate the campaign for two days, I would not have believed it. However, we will all remember the pictures of the right hon. Member for Oxford, East speaking without restraint at the last party conference, describing what fate awaited anyone who tried to privatise NATS. It then transpired that it was exactly what Labour would consider if elected. Can the Deputy Prime Minister now confirm that his Department will proceed with enthusiasm to privatise NATS, as we planned, so that the sums begin to balance? If not, which part of his Department's programme will be cut?

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I turn finally to some of the strategic issues that confront the new Administration. The Chancellor has appointed Martin Taylor to bring together the tax and benefit systems. I personally support any reform that simplifies and rationalises the financial interface between the individual and the state. However, the Chancellor will need to surmount two hurdles. First, we now have independent taxation of husband and wife--a reform which we introduced which gives fiscal independence to women and which the Chancellor would be ill advised to reverse. The social security system, however, aggregates the resources of husbands and wives, or indeed of partners, for wholly understandable reasons. Measures to knock the two systems together will somehow have to overcome that diversity of structure.

The second issue is as follows. Either the two systems can be put together on a nil cost basis so that the benefits are paid by a number of losers--that would be prudent, but unpopular--or there can be a safety net, in which case there is quite a big hit on public expenditure, which the Chancellor is trying to control. I wish the right hon. Gentleman well. The House will be interested to learn how he proposes to clear those two hurdles.

On a more critical note, to get elected, Labour Members had to match our commitments on public expenditure, but to remain in office, I believe that they will be unable to keep them. They will be unable to reconcile the constraints of Conservative public expenditure targets with the political imperatives that rule the Labour party. There is not enough petrol in the tank to drive the Deputy Prime Minister's Jaguar as far and as fast as he wants. I do not think that Labour Members joined their party to spend no more on public services than the Conservatives did, but when they break the clear undertakings they have given on public expenditure, they will begin to lose public confidence, not least because they have insisted on being judged on keeping their word.

Let me give an example. This year's local government settlement was a tough one. Many new Labour Members come from local government, and I doubt whether they would dissent from that assertion. Indeed, I expect that they complained bitterly about it at the time, but bit the bullet in response to some gentle coaxing from the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) and some murmured words about not rocking the boat.

Next year's figure for aggregate external finance for local government in London, to which the Labour party is committed, is £35.96 billion--an increase of 0.53 per cent. over this year's figure. I am confident that, had we won, we could have delivered such a settlement. But will Labour Members vote in the Lobbies for central Government support that is as tough as our settlement in January? How will that go down with the public sector trade unions, whose settlements have been restrained in recent years, but whose ambitions have not? Did the unions support Labour's election campaign, to be rewarded with the same settlement that the Conservatives gave them?

How will such a settlement go down with Labour Members' colleagues who are running local government services, who genuinely believed that a Labour Government would mark the end of the period of restraint? What will their supporters in the constituencies

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make of it when the alibi of a Conservative Government is no longer there to blame? How will Labour Members react, torn between the iron discipline imposed by men in goggles and hard hats in the Whips Office to conform and the pressures from their local parties to rebel? Similar dilemmas will confront Labour Members with teachers and nurses when the consequences of agreeing to our expenditure totals in other areas dawn on them.

After a major defeat, it is wholly understandable that there is some turbulence in my party; but no one should be lulled into thinking that there are no tensions, no instability and no conflict in the Labour party. Indeed, the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister personify those tensions, that conflict and that instability. It is a party that is embarrassed about its past, and equivocal about its future. It clearly had a successful strategy for winning an election, but it is not clear that it has a successful strategy for running the country.

Finally, I come to a paradox that has featured throughout our five-day debate. Labour Members have criticised our record on health and education, but their Government have accepted our financial framework for the next two years without demur. They have criticised a polarised society, but have abandoned their proposals to redistribute wealth. They have criticised privatisations, both past and proposed, but they will not buy back so much as a British Rail sandwich, and they are considering privatising air traffic control. They have, in effect, criticised the foundations that we have laid over the past 18 years, but they are now perfectly happy to build on those foundations.

Along with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), I speak as one of the few Conservative Members who were Ministers both when we started in 1979 and when we finished in 1997. No one could seriously deny that we have left the country in far better condition than when we inherited it. Labour Members' assertions during the debate of poor financial management, wrong priorities, under-resourcing of public services and social incohesion are wholly undermined by their decisions to leave so much intact.

In partnership with the British people, we achieved much of which we can be proud, but people now want something different. We will encourage the Government to build on our achievements; but we will oppose those of their proposals that will damage our country with all the vigour that we can command.

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