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9.37 pm

The Deputy Prime Minister and Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. John Prescott): The debate has been almost a maiden speech on the Queen's Speech. We have heard 10 excellent maiden speeches, which have reflected the local knowledge and varied experiences of hon. Members--quite a few of them women--who will begin to change the House considerably in many ways. I must advise them, however, that the relief that they may now feel after making their maiden speeches is no guarantee that they will not feel the same tensions as they approach their second speech.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West (Ms Kelly) is a doughty fighter, who will ensure that the views of her constituency are properly reflected here. As has been mentioned, I visited the constituency on the

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Prescott Express during the election campaign. Indeed, I am proud to claim that every constituency that I visited--there were more than 100--went Labour. Next time, I shall take two Prescott buses to ensure that we secure a bigger majority. My hon. Friend brings with her experience of the Bank of England, which will certainly play a part in debates in the House.

The House will have listened attentively to the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell), who made a controversial speech but undoubtedly conveyed a powerful message--as, indeed, did his election. I am sorry that he is not present: perhaps the first lesson that he should learn is that, after making a speech, an hon. Member should listen to the responses. Perhaps that, too, is controversial, but the point needs to be made. Nevertheless, the hon. Gentleman's election was an historic decision, and he was the first hon. Member whom I have heard announce his resignation at the next general election.

The hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) gave us a colourful view of life in his constituency. He reminded us that the upholstering of the Benches in the Chamber was done by a company in that constituency. He spoke from what we know as the rebellion Bench from below the Gangway. No doubt, he will contribute to the many discussions within the Opposition, especially on Europe.

The speech by the hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) reminded us of the beautiful parts of Northern Ireland, and we listened carefully to his comments about the troubles in the Province. I am sure that all hon. Members share his desire to see a just peace free from terrorist violence in Northern Ireland. We shall debate that in the months ahead.

My hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Ms Mallaber)--who represents one of the constituencies that I visited--spoke with knowledge and with more than a hint of humour, which is always useful in our debates. No doubt, she will do as she said and put her constituency on the map.

I remember with pleasure my visit to the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Miss Johnson). She will represent the area in a way that the previous Member did not. She has three wonderful children and is clearly a different voice for that area, whose constituents will be represented with charm and commitment. She will certainly make her mark in our debates and I sincerely hope that she will represent the constituency for a long time.

The hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) reminded us of the more positive effect of European discussions and their consequences for our economy. The hon. Member whom he replaces argued well about European developments and about Ashford station, about which the hon. Gentleman also spoke. I welcome his statement that, as a confirmed patriot, he thinks that there is something to be gained from Europe. No doubt, we shall hear more from him in future debates on that subject.

In his maiden speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Mr. Goggins) reminded us of the previous right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe, Alf Morris. That voice for Manchester has been replaced by another authoritative voice and my hon. Friend will clearly play his part in the debate that was always at the heart of discussions with Alf Morris. My hon. Friend reminded us of the controversy over

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Manchester airport. The rightful pride of his constituents in that airport is being undermined by Swampy's brigade, and we hope that a settlement can soon be achieved there.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) made a detailed contribution, especially in the context of the private finance initiative proposals, based on his local authority experience. Obviously, those proposals will be the subject of considerable debate. He was certainly informed about the matter, and the House will be the better for his detailed knowledge. Our only common feature is that we both defeated Mr. Norman Lamont, I at the beginning of his career and the hon. Gentleman at the end of it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Ms Brinton) clearly showed her vigorous approach to matters about which she feels strongly, especially in relation to the environment, which will play an important part in our future debates. I am reminded that her majority was about 7,000 although, in the past, majorities in Peterborough were small and subject to many recounts. The House congratulates all hon. Members on their speeches and wishes them well in future debates.

I thank all those who have contributed to the debate on the Gracious Speech. It marks the start of a Labour Government who were given unprecedented support by the British people. It has been an important debate and the Queen's Speech heralds a fresh beginning for the economy and the British people. It marks a new direction and is the start towards fulfilling the contract into which we entered with the electorate on 1 May. The new Government have got off to the flying, fresh start that the electorate demanded and are getting in the Gracious Speech.

We have already taken the first steps towards delivering our election pledges. Promises that were made in the election will be delivered, and, at the end of the five-year period, we shall go the electorate saying, "We have delivered what we promised," and we shall ask them for the second period that we intend to have. The Gracious Speech is the first step in that direction.

We have set out an ambitious programme of legislation. The shadow Chancellor spoke about the remarkable economy that he had left us. However, the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) talked about the mess that we were in. It was hard to bring those two statements together.

The Government believe that we have inherited an economy with a fundamental weakness. The Chancellor has shown that he is concerned to create an economy with a long-term record. He is concerned about slow growth and too much economic instability, high unemployment alongside skill shortages, and inadequate investment in education, infrastructure and new technologies.

The previous Government's record of 18 years included two of the longest and deepest recessions that this country has ever experienced. Good businesses went bankrupt, good jobs were destroyed and homes were repossessed in a rollercoaster ride of boom and bust. The electorate have made their judgment on the two different versions about which the House heard during the Queen's Speech debate--whether the economy was successful or whether it had the long-term fundamental problems pointed out by the Chancellor and every Labour Member who contributed to the debate.

We do not see the strongest economy in Europe, as described by the Leader of the Opposition when he opened the debate. Government figures show that, of the

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15 countries in Europe, Britain comes ninth on unemployment, 11th on interest rates, 13th on growth, 14th on trade balance, and bottom of the list at 15th on investment, which is crucial for any developing economy. I hear today that another international report says that Britain's prosperity has improved. We could argue about that, but Britain has simply risen from 19th to 11th place in the league table, which means that we are still in the bottom half of the table of the major economies in Europe. We are not in the top half, never mind being a succesful economy.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle): The right hon. Gentleman referred to an independent report published today, which points out that the British economy is more competitive now than the economies of Germany, France or Italy. When did Britain last have unemployment at less than 6 per cent. and inflation at less than 2.5 per cent?

Mr. Prescott: It had unemployment at less than that under a Labour Government. That still does not counter the argument that, in all the tables of major economies that we are discussing, Britain is in the bottom half and it has not improved its position a great deal. It has risen only two or three places in a number of the tables and remains in the bottom half.

I find it a bit much when I hear the Government talk about unemployment--[Hon. Members: "You are the Government."] Yes, it has been one of those days.

The Opposition inherited unemployment at below 1 million and took it to nearer 4 million. Even if we take today's figures and allow for the 1 million who are not accounted for in the register of claimants, there is mass unemployment after 18 years, quite apart from all the other indices that I mentioned.

The Chancellor said in his speech today that we intend to restore stability in economic management. That means being tough on inflation and giving immediate priority to seeing how public expenditure can be made more effective. Where appropriate, we shall use public and private partnerships, which we are now reforming. It means switching spending from economic failure to investment and the beginning of the long task of re-equipping the British economy, reforming the welfare state and getting the unemployed back to work. The Chancellor will introduce a number of those measures in the forthcoming Budget. They will be our first steps towards making long-term changes to the economy so that it produces more of the wealth that is necessary to provide the services to which we are committed.

We said that we would waste no time in taking steps to unravel the country's economic problems. That is why, within days of taking office, the Chancellor took the actions that he did. There can be no clearer signal of our determination to fight inflation than to give the Bank of England operational independence to set interest rates while increasing the accountability of the Bank's decision making, as the Chancellor made clear in his statement. The fact that there was an immediate fall in long-term interest rates shows the wisdom of that decision. I have not heard that argument contested by the Opposition. They have not said that it is not to the advantage of the

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country to reduce the long-term interest rates, and that was one of the immediate effects of my right hon. Friend's courageous decision.

It is important to recognise that the aim of a high and stable level of employment is part of our central economic objective. That condition has not been laid down before, but it has been brought about in the recent changes made by the Chancellor.

Today, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has taken further positive steps. In his statement, he announced further changes to the structure of the Bank and the regulation of the City. That should have been done some time ago, but was funked by the Conservative party and is now being carried out by my right hon. Friend. My right hon. Friend also announced that he has invited the National Audit Office to comment on the assumptions and conventions that lie behind the current forecasts and to make a report before the forthcoming Budget. That will add to openness, credibility and stability in economic decision making and will underline our fresh approach to economic policy.

We want to make a fresh start on Britain's relationship with the rest of the European Union. We want to draw a line under the recent past. Within days, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary signalled that we will sign up to the social chapter--now known as the social agreement--and end the British opt-out. The right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir J. Stanley) made a great deal about the opt-out provision undermining Britain's sovereignty. It is difficult to listen to Opposition Members finding their voice on the opt-out clauses and the reduction of the vetoes on many of the measures in Europe. Those things happened under a Tory Government.

We were taken in to the Common Market by a Tory Government--[Interruption.] Yes, it was a bit of a surprise. We gave up the veto under the fishing agreement negotiated by the Tory Government, and, on the single market agreement, the Tories introduced a considerable amount of qualified majority voting. I was curious to see whether the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling voted for those measures. On the Second Reading of the Single European Act, he voted for all the changes to qualified majority voting.


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