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Ann Keen (Brentford and Isleworth): What do reputable companies have to fear from trade unions? Does the right hon. Gentleman think that a two-tier system is good for patients in Britain?

Mr. Hague: The hon. Lady obviously knows little about British history if she thinks that extensions of trade union powers can never create difficulties for businesses and employment. That is likely to happen. As the chairman of the CBI's small business council--the Government spend a lot of time talking to the CBI--flatly said, the Bill

Why is that a Government priority, and why is it a priority at this time?

Let me tell the hon. Lady about the NHS Bill. It will take power away from general practitioners and give it to unaccountable and bureaucratic primary care groups. It will take money away from patients to spend on more management--[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) and the Secretary of State for Health laugh, but let me read out a letter from a doctor. It says:

[Interruption.] Well, Labour Members do not like to take advice from the doctor. It says:

    "I am a General Practitioner and quite concerned that the proposals in the White Paper"--

Labour Members should listen to this, because it is not on their pagers or from a Labour party briefing, but what a real person says--

    "will seriously undermine the quality of care that is available to patients . . .

    Under the new White Paper it is very clear that GPs will have to spend more time away from their patients involved in bureaucracy, administration work and accountancy."

The Government should be responding to those concerns, not fiddling with the waiting list figures. We have already got waiting lists for waiting lists--subsidiary waiting lists and concealed waiting lists.

I have here an internal memo from Bradford Hospitals NHS trust--I hope that hon. Members will take this down--which says:

certain operations

    "are not to be included in monthly returns.

    To enable us to identify such patients more easily, a new list '05' has been set up. Patients who went on the list prior to 1st June . . . have now been transferred to this list.

24 Nov 1998 : Column 23

    Please could you ensure that all future entries for such operations are now put onto this list."

They are

    "not to be included in monthly returns".

That is the sort of thing that we are getting from the Queen's Speech.

This morning, the Government tried to pretend to the press that the main thing in the Queen's Speech was welfare reform, but increasing welfare bills and increasing benefit dependency, which is what it will do, were never the people's priorities. It has been a sorry tale. The Prime Minister held roadshows, but cancelled them when someone threw an egg at the Chancellor--Delia Smith has not been the only one to help egg sales over the past year--and he appointed a Minister for Welfare Reform, but pushed him out of the Government when he tried to reform welfare.

The Prime Minister said before the election that

Mr. Christopher Leslie (Shipley): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hague: I shall take the hon. Gentleman's intervention in a couple of moments.

After the election, the Prime Minister let welfare bills rise. The working families tax credit--the centrepiece of his policy--will cost billions of pounds extra, bring half a million new people into benefits, make it more financially rewarding for people to look after someone else's children rather than their own and benefit lone parents over one-earner couples. It will mean that upper rate taxpayers--some earning as much as £38,000 a year--will become eligible for a benefit that is supposed to be targeted on low-income families. Those are not the right priorities, and that is why we oppose the abolition of the existing family credit, which costs less, but works better. What counts is what works.

Mr. Leslie: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hague: Before the hon. Gentleman gets too excited, I shall give way.

Mr. Leslie: The right hon. Gentleman has talked about his decision to urge cuts in social security. Does he plan to cut disability benefits, child benefit or perhaps pensions--or all three--as well as the working families tax credit?

Mr. Hague: If the hon. Gentleman had been listening, instead of becoming so overexcited, he would have heard me talking about the working families tax credit. Our argument--it is the right argument--is that family credit should be maintained and the working families tax credit not introduced.

It is clear that the Government have embarked on a welfare reform programme without any idea of what they are doing. One moment they say that they will tax the child benefit of upper rate taxpayers; the next, they say that they will give upper rate taxpayers a new benefit to help them to look after children. One moment they pass a measure to reduce the advantage of lone parents over one-earner couples in the benefit system; the next,

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they introduce an entirely new measure to benefit lone parents over one-earner couples. One moment they talk of increasing incentives to work; the next, they introduce a raft of new means tests. The result is £40 billion of extra expenditure.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): Given the right hon. Gentleman's earlier commitment to the disability rights commission, when he has scrapped the working families tax credit will he also scrap the disability element of the tax credit--yes or no?

Mr. Hague: The hon. Gentleman knows full well, because he and I have served together on Committees, of my commitment to disabled people and to benefits for disabled people. I have never advocated reductions in benefits for disabled people. [Interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman disagrees about the working families tax credit, let him consider what the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) said. In August, the right hon. Member for Birkenhead said:

Those are the words of the one man in the Labour party who knows more about welfare reform than anyone else, and I suggest that the Government listen to him.

None of the Bills in the Queen's Speech addresses the pressing priorities of the British people. That is especially true of the Bill that I suspect will dominate this Session. That Bill will hang like a millstone around the Prime Minister's neck and show that the Government are more interested in fiddling with our constitution than addressing the real priorities of the British people. When the hon. and learned Member for Pentlands said that she would be dancing about it--her constituents will not--she gave the game away in an otherwise splendid speech. The Bill replaces an independent second Chamber with a house of cronies.

The Prime Minister thought that the House of Lords was an independent second Chamber when it defeated the previous Government. Indeed, he congratulated it and said that that was a victory for common sense. He has now set up a royal commission to consider alternatives to the present House of Lords. Given that it will report in just two years' time, why will he waste the coming year on a piece of constitutional vandalism that will be obsolescent in 24 months? All sensible people want to wait for the royal commission. They are not prepared to embark on reform of the House of Lords until they see where the Government are going with it. They do not want stage 1 without stage 2.

The reason the Prime Minister does not want to wait for the royal commission is clear: he has never intended carrying out proper reform of the House of Lords, but wants to create a house of cronies beholden to him alone. We know what his vision of the future is: Lord Draper of Lobbygate; Lord Robinson of Offshore Funds; Lord Mandelson of Rio; and the Prime Minister will be Baron of Ideas.

24 Nov 1998 : Column 25

The director of Charter 88, who is not normally an ally of the Conservative party, said that the Prime Minister plans

It is time that the Prime Minister listened. The public and the press are against him on this matter. Why does he not do the common-sense thing and wait for the royal commission? He can waste an entire year trying to ram a Bill that no one wants through Parliament and trying to increase his powers of patronage, or he can spend that year getting on with real people's priorities, such as jobs, schools and hospitals.

The Queen's Speech abolishes the independence of general practitioners, increases council tax bills through the abolition of competitive tendering and increases trade union power. We know from the growth forecasts that the Chancellor must constantly downgrade and from surveys such as the CBI business survey, which shows confidence at its lowest level for 18 years, that there is a serious economic situation. Business confidence is at an all-time low and Government complacency at an all-time high.

We need not rely on surveys and forecasts to tell us that; we can use the evidence before us, if only we are willing to listen. The Prime Minister might listen to someone on his constituency doorstep. A letter from someone in County Durham says:

the company he worked for--

    "which was televised, he encouraged viewers to ignore the closures of Fujitsu and Siemens and think of success stories such as"--

that company.

    "What he forgot to mention was that just prior to his visit, myself and 93 of my fellow workers had been laid off by that same company. We were all employed on work for Rover, Ford and Nissan. I believe that all of these companies are experiencing short-time working.

    All of my applications for work since have been unsuccessful because of layoffs and I know of many more anticipated by Christmas."

There we have it: the Nero of Sedgefield, who is fiddling with the constitution while jobs burn. Today, he has served up to us a Bill about working practices that will make it harder for people to find work in practice; increases in council tax bills in the future when people find it hard to pay the bills they have now; and welfare reform that increases dependency and welfare bills.

The Prime Minister is trapped in a European agenda that will bring higher taxes, higher spending and more regulation: all the things that we know from the past destroy jobs, not create them. The Queen's Speech should have contained measures to make it easier for jobs to be created by halting new regulations that will make it more expensive to employ people, such as statutory union recognition and parts of the working time directive, and plans to curb the dramatic increase in welfare spending, so that interest rates can be cut further.

The Prime Minister should have considered measures to improve education, not just made vague promises of consultation papers. The Queen's Speech should have contained measures to end the rule that popular schools cannot expand so long as unpopular schools have

24 Nov 1998 : Column 26

empty places, and measures to make it easier to set up and run new schools, or to allow successful schools to use their experience to help neighbouring schools.

The Queen's Speech could have contained real action to protect the British countryside, such as measures to ensure that two thirds of new homes are built on brown-field sites instead of on green belt. It should have provided a fairer deal for British farmers by insisting that the same high standards that are applied at home are applied to foreign food imports. It should have contained real help for married families by using the tax and benefit system, instead of abolishing the last recognition of marriage in the system.

Not one of those measures is in the Queen's Speech, because it is all to do with the priorities of Labour politicians and nothing to do with the priorities of the people. It shows that they are a Government with no purpose except their own re-election. Their legislative programme contains only what will help them to fund their party, to control their organisation or to buy off interest groups.

The Queen's Speech contains Bills to increase the power of union paymasters at the expense of jobs and businesses; Bills to hand control to local government officials at the expense of local taxpayers; Bills to appeal to the prejudices of the Labour party at the expense of better public services; Bills to increase the power of the Prime Minister at the expense of democracy and in defiance of common sense.

The Government want to move from one election campaign to the next without bothering to govern in between. Before new Labour, politicians fought elections in order to govern. This Administration govern in order to fight elections. This Queen's Speech is about the priorities of the Labour party, not about the priorities of the people.

3.38 pm

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