|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
Sir David Madel (South-West Bedfordshire): It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark). I agreed with what he said about NATO and defence, but not with what he said about hunting. I shall say more later about NATO, but not about hunting. That is for another day when, no doubt, the House will spend quite some time on it.
In a Queen's Speech debate, one should not only look ahead but look back over the past calendar year, especially as this Queen's Speech is so late in coming to us. The country has had a disappointing and frustrating year. We made a bad start on 1 January, with the controversial opening of the Dome, followed by its financial trouble and bad publicity, upset national newspaper editors who did not get there on time and general discontent about the way in which it has been run.
We are ending the year with the biggest crisis on the railways since the war, which is putting a huge strain on people struggling to get to work--thousands of whom are my constituents. Furthermore, the cost to industry has been, and will go on being, simply enormous.
I shall make two constituency points, which are relevant to the Queen's Speech--indeed, it almost contains a direct mention of them. The first concerns the national health service and its reorganisation. Earlier this year, Bedfordshire pointed out to the Department of Health that it was the second worst-funded health authority in the country, according to the Department's capitation funding policy. However, it now emerges that that policy has been suspended in favour of a different approach, which looks at years of life lost in health authority areas as a whole. As a result, Bedfordshire has made only marginal progress in relative terms: it is now the third worst-funded health authority in the revised league table.
The calculations suggest that, had the Government retained the capitation funding policy, Bedfordshire would have received a further £3 million in addition to the £29 million that it has been allocated. That money would have enabled the authority not only to address the Government's initiatives but to begin to strengthen the services that are the core of Bedfordshire's national health service provision.
I say to the Government--as I said to my own Government when they were in power--that the pressure goes on for more house building. As houses continue to go up, so the demand for national health service provision increases. Bedfordshire should not be where it is in the league table. The county has done a huge amount, particularly for London, in providing schools and jobs. We now look for a fundamental re-balancing of health service spending in our favour.
After all the chaos on the railways, there ought to be less emphasis on speed. We are not France or Germany. We cannot straighten out curves and knock down hundreds of houses to make trains go faster. We should make better use of what we have. We are in trouble locally because of the emphasis on speed. Virgin and Silverlink are quarrelling like hell about access to the fast track from Euston to the midlands, which passes through the town of Leighton Buzzard in my constituency. Virgin has made a proposal to push trains through Leighton Buzzard at 140 mph. That is unthinkable. If passenger safety and comfort are to be improved, both Virgin and Silverlink must have access to the fast track. At present, there is considerable argument about that, and a possibility that Silverlink, which operates the commuter line, will be able to use only the slow track. That is not how to run a railway, nor how to look after commuters in Leighton Buzzard. Both firms should have access to the fast track, and if that means less speed for Virgin trains, that is all well and good.
On the national situation generally, I hope that the country and the Treasury have the financial will to go through with the heavy and sustained investment needed to put the railways right once and for all. Since the war, the Treasury's record on railway investment has been poor--always fiddling with and cutting costs, and always trying to do things as cheaply as possible. However, the Treasury luxuriates when the UK economy thrives, because tax revenues are more buoyant and the Chancellor--whoever he is--is more content. If we want a first-class British economy, it is time, once and for all, to establish a first-class railway system.
I refer to two housing matters raised briefly in the Queen's Speech. The first is the proposal to levy full council tax on second homes. The Government must be careful about that; they should not plunge into the quagmire that we fell into over poll tax--assuming that all second homes were holiday homes. What will happen to tied accommodation? Certain people--for example clergymen, school caretakers and soldiers serving in Northern Ireland--have to live in such accommodation. If there is to be full council tax on second homes, some exceptions must be made, especially for those people. Furthermore, when a second home is used solely and completely for business purposes, will the single person discount continue to apply under the proposed changes?
Secondly, there is the proposal that the seller should arrange for a survey to be carried out before he or she can sell the house. The Government should reconsider that matter because it will lead to a lawyers' paradise, with arguments between seller and purchaser as to whether the seller's survey was accurate and lawful and whether searches were carried out properly. The Government should think carefully before they make house buying even more complicated than it is already--as those of us who have bought and sold houses are aware.
I do not deny that the Government are ahead in the opinion polls, but instead of luxuriating in that lead, they should pay far greater attention to the mood of the nation. There are plenty of complaints: on tax, rural issues and transport. Indeed, there is almost a case for presenting Parliament with a second grand remonstrance, reflecting people's grievances.
There is more, however. People are being pushed to the limit at work--obviously, that is made worse by the trouble on the railways. The Government are employers. They should ask what they could do to slow down the frenetic pace of life. People should remember that the faster they try to work, the more likely they are to make mistakes--bad mistakes.
This week, the Prime Minister goes to Nice. He is aware of the British public's two major fears about the forthcoming negotiations. First, they are afraid about the weakening of NATO--a magnificent shield for this country since its creation in 1949; and, secondly, they are afraid that a single currency will inevitably lead to political union. However, the Government and the Prime Minister are also aware of our huge commercial interests in Europe and of how vital they are--not only in my constituency, but in every constituency.
If we consider those points in combination, surely our present policy should be that we need restrained friendship with our European partners. The Prime Minister could remind them that the EU's founding fathers set up the EU for the benefit and security of the peoples of Europe and to improve their living standards. Over-ambitious political projects disappoint and could undo much of the good work that has been done.
Sir Michael Spicer (West Worcestershire): My hon. Friend is making an extremely thoughtful and interesting speech. Given his present worries about the EU and in the context of some of the views he has held in the past, is he changing his mind somewhat about the direction in which Europe is going? Are his worries increasing as time passes?
Although the Prime Minister's speech had its jokes too, it was curiously defensive about how the Conservatives might improve as a political party. The best way to lead the Conservative party is the way in which Mr. Churchill did it between 1945 and 1950, and the way in which my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), as Leader of the Opposition, is now doing it with great skill. The best way to lead the Conservative party is to make right-wing noises and move left. That is what worries the Labour Government. They are in for quite a spectacular shock on polling day.