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5.2 pm

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): We have all been impressed by the presentation of the right hon. Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), who spoke about the situation in her constituency. We all sympathise with the family. I understand from personal experience what the loss of a child means to a family, especially when extra tragedy is involved. It is understandable that the right hon. Lady went on to deal with the causes of those mishaps, accidents and, at times, deliberate mob violence. It is equally important that she spoke about education. I remember being in a school in Malawi that was still teaching logarithms. We do not find that challenge being given to many school children in our own kingdom. In fact, when I was asked how the Minister was getting on when education in Northern Ireland was being reformed, I said that I did not understand why he was trying to bring our standard of education down to that of England. I certainly support the thrust to improve the standard of education here.

I echo the right hon. Lady's point that the matter is not necessarily one of racism. Unfortunately, in the area of Northern Ireland that I represent, there has been a tendency for people of different ethnic backgrounds to be involved in robbery and attacks that are immediately construed as racist. Tragically, however, a standard of society has been generated that has allowed such things. We used to settle things by going round to the entry and using our fists. Whether or not that would be acceptable today, when we are not allowed to lay our hands on anybody, it would be much better than the use of knives and other violent weapons. I hope that we shall all support police services throughout the land in preventing crime and apprehending those who have perpetrated criminal acts.

I appreciate the opportunity to speak on the Loyal Address. I am aware that health and education are devolved matters in Northern Ireland, but I believe that the standards set in this House can impact on other regions of the kingdom. I should like to think that the House can

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sometimes learn from what has happened in the devolved regions. I am a little puzzled, for example, about why the Government are now legislating to establish a children's commissioner for Wales, but not for England. Some people have been pressing for a commissioner in England for some time. People in Scotland would also like to have such a commissioner and I have in Northern Ireland a mailbag of letters from people who want a commissioner there. As the Government have decided to provide one for Wales, it seems appropriate that they should introduce legislation before the end of the Session to include England as well.

I welcome the Government's movement on long-term care, but there is some apprehension. Scotland has expressed an interest in implementing the royal commission's plans before the end of its parliamentary Session, but we still have a long way to go. I hope that we will not short change the commission by implementing only the aspects of its report that we like and leaving aside some of the more important, long-term proposals that would provide help for people who require care in the eventide of life.

I support the plea of the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) on tobacco advertising. We fought the same battle at an earlier stage and I am glad to see that we have advanced this far. I underline the plea from the Select Committee on Health for a tobacco regulator. Many years ago, when I was a young assistant minister, I visited a home where a mother was speaking about the influence of advertising--the subtle influences of subliminal advertising which some of us have discovered recently. There were visitors in the home, and the mother, with Ulster hospitality, asked them what they would like to drink, meaning coffee or tea. A seven-year-old girl asked, "Would you like it wet or dry?" On the basis of my understanding of advertising, I believe that it is important for a degree of regulation to exist. Subliminal messages can lead youngsters in a direction in which no hon. Member would want them to travel, perhaps by encouraging them to endanger their health by starting to smoke at an early age. It is important to keep an eye on that.

With regard to nurses, it is a funny old world. We are recruiting nurses from Australia, while our nurses are going there to work. That can be good, as we can exchange ideas, learn new methods and such like. None the less, a cry of concern has come from the royal colleges and especially from midwives, who fear that the standard of midwifery has been dumbed down. If the late Audrey Wise were present today, she would be pleading for the midwives of the nation. Her activities in helping the Health Committee to produce its report on midwifery, as an occupation of health, not sickness, helped to transform midwifery in the country at large. I should like to think that we shall not minimise the value of midwives' work.

Last year, I campaigned on behalf of those who had been placed in respite care for a time and who, as a consequence, had become ineligible for their winter fuel allowance at the time when they needed it, back in their homes. I am delighted that the Government have acted on this issue. I am also pleased that, in the quest for equality, men who have retired under the age of 65 will now also qualify for the allowance, even though they are not state pensioners. I am glad to see some equalisation on that issue.

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May I plead that Social Security Ministers examine the question of widowers who have been short-changed by decisions in Europe and overlooked in the past? The state and various charitable bodies were ready to assist widows in their affliction, but failed to realise that many men had been left in a parlous state to look after children and to carry on working with no extra support. When we examine questions of equality, we should remember those widowers.

Many proposals in the Queen's Speech are helpful, and I hope that they will be enacted. That will depend on whether the Government are serious about getting the proposed legislation through. I trust that they will give the House permission to scrutinise the provisions, rather than employing that old French invention to curtail freedom of debate.

Some may feel that crime has nothing to do with health, but when one is on the receiving end of criminals' actions, one discovers that it has. The problems of a widow came to my attention as a result of an article in Tuesday evening's Belfast Telegraph. Her husband had served for some seven years as a police reservist. Fourteen months after leaving the police reserve, while working as a taxi driver in County Armagh, he was murdered. The IRA stated at the time that he had been executed

Although the man was buried with police honours, his widow receives no pension. Because she had slipped through the net, the police benevolent fund has only recently begun to examine her case. She is now 81, and she has carried on to the best of her ability for about 20 years. Her sons, who were young at the time and are now mature, have tried to help her. People such as her are victims of our society and ought to receive more attention from the Government than the criminals who disturb our society.

In that context, I welcome the proposals for an international criminal court. I had misgivings, however, when I read the article by Lord Hurd in the Financial Times in which he argued against it, saying that there would have been no peace in Northern Ireland, or in another part of Europe, if the court had existed. Was he saying that we should let those guilty of the most violent crimes against humanity go free for the sake of a specious peace?

I was amused yesterday to hear Her Majesty say:

I thought immediately of the moment when Jacob received his father's blessing, and I was reminded of it this morning when I heard the Moderator of the Church of Scotland speaking in the Crypt. Although Her Majesty read the Address, it seemed to have been penned by the hand of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I wonder whether that represented a way out for the spin doctor, in suggesting that things might not go as we want, because the Good Friday agreement does not exist: it is the Belfast agreement. I trust that we shall turn from spin to substance in the proposed legislation.

5.15 pm

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Faversham and Mid-Kent): I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth), and I was encouraged in what I

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want to say by the contributions by the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Social Security, and from the right hon. Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman).

Beneath all its prosperity, the United Kingdom is in crisis. Despite all their opinion polling and focus groups, the Government seem to have failed to understand that. The public do not understand it exactly, but people sense that we are being taken in a wrong direction. They know now, for example, that in their lifetime the seas may become empty of fish. It is consoling to blame the European Union and global warming, but people know in their hearts that human greed will be responsible. They sense that we are close to disaster, even if they do not define it. In Kent, people have seen one river dry up completely, and are aware that the Stour, the last chalk stream in the county, may follow.

There is a growing sense in the towns that the war against drugs is being lost, and that the areas where the police are ineffective are growing faster than the laws to help them can be passed or implemented. Parents shop around for the right school, with the desperate sense that if they get it wrong, their children will learn nothing but how not to learn. People know, too, that the NHS will always lag behind demand. The Queen's Speech may claim that the Government stand firm on the founding principles of the service, but says nothing about Beveridge's key misapprehension--that a better service would result in reduced demand.

I submit that the Government do not understand what the country needs--and what is more, that this House seldom asks the right question either. Is the best that we can do as a nation really to devote all our energies and efforts to clawing our way up from being the fourth largest economy in the world to being the third largest? Should we follow the short-term, knee-jerk responses of opinion polls and seek to spread designer labels and Sony game consoles out to a slightly wider band of our citizens?

Should we be straining every muscle to extend life expectancy by a year or two, even if those extended lives are lonely and anxious? Do the Government share my unease that, in a world awash with guns and genocidal violence, the UK is the second largest arms dealer in the world? Do they share my shame that UNICEF believes that the plague of AIDS among the world's children could be arrested if the EU spent as much of its money on AIDS as its citizens spent last year on ice cream?

Modern democrats have so developed their power to taste public opinion that they are losing sight of true government, which does not consist of ascertaining the public mood of the moment and tailoring policy to match it. True government consists of taking a view of where the country should be heading and persuading people to share that view. On that test, this Queen's Speech fails almost entirely.

I believe that the Government Front Bench holds several Ministers who genuinely want to do good, but I also perceive that they do not know how to do it. Like mere managers, they substitute for the difficult art of truly understanding what makes their organisations tick the much easier device of pouring extra money and exhortation into the machine. That may produce some temporary improvement, but it does not solve the problems.

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I shall offer some examples of what I mean. The Secretary of State for Health mocked me at Question Time the other day for not having read the NHS plan. I had accused him of destroying local responsibility for the service, and he replied that if I had read the plan, I would have seen how full it was of the rhetoric of devolution.

I had read the NHS plan, so I had seen the rhetoric. However, I say again today that local autonomy means very little if local trust boards find each month that their priorities are overruled by the Secretary of State's. Waiting list initiatives for various forms of treatment mean that local trusts can no longer respond to local priorities as they perceive them. Getting rid of the postcode lottery puts a pressure on trusts that destroys their local autonomy. If that continues, good people will cease to come forward to serve on trust boards.

Another example is the hours worked by young doctors. The rules have been changed, but the reality has not. I know a young doctor whose first years of married life have been extraordinary. On call for absurdly long periods spent mostly in hospital, he returns home too tired to do anything but sleep. Small wonder that it is hard to recruit and retain doctors.

I know a young teacher who went into her first job in an inner-city school full of life and enthusiasm. Her primary school class consisted of 35 children speaking 16 mother tongues. One little Turkish boy was so disturbed that he would rock himself until he was sick. Who cleared up? That was for the teacher to do, alone, in her first job. She cleaned him up while trying to keep the other 34 children in order. So good was she at the job that at the end of her first year she was offered the deputy headship. As a result of all that, she is taking her enthusiasm for teaching to Australia. Small wonder that teachers are hard to recruit and retain.

In my constituency the police tell me that drugs are no worse a problem there than elsewhere. If that is true, I can only despair. In some housing estates drugs are dealt in openly by day and night. The police know the houses where they are available; the residents know them too. The dealers threaten anyone who complains about them. Occasionally, dealers are sent to jail and their partners keep the business going until they come out. The new addicts that they hook are getting younger every day.

We have just been told by the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis that despite the law on knives, they have become a fashion accessory among the young, but the number of arrests for carrying one is falling. Of course it is. Not only are there too few police, but they are frightened, not just of possible injury--that was part of the deal when they entered the force--but of committing an offence against the growing codes of correct behaviour.

Naming and shaming is one of the Government's favourite devices. It has to be said that one of its consequences is often to paralyse action all together. What is more, although it sticks in the gullet to say it, we have to remember that the children who killed Damilola Taylor are our children too. I can tell the Government that passing laws may look good to their spin doctors and focus groups in the short term, but they do not solve the problem.

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We need a change in direction. We shall not reverse the tide of drugs, hooligan behaviour and greed by bringing in more and more ineffective punishments. We already lock up more people than almost any other country in Europe. Young men kill themselves, both in our care and outside it, at a higher rate than anywhere else. When we do find a prison that succeeds in rehabilitating more of its prisoners than any other, the Prison Service removes its governor and carries out a terrifying raid on it. The position is so bad in our prisons that they can make room for new villains only by releasing other villains early, yet the Government want to be still more punitive. In order to curb the few, they propose a generalised curfew that will simply antagonise the many without helping to solve the problem. This way madness lies. Sanity lies in affirming the good, not waving big and largely useless sticks at the bad. It is time the Government worked for the good people in society to change it--and the opportunities are all there.

Let us consider the Christian Churches, for example. It has been the custom among the Government and the media to mock and ignore the Christian communities in the UK. I accept that they have not helped themselves. It is a scandal that black Christians have had to found their own Churches because the established Church has been so unwelcoming. It is a scandal that so many Christians use the Bible to shore up their own prejudices rather than living out their faith in their own lives. However, the fact remains that if we were to remove all those who seek to serve Christ through their work, our public services, non-governmental organisations and many of our most successful businesses would collapse.

It is also worth remembering that in many of the most deprived areas of our cities the vicar is the last professional still resident, yet too often the Government give the impression that they are indifferent or even hostile to the Church. Sometimes this is because they are afraid of upsetting the minority faiths. They should not worry about that. The minority faiths are far more concerned about the spread of the consumer society, relativism in moral teaching and the erosion of the family than they are about the Christian tradition in the United Kingdom. Sometimes the apparent indifference and hostility is a result of the Government's fear that to encourage teaching of the Christian message will smack of indoctrination. They should not worry about that, either.

When JC 2000, the millennium arts festival for schools, set out a challenge to all UK schools based explicitly on the Gospel, not only did more than half UK schools respond, but they did so enthusiastically, and proportionately more state schools than Church schools took part. They welcomed the chance to explore questions of morality in a new way with their pupils. Many claim that the experience has changed the way in which they teach, and the way in which their children look at life.

Indeed, many schools with a huge majority of ethnic minority pupils also took part gladly. When Ofsted carried out a survey of religious foundation, it found that when it was well taught, it was a favourite subject among pupils. Children long to explore issues of right and wrong, justice and injustice, the purpose of life and similar issues. However, if we are afraid to encourage teachers to help them to do this--if we are paralysed by the idea of using volunteers from the faith communities to assist--we shall

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further impoverish our society and encourage the spread of the uncaring individualism that contributes to yobbishness.

Let me suggest ways in which the Government could improve the situation. First, they could affirm what good schools are trying to do, rather than undermine them. I have a high regard for the motives of the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, but I believe that he has allowed his enthusiasm to outrun his common sense. If wishes were horses, beggars might ride. So it is at the Department for Education and Employment. I am sure that he is right to believe that more children with disabilities should be included in mainstream classes. However, the present inclusion policy, with so few assistants in place and so little training available to teachers, makes it very hard for teachers to give sufficient attention to all the other children in their class.

Similarly, I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman is right to cast doubt on the justice or propriety of excluding so many children on disciplinary grounds. Yet when the head of an inner-city school, who has made his school the most sought-after in the borough, tells me that he spends more than half his time on disciplinary matters because there are no effective sanctions left to him, I ask whether the Government are not contributing to teacher stress by trying to run before they can walk.

In passing, I ask whether it would not be sensible to ensure that children entering primary school have at least the basic tools with which to benefit from the education on offer. In a school where 43 mother tongues are spoken, and the pupils come and go as the tides of immigration or rehousing ebb and flow, is it fair to expect teachers to solve the problems that that throws up? Why not ensure that the local communities have prepared the children to speak at least basic English before they come to school?

Secondly, the Government remain strangely reluctant to give local people control over serious money. They talk a lot about trusting people, but clearly they do not. If local people were allowed to indent for the money that they want to spend on local services, such as clearing up after the bin men or removing the hypodermic syringes from the grass in front of their flats, we might see an improvement in local conditions and a growth in local confidence.

Thirdly, the Government should take seriously both the voice and the practical contribution of young people. I am grateful for the support that they have given me for the UK Youth Parliament so far; I am afraid that I shall need to come to them for some serious money. They have left us to raise almost all our own finance, and for many reasons that is taking longer to achieve than I had hoped. The result is that between 300 and 400 young members of the Youth Parliament, elected amid huge enthusiasm all over the UK, will come to London in February, but we cannot pay for their accommodation. The sum required--£200,000--seems huge from where I sit, but to a Government who spend new billions almost weekly on carrying out their policies, it is a tiny figure. I hope that if the Government who in the Queen's Speech reveal an intention to introduce a curfew on under-16s are serious about listening to the voice of the young people directly affected, they will be able to find us the money, even if only in the form of a loan.

I end where I began. Amid our superficial prosperity, the country is close to crisis--a moral crisis. People are beginning to know it. A brave Government would respond

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to that crisis and that realisation. They would build on the compassion for the wider world articulated by Jubilee 2000. They would respond to the hundreds and thousands of men and women who work night and day to redeem their communities--by trusting them with the resources that they need. They would affirm teachers, social workers and doctors as they wrestle with unending and often incompatible demands. They would be grateful for the continuing struggle of the Christian tradition, rather than ignoring or positively undermining it. In those respects, the Queen's Speech was sadly lacking.

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