Previous SectionIndexHome Page

4.53 pm

Mr. Alan Hurst (Braintree): It is always a pleasure to be called in the final end-of-term Adjournment debate, if I may call it that. I am always glad when my Member of Parliament, the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), addresses the House, as he usually does on these occasions. I am sorry that he is not in his place now. I hope that the House agrees that he excelled himself today. By my count, he mentioned 10 different subjects, to say nothing of his gastric problems on the way to Cuba. If I was unfortunate enough to miss any of the subjects that he raised, I know that I will be able to read about each of them in the local newspaper when it appears next week.

These debates are great opportunities for raising a number of issues, and I do not wish to be over-frivolous. I usually stick closely to the confines of Braintree or Essex. Today, however, I shall speak about international matters. I refer neither to Suffolk nor Hertfordshire when I say that, but to events that have occurred on the other side of the Atlantic.

I am not certain to what extent the events in the United States during November and December have been discussed in the House. However, I think a few minutes to enable us to pause for thought about the implications for us, and perhaps our own constitution, would not be unhelpful.

I refer, of course, to the American election. If one were teaching civics to those unfamiliar with the workings of democracy, it would be difficult to explain how the candidate who had the most votes was defeated and the

21 Dec 2000 : Column 668

candidate who had fewer votes won, but we should keep clearly in our minds over the coming three or four years the proposition that the loser won and the winner lost.

I understand that the United States constitution is different from ours and that, for reasons that may have been pertinent some 200 or more years ago, it was right to preserve the autonomy of states in the selection of the federal president. There may well have been a case for that then. It would be impertinent of me to tell the Americans whether there is a case for it now, or whether they should reconsider the matter. I should have thought that they would certainly contemplate it.

Even more worrying is the electoral and then the judicial process. There is no one in the House who has not been into an election count. Before we race ahead with internet voting and goodness knows what other horror that is occasionally proposed, we might pause for reflection on some of the benefits of our own system.

I do not say this in a patronising or colonial way to our cousins across the Atlantic, but is there anything to beat a piece of paper on which appear one, two, three, four or however many names, and on which all the voter is required to do is put a cross against the name of his preferred candidate? That seems a straightforward notion. It does not require information technology--in fact, it was devised for those who were illiterate, which is why the cross is the symbol. The voter has to do nothing other than mark a cross on a ballot paper to indicate his choice.

Many of us have attended counts of votes when there may have been some uncertainty about the result, or about the vote itself. We know what happens: if the voter puts a tick instead of a cross, it is counted; if he puts only half a cross, it is counted; if he draws a smiling face, it is counted; if he puts the cross in the right box but in the wrong place, it is counted; if the mark is very feeble and frail, it is counted. We count a vote if the intention is clear for all to see.

We count quickly. Were there not six or seven recounts in 1966 in Peterborough, all of which took place within 24 hours? We could count all the votes cast in a general election in this country again and again, I expect, before the clock had gone round one more time.

The entire matter in the United States was confused. In part, I blame the media for confusing the issues. The media were blamed for calling the state of Florida before it had been counted. They based their projection on the fact that the exit polls predicted a win for the Democratic candidate, but the polls assumed that people had voted for the candidate for whom they thought they had voted, but when the votes were counted, the result was not quite the same.

The catalogue of abuses is horrifying by our standards. We have not had a corruption case since Oxford in 1924, when there was a certain amount of treating of electors by way of liquor and otherwise, and the Member was unseated. We have a fairly good record, but in the state of Florida the first move was to disqualify from voting anyone who had a conviction, even if it went back decades. The view may have been taken that people in poorer circumstances may be more likely to have convictions, but at least one of the candidates narrowly avoided one of those and presumably would have been unable to vote in the state of Florida had matters gone further than they did.

21 Dec 2000 : Column 669

The Americans have terribly artistic ballot papers. One needs an advanced degree in technology to work out exactly where the hole should be punched. What amazes me most of all and confuses everybody is the ludicrous word "chad". I will not repeat that most people thought that that was a state in Africa. The moment that people started talking about hanging, dimpled and pregnant chads, the brain turned off. I was confused until the other day, when I was primitively using a hole punch. I hole-punched a piece of paper, but the punched part did not quite fall off and hung there. I guess that that is what is meant by a hanging chad. It is pretty clear that I intended to punch that paper and make a hole, but the punched piece did not quite fall off. The President appointed--I use that term rather than President-elect because English usage is important, and "President-elect" does not properly describe the incoming incumbent--and his supporters wished to exclude pieces of paper with chads that had not dropped off. Indeed, the dimpled chad is one in which the punch has made an impression, but not gone all the way through.

I am not making a party political point by saying that, in this country, there would be no argument from any candidates or their agents about who those votes were for, as the intention would be clear. I am not going to say whether a degree of dishonesty was involved, as that will all come out. No doubt, the votes in the state of Florida will be counted fairly soon, and we shall know very well what happened there. However, the matter says heavy things about the United States. Some hon. Members will know that I have always been pro-American in my views on international affairs, but I am horrified by what took place. In this country, we have a spirit of respect for our constitution and, ultimately, do not allow our partisan preference to override that. If one is in an election count and a vote is clearly for one's opponent, one says that is for him or her. One does not seek to argue for the indefensible.

However, the matter gets worse and goes beyond miscalculating votes, excluding obvious votes, excluding electors from the register and having low-level riots to prevent counts. The highest court in the United States was involved in what can only be a blatantly partisan decision to grant an injunction to stop the votes being counted. When that level is reached, what is the teacher--or, as the Americans say, the professor--in a mid-western college to tell his civics class? Does he say that the USA has a system of law and separation of powers but that, if one side loses an election, it stops the votes being counted? Is that how we elect the leader of the free world?

We have to learn to be cautious about issues that we sometimes rush into without thinking. Here, whatever one may say about individual results, the judiciary is an entirely non-political body. In the course of my professional life practising law I have come across and known personally a number of judges. I know that many, if not most, of them have strong political opinions. Some stood for Parliament before they sat on the bench. I have known judges who were active communists, as well as judges who were active Conservatives. However, when they sit on the bench, those views are left behind. I would have no fear about an election dispute in this country, such as that in the Winchester constituency at the last election. It would be unlikely to go before a court because it would be judged according to the law and the ethics behind the law.

21 Dec 2000 : Column 670

Earlier in our debate, hon. Members described what they perceive as the shortcomings of our present system. There is always a case for debate and the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry), who is now in his place, referred to the increasing power of the Executive. It is worth having that debate. I remember taking my history A-level in 1963, when the question on the paper was: "The power of the Executive has increased and is increasing. Should it be diminished?" That referred to the 18th century. The issue about the power of the Executive has always been with us.

We sometimes need to stand back and take pride in our constitution and, above all, in the political climate in which we operate, where we do not endlessly play the man--I use that phrase in its broadest sense--to the extent that that becomes more important than the overriding constitutional principles. I fear that events in the United States are a travesty of all the things that we hold dear and which that country has purported to hold dear, and that they create such a stain on its position that it will not be able to reverse matters easily.

5.5 pm

Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon): We are drawing towards the end of a debate that has, predictably, covered a huge range of issues. I agree that the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) managed to give us a dose of grapeshot that came in quickfire succession. If he spoke about 10 issues, they were completely seamless and flowed without any breaking for breath. As has been pointed out, however, they will all be in the papers next week.

The hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) made an interesting point, which I am sure will be discussed long and hard for many weeks and months to come. With regard to the comments of the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) about the reform process in the House, I remind hon. Members that if we have a problem in this country, it is a lack of separation between the legislature and the Executive, as well as a lack of accountability.

If the United States has a problem, it is more serious. I refer to the politicisation of the judiciary, which permeates not only the electoral system. As a basic matter of human rights, it shocked me that, in a country that has increasingly resorted to the reintroduction and use of the death penalty, the decision on whether an execution should proceed lies with a politician who is actively campaigning for election. That cannot be fair either to the condemned person or to the politician, who will not be in a position to make a balanced judgment. I suspect that that is one of the reasons why Americans are unable to take up observer status in the Council of Europe, which is trying to achieve a continent that is free of the death penalty. That interesting development will also be discussed in the coming weeks and months.

The hon. Member for Banbury said that he did not think that enough rebellions were occurring in the House. That was a little unfair, as a couple of fairly serious rebellions have occurred, one of which related to the reduction of benefits for single mothers. The other recent example was the privatisation of air traffic control. If the Conservatives had stood their ground in the Lords on that issue, we might have been successful in stopping the Government until their decision was properly put to the electorate at the next election. As the Conservatives found in 1983,

21 Dec 2000 : Column 671

it is much harder for Back Benchers to rebel when the Government have a huge majority, as they will suffer the opprobrium of falling out with the Government without winning the vote. At least when there is a smaller majority, those who rebel may gain the satisfaction of changing the policy, which makes their decision more worth while. Nevertheless, I accept that some of the reforms are more cosmetic than real.

I think that the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) has left. I can only thank him for the tribute that he paid to the community politics of north Devon Liberal Democrats, which are clearly successful as they have achieved more than him in securing the roads that they need.

I should like to share some glory with the citizens of Wolverhampton. The borders of my constituency are not all that far from Inverness, which is also extremely delighted to have secured city status. Inverness is probably one of the fastest growing communities in the United Kingdom. It has doubled in size in the past 20 years, which may surprise people who do not often venture so far north.

I want to address a couple of important issues in my constituency. One of them affects all constituencies and both of them affect rural constituencies. The first is the increased cost of public and private transport in rural areas, especially in respect of people on low incomes, benefits or income support. I raised the matter in correspondence with the Chancellor, social security Ministers and the Secretary of State for Scotland. Indeed, four weeks ago I raised it in Scottish questions, but I did not receive a satisfactory answer from the Minister of State, Scotland Office, who deliberately misunderstood my question and proceeded to make a great deal of fun of the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) and what I believe she described as her step grandmother's association with a filling station in Inverurie, in my constituency. I did not know that there was such a being as a step grandmother, but, apparently, the hon. Lady has one. The Government have now openly acknowledged that they pursued a policy of increasing the price of fuel, not exclusively as an environmental tax, but as a revenue-raising measure, in part so that they did not have to increase the standard or higher rate of income tax--a pledge made at the general election. They admitted that they could not contemplate cutting tax on petrol because they needed the money to fund schools and hospitals, not for environmental purposes.

My point is serious and needs to be addressed--social security Ministers should consider it. Taking such a policy decision has significant cost of living implications for people on very low incomes in a way that income tax does not. Indeed, some of those people do not pay income tax, but they have to pay transport costs, especially if they live in rural areas. They must either pay increased public transport costs, because the fuel price has had to be absorbed by bus and train operators, or use a car, because there is no public transport option.

As one of my constituents starkly pointed out, although the price of unleaded petrol has eased back a bit, over the past five years in some rural areas, it has increased by nearly 30p a litre. Let us consider the example of someone who uses a fairly modest amount of petrol--in many cases, petrol is involved because the option to use public

21 Dec 2000 : Column 672

transport is not available--to drive a relatively small and economical car 20 to 30 miles a day to his place of work, where he is on such a low income that he receives income support. It is obvious that the cost involved could be an extra £5 or even £10 a week compared with that in 1995. However, the increase in basic income support for all cost of living increases over that period is less than £5.

As the Parliamentary Secretary will understand, as a consequence, the real value of income support has been seriously cut for people living in rural areas. I hope that he will draw that to the attention of social security Ministers and suggest that they review whether the calculation of those payments should take account of that. That point applies not only to people living in rural areas, but to everyone who receives income support. However, it has a serious impact on people living in rural areas.

If the Parliamentary Secretary has conversations with the Minister of State, Scotland Office, it is important that he says that my point related not to different prices of petrol in different parts of the country, but to the differential in the price of petrol now compared with that of five years ago. I shall be seeing the Minister of State later to comment on a by-election result, so I may have an opportunity to point that out myself. I openly acknowledge that that differential is due not entirely to tax, but to a combination of tax and world market prices.

Before the winding-up speeches begin, I should mention the state of British beef exports or, rather, the lack of them. I want hon. Members to take on board the fact that, although they may believe that the ban on British beef exports has been lifted--in law, that is correct--that ban is, for all practical purposes, still in place. In the present circumstances, it is simply impossible to export significant quantities of British beef because the regime and the conditions under which we choose to operate in this country make it impossible to deliver anything approaching a competitive price for prime Scottish beef of the quality that people were used to before the ban was imposed. Hon. Members may not appreciate why that is the case, so I shall explain one or two points.

I believe that the time is right for the Government to seek a Europe-wide approach to an agreement on regulations for the raising, slaughtering and butchering of beef that will apply equally to every member state of the European Union, rather than unequally as at present. The time is appropriate because it is now apparent that the problem of BSE is much more acute on the continent than had previously been acknowledged.

I take no satisfaction from the rise of BSE cases now confirmed in France. I accept that the French Government acknowledge the problem and are dealing with it. I am not suggesting that we ban French beef, but we need a regime that is safe for all consumers and fair to all producers. In all probability, on the admission of the French Government, the number of BSE cases in France this year will be higher than the number that have occurred in the United Kingdom, yet France is not required to go through the procedures that British beef producers have to go through to produce beef for export.

There are four major prime meat producers in my constituency: Kepak, Inverurie Scotch Meat, Scotch Premier Meat and Donald Russell, which was the biggest single exporter of quality beef before the ban was imposed. I have a letter to me dated 6 December from

21 Dec 2000 : Column 673

Mr. Hans Baumann, the managing director of Donald Russell, who as a matter of interest is Swiss. He says:

He quotes a Belgian importer, Marie-Jeanne Cleemput of Van Engelandt, who says:

That is because we agreed to allow beef for export to be slaughtered only in dedicated slaughterhouses, of which there are only two operational in the United Kingdom. One is in Cornwall--hon. Members will appreciate that that is a long way from Aberdeenshire--and the other is in Strathavon in Ayrshire, which is over 150 miles from Inverurie.

Control is no longer with the meat producer. Traditionally, producers would finish the meat in co-operation with the farmers in the fields before slaughtering the beef at a local slaughterhouse. They prescribed the conditions, with the hanging and the butchering being under their control, and produced the quality product that people came to expect.

An Italian importer, Francesa Piccolini, who is in north Italy, said that before the ban Scotch beef was the finest product she could find in the world. She scoured the world during the beef ban and was unable to find a quality product comparable to Scotch beef.

It is ironic that we can get that quality at home--it is available to consumers in the United Kingdom. We can get it in excellent, pre-packed form by mail order from Donald Russell in my constituency. I highly recommend it. However, our exporters cannot get it because the correct procedures are not followed. I urge the Minister to raise this serious matter with the Minister of Agriculture. It needs to be reviewed in the interests not only of British beef producers, but customers abroad who value quality Scotch beef. It is a matter of fairness and balance between safety and the needs of producers across the EU. The time is right to do that.

The French and the Germans must now acknowledge that they share our problem, and that they need the same result. I hope that the Minister will tell me that he has spoken to the Minister of Agriculture, with whom I have been asking for a meeting for three months without success.

Next Section

IndexHome Page