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3.53 pm

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West): May I begin, on behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Liberal Democrats, by joining in the deserved tributes to the two hon. Members who opened the proceedings this afternoon?

The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) and I have known each other in a very friendly way since I first became a Member of this House in 1983. I notice that he has been described, in one of those guides that

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give almost unrecognisable descriptions of people whom one has known for a long time, as a Europhile Blairite, whatever that might be. Much more interestingly, he describes the previous Conservative Government as having a nervous timidity as far as Europe is concerned. How unlike his own Government.

I do not know what the question was, but in 1999 the hon. Gentleman was awarded something called the "golden pager award" for the year's most obsequious question in the House. I think that we should be told what it was--I may table a written question. It is a good question to ask. If I were the hon. Gentleman, I would be most concerned by one description of him: Matthew Parris described him as "lived in". I do not know what Matthew Parris meant by that particular reference, but it is none the less in the hon. Gentleman's biography.

The Guardian blows hot and cold, certainly about those of us who consider ourselves on the general centre-left of politics. Some days we love it and some days we hate it; I suspect that, on balance, we hate it more than we love it. Usually, an endorsement by The Guardian is a kiss of death, whether one is in the Labour party or the Liberal Democrat party. However, some time ago, it referred to a wonderful speech that the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy) had delivered on poverty and social exclusion and said that, on the strength of that speech, the Prime Minister should give him a job. That has not happened yet, but I think that I speak for people of all parties in the House this afternoon by saying that, on the strength of his speech this afternoon, it cannot be too long before the Prime Minister does that. We wish him well.

May I add one personal point by way of an introduction to my speech? Over the past couple of years, the leader of the Conservative party and I have had our principled political disagreements, but in personal and professional life and in dealings that party leaders have with each other, he has always been charming, civil, good humoured and good company. I wish him good fortune. On a personal level, I really do.

It has been a privilege for me to lead the Liberal Democrats during the recent election campaign. I am not one of life's great historians, but those around about me who are tell me that, in terms of numbers in the House of Commons, this is our strongest showing since 1923. I should like to thank all my colleagues for the tremendous support and effort that they contributed during the campaign. In particular, I welcome the 14 new colleagues who join us in the House for this Parliament.

Obviously, that was a good aspect of the election for us. A bad aspect for all of us was the decline in active participation by the public as a whole. That must set the alarm bells ringing for those in all political parties. Seventy-five per cent. of people eligible to vote did not vote for the Government whom the country elected. They were elected quite fairly under the rules--I would like to change the rules but they have been fairly established--but the fact that 75 per cent. of people have not actively endorsed the Government of the day is a problem not just for the Government but for the Parliament that is elected with the Government. That is the smallest mandate in modern times for any Government of any party. The Government must bear that sobering thought in mind as they take the Queen's Speech forward.

The Queen's Speech should be judged on what it does for the predominant issues of the election. I submit to the House that those issues were not the euro or asylum

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seekers, but the quality of public services: how one delivers quality and enhanced public services, and how one fairly provides the finance for them--for schools, hospitals, pensioners and rural communities. Those issues affect so many people.

All politicians encountered that. To an extent, we can leave party politics to one side just for this afternoon because the verdict has been delivered. The Prime Minister experienced it personally; the leader of the Conservative party heard it from people as he travelled round the country; and the same happened to me. People genuinely felt that those public services had been neglected during the previous four years, which had occasioned an expectation after the previous 18 years.

We must judge the Queen's Speech on those issues, but we must also judge it on what it proposes to do for the environment. The Labour party promised to put the environment at the heart of government. If one looks at the track record, one realises that it has manifestly failed. Equally, there is great concern about the future of civil liberties and the erosion of those liberties, given some of the commitments in the Queen's Speech. If there is one thing about which my colleagues and I are absolutely determined--and if the Liberal Democrats are here for a purpose in this or any other Parliament--it is to champion the cause of environmentalism and individual civil liberties. Increasingly--this emerged during the election campaign--we must be seen and heard to be speaking up for those issues because not enough people elsewhere in the House are doing so.

There is also the problem of reconnecting the public with politics and the political process as a whole. I very much welcome the new Leader of the House to his responsibilities and I hope that he will be able to make his distinctive contribution in the way that we go about our business as an institution and in trying to make that more relevant to the people outside. That means that we must reform Parliament so that it is more democratic, accessible and understandable to the people we are supposed to be here to represent and to do our best for.

Those are the key areas in which the voters want the re-elected Labour Government to do better than the voters felt they did in their first term.

On the specifics of the Queen's Speech, education has to be watched very closely indeed. The Prime Minister's response to one intervention more than confirmed that. I was watching and listening to him as he replied, but I was also watching with equal interest the expressions on many of the faces behind him. There is a fine divide between a so-called successful school given over to the private sector and an independent school. The Government will have to be very careful indeed about the legislation to ensure that they do not simply preside over an unplanned dismantling of the state education system. That could be what is about to happen. Parliament has a real job to do to ensure that it does not.

As the Prime Minister said, the Government are creating many different layers of school. He listed them: the specialist schools, city academies, church and other faith schools and, rightly at the bottom of the pile perhaps, the celebrated, so-called, "bog standard comprehensive". We have to be careful that the legislation does not amount to privatisation and complication by stealth.

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We do not oppose private sector involvement in the provision of school services. As a principle, that is not something that should be difficult for any party in the House. However, it must be demonstrated that that is the most efficient and effective way to deliver the services and that it is better than a purely public sector alternative. The Government have not yet demonstrated that and they did not make it clear in the election campaign exactly what they meant when they alluded to such issues.

What is missing? The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) asked a good question during the Prime Minister's speech. What is missing from the education provisions in the Queen's Speech is simple: it is the abolition of student tuition fees. Any Member of Parliament of any party who has in the past month faced a student audience or a potential student audience, such as high school pupils, for example, can only have been living on a different planet if he or she did not hear expressed the unanimous viewpoint time and again that fees are a disincentive, are discriminatory, that they put off children from lower income households and that they are totally self-defeating for our society in the long term. Hon. Members should not take it just from the Liberal Democrats. The Labour party in the Scottish Executive agrees with that argument and is implementing a policy as a result. It is high time that that was done in the House of Commons as well.

Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North): Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that, while there has been much discussion, especially from Liberal Democrats on the stump, about tuition fees and the £1,400 that students pay on average, that is still £600 less than the £2,000 charge that his party wants to introduce?

Mr. Kennedy: The hon. Gentleman should have the decency and dignity to accept that on this issue his party has lost the argument. [Interruption.] A little less synthetic rage, please. It has lost the argument because the Labour party in government in one part of the United Kingdom has acknowledged that the argument is not valid. That is why we are right and why we intend to stick by our policy.

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